Rest days in Manali were great, after 2 weeks of very basic living in the mountains. Me, Martin and Xenia spent most days drifting between one cafe or another on the laptops. Almost every day I said “I might leave tomorrow” only to decide not to in the morning, still feeling like I needed rest before I went back to “On The Road” mode. The food was the best “western” food I’d had for a long time, certainly the most choice anyway. I love the food in most countries I’ve been to and I’m happy to change my diet to wherever I am at the time, but having a choice again makes relaxing all the easier. The super friendly stray dogs wandering around the cafes helped too. Come 7pm we’d meet up to go somewhere different for dinner with The Shonas, they’d made it down from Leh to Manali at the same time as us, we’d taken detours and while they’d been working hard cycling over the passes in a straighter route. Everything being so cheap really encouraged me to stick around too, it was only costing about £15 per day for eating 3 meals out and the hotel, not buying fuel everyday really helps.
Getting back on the road was very odd after riding in such weird conditions for the last 2 weeks, followed by 7 days of not riding at all. Back in traffic, people and humidity I was getting frustrated pretty quick. Tight roads with lots of traffic and potholes makes for no fun at all. A crash also didn’t help my mood, thankfully it was very slow and uneventful, but still a crash. I had cautiously rolled over a thick pile of mud in the road which coated the tyres, so the sharp turn right after it did not go well. The bike wouldn’t stop turning and I ended up skidding, completely sideways, with the bars at full left lock. I shifted my weight to try and bring it around again and it worked, swinging all the way back but then even further out the other way, spinning me 180 and pirouetting to the floor. I ended up sat on the right hand side of the bike in the middle of the road shrugging to myself and realising I’d just had my first ever crash and it was pretty pathetic.
I got the bike back upright easy enough since it was facing downhill, I checked the brakes and pushed it down to the petrol station 50m ahead. I wasn’t hurt at all, maybe tweaked my wrist holding on, but I don’t think I actually even touched the floor, since I ended up sitting on bikes side. I thought I’d better take a break and compose myself before I got on the road again though, and give the bike a good check in the mean time. Turns out the gear lever took the brunt of the weight and, in the small slide against the ground, had been bent upwards. I got the tools out and used the height adjuster to correct for it, that would do for now until I could bend pieces back into shape properly. Other than that nothing was really touched, all the bars and guards did their job perfectly.
Bumping into The Shonas on the road lifted my spirits, they were having a tough time back in the humidity and traffic too and we had a good laugh at how deaf they were getting from all the car horns. The amazing sunset over the misty hills helped too, all the haze over the jungle made it very mystical and gave everything a very peachy glow. Getting to Shimla wasn’t too hard, but getting around it was crazy, it’s built on such steep hills that the roads make no sense at all, and it was getting dark. Multiple times I ran into pedestrian areas I couldn’t get through and got told “you can’t get there from here”. I gave up on my hostel plans, since they all seemed to be impossible to get to, and found a hotel. I think I circled the entire town 3 times, not a simple thing with all the hills in the way.
As soon as I parked up outside the hotel and got my bags inside I got to work on the gear lever. I knew if I had a break I’d end up leaving it till morning and if there was something seriously wrong I wanted to be able to form a plan to fix it the next day. Changing gear for the rest of the day after the crash had been very difficult, especially shifting down, it would get stuck between gears and I’d have to stamp on the pedal to shift it; I was really worried the shift rod or something else had bent inside the engine. I took the lever apart and checked everything over and nothing was majorly broken except a washer that “technically” holds the lever to the bike, but the tension in the arm means it won’t fall off. I bent a few bits back in to shape using bricks and patience and crossed my fingers, I couldn’t check if it worked until riding in the morning. It was made weirder by being photographed and watched the entire time by 8 people, fascinated by me and the bike but otherwise refusing to interact with me at all. Maybe they could sense my mood and weren’t keen to be in the way of it.
I was a celebrity again while packing the bike in the morning, being filmed on phones, one person actually spoke to me. Though I was sour with them again after someone literally grabbed me by the arm and spun around, then posed for a photo, no asking, not even eye contact, just grab and go. No thanks, screw you guys I’m outta here. A massive sigh of relief as I pulled out of the car park and down the street, the gear changes were smooth as ever and seemed back to normal. Success! Keeping the good mood going I found fuel and a working ATM all withing about 200m of the hotel. Great start to the day, fuel, cash and a working bike. Some more crappy frustrating roads in the morning gave way to an awesome afternoon. The traffic cleared, the road got better and monkeys appeared! Scattering along the road as I came by not knowing what the hell the weird shaped noisy thing was. I literally shouted “MONKEEEEYS!” every single time, even if I was mid-way through singing. Not sure they appreciated my pointing and staring, I knew how they felt…
I got to Nahan and wandered about looking for a hotel, getting stared at just as much, especially as I pulled up and took my helmet off, it wouldn’t take long for a crowd to gather. I was feeling more tired than I should for such a short day and I was really feeling the heat so I paid extra for AC and collapsed on the bed. 2 hours later I woke up wondering what the hell happended and feeling like crap. I don’t ever take naps, let alone accidental ones, I knew something was up so I went down and booked the room for the next day too, giving myself some time to recover a bit.
The morning alarm was interesting, somebody was trying to kick down my door and shouting in Hindi, but with an almost jokey tone. I put some trousers on and hesistate opening the door, I don’t usually open a door for people kicking it but instinct said this guy wasn’t dangerous. Sure enough when I cracked the door open a bit, ready to slam it shut again, the guy saw my face and immedietly said “sorry! sorry!” and ran away. I guess he thought it was his friends room and got a shock when a 2m tall white guy answered. I still felt really rough in the morning and through lunch time so I booked another day in the room. It was cheap enough and there was plenty of shops and food within 2 minutes walk. I spent 2 days off just writing, watching movies and napping during the day. I’ve no idea what was actually wrong, but after that I was feeling fine again.
I decided to head back north again, into the mountains. They’re a lot slower but my only experience with the plains below them was flat, hot, dusty and busy. The mountain roads should be quieter and smaller, as long as I could find hotels and fuel I’d be fine. There was almost a whole day of dusty flat ground to cover first though, not helped by nearly entering a military area and having to divert an hour around it. I made it up to Barkot and knew I was going to have a good time. The final 2 hours of riding was on small twisting mountain roads, barely one lane wide, but with almost no traffic. There were little cafes every 10 miles or so, and fuel every 50. There were plenty of indian tourists up here rafting and trekking too so hotels were cheap and easy to come by.
Day 170 was an almost perfect “trip day”. It’s a phrase I’ve been using when a day is an almost cliche day I imagined when planning the trip, days in Kazahkstan riding the Steppe for 13 hours for example, or today, riding through thick forests on a tiny road that wasn’t straight for more than 10ft at a time. I passed almost no traffic, through tiny villages mostly consisting of shacks of wood and plastic sheet. Crossing a huge damn, that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to cross, but I distracted the guard with tales of being very lost and where I’d come from and he didn’t protest when I rode off. The guard on the other side of the damn went balistic as I came out though but I just rode on, no harm done, saved me a one hour detour too. No big bad surprises all day, just incredible views over the mountains again and again.
Some of the mountains blow my mind, they’re not really mountains any more, they’ve been tottaly reshaped by the people. They’re stepped into terraces from top to bottom, carved and sculpted to make them farmable, but not just small patches near a house, the entire mountain is carved out, and almost all of them are like that in some areas. I spent a long time staring at one particularly wide one from a good vantage point across the valley. It was huge and I couldn’t make out a sinlge point on it that hadn’t been touched. There were small villages dotted all over it, roads switching back and forth across it and small tracks between them. Any green area on it was terraces and being farmed, even along the top ridge there were buildings poking out everywhere and even a cell tower on the highest point. It was a weird feeling of being very remote in mountain jungle, yet there were people everywhere and signs of them everywhere too.
That night I spent a long time trying to decide a plan for the next few days. There was the option of going south back onto the plains toward Jim Corbett National Park where there are safaris to see wild tigers, elephants and rhinos. It sounded very romantic spotting Bengal Tigers, and it’s not every day that chance comes around. On the other hand, it was not cheap to do a 2 day safari, the recommended minimum to have even a small chance at spotting a tiger, the hotels in that area would be pricey too and it was back onto dusty busy plains again. The mountains had been so fantastic to ride and travel I wasn’t keen to give them up for a small expensive chance at seeing a tiger. Decided.
I knew I’d made the right call when the awesome roads and scenery continued the next day, though a little busier through some big towns. Rolling through the middle of one town the entire street would stop to stare as I passed, a little intimidating, especially when you then have to stop in the traffic. Only one short section of very deep mud through some construction work, otherwise I spent the day in a trance riding the roads and listening to Harry Potter. I finally finished all the books, I started them in Russia killing time on the very long boring roads. It means I’ve listened to Stephen Fry for a total of 125 hours over 4 months, through 7 countries, only ever when riding the bike; so the two are now pretty linked in my head, I heard each book in a different place and memories of one triggers the other now.
Arriving in town and finding a hotel cheap took some serious bargaining, going from around £35 to £10 when they realised I really was going to just find somewhere else for way cheaper. I spent a long time in the evening cursing the guy sitting in reception loudly clapping trying kill mosquitos. I eventually got annoyed enough to go out and tell him to just shut the damn door, then realised it wasn’t clapping, it was the bug zapper right outside my door killing them very loudly. Idiot. I went outside to meet the owner when he arrived back, he had asked for the keys to the bike and I assumed it was parked in the way of something, but I found him sitting on my bike with the side stand up. Not a good move, I was instantly ready to rage at him. I tried to be as polite as possible in saying “GET THE FUCK OFF MY BIKE!”. He asked again for the keys and held out his hand. I just said “No” and laughed like he was joking, but he said he was just going to ride around the car park and put it back, “what was the problem?”. He was so brazen I wasn’t sure whether to even be angry and he couldn’t comprehend why I wouldn’t just hand the keys over. We were just at such opposites I eventually just told him to get lost, put the lock on the bike and walked off.
The morning had a nice surprise, the GPS was dead and wouldn’t charge on the bike, something was up. I was at the petrol station when I noticed, with all the gear on and the bike loaded up, not a good time to go delving diagnosing a problem. I decided I didn’t need it for the day anyway, there’s not many roads in the mountains and I just needed to head directly south almost all day. That’s not always easy to do on mountain roads though, sometimes you spend two hours alternating between east and west around valleys to make your way south, never actually pointing south; so it’s just a case of keeping track of the switches. My phone GPS doesn’t work either so without the GPS unit I don’t know where I actually am, I just essentially have a paper map on my phone. I wrote down some towns from the map to keep as markers to know I was going the right way on the road and made it there without any real problem, a 20 minute detour after a mistake led me to a good lunch so it worked out nicely. I got the hotel and set about finding the problem, which took all of 20 seconds. I took the seat off and one of my expert electrical cable connections had come apart breaking the circuit for the GPS charger. One kid watched me, amazed, sealing it back up again with heat shrink and tape.
I was almost out of the mountains now, heading south to the border with Nepal and this would be the last Indian town for a while until I return. It was bigger than the last few days but the hotels were just as cheap and easy with food everywhere. As I got into town a scooter rode up along side and started trying to pull me over, eventually just pulling in front of me, I was ready for a fight if they were trying anything until I saw they were smiling and waving. They wanted to know if I wanted any help and just rapidly fired questions at me about the trip and where I was staying, but forced to stop on the side of a busy road is not how to put me in a good mood, and my instincts were telling me not to trust a single word. They might be friendly but only because I was interesting and they were bored, not because they cared about travellers. When they invited me to join all their friends at their place for weed I just rode on, instinct said “nope, not a good plan”. Some part of me wondered why I didn’t just accept and have a weird evening, but I trust my instincts too much now, sometimes they’re wrong, but I’ve learned to listen to them.
A weird evening being driven around town a bit by the hotel owner. With no internet in the hotel we had to go to his cousins cybercafe to do the “foreigner registration” and so I could get online. He was such a nice guy, I could chat to him all day, he seemed to resent being stuck looking after his fathers hotel but he was making the best of it and seemed to be surrounded by family in the whole town, pointing their stores out as we drove passed. In the night the town looked amazing, almost every building draped in lights for Diwali and fireworks going off everywhere, mostly from kids throwing them. Safety just is not a thing here.
It had been an awesome few days, it felt like a different world. The time just flowed by, riding the twisty mountains, not much English at all, no internet anywhere, simple food and very simple hotels. It was all just so easy though and so beautiful everywhere, ride all day, take in whatever I was seeing, stop whenever I was hungry, find a cheap hotel almost without trying. I wanted to carry on exploring, do another 4 days the opposite way a different route, but I was excited for a new country, so on to the Nepal border the next day.
04/10/17 – 18/10/17