Friday, October 26, 2012

A Treacherous Night At 13K Feet

The top of Rohtang pass is situated at an altitude of 13050 Feet above the mean sea level
For a biker, biking all the way to Ladakh is akin to visiting Mecca. An earlier wish to go around the world on a bicycle been nipped in the bud; dream to go biking to Ladakh was well nurtured. In my better-half Bhasha, I had an able partner to support and sustain my adventurous escapades. Months were spent in meticulous planning and preparations. Bikers on that way normally prefer a heavy-duty motorbike like Bullet, but I had a three-year old light bike in Hero Honda Ambition. But then I had numerous examples of lighter bikes and even scooters going through the treacherous mountain route quite successfully.

I got my Ambition refurbished enough to withstand the hardship; accumulated all the accessories, including a double sided luggage carrier- of a kind usually used on a Bullet, but I got it designed for my bike- and an on-road repair kit. Special care was taken as Bhasha was to ride pillion all the way along and back, since all my earlier attempts to give her some biking lessons had fallen flat. Besides, neither we had any dry run nor I had rode so long (or for that matter even half of it) ever before. But I was more than assured of my homework and some thorough feedback from one of my friends Gagan Sethi who, though younger than me, is a veteran of that particular route.
Pandoh Dam on the way. The dam is built over river Beas and presents a very scenic view
But then it was later to have a face-off with the fact that Google based homework doesn’t always work that well. Well, the flag-off was uneventful, so was the ride till Chandigarh, where we had a lunch stopover. Our first day target was to reach Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh. But it was quite late when we reached there. I had my first experience of riding in the hills and that too in the dark. It was first day of my unique riding expedition. We had covered more than 300 kilometers that day, another first for me. Besides some anxious moments on turns while negotiating with glaring headlights of trucks, we reached Bilaspur safely. But then, riding in the dark was something that we were not prepared well for, something I missed in my homework.

Kullu is famous for processions of gods, which is witnessed by a large number of people
Anyways, Bilaspur was our home for the night. We planned to travel lesser on our second day so as to keep ourselves fitter for ascend to the Lahaul valley. It was a bright morning when we left for Manali situated at a distance of just over 180 kilometres from Bilaspur. It was a beautiful route along the river Beas, covering Mandi, Sundernagar and Pandoh. We had started enjoying the ride by then. We had planned our stay at Youth Hostel at Khakhnal village, just nine kilometers before Manali on the opposite side of the river. Though, now YHAI has given its hostel franchisee to a hotel in Prini village. It was a nice and peaceful place surrounded by apple orchards overlooking the river. We had covered the first leg of our journey. Real ride was to start after this.
This is how the mountains looked from Manali before the weather suddenly turned bad
Once in Manali, weather suddenly started to take a bad turn. Although it is normal to have heavy monsoon rains in that part of India during first week of July, but  the fact that Lahaul valley was a cold desert and after crossing over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul there would be hardly any rains had kept us encouraged and going. And also, Rohtang was just about fifty kilometers from Manali! But, rain didn’t wait till next day. The moment we were back in the hostel after dinner at a nearby restaurant, it started raining. 

Thunder showers were relentless and seemingly bent upon breaking silence of the valley, and it kept us worried. The morning was no different. With no visible signs of the rain-gods letting up, we decided to push till Rohtang hoping things would be in control after that. Having a specially-designed rain-gears with us, we aimed to reach Khoksar, less than 25 kilometres downhill from Rohtang to be safe and on the track. But oh, we were in for a huge shock! We had barely crossed Manali and started to ascend when realization dawned upon us. Our rough n’ tough raingears were not able to cope with unleashing downpour. We were already wet inside and cold wind was sending chills down the spine. These conditions forced us to purchase a couple of raincoats, and over-clothed we moved ahead. 

The rains had become quite heavier by then and I was finding it tough to ride. My hands were freezing because of ice-cold water seeping inside my gloves; and roads had become slippery. All our clothes and luggage were already wet, and it was a terrible start to a long journey. Having left with no choice, we kept moving and somehow reached Marhi passing through Kothi and Gulaba. Mercifully, the rain had relented a bit by that time. We were wet and hungry and desperately in need of some rest. At a roadside restaurant, we ordered some aloo-paranthas, and while pouncing upon them, we tried to dry ourselves from the heat of tandoor. The warmth we got from within and outside relieved our body and spirit a bit. 
Just below the top of Rohtang Pass, this little shop was our shelter for almost a full day
The ride from Marhi to Rohtang Jot is a tricky one, with many glaciers on the way. It was an hour past noon by the time we reached near Rohtang top. There were still a few small patches of snow remaining in this time of the year, and we could see many tourists having fun there. As we looked out for a food shop with some space to park my bike, we noticed Lucky Fast Food. Oh, thank you, God!! The sky still overcast, a plateful of hot noodles and tea were like a new lease of life. But as if it was not enough for us, it started raining again. It was about 3 in the afternoon, and Khoksar- the Gateway to Lahaul Valley -was another 25 kilometres from there. Though reaching Keylong would have been better, I was ready to settle for Khoksar as we were already too late for Keylong. As per my calculations, it should not have taken more than 45 minutes to reach there from Rohtang Jot. There, we could find a place to stay, and this option seemed better than returning to Manali. We just had to wait for the rains to stop.
One of the three vendors at Lucky Fast Food, who was like a God-sent saviour for us
But, as the destiny would have conspired, rains were unrelenting; rather they went on becoming heavier. Sensing the weather, tourists and vendors started rushing back to Manali, and we were perhaps the only bikers left out there on the top. As we sheepishly waited for that elusive 45-minute window, the Rohtang top quickly became a deserted place. Two hours passed in no time. By 5 pm, we were really very worried. No way could we have ridden in such a heavy downpour. Soon, raindrops turned into hails. It was getting freezing cold, and I could sense where I had put us into. The heavy clouds had eaten away all the daylight. My immediate worry was what happens if our vendor also decides to pack up. It had been our shelter since noon. We talked to the hotel guys, they were three of them; and to our big relief they were staying there for the night.

Rohtang Jot was abuzz with activity. Tourists were having fun in the small patches of snow
Although spending night on the top of Rohtang pass was still the last thought on our mind, yet the reality was looming large on us. Besides five of us, there was practically no other soul on the top, or at least I couldn’t trace anybody else. Seeing the last traces of daylight fading away, we resigned ourselves to fact that we would have to spend the night in the company of three totally strangers, amidst heavy snowfall in a shelter of which we were not sure if it would survive nature’s fury that night.

Despite very little space available in the shop, the vendors allowed us to stay there overnight. For the next twelve hours, we were their guests. First few hours were spent in talking and knowing more about them and their families. They all were from Mandi town of Himachal. This shop was their summer vocation and in winters they used to move back to their hometown. Unlike other vendors, they used to stay at Rohtang for almost the whole summer, barring occasional trips down to Manali to get goods or in case of an emergency. They all seemed very gentle to us- the guys one would rarely find in our ‘cultured’ metros. 

Noodles were again our choice for the dinner. Once it was over, nothing else was left to be done except to slip into the warmth of a blanket. The shop had a partition. The main portion had the kitchen and shop, and in the inner portion there was a makeshift sleeping place. Since, we were not carrying any bedrolls with us, the vendors were generous enough to not only give us their blankets and mattresses, but also arrange for us to sleep in the inner drier and warmer portion. No words can probably justify our gratitude for them. Even after so many years today, the thought that what would have happened had they were not there makes me shiver. 

It snowed the whole night, and it being a high altitude pass, wind was sharp and chilling. It was actually frightening at times. Vendors must have been accustomed to it, but for us it was indeed a bone-chilling experience. The noise of wind against the plastic sheet being used as roof was terrible. Every now and then we had an unnerving feeling as if the wind would blow away the shed. As expected, we couldn’t sleep the whole night, though terrible headache, high altitude dizziness, cold, fatigue and fears of unknown kept us pinned to our beds. It was a very long night.
These are the pictures of next morning. The road to Leh was covered with waist-deep snow
The next morning was bright, but it was all white around us. Thick carpet of fresh snow was all over. Still, the nightmarish twelve hours having failed to dampen our spirits, we decided to move ahead. After some hot tea and breakfast, we were back on our two wheels. Only then we realized that riding a bike in fresh snow was tougher than expected. We somehow managed to reach at the top, which was another kilometer and half from the shop we had stayed in. Peril started once we crossed the top on our way to jigs below. The usually beautiful curvaceous road with many hairpin bends was gone. Not many vehicles had passed since night, so there were no tyre-marks to follow. Bike was skidding every now and then and one of the slips was very severe. There was no choice but to put an end to this insanity. We finally decided to turn back. The skids were so scary that Bhasha decided to walk back instead of riding pillion so that I could handle bike more comfortably. Still we both kept slipping. Once, Bhasha even went waist-deep into snow. We somehow managed to reach back to the Lucky Fast Food and had a breath of relief along with our tea.
We had to come back to Lucky Fast Food as the road to Leh had been blocked with snow
With heavy hearts, we rode back to Manali. As destiny would have written this, just before the bridge on river Beas to cross into Manali town our bike slipped again. Luckily we escaped any major casualty. Nine kilometers away, our Youth Hostel at Khakhnal still had room for us. It was only when we reached to the confines of our room and exposed ourselves to talks around us we came to know that the rainfall last night had been one of heaviest and the most unusual for the region. We were wise to have turned back from Rohtang as there was not just a heavy snowfall on all the major passes till Leh, but also the Pagal nallah just across Khoksar was heavily overflowing. Army had stopped all movements on Manali-Leh highway owing to this weather. It meant, even if we could have managed to reach Khoksar, there would have been no way ahead. 
The temple of Ved Vyas, who wrote epic Mahabharta, is one of many attractions near Manali
Later, we came to know that owing to overflowing Pagal nallah the vehicular movement on the highway had been blocked for almost a week. Even Mandi-Manali highway was breached at many places by the suddenly swollen Beas River and roads back to Delhi were also closed, though weather had improved a lot. We waited for two days in Manali; went to places around; and even had another trip to Rohtang- this time sans any luggage- and met our samaritans at Lucky Fast Food. As soon as the roads back to Delhi were opened, we were off. Our journalism jobs couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting endlessly for Pagal nallah to relent. The dream of riding on bike to Leh still lives with us.

To see the video related to this incident, go to  
Text and Photos by Upendra Swami


The pictures are very amazing...

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