When you get to a certain point in life, you find comfort in monotony, in the predictability, the routine – you know the drill. All’s well until one day, you’re in office, glued to your computer. And slowly, like drums approaching towards you from a distance, you feel it rising – the thumping in your veins, the electricity in the air, the unquenchable thirst for newer sights and sounds. The call of the open road, the pull of the unknown. You know nothing can hold you in your place anymore. That’s pretty much the story of how I ended up in Manali.
I had been planning this trip for nearly two months, and spent about 1 week mapping the itinerary. My aim was to cover the distance between Chennai and Manali on my bike, and explore some of the nearby villages in the area too. Finally, with my Pulsar 150 as my sole companion, I set out on a journey that was equal parts daunting, exhilerating and therapeutic. Over the course of the 8 days that followed, I would see all kinds of shifts in weather, terrain, cultures and views. I was more than ready.
My route went something like this:
Chennai – Hyderabad – Nagpur – Gwalior – Agra – New Delhi – Chandigarh – Manali – Rohtang La Pass.
Not mentioned above are the innumerable obscure hamlets and lazy towns that mark this entire journey. Anyone who’s done an epic road trip from any one part of India to another will know just how magical it is zipping through this constantly shifting geographical and cultural landscape. It’s like living inside one big kaleidoscope. Chennai to Hyderabad to Nagpur was smooth sailing. So far so good, no dramatic developments, no hiccups. I was riding at a good speed and making good time. It was on my exit from Nagpur and into Gwalior that I got a close glimpse into the treacherous terrains spread all over my roadmap. The road was too rough, too rugged and I had to struggle to maintain firm control over my bike and keep my sanity in check at the same time. With no place to stop at and no room to rest, I had no option but to continue riding. On this stretch, I ended up riding for 15 hours straight in a single day! It is during these moments I seriously end up questioning my decisions and why I do what I do. But then again, this is exactly why. Would biking bring a self-respecting biker any joy if it wasn’t such a giant terrifying pain sometimes?
Not one to be bogged down so early into my journey, I rallied on like a trooper on a mission. Finally, I touched base at Delhi. After sufficient rest, appeasing the hunger Gods and checking up on my bike, I made my way towards Manali via Chandigarh. I was so close to this place I’ve been dreaming of, I was sure if I stuck my tongue out into the air, I could taste the electric anticipation. Anticipation was soon met with further agony when I was crossing the Punjab border and the rain Gods decided to welcome me with brutally torrential downpour. I had to wait for it to pass, and was further greeted by now slushied roads and a frighteningly slippery terrain, which lowered my speed to a crawl. But soon, all of that cleared and I was came up close and personal with the picturesque vistas that Himachal is so known and loved for.
I rode through the tiny towns of Swarghat, Bilaspur, Sundernagar and finally to Mandi. Mandi is a charming little town dotted with innumerable apple trees. The air is crisp, mingled with a sense of sweetness and adventure. I couldn’t help but stop and admire this quaint beauty that we usually see only in the movies! Keeping me company was the River Beas that snaked its way through Mandi. Beas rises from the southern face of Rohtang Pass at about 13,326 feet above sea level, cuts through Mandi at 1,920 feet, divides itself into three in the Kangra District and once again merges into one at an altitude of 1000 feet. Beas eventually joins the River Sutlej at Harike in Punjab. Its foaming white waters gushing forward to meet its destiny, relentless yet tranquil, reinforced my resolve to make it to my destination without further ado. Manali was just two hours away now, and the magnificent Rohtang La Pass was four hours away. My next stop was Kullu, nestled on the banks of River Beas. Serene temples, majestic hills and tall, solemn Pine and Deodhar trees, and sprawling apple orchards weave together this enchanting valley. Life moves at its own pace here – a jolting reminder to us cityfolk that slowing down is a good thing too. Although lured intensely into staying a little longer, I made my way to Manali.
Perched blisslfully between the peaks of Pir Panjal and Dhualdhar ranges, like a precious jewel in a crown, is Manali. Although ridiculously popular and crowded throughout the year, Manali still has its own charm. It’s a real challenge to keep your sanity together when the thin mountain air coupled with adrenaline thumping through your veins, leave you heady and restless. And so, I rode further to Rohtang Pass.
The distance between Manali and Rohtang Pass is 200 kms. But consider traversing these 200 kms as tightrope walking over a valley so deep, you can’t even see the bottom, while in the backdrop a fickle but turbulent weather is set in its ways to show who’s boss. I got on to the legendary Leh-Manali highway which, with its hairpin bends, sharp twists, curtains of fog and whatnot, is pretty much a death-defying roller-coaster ride. Located at a dizzying elevation of more than 13,000 feet. I start from Manali at around 6,400 feet and drive upwards to Marhi, which is at 10,800 feet. The climb is steady and the air is getting thinner by the minute. Finally, I reach Rohtang sitting at 13,060 feet. My intense ride is sprinkled with some rain and light drizzle.
When I finally reach Rohtang is when I finally stop in the real sense. There was no longer anywhere to rush to. This was it, the proverbial and somewhat literal zenith. I get off my bike, take off my helmet, try to catch my breath and gather my wits. All in preparation for the wondrous work of nature spread out in front of me. You can see the most HD images on the internet, you can get all excited listening to your friends’ exciting tales from their trips, you can watch as many films as you like, but the real deal, witnessing the magic firsthand is an experience that’s just downright spiritual. If I had a camera, I had forgotten its purpose. If my jaw had dropped to the floor and shattered, I didn’t really care. The skies are the brightest blue, the mountains stand tall, proud, unafraid and fully aware of their splendour. Where the earth ends and the sky begins, I could hardly tell. I was too occupied being awestruck by this love affair between the mountain peaks and the clouds. Time stood still. The only thing fluid was the and the wind.
What I was feeling in that moment is hard to put into words. I had made it this far, from the tail end of the country to where I was, at the edge, the precipice of wonder and awe. I could live here forever, or for as long as the treacherous forces of nature would permit me. But I knew it was time to leave. A good guest never overstays. I felt a dull ache in my heart at not being able to go further along all the way to Leh. But, I knew I wasn’t prepared, physically, mentally and even with my resources. However, that only filled me with more optimism – the sweet, sweet promise of return and the thrill of pushing my own limits. Travelling alone through a journey brimming with all kinds of risks and dangers is scary, but it’s also zen. It’s the perfect route to self-discovery – of being your own hero, your own most trusted friend and your own sanctuary.
I braved sun, snow, rain and heat. I was stuck in a forest in an unknown land and made it out unscathed. I negotiated language barriers, high altitude passes, broke bridges, bad roads, hostile weather and the complete lack of luxuries. I ate what I got and slept where I could. And I returned, with newer lessons learnt, a grateful heart, renewed spirit and an enriched soul. This was my longest and boldest bike trip. This was my first bike trip, but definitely not the last. As for my appetite for adventure? Let’s just say, I already know where I’m going next!