Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A mountain of a tale

2 months and 2600 kms on a Unicorn Dazzler had gone by when one day I decided it was time for a long bike trip. So, despite a monsoon that’s got the Indian Met Dept reading tea leaves, and Uttarakashi drowning in floods, I planned a trip into the very same mountains. Against known odds.

It was the wee hours of Wednesday when I walked up to my flatmates. Days before, I had scouted the territory on Google Maps, consulted multiple travel blogs, read numerous biker tips including several on how to repair punctured tubeless tyres.

“Dude, I have chalked it all out. We go Thursday and come back Sunday. Are you coming?”

I had seen that hesitant uncertain look before. It is the same one I get from people who rode pillion with me once and never rode bikes ever again.

“Fine. But just so you know, we will be going through 2 national parks!” I declared triumphantly.

The next day at the office zoomed past me like an SUV on steroids. In the evening, at T minus 5 hours, with well-wishing roommates vowing to check my preparedness (& very likely my sanity), I felt it was time for a glance at the exact route I was going to take. As I zoomed in on wikimapia.org slowly, my exact route faded and in its place appeared a maze of roads called Delhi. I zoomed out to find some bearings. Follow the largest roads, I thought. I meticulously followed one across Delhi, only to end up at the Maha Maya flyover. I tried again, this time, ending up in a desolate part of Faridabad. Finally, after numerous zoom-ins, zoom-outs & detours, I found the GT road which was going to lead me to the destination. But what about the return? I slowly traced the route with my finger only to find it kept meeting resistance. I zoomed out a little. It was The River Yamuna. In gloriously numerous-and-sure-to-be-flooded tributaries, the Yamuna was inundating my return path. Oh well, I could always return along GT road, I thought and readied myself for the roommate exam.

“The plan is simple.”, I said to the flatmate, looking down at a visiting card on which I had written down places, time and distances from Gurgaon. “But… err… there is a small probability that the Yamuna might intervene. Not to worry, the stretch where not a soul can come for help is only 20 km long. I can easily cover that kind of distance even on broken roads in under 3 hours right?” I ignored his shaking head and continued, “What’s more, I’d have enough time to rest too. About 4.5 hours of sleep on day one and 3 hours on day two.” I looked up from the visiting card. He seemed moved (or perturbed). Back to the drawing board that was wikimapia.org. This time I used the satellite version to rectify all holes in my fool-proof plan. Two hours later, a new route emerged. It was as clear as sunlight in a batcave. But in such situations, man being an optimist, concludes he will prevail. Or maybe that’s just me.

At T minus 10 mins .i.e. 3:20 AM, the alarm woke me up and I spotted a packed bag with keys and helmet laid out on the bedside. By 4 AM, I was doing 70 kmph on a piece of tarmac that is unbroken from Delhi to Chandigarh, commonly known as, the GT Karnal road. I had successfully gotten past that ‘well of confusion’ that truck drivers reverentially call Dhaula Kuan. So I looked at my watch and decided there was enough time for a pit stop and a snack. One could say Murthal is to dhabas what Gurgaon is to malls. I’ve often heard of starving people making the Haj from as far as Jaipur for a hearty dinner at Murthal. As you can expect, the road after the pit stop seemed a little too comfortable. No traffic, no noise, no headlights. Just numerous insect life that slowly grew in size and then became road-kill as they hit my helmet. Panipat was reached when day was breaking and I was dozing. Karnal was reached when the sun was reluctantly rising and I was rudely shaken awake by a toll-gate attendant in whom I had instilled the fear of mortality. Beyond that of course, I only have a faint recollection of driving up to a lake with a room beside it which had a really warm bed.

4 hours later, at about 11.00 AM, the alarm woke me up again, the sun had climbed out from among the clouds. After this brief interlude of suspended animation, I felt recharged. I stepped out ready to ride and realized that the lake I had dreamt up contained real water and was called Brahma Sarovar.

A little later, the road gave clear evidence it was State funded, and I slowed down. Initially, there were green fields all around. Soon, the fields became patchy and then disappeared altogether as trees and rocks took their place. I had entered the Yamuna river valley. Just a few bends in the road later, lo behold!, the Himalayas came into view. Well, not exactly the icy mountain peaks made famous by postcards, but the lower Himalayas a.k.a the Sivaliks. And what a sight to behold.

As I was beholding thusly, Yamunanagar crept towards me, unnoticed. Suddenly I felt a change in the mild afternoon sunlight. Somewhere a green light had changed to red. I felt a strong personality was blocking all further beholding. It was a traffic cop, in whose hands, a set of Dazzler keys shone mysteriously. There was nothing much for me to do except disembark. Which I did.

In his teachings, Confucius has often said that the traffic cop is the true religious and moral force of a country. At his appearance, you suddenly become conscious of a deep sense of guilt at trespassing on his property as well as an awareness of your own mortality. Every creature that plies on a road holds the traffic cop in awe. Except buffaloes, that is.

“Paper nikalo. Helmet nikalo. Kahan se ho?” he glowered, barely looking at the papers that I had already handed him.
“Gudgawan sirji”. I said, in a highly-questionable and ill-timed Haryanvi accent.
“Itna door?” barely looking at the papers. “Kahan jaa rahe ho?”
“Ghumne aaya hun sirji. Socha Haryana dekhun.”, I said brightly.

Cheeky remark. The kind that gets you one on the cheek. Especially from Haryana traffic cop who vehemently attack anything beyond their understanding. However, at this delicate juncture, his God-sent nephew intervened.
“Kya hua tau?”

Tau ignored my existence for a few minutes and went to deliberate the situation with his nephew. Despite possibly deliberating on my intelligence, my immediate financial condition and my geographical origin at various points during their discussion, they seemed to have settled it all in my favor. Evidence of this reached me just as I rehearsing pitiful crying pity in my head. The tau smiled as he returned. More importantly, my bike keys had reappeared. I thanked the star of my birth, wondering which star Tau came from, and like a photographer shooting a pride of lions, I gently got back on the bike and pushed on towards Kalesar National Park which as you all know is the only park in the state of Haryana where entry is restricted despite it not housing a single corporate headquarters.

The terrain grew rocky and steep as I entered the forest. It was a hilly forest cultivated in places. Gates into the national park appeared at places beckoning me towards their magical interiors. But even the venerable Robert Frost did say he stopped BY the woods and not IN the woods. So I kept going along the winding hill road to Paonta Sahib, whose gurudvara was my destination.

Although it has slipped the history records, Confucius once said “For good health, drink chai everywhere you go. But in greater measure, take the chaiwala’s advice.” So, I approached one of these ubiquitous chaiwalas in the Sivalik surrounded town of Paonta Sahib. It was 7.00 PM and there was no one in the vicinity except the chaiwala and his helper.

“Bhaiyya, yahan rehne ke liye koi acchi hotel hogi?”
“Kahin bhi ruk jao.”, he said, making a wide arc with his hand. Sensing the arc swept a car garage, a football ground and a bus stop in its path, I raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Hotel bhi hain, room bhi hain. Aur agar chaho toh gurudvare mein hi ruk sakte ho.”
Now that was news. “Accha! Khana, peena kuch hoga andar?”

The chaiwala looked up from his stove. Ancient wisdom of his forefathers glistened at his brow as he wiped away the chai smoke-synthesized-sweat. “Ji, andar swarg hai.”

That was that. I tied a hanky over my head in the Sikh tradition and entered the gurudvara. Indeed, as I washed my travel-stained hands & feet, I spotted the close-to-heavenly amenities for weary travelers. In time, this ‘swarg’ provided me with food, water and some bhajan-filled evening entertainment. Vowing never to laugh at sardar jokes again, I settled on the dari, took out the visiting card which was my tour guide speculated on the future, as is one's wont, when one's tummy is full of langar food.

At daybreak the next day, I crossed the bridge out of Paonta Sahib and entered a bird sanctuary where photo-allergic monkeys chased me away every time I stopped to photograph a rare bird. Anyhow, as they say, beyond every monkey there is the banana; or it still seemed, when I reached hallowed doons of Ruskin Bond’s stories. Dehradun is a quaint & sleepy town situated under immense, old trees. Birds chirped and cows mooed. Streams gurgled and shadows played. Even pictures of shuttered panshops from a re-serviced 5MP Nokia phone looked like artwork. Marveling at this novel-like reality, I wandered the streets until I spotted a green board that said Mussorie - 32 KM.

Although heavily dosed with hair pins & U-pins, a reliable BRO road brought me to Mussorie which is nestled along the sides of the Himalayan foothills. By 10 AM, I had climbed to 6000 ft. Checking into a hotel, I stopped to catch a breath (and a much-needed bath). It was 1.5 days since Gurgaon and I was already in the Himalayas. The road had been good, the bike was in condition, I had plenty of rest and all known geography had been covered. I did congratulate myself once or twice. 6000 ft! What a view! What a place! What a time! Given a chance, I may even have awarded myself a Nobel or two for travel planning or some such category. I stood by the window admiring the clouds in the valley below, slowly climbing up along the mountain and finally disappearing into them.

At 12 O’clock, I walked into the hotel lobby. It was time to trek.
“Any places to trek to nearby?” I said stretching my limbs and doing a mock push-ups against the wall. Despite my alien energetic antics, the manager gave me sedated look.
"Dhanaulti. Kempy Falls. Snow. Rainfall. 15. 20." he muttered.
“Trekking?” I probed.
Disturbed, the manager opened one eye and surveyed me through it. After an interval in which I could have traveled back to Gurgaon, he coughed.
"Dhanaulti?” I guessed. "Cough!" he replied.

So that decided, I started off towards this place on foot. Many a km later, a BRO board declared Dhanaulti was 20 km from where I stood. So, I kicked a pine cone, threw a rock down into the valley, screamed profanities that echoed and trudged back to the bike. (Eventually I came to make my peace with the hotel manager since the 20 km drive was spectacular).

However, I soon climbed to higher altitudes, into the clouds and reached a bunch of trees and hotels labeled Dhanaulti where Punjabi families were loudly admiring the scenery amidst lunch. Horrified at this sudden apparition and desperate for a quiet trek, I inquired the locals about the tourism scene, for non-tourists. Taking my harried, zealot-like look to be one filled with religious fervor, they told there was a temple nearby. On a hill top. A Hill? Eureka! the avid trekker in me rejoiced. I thanked the locals profusely, which on hindsight might have been mistaken for more religious fervor. Anyhow, I pushed onwards and by 2.00 PM found myself at the base of this hill. “Finally, some good old trekking!” I thought to myself as the 1 km ascent to the top began.

Without going into the trigonometric or gravitational details, let me say that this was not at all a trek. With a grade of 45-50 degrees, at some point, I had begun to rappel to keep going up. I admit the rapidly changing altitude and oxygen deprivation might also have intervened in this analysis, so feel free to Google. But panting people did appear at turns clutching their family, the dogs, the trees, sometimes the very ground for a lungful of air. My own lungs probably shoved aside the rib cage and internal organs permanently, searching in vain for the oxygen that it knew to exist in such abundance.

As I neared the top, I heard a distant drum beat. I began to move in step with this beat. No… It wasn’t my heart. Yes… It was indeed a dhol! A dhol-wala with a dhol at 9997 ft! After the song, the drummer paused. My metabolism was slowly returning to normal. Only high-altitude crows, high-attitude monkeys and the sounds of an apple being munched broke the silence of the hills. I looked at the watch. It was 4.00 PM. 2 hours to return to the hyper-oxygenated reality of Mussorie.

A wise man once said “With your head amongst the clouds, the world below seems a jolly good place.” Indeed as I descended, I was greeted by a poetic mist, a prosaic drizzle. But the wise man was surely not a weather man. For poems and prose were quickly replaced by permafrost in my extremities as world below still believed in things like monsoons and downpours.

So I took refuge at a chai-cum-provision store. As the chai unfroze my extremities, I shook water out of my dead phone and other paraphernalia. Minutes quickly passed into hours. Outside, the precipitation continued unabated. Evidently, I was nowhere near hotel rooms or electricity. Heeding the old man Confucius’ advice once more, I turned to the pahadi chaiwala who was boiling milk beside me.

“Baarish bahut der hoti hai yahan?” An open ended question.
“Ji, keh nahi sakte.”
 “Do-teen ghante se zyada toh nahi hogi.” A positively spun statement.
“Ji, keh nahi sakte.”
“Mussorie aaj toh nahi pahunch payenge.” A negatively spun statement.
“Ji, keh nahi sakte.”

I rummaged through the backpack containing the essentials I had brought. No raincoat, no jacket, not even a full sleeved shirt on me. A newspaper, a pair of scissors, an apple, a large plastic bag and some matches.

My mind began running a newsreel in Technicolor. A Dazzler being crane-lifted from landslide debris. A policeman walking along the broken tree trunks into the brush pointing at a muddy backpack. A journalist taking pictures of a visiting card with numbers & places on it. A tent-like structure made out of a couple of twigs, newspapers and a torn plastic cover. Some wet half-burnt matches beside a half-cooked, half-eaten body of a squirrel.

Before I discovered what was further ahead, the newsreel ran out because the chaiwala came to my rescue. He had finished his preparation. He offered me a cupful of chai and a saucer-ful of advice.

“Ji, aapke paas do option hain. Mussorie ja sakte ho. Magar bees kilometer hai. Dhanolti ja sakte ho. Magar saath kilometer hai. Aur baarish ka…” he continued, pre-empting me, “kuch keh nahi sakte.”

A soggy wet ride later, Dhanolti was where the elements were braved and extremities were warmed. And I swear by Confucius’ teachings, lo behold… there was butter chicken and rice! The next morning allowed me a rain-free return to Mussorie where I settled my hotel bill, fought a violent urge to murder the hotel manager (who was still sedated) and headed to Rishikesh. I had been to Rishikesh before and the homing pigeon in me brought me safely to Gurgaon before sunset.

As I stepped into my room and threw the helmet, keys and what not, across whereever, my cell beeped. It was my flatmate who had just gone downstairs to the parking lot.

“Status?” his message said. I was content. A precisely planned trip despite all its inherent craziness had been executed perfectly. I lazily gazed out of the window at the overcast sky. “Safe & sound.” I replied, brimming with something akin to pride.

“But why is your bike's rear view mirror cracked?”

Dear reader. Along the Sivaliks of life, we often reach such points where a mountain of a tale ends and another one begins. This is that point. So, if you don't like the suspense, stay tuned until the next post rains down upon you. But remember, "Baarish ka... kuch keh nahi sakte."


  1. Shikhar8:57 PM

    hahahaha! awesome!
    Wish I was also part of this trip to Mountains..

    Loved the reply "kuch keh nahi sakte" - was that only present in the blog version of the story? :-)

  2. Therein, lies the challenge.... of separating fact, from fiction.

  3. Ankur8:45 AM

    Why your rear view mirror breaks every time you go for a bike trip :P

    1. In all honesty, my involvement in these incidents is usually minimal. Of course, experts have pointed out that this is exactly the reason behind these incidents. :P

  4. Dude.. your writing got worse!! or you didnt write everything!!