There was a perfectly boring plan in place for the next two months of my life. I was serving my notice period in my company in Chennai. The last day of work was still a good fifty days away. I would move to my hometown then and join the new company after a couple of days of rest. But the plan changed when my manager called me up one fine afternoon and offered to relieve me of my duties the next week. I had asked for it a few days ago so that I could join the new company sooner, but was not expecting to get it.
I had two options. Either I could join my new company on an earlier date, or I could use that time for something I had always wanted to do – to travel through my country, India.
I remembered that my friend Vikram was planning for a group trip to Ladakh. During lunch I met him and asked whether I could join. He readily accepted and was excited about my relatively impromptu decision to go on one of the world’s most challenging motorbike rides.
Right from my higher secondary school days, I had always wanted to go on a long bike trip. But the plans then were grander. We wanted to ride through the entire length and breadth of India. I say ‘we’ because this was a shared dream. My friend Xavier who is a better rider than me was the other partner in it. This dream intensified when I read Motorcycle Diaries but there was always the shortage of money and more importantly, time. So when the decision was made to go to Ladakh with newer friends and a few other strangers, it was only bro code that I had to ask Xavier once. But he was happily married with the love of his life and settled in Qatar. It was highly unlikely that he would come on such short notice. I messaged him the entire schedule of our trip. Just as expected he informed that he had no chance to come. But I could feel that he really missed it when he replied:
“But this was our plan!”
The idea was to travel from Chennai to Jammu by train and to start our bike ride from there. All the riders except me would ship their bikes to Jammu. I was supposed to ride pillion with Vikram from Jammu to Leh in three days, stopping at Srinagar and Kargil. In Leh, I would rent a bike and we would ride to Nubra valley and Pangong Lake which would take four days totally. Later, we would leave Leh and ride to Manali in two days. From Manali, the plan was to ride to Delhi and pack the bikes back to Chennai.
There was some essential shopping to be made. I bought a helmet and a jacket. My cousin offered to lend his balaclava, riding gloves and anti-glare riding goggles. Other items that I bought included warm clothing, chocolates and some dried fruits and nuts.
As the days passed by, there was a feeling of doubt in my mind. My reputation as a rider was that I was slow and boring. There are friends of mine who could do wheelies and stoppies at will, but I always believed in safe driving. So, most of my friends were alarmed when they heard that I was planning for Ladakh ride. Many stories of mishaps during Himalayan bike rides were narrated to me. Some friends even sent me video links of the tough terrain and scared the shit out of me. I doubted whether I would be able to do it. But then, I read an article in which a veteran rider opined that Ladakh ride is not just for the overly adventurous bikers. The mighty Himalayas have a habit of shattering the egos of most accomplished riders. According to him, what was needed was a sensible head on the shoulders and a high degree of mental preparation. This made me feel more confident, but I admit that there was a part of me that was still scared. There were times when I thought of abandoning the idea of Ladakh trip and go on a solo travel by public transport to safer places in my country. But this was the usual story of my life. There would be elaborate plans to do something spectacular from time to time, but at the last moment, I would settle for a less illustrious idea. I wanted to overcome that. Perhaps this trip was the exact remedy to shed my inhibitions. Maybe it could clear the confusions in my mind about many things under the sun, and beyond. Maybe it could take me closer to my inner self.
The train journey – Chennai to Jammu Tavi – 2.5 days
The train we had to board was at 5 A.M. Vikram and I started early morning from his home in a taxi to the Chennai Central station. The walk to platform number 11 from which the Jammu Tavi express would depart was tough because of the weight of Vikram’s saddle bag, my backpack and our helmets. When we finally reached near our coach, we could see the rest of our new gang – the people with whom we were going to spend the next two weeks. I knew Parthi who readily greeted me and introduced the others. It is not fair to judge people by the first looks. But that is how we humans are and I was no exception. There was Bharat – who looked like a born leader with his thick beard and thicker spectacles; Mani –a no nonsense person and Arun – a happy go lucky guy. There was another guy Podhi – he was not joining us for the trip, he had to drop out at the last moment because of an important exam. He was there to see his friends off.
Among us, Arun had the most fascinating purpose for his trip. He wanted to have a drink on the rocks with ice chipped from the glaciers in the Himalayas.
Vikram had communicated earlier that everyone should limit their luggage to one saddle bag each. But the sight at the platform was different. There was a hell lot of luggage. Vikram being the more experienced rider was of the opinion that more baggage would make the travel difficult. But the alternate view point that prompted the guys to bring a lot of load was also valid – to be prepared for any situation. They had everything – from dried fruits to gum boots and super expensive riding gear, they were completely occupied with everything one would need for the trip. They even had LED lights which would blink SOS in Morse code during an emergency! Should I say more? Later I came to know that Podhi was instrumental in arranging all these equipment for the ride. It must have been a tough decision for him to back out of the trip.
Contrary to our expectations, the train was relatively empty. We had enough room for our luggage. Podhi bid us good bye when the train started to move and we began our long journey ahead. Jammu Tavi express was notorious for the high number of stations it stops at. Bharat displayed a printout of the schedule of the train which listed the seventy eight stations in the long stretch from Chennai to Jammu. He joked that it was an ideal train to suicide as the loco pilot would be too pissed off to stop the train if he sees someone on the track.
The train journey helped us to get to know each other better. It would be vital in the days ahead as I learned later that everyone depends on each other in a team ride.
Vikram handed me a book to read – ‘From Volga to Ganga’. It was about the gradual journeys of prehistoric civilizations from distant places to India. It explained a great deal of history using short interesting stories of insignificant people. Reading and dreaming was what I did for two and a half days when I was not sight-seeing, talking, sleeping or eating.
It would not be interesting to narrate our train journey in too much detail. So I would just write about an experience that we had in the train.
It was night and we were about to sleep. Except for Arun, the rest of us had our seats booked together. Arun’s berth was reserved in the neighboring compartment. So we decided to ask a passenger to switch places with him. Mani, Vikram and I knew Hindi. One of us had to ask. I liked speaking Hindi to strangers. So I asked the guy with utmost respect whether he would be kind enough to shift to the neighboring compartment. I was sure about my language and people skills, and was expecting the man to agree. But the man surprised me with a blunt ‘No’. I was not happy with the response and the guy could sense my resentment. So he came closer to me and whispered:
“Mere saat jo aaya hei na… Usko beemari hei. Mental hei woh. Raat ko akela nahi chod sakta.” (My co-passenger is mentally ill, can’t let him sleep alone.)
Telling this, he pointed at his mate. A sense of fear crept through my veins when I noticed that his legs were tied to the window using a long cotton towel. He was sleeping there calmly on the side lower berth. I informed the other guys about the situation. Everyone started staring at the guy to judge whether he was dangerous. We delayed our sleep, and started chit chatting about trivial matters, perhaps to hide the fear in everyone’s mind. We were going to sleep in a compartment with a mentally unstable person around; and that too, believing that the feeble cotton towel knot offered some security.
After a while, the guy I spoke to climbed to his upper berth and slept off. We were afraid what would happen if the mad man wakes up from his slumber. Just as feared, the guy woke up all of a sudden and noticed that his legs were tied. The irritated man began to mumble something and started to untie the knot. We did what we had to do – wake the sane person up from his sleep. He came down immediately and untied the knot. Nothing bad happened. The poor soul wanted to go to the toilet and his friend helped him get there. From the gentle way the mentally ill person gestured that he had to go to the toilet, we felt that this guy was not too dangerous after all. It could also be that we all wanted to sleep so badly that we were looking for a reason not to be afraid. Anyway, within a few minutes, all of us were on our own berths, trying to get some sleep.
We were relieved to reach Jammu Tavi station after our tiring train journey. The station was nothing like I expected. It looked like any other railway station in India. There was no scenic beauty in the horizons to be enjoyed.
In Jammu Kashmir, pre-paid mobile connections from other states do not work. Only Arun and I had postpaid connections. So it was decided that everyone had to be with either one of us whenever we had to split into groups. So Parthi and I guarded our belongings while the rest of the gang completed the formalities to receive the shipped bikes.
It took a while and a lot of effort to take our luggage outside of the station. When we finally packed the saddle bags and was about to get out of the exit, a policeman stopped us. He wanted to see the documents. Most of the papers were correct, but Vikram and Parthi had only photocopies of their RC books. They didn’t take the originals, believing internet articles about Ladakh bike rides. But the sturdy looking cop demanded the original RC book. From his queer way of asking one document after another, clearly expecting at least one of us had a document missing; we could sense that he was fishing for some extra cash. This doubt was confirmed when he murmured to a local guy “Kharcha pani bhi nahi de raha”. Vikram also sensed this but he said firmly that the only way we could help was by shipping the RC book from Chennai, and that would take some time. After a few minutes of arguing, cursing and even some friendly advising, the cop let us go.
Vikram had the contacts of a hotel named Vaishno Dham. When we went there, we could see that most of the occupants were pilgrims who came to visit the famous temple of Vaishno Devi. Vikram expressed his doubt whether that place was anything like Dharmashalas where non-Hindu’s are not allowed. If that was the case, my Christian name would be a problem. But nothing like that happened. Even though they scanned our luggage thoroughly, they asked for only one person’s identity card. The hotel rates were reasonable. The room looked huge and comfortable. It was almost too good to be true. The place looked like a government run enterprise. Perhaps that justified the low price, we thought.
That night was supposed to be one for rejuvenating ourselves after the tiring train journey. The comfortable beds and the air conditioned room promised a good night’s sleep. But we were in for a rather unpleasant surprise.
All of us went to bed at around eleven. A few minutes later, I felt an itching sensation on my hand. Then the itch spread to my arm, my face and then all over my body. It was unbearable. I could not understand whether it was mosquitoes, bedbugs or some form of allergy. Then I heard a knock on the door. When I opened the door, Arun, Parthi and Bharat came inside the room complaining that their room was infested with bedbugs. I informed them that it was the same case with our room too. Someone went to the reception to complain, but he could not find anyone there.
We sat there for some time cribbing about the bedbugs. There was no hope to get any sleep that night. After a couple of hours, we decided to start our bike ride earlier in the morning than planned. That way, we could at least reach Srinagar early to get some sleep. At least, that was our hope.
Jammu to Srinagar
Mounting our bags optimally on to our bikes took a lot of time. It was around eight o’clock when we finally started for the ride. We had a fixed riding order. Bharat would be the lead in his Royal Enfield Thunderbird. Mani was the second rider. He drove a Yamaha FZ. Arun followed in his Thunderbird. It was another FZ driven by Parthi that came next. Vikram was the tail/sweeper rider in his Avenger. I was pillion to Vikram. There was sadness in my mind that I was not riding till we reached Leh. Pillion riding is not considered to be comfortable business. But for me, there were two advantages. The back rest of Avenger is the best among Indian bikes. I could lean on it and transfer most of the weight of my backpack to it. Moreover, I used a woolen blanket as an extra cushion. Vikram joked that the back seat looked like a sofa seat when covered by my make shift cushion.
We drove through the highway with no trouble for a long period. Internationally approved hand signals were used to communicate between us during the ride. Some of those signals were extremely useful in a long ride. For example, a rider would point his right index finger to an imminent danger on his right, or raise his left leg to indicate a danger on his left. Such signals would prove life saving in the days to come. Moreover, it also helped us to concentrate more on the ride.
There were frequent pit stops that day, mainly for refreshment. After some time we felt that we were riding between tea breaks rather than the other way around. But this was expected from a relatively inexperienced pack of riders like us.
After a few hours of ride Parthi’s bike wobbled. We thought he might fall down, but he managed to regain balance. The road was too slippery. A few minutes later, our bike also showed signs of imbalance on the road. During our next pit stop we came to know that everyone felt the road to be slippery. We decided that we had to reduce our speed.
A few more kilometers later, Arun’s bike skid in a scary fashion. He somehow stopped the bike, but he was about to lose balance and fall down, mainly due to the weight of the Thunderbird. Some unknown bikers came from nowhere right then to his help. Bharat also came in running to help Arun lift his bike. By this time, I too reached near Arun. I took control over the bike and parked it next to a road side shop.
All of us were relieved that nothing bad happened. We treated us with ice-cream to calm ourselves. Arun asked me to drive for a while. Since I was not mentally prepared to drive that day, there was a little nervousness. But I agreed.
Arun sat pillion to Vikram and I rode the Thunderbird. We were driving through mountain roads with sharp curves. It took me a while to get the feel of the bike. But slowly I got confidence. It felt great to ride. I enjoyed the wind, the terrain and the sound of the mighty Enfield.
On the way, one old man standing beside the road waved Pakistan’s flag at us. We were afraid whether this was some threat by militants over there. Later when we met an army man from Tamil Nadu, he informed that the way we passed through is sometimes called ‘mini Pakistan’. He avoided more detail on the topic when we tried to talk to him about it.
We didn’t make many stops after that because we feared that it would be late by the time we reach Srinagar. At dusk, we stopped for tea again. Arun told that he was feeling sleepy and it was dangerous for him to go pillion further. He told that he would be active if he rides, and would not fall asleep. Vikram was also worried that his pillion rider was sleepy. The logic of the sleepy person driving may appear weird, but anyone who has driven bikes for a long time would know that there was some truth in Arun’s logic. So I handed over the keys to Arun and went back to my ‘sofa’ on the Avenger.
It was night when we reached Srinagar. Srinagar town was damn crowded and we were stuck in a traffic block. People were driving like crazy over there. It took a lot of time for us to escape from the traffic. When we were close to Dal Lake, we were swarmed by a group of people asking whether we needed a room to stay. We tried escaping, but a couple of youngsters followed us in their bike. But their language was very courteous. They explained in the most respectful language that they would arrange the best and cheap stay for us. We finally gave in and decided to follow those youngsters.
We drove through pocket roads expecting that the house boat they offered for our stay was somewhere close by. But the drive continued for much more time than we expected. We were taken to a dark and ominous looking alley. We even feared whether these guys were planning to rob us. The only saving grace was that we could see a lot of houseboats nearby. The owner of the houseboat was an old man. He spoke to us in fluent English convincing us to hire the boat for rent. We were satisfied with the facilities in it. But there were two issues. We doubted whether the house boat would be infested with mosquitoes or bedbugs. It was hard for the owner, even with his Oxford English to convince us that there was no such problem, as we had a bad experience the previous night. Moreover, there was no proper parking for the bikes. We were scared about the safety of our bikes in that dark alley. The old man told that everyone in the neighborhood was his friends and relatives, and he guaranteed the safety of our bikes. I felt that he was speaking truth. He looked like a respectable man to me. Most of us felt that we could believe in that man. Such was his charisma. But Parthi was not convinced. He said it is not safe to just leave our bikes in an open dark alley. What he said was logically sensible. Bharat pitched in saying that this was not a decision we could vote on. If everyone is not convinced, we better look for another place. So we said no. Then a local guy chipped in saying that he would arrange a hotel nearby which had covered parking.
Parthi and Mani went to check the hotel while I chatted up with one of the guys who took us to that place. His name was Ali and it turned out that he was the house boat owner’s son. I said I was sorry that we could not stay in the house boat. He told me that it was part of their business. I told him that his father looked like a respectable man and his English was fabulous. Ali surprised me telling that his father was illiterate. Apparently, he learned his English by talking to tourists for a life time. He explained how they never had to worry about shortage of customers during his childhood. Frequent political and military trouble is ruining Kashmir’s tourism – he opined. The previous year’s flood also caused a lot of damage to them and it was essential for the family to aggressively look out for customers.
By this time Parthi and Mani came back and they informed that the hotel was fine. We went there and parked our bikes in the covered parking area. The room boy was a guy named Amir. He looked about twenty years old. We were amazed by the ease with which Amir lifted our heavy luggage with his skinny arms. Vikram asked how he could do that. Amir joked that he was ex-Army and we all had a hearty laugh.
The room was pretty basic. A few minutes in bed, I felt my hands itching. I feared that it would be bed-bugs. But I tried to ignore that and sleep. I slept off after a while. The itch could have been just a psychological thing, or maybe, I was too tired to stay awake that night – bedbugs or not.
Srinagar to Kargil
Next day morning, the hotel owner enquired about our riding route. He was impressed with our grand plan to ride from Jammu to Leh and then further to Manali and Delhi. When I told that we planned to go to Kargil that day, he said that Zoji La was the only problem. We had heard many terrifying stories about Zoji La. It was supposed to be one of the toughest passes to enter Ladakh, along with Rohtang pass. It remains closed during entire winter, but is kept open every day in summer for some hours by the Border Roads Organization.
We started at around ten O’clock that day. In Srinagar town we stopped at an ATM. Two of us went to withdraw money while the rest of us tried to relax by removing our helmets. I noticed that the army men were keenly observing our gang. They talked to each other pointing at us from a distance. It seemed like they were almost ready for an attack on us. Suddenly it dawned upon me that I was wearing a balaclava and only my eyes were visible. This was the case with the rest of us too. We looked like a gang of terrorists on bikes. We quickly removed our balaclavas and put on our innocent faces to ease the tension in the air.
As expected, the ride till Zoji La was pleasant. It started to drizzle after we covered some distance. We passed through some of the most picturesque locations of Kashmir. We were upset that we did not have enough time to explore each of those places. We missed the highlights of a traditional Kashmir trip like a boat ride in Dal Lake or a stay at Sonamarg. But these were the sacrifices we had to make to accommodate our grand plan in the relatively tight schedule.
After an eventless ride for some kilometers, we could sense that the roads were getting steeper and the curves were sharper. A few more kilometers further, there was no distinguishable road as such. There was just a narrow path made of crumbled rock. One side of the path was bordered by tall mountain rocks and the other side was a deep abyss. To our dismay, rain intensified and we could see water flowing along the road. There was water logging too. It was evident that Zoji La was going to be tough. Vikram gave everyone instructions. We were not to ride near the abyss, not to ride along water streams and many such rules. Hoping for the best we rode along. Vikram’s Avenger was struggling to carry the weight of the two of us. Mani and Parthi were also struggling with their FZ’s. The Thunderbird 350’s performed best among our bikes. But that was expected.
While crossing a waterlogged place, the Avenger’s back tier got trapped in a pit. I immediately got down from the pillion seat. My feet were a full feet deep inside water. Rain was making matters worse. The road workers watched us while I tried lifting the back tire out of the pit. I could feel a sense of adrenaline rush. Somehow, I could do the job and we continued.
My shoes and socks were completely wet and cold and I feared that frost bite would set in. But there was very little time for such thoughts as a few minutes later, I saw Arun fall down. He had the presence of mind to get out of the way of the bike when it was about to fall on him. I ran to him to lift his Thunderbird up. Parthi also helped and I put the bike on side stand using my hands. This was something I learned at the heat of the moment, and something that I would do again on a later day. While lifting a fallen bike, if we use our hands to set the side stand first, it would be a lot easier to do the job.
Arun was ok. We drove with utmost caution from there on. After a lot more minor skids and stoppages, we could see better roads ahead of us. We successfully crossed Zoji La and we celebrated the feat by punching the air and shouting out at the top of our voices. Arun was singing a self made parody of a Tamil song. The song had only one word in it – ‘balaclava’. He would sing the senseless song that goes like:
‘Baala-cu-laave… Baala cu laave…’ We didn’t know then that he would continue singing this song for the entire trip. That song was so infectious that within a few days, the rest of us were also singing it involuntarily. It became the anthem of our trip.
Sometime after crossing Zoji La we reached Zero Point where we could see a tent and a road side tea shop. They offered tea, bread-omelet and Maggi. Even though the noodles were of a different brand, they preferred to call it Maggi. We were all damn hungry and we ate a lot from that place. We talked to a local shepherd of about seventy years of age. He was enthusiastic to pose for photos and videos. He asked later whether we could buy him something to eat. We obliged by buying a plate of bread-omelet to the old man.
We drove as fast as we could on the mountain roads from there on to regain the time lost at Zoji La. A few kilometers before reaching Kargil, we passed through Drass – a place known for low temperatures during winter. A sign board welcoming us to Drass informed us that it was the second coldest place inhabited on earth. Drass is also known for something else – the Kargil war memorial. Even though we were late on our schedule, we spent quite a lot of time in the memorial.
I was only nine years old when the Kargil war happened. As a child, I had followed the news of the war meticulously from the daily newspapers. Those days awoke the most patriotic feelings for my generation. Never did I think then that one day I would visit Kargil. The army personnel explained to us about the Kargil war. This war memorial was next to the mountains where severe clash happened between the Indian Army and the intruders. A museum showcased artifacts from the war. There was also a cemetery which had the name of the martyrs carved on stone. Officially, Kargil incident is often termed as a battle and not a full-fledged war. But even then the number of casualties were huge. When I thought about it, I could feel that I was always biased when it came to national matters. As a kid following the Kargil war, I felt great pride when the Indian Army killed more people than they lost during the war. But the truth is that the people who intrude into India feel the same sense of patriotism that Indians feel when we defend our country. To them, what they do is a supreme form of sacrifice. So who is the culprit here? When we got freedom, it came with such a grave handicap. To be sure, I am not undermining the sacrifices that Indian Army makes. But what is it for? Who is benefitted by all these killings? It is a worrisome thought that all these years of propaganda on both sides of the border has made people of two countries hate each other. Can’t there be peace anytime soon? My mind felt confused at this point.
Again, it was night when we reached Kargil town. A fast flowing river was the main highlight of the place. It was flowing with so much force that the powerful sound was heard all over the town. In search of a place to stay, we went to a few hotels. One agent took Mani and me to his hotel to inspect the rooms. We found the rooms to be very comfortable. Price was also reasonable. We bargained to get the least price possible and brought the rest of the gang to the hotel. Everyone was happy to see the safe parking provided and the comfy looking beds. We had dinner from a nearby restaurant and hit the bed by twelve that night. Next day, we again had to wake up early and go to the place many men wanted to go – Leh.
Kargil to Leh
All of us slept well that night. We had breakfast from the same hotel. A British family was having food next to our table. When they were done, the father came near us and enquired about our trip. He said that he wished he was riding too. As a family man, he had to choose the safer option of a hired taxi. He told about his bike trip in Orissa many years back. We felt a sense of pride that such a veteran rider was envious of our trip. But it also reminded us that when responsibilities increase at a later stage of our lives, such adventures might not be our priority.
We had to drive through NH 1 to go to Leh. We heard rumors that there was a land slide on the road and it was blocked the previous day. So we expected some broken roads on our way. But for many kilometers, the road was excellent. We cruised through comfortably as a team. The sights around were immensely beautiful too. There were many Buddhist monasteries (Gompa) on the way. In one of the Gompas, the monks greeted us warmly, offering us almond fruit and letting us make videos using our helmet mounted GoPro camera.
We spotted an army café and decided to have momos and aloo tikki from there for lunch. Arun was suffering from a stomach upset. An army man was kind enough to let him use the camp’s toilet. This is one of the less talked about difficulties that riders have to face in Ladakh. There are only very few public toilets on the way. If you have a bad stomach, then it can ruin the entire trip for you.
Since Mani’s FZ was showing signs of less pick up, he asked Bharat to ride it. Mani took over Bharat’s Thunderbird. But while turning it from where it was parked, he did the mistake of expecting it to have a small turning radius like that of FZ. He lost balance and fell down right in the middle of the road. I saw this from a distance and immediately sprinted towards him. I dropped my helmet and jacket beside the road to free my hands and helped Mani lift the bike up. Parthi also helped along with a stranger to lift the heavy cruiser bike. Again I used my hand to set the bike on side stand. When the bike was parked and Mani was fine, I noticed that my helmet that I kept beside the road had rolled on to a nearby muddy area. A stranger offered me water to clean my helmet. He was an experienced rider named Piyush. He noticed that I was out of breath due to the sprint and offered me water again to drink when I finished cleaning my helmet. I accepted the help offered. When I was drinking in haste, he again tried to pacify me telling “Aaraam se… your friend is alright.” This is something that all of us learned during the trip – to accept help. It is not easy to do that if we have lot of ego. I thanked the guy and we were back on our bikes for the ride.
Vikram wanted to reach Leh before night at any case. So we went ahead of the pack at a higher speed than others. In a few minutes, we were kilometers ahead of the others and we could not see the rest of the pack. On the way, we found a road block on the highway. There was a narrower road beside it. We were confused which road to take, as the authorities had left enough space beside the road block for bikers to pass. Then, another rider came that way. He signaled us that it was ok to proceed through the highway. So we decided to continue riding through the blocked highway.
On the way, we could notice that there were far less riders on the road than we were used to till now. Also the signs of landslide that occurred on the previous day were still visible. After a few kilometers of bumpy ride, we met a construction worker. He informed us in his broken Hindi that road was too damaged ahead and it would be tough to pass. By then we had come too far to return and take the deviation that we saw before. So we decided to move on in the same route.
It took only some more time for us to understand the graveness of the situation. When we turned a curve, I could see that the road ahead of us after descending the hill was mostly washed away. It looked as if some giant monster had bit the road and only a little of it remained.
“Vikram, the road ahead looks really bad.” – I raised my concern.
“Why?” – He asked.
“It looks like most of the road is washed away” – I replied.
But Vikram continued riding in silence for some time and said:
“If everything was so easy, nobody would come to Leh.”
The road was slippery with mud and we skid a couple of times.
“Keep everything inside and don’t move” – Vikram ordered and I obeyed.
When we were close to the broken part of the road, we could see that a JCB was stationed there, cleaning up the mess of the land slide. We shouted to the guy asking whether it is ok for us to pass. He said that it was fine to do so.
Trusting the word of the JCB operator, we moved ahead. One side of the road was a deep abyss. Death was certain if we fell into that. With great caution, Vikram rode through the narrow portion that remained on the road. When we were close to the JCB, Vikram applied brake, the bike slipped and we fell down on the road. Thinking about that moment still gives me the chills. While falling, I could see that Vikram’s head was about to hit the wheels of the JCB. By reflex action I hit his head away, thus avoiding the impact. Perhaps my intervention wouldn’t have made a difference, as Vikram was wearing helmet.
I was in shock and was behaving senselessly after our fall. Instead of lifting Vikram up when I was on my feet, I asked the JCB guy whether it was the correct way to go Leh. Vikram shouted at me for help. I regained my senses; dropped my helmet to free my hands and helped Vikram get up, along with the bike. This time too, my helmet rolled on – almost falling into the deep abyss. Nothing happened to us because of the slow pace and care Vikram took while crossing that treacherous path. Luck was also a factor. We gathered everything up in a few moments and continued our ride. We didn’t speak for quite some time after the fall. My helmet still has a scratch on it that reminds me about this incident whenever I go for a ride.
After a while, we could see the road block on the other end of the treacherous path. This one was special – it was made of beer bottles! We could see many vehicles coming from a different path and joining the highway. It was the narrow deviation that we chose not to take. We understood that it was a foolish decision to go through the blocked road, which resulted in our fall. But as they say, foolish decisions make good stories.
We stopped at a place called Lamayuru when we saw a Gompa. Vikram took the deviation to the monastery while I waited beside the highway for others. When Vikram came back, it was my turn to go to the monastery. So I drove Vikram’s Avenger for the first time in the trip – albeit for a short distance to the Gompa. Even after I returned after visiting the monastery, others had not come. Vikram told that a brake down would have happened to some bike. From Kargil, even our postpaid connections were not working. Only BSNL seemed to have an operational network in those places. So, there was no way to contact them, and we continued our ride.
We stopped at a local food joint to have tea and bread-omelet. We were awestruck by the DIY refrigeration system they had. They stacked all their cool drinks in a staircase format and let naturally cold water pass through them. This water was again pumped up a few meters and it flowed down again in a loop. This system attracted the eyes of every tourist who passed through that way. Many foreigners were spotted there who were riding bicycles to Leh. The shopkeeper was a friendly person. I asked him whether they had a facility nearby to call long distance. After the fall a while ago, I wanted to call home. A local guy heard this and offered me his mobile phone. I thanked him and made a call using his phone and updated my whereabouts to my family.
While we were sipping tea, the rest of the gang passed us. They drove on shouting that Mani’s bike broke down and he was coming in a van. We quickly finished our tea and hit the road again. Rest of the journey that day was peaceful. I was feeling sleepy. When the welcome boards proclaimed that we were entering Leh, everyone was happy. Vikram was super excited and he asked me to shoot video. I was too sleepy then. The excitement of reaching Leh was overcome by my physical fatigue. My eyes were drowsy and my responses to Vikram’s excited remarks were sloppy. I tried shooting the video to fend off my sleep. I tried to shout words of excitement too. In that dreamy drowsy state, I entered Leh with the rest of the gang. Or should I use the popular pun among bikers going to Ladakh?
– We were Leh’d.
Arun’s stomach upset was worrying me because along with him, I was the only other person who ate chicken from Kargil. I thought I had escaped from any ill-effects because I didn’t feel anything bad for the entire day. But sometime after reaching Leh, I felt a sudden need to visit a toilet. I searched for one around but couldn’t find any. The others were leisurely chatting in the middle of the road while I asked everyone to start looking for a room. When nobody cared, I shouted telling that I had to go to a toilet urgently. Vikram took me to a local restaurant and the guy over there let me use their primitive facility. It was only after that I attained normalcy in my behavior. My advice to fellow travelers is not to eat non vegetarian food if they plan to visit Ladakh any time. If at all you have to eat non vegetarian, please do make sure that the food is good.
We found a lodge to stay. The manager of that place was a twenty-something man who called himself Pappu. He had the air of a proper businessman. When he told us that we had to have dinner by ten as all the shops would close by that time, initially I thought it was because he actually cared about us having to sleep without food. Later we knew that it was because of the trouble caused by local goons if the gates were not closed early in the night.
Mani was very vocal that night about the help offered by the unknown person who let Mani’s FZ to be tied inside his van to bring it to Leh. That man dropped Mani and his bike in Leh near a workshop. When Mani hinted about money to that person, he denied saying that only a human being can help another human being. It sounds better in Hindi:
“Aadmi hi aadmi ke kaam aate hein.”
We had dinner from a local Dhabha. They said that all they had was Thali meals. It was priced at seventy rupees per plate. But they were short of rice and sabji. So practically, all we got was Roti and Daal. Mani, Vikram and I tried to bargain with them in Hindi, but they were reluctant to budge. Then, Arun took over the responsibility. Even though he didn’t know Hindi, he showed immense skill in bargaining. Somehow he managed to make them agree that it was not fair to charge the money for thali meals without giving us enough rice or sabji. They finally brought down the price to fifty per plate and we all admired the people skills of Arun. The restaurant people were laughing at the end of the bargain, listening to Arun’s Hindi, but the job was well done.
It was very cold that night in Leh. The thermal wear and other warm clothing came in handy. We slept until late morning that day because we did not plan to go to any far away destination the next day. That day was reserved for local sight-seeing in Leh and rest. When we woke up, Vikram and I went to a workshop to do some engine tuning and to clean the chain of Avenger. We rode to explore Leh. There was a street full of foreigners. It looked like a European town over there with stylish little eateries and a global set of people. We had our brunch from a slick roof top restaurant. The only affordable item on the menu was Aloo Paratha. Both of us ordered for it. It was so tasty and to my surprise, crunchy in a good way. I devoured it by holding the slices in hand, as if I was eating pizza.
There were a lot of shops that rented bikes. I was looking for a Royal Enfield Electra because it was the cheapest bullet with an electric start. We came to know that the rate for Electra was around eleven hundred to twelve hundred. A local guy introduced us to Namyang – the owner of a rental shop. We spotted a black Electra with sturdy carriers for taking fuel cans. We spoke with the guy and fixed a rate of thousand rupees per day. I told him that I would hire the bike that evening so that the billing would start from next day.
We joined the gang again and went to visit the Hall Of Fame – an army museum. The most attractive artifact over there was a three dimensional map that illustrated the border area of Kashmir. Among other relics, it housed a beautiful collection of photographs clicked in and around Ladakh. There was also a souvenir shop. I bought a t-shirt and a hip flask from there.
Our next stop was a place where Hinduism and Buddhism merged. It was a Gompa – but the main deity was Kaali – a Hindu Goddess. Amidst the Buddhist monks, we could see soldiers praying to Kaali over there. This was probably an instance of religious harmony in India. But for me, it was also a prime example of dilution of original Buddhist philosophy.
Another spiritual place was our next destination. It was a Gurudwara – a Sikh temple. It was built and maintained by the army in the name of Pathar Sahib. All of us went inside, wearing orange towels over our heads as part of the custom. We were provided with free tea and snacks. We spent some quality time over there. Photography was allowed. All of us clicked a lot of pictures. Parthi was especially happy about a nice place to click some good shots. The cherry on top was a friendly cat who was a great poser.
The next place we had to visit was the legendary Magnetic Hill. The area was believed to have a special magnetic force. We were told that cars would move uphill without switching on the engine because of the pull from magnetically charged hills. But when we reached there, we could not see any such sight. The cars stationed did not move an inch against gravity. There were some bikers who told that they felt such a force – even a tiny push on their bikes was helping them to move through plain surface for a very long time, they said. They even tried to exhibit this to us. But it was not convincing. We tried the same but did not find any uncommon force. The only different thing about that hill was a huge sign made using rocks which read ‘Magnetic Hill’.
Vikram and I again split from the pack and drove to Shanti Stupa. When we reached the place, we were worried by the long flight of stairs that we had to climb to reach the Stupa. We climbed the steep stairs in a slow and steady pace. When we were half way up, a lady with two kids noticed our attire and asked us whether we came by bikes. When we said yes, she asked why we didn’t use the road that came around the hill avoiding the stairs. We were dumbstruck by that question. But there was no turning back, we climbed on further and reached the Shanti Stupa. I must say that it was a peaceful place. We ordered for Ladakhi salt tea from a canteen. Tea and salt – such a mix was new to me. And that tea didn’t taste as bad as I thought either.
Back in Leh town, we went to Namyang’s bike rent shop. We were expecting to get the bike and leave in thirty minutes. But when we went there, he informed us that the bike we booked in the morning was not available. When we asked for another Electra with carriage, he said that he will arrange such a bike and started calling many people. But it seemed that nobody was picking his call. When we told him that it was ok even if there was no carriage, he said there was one such bike available. After test driving that Electra, I was ready to rent it. But then, Namyang told that the bike would cost eleven hundred per day. Moreover, he argued that we agreed for eleven hundred in the morning. I tried to make him understand that it was for thousand rupees that we agreed upon. Vikram suddenly became angry and shouted at them irritated at their behavior. Namyang also got angry and he declared that he doesn’t want to do business with us. I tried to pacify them but it was not possible. We came out of the shop without renting any bike. We searched in other shops for some time, but no Electra was available in such short notice. After about an hour, Namyang saw us from a distance. He called us back into his shop and apologized to us. He said that such arguments are common in the nature of his business. To my surprise, he agreed for the thousand rupees I offered. His apology looked genuine to me. Probably he lost his temper earlier and the one hour of time cooled him of. Or perhaps, he was too good a businessman to lose a deal to please his ego.
Many riders informed us that both Pangong Lake and Nubra valley were closed due to bad road conditions. We did not know where we would go the next day if both places were closed. We hoped for at least one of those routes to open the next day and hit the bed soon that night.
Leh to Pangong Lake
I was excited to ride the rented Electra. When we enquired at the SP office, we were informed that routes to both Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley were closed. We were in despair. But a few minutes later, a taxi driver informed us that the road to Pangong Lake was open. Trusting his words we decided to drive to Pangong. Even if the road was blocked, we could at least ride for some time.
After about an hour of our ride, many riders signaled to us that the road was blocked ahead. We stopped riding and stood there beside the road without knowing what to do. Sometime later, a jeep driver advised us to follow him. He showed us an alternate route to travel.
Here, we were to face one of the bigger challenges in Ladakh bike rides – stream crossing. Strong streams of water would be flowing from the hill side of the road into the abyss. The road would have been washed away in these places for a few meters. For an inexperienced person, it would seem like a herculean task to cross such a stream in a bike. But when we see others crossing them we would be motivated. It was not an easy job, but for a rider with reasonable control over his bike, most of the streams were not too difficult if he or she didn’t lose concentration. Initially I was worried, but we had great fun in crossing those streams that day. When we successfully crossed a tough stream, Parthi even told me that he wanted to go back and forth one more time just for the kicks of it.
Sometime later when we were passing through a stretch of good road, three wild horses crossed our way. The biggest horse crossed the road peacefully in front of me while I slowed my bike. The smaller horses were a bit violent. So I signaled my fellow riders about the danger. Nothing bad happened because everyone slowed down for the horses to pass. When we all passed safely, I was literally laughing aloud. I felt like I was some junior artist in a Western. It was not uncommon for an Indian to watch cattle, dogs, cats or chicken cross roads and disrupt traffic. But three wild horses – it felt totally out of the world.
Another set of animals were the next attraction –marmots. There was a specific place on our way where people stopped just to see those little creatures. They lived in cleverly constructed tunnels made by them. One marmot would dive into a tunnel hole and emerge from another hole. These animals expected food from the tourists. It was a cute sight to watch them come near people with doubt all over their faces. Even the slightest quick movement by the people would scare them and they would return to their burrows. The challenge was to make them touch our palms without scaring them. There were boards warning people not to feed the marmots. So we tried showing them our empty palms. We were successful in getting the marmots to touch our palms, and clicking pictures of this event too. It was of course a form of cheating the animals to get an interesting photograph and an experience. But we were shameless enough to do that.
From what I experienced, there are three things that boost a rider’s morale while riding through those roads. First one is the thumps up signal from other riders who pass in the opposite direction. Most riders are lavish in greeting each other with this universal sign of appreciation. It sends a great message of respect to a fellow rider. Second one is the high five given by local kids. The children of those places find immense joy in greeting riders by slapping their palms against the gloved palms of riders cruising in their bikes. This lifts the spirits of the riders too. The third factor is the large number of sign boards along the mountain roads with extremely creative safety slogans. Some of the slogans are as simple as
‘Better Be Mr. Late, than be Late Mr.!’
The wackiest of the slogans was: ‘Be gentle on my curves!’ These slogans were signed with the acronym of the Border Roads Organization – BRO. The humor sense of the officers who set these sign boards was evident by the pun they make using similar typography of the sign. Imagine a sign post on a national highway that reads ‘Be gentle on my curves BRO’.
That day, we passed through Chang La – the third highest motorable road in the world. It was cold therewith the mountains covered with snow. Vikram was feeling headache which was a sign of mountain sickness. We didn’t stay there for long and descended soon after clicking some good pictures.
A glimpse of Pangong Lake was visible after some time. I was instantly in love with the place. As we got closer to the bright blue waters, we marveled at the beauty of it. When we finally reached near the lake, all of us were super-excited. It was easily the most beautiful place I have seen on earth. The bare mountains added a majestic borderline to the clear waters which reflected shades of blue and green. I have always thought that Kashmir being dubbed as heaven on earth was an over statement. But I could feel heaven at Pangong Lake that day; I felt like living inside a painting of heaven.
We stayed in a tent that night. It was a luxurious one I must say, complete with an attached bathroom. No mobile network existed in that place that night – not even for BSNL. The only connection with the outside world was a lone satellite phone. People queued up to make a call from there. I too called home informing that I might not call for some days as there was no network available. When it was night, the cold was very intense. Still, it was an experience to stay outdoors, marveling at the majesty of the Himalayas at my new found heaven on earth – Pangong.
Pangong to Leh
Early in the morning, I went near the lake along with Bharat. We could click many good pictures of the lake in the morning sun. We returned to the tent just in time for breakfast. That day we started early, much to the delight of Vikram – the time keeper of our gang.
Leaving Pangong Lake was difficult. I felt the same bad feeling which I used to feel in my childhood while leaving my ancestral home after a vacation. But I had to move on.
For the first time in our trip we were driving through a road that we had already passed. But still there were newer challenges. There were a lot of military trucks that day on the road, which forced us to ride close to the abyss. Streams were crossed with expertise as we had the confidence that those streams were already crossed by us a day before. We even helped a lot of people in crossing streams. Bharat and Arun lead the help work while Mani, Parthi and I chipped in. Vikram didn’t join this activity. Probably he thought it was not necessary as there were already too many people helping.
My shoes were wet while crossing a stream. I used garbage bags and plastic covers to replace my wet socks so that hypothermia can be avoided. We visited many Gompas that day. In one of the Gompas, a lama kid guided us through the interiors of the ancient construction. He didn’t know a word of Hindi or English, so it was tough to communicate. But when I took out my phone, he was quick to snatch it from me and click a selfie. The artwork inside that Gompa was also unique. The images were very violent. There were paintings of skeletons dancing and monsters grinning. I asked to a monk about the irony of such violent images in a Buddhist Gompa while Buddhism taught about peace. The monk could only tell that those monsters were ‘protectors’. This was another instance of dilution of Buddhism through the past centuries.
We met a European couple on the way who gave us the information that Nubra valley was open. So we were happy that we had a place to go the next day. Little did I know that we would meet this European couple again the next day, and we would be good friends soon.
A few kilometers before reaching Leh, there was a deviation which led to a Gompa. But we had to cross an extremely violent stream to reach there. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided not to take that risk and we returned back to Leh.
We reached Leh after a tiring day of ride. Somebody suggested the idea of eating South Indian dish that night. We found a restaurant named ‘Chaska Maska’ that served Dosa. Most of the guys ordered Dosa while I deviated from my decision to eat only vegetarian, and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. I must say that the sandwich was delicious. Dosa was quite ordinary. You simply can’t expect someone who has lived in Chennai to be satisfied with Dosas that are not top class.
We slept early that night. Everyone was excited that the next day we were planning to ride through Khardung La – the highest motorable road in the world.
Leh – Nubra Valley (Hunder)
A reasonably early start that day was probably due to the excitement of going to Khardung La. The stream crossings were tough. But by now, we boys were experts at it. I was beginning to take routes that were closer to abyss because I ‘knew’ for certain that I wouldn’t lose balance. Luckily, all the crossings that day were completed without trouble. With every successful crossing, my ego was also getting a boost. I didn’t know then that this would trouble me the next day.
Without much delay, we reached the place to be for a biker – Khardung La. People waited in queue to click pictures in front of the board that proclaimed that we were at a height of 18,380 feet above sea level – the highest point in the world reachable by road. Another board informed us that it was dangerous to stay there for more than twenty to twenty five minutes because of the high altitude and the subsequent low supply of oxygen. But we did stay there for a longer period of time. Vikram was feeling headache and Mani was feeling short of breath after a little physical activity. Thankfully nobody had any severe mountain sickness. After clicking many crazy photographs, we decided to descend down on our journey to Hunder in Nubra Valley.
On the way I saw the European couple who had informed us the previous day that the road to Nubra valley was open. They were standing beside the road examining the huge luggage on their Desert Storm bullet. I slowed down and asked whether they were ok. The guy told he was ok and I moved on. But it turned out that Bharat, who was riding as the tail stopped and helped them. So we waited for them to come.
Later, Bharat and Arun helped and guided an Indian couple to cross a long tricky stream. They noticed our bikes’ register numbers and told us that they were also from Chennai. After crossing that stream, it was decided that the European couple, as well as the Indian couple would be riding along with our group that day till Nubra valley.
On the way, we were stopped by other riders citing that there was a strike ahead by the villagers near Diskit and the road was blocked by them. The previous night, there was a cloud burst and a small village was washed away. The people were striking because the administration did not come to visit them or offer proper relief.
We ordered some lunch from a nearby shop and discussed what could be done. Either, we had to wait till we got information that the strike was over and the roads were open. Or, we had to go back to Leh without much delay. If we waited for too long, then the way back would be too dangerous that we would be forced to spend the night in whatever accommodation we would find.
I was of the opinion that we should go back. If an entire village was washed away, the strike would not be over by a day – that was my logic. A part of my mind also wanted the strike to last longer so that they could get the administration to do what was needful. Another reason was that we had already visited Khardung La. The only attraction in Hunder seemed to be double humped camels. I thought it was not worth to take a risk. There was one more reason for my opinion. If we went back to Leh, it would save us a day and we could reach one day early in Delhi. That would give us an opportunity visit the Taj Mahal.
But my opinion was not popular. Most of them wanted to wait and delay the decision. While many other riders returned to Leh, my fellow riders hoped that the strike would end soon and everything would be fine. Such was their optimism. They kept on asking people coming from Diskit side of the road how the situation was. We were informed by riders and truck drivers that there was no hope in going on.
But my friends decided to wait.
After some time, one car driver told that the roads were open. When everyone celebrated, the pessimist in me told them that it was not wise to go on, trusting one stranger’s opinion. I asked them to wait for one more confirmation, just to be sure. My words were ignored by the collective positivity in the gang. But when we were about to start, one car driver warned us that the people of the village were turning violent as part of the strike. He advised us to wait for a group of vehicles to come from the other side. That would be a good indicator that the strike had stopped, he said. So we again waited beside the road. After some time, we saw that a lot many cars were coming in our direction. We waited in anticipation. When the vehicles were near, they gave us believable conformation that the roads were open and the strike was over. There were even riders who gave us the thumps up signal which is something even a skeptic like me can believe.
My fellow riders might not be happy reading this, but I must admit that at that moment, the overwhelming emotion in my mind was not the excitement to ride more. I felt for the villagers. I was worried what strong action the administration would have taken against a bunch of innocent people, to keep a road open for the tourists. Our urge for adventure was not so important when we consider that the entire life of those villagers were at stake.
We passed through the affected village in some time. The little houses and shops over there were completely destroyed. The fast flowing water from the mountains had washed away the entire landscape. What constituted a mountain road before was only a muddy mess. There was no anger on the face of the villagers. They looked almost emotionless, possibly because they were used to such disasters.
In Diskit, there was a giant Buddha statue. We climbed the hill to admire the beauty of the grand structure. It was also a time to get introduced to the new members in our group. The Indian couple – Shiva and Fahad were professional photographers. They clicked many amazing pictures of us in front of the Buddha statue. We knew then that these guys would be clicking a lot more pictures of us if they chose to ride with us for the rest of our ride. The European couple was from France. Adelaide, the girl worked in the insurance sector; and Antoine, the guy worked in a toy company. It was not easy for the French couple to remember and pronounce our Indian names, but when I told that my name was John, they were positively surprised. I explained that western names were common for people born in Christian families in India.
There was a Gompa nearby which Vikram wanted to visit. I too decided to go with him while the rest of the gang waited for us. There was a long flight of stairs to the Gompa. It could be my laziness, but I chose to lay there at the foot of the stairs while Vikram climbed the stairs. It was very peaceful there that I couldn’t find any reason to go inside the Gompa. I closed my eyes and almost slept in some time. When I opened my eyes some time later, I could see a couple of monks staring at me. They laughed when they noticed that I was awake, curious at the sight of a traveler taking so much trouble to reach that remote Gompa only to sleep beside the stairs of it. I too joined their laughter. There was no need for any common language there for the humor to be conveyed.
We passed a stretch of dusty roads to reach Hunder. Small sand dunes reminded us that we were in a desert. None of us could spot any camels though. The gang waited at a crossroads while some of us went inside the streets to look for a nice place to stay. After visiting many expensive rooms, we found a nice place that fitted our budget – the Himalayan Guest House. We could bargain with the manager to rent the luxurious and spacious rooms for a nominal amount. The only reason we could do that was because of the remoteness of the location of that guest house. I was reminded of Jeffrey Archer’s quote in Kane and Abel – “Only three things mattered about a hotel: position, position and position”.
Camel ride was not possible as there were some issues about that among the villagers and the camel owners. There was not much to do. So we planned to have a grand dinner that night in a nearby restaurant. During dinner, our conversation shifted to politics and films. Antoine told us that he was impressed with our knowledge in French films. The only difficulty was that we knew the international titles of the movies while Adelaide and Antoine only knew the French titles. So we had to explain the plot to make each other understand which film we were talking about.
After the dinner, we spent a lot of time chit chatting outdoors. Everyone talked about interesting incidents that happened in their lives. We laughed a lot that night and got to know each other better. Antoine asked me how I felt about the decision to not return to Leh when we heard about the strike near Diskit. I told him that in hindsight, it was a good decision to not return because we would have missed that beautiful evening at Hunder.
Shiva, Fahad, Antoine and Adelaide were no more strangers – they were new recruits to our gang.
Hunder to Leh
We had come to Hunder with the expectation that we would be able to ride on double humped camels but were disappointed that we couldn’t even see them. But the trip gave us something unexpected – some new friends. The cordial relation that we all shared was like a brotherhood where no factors that divide humanity could affect us. When Antoine and Adelaide skipped their plan to visit hot springs nearby and decided to ride along with us back to Leh, it was not much of a surprise. There was no way we were going to part our ways, at least until we reached Leh.
All of us were clocking good speeds that day initially. We wanted to cross Khardung La before it was too late. But we had to slow down after a few kilometers. The challenge was the dusty desert roads where visibility was very low. We drove along slowly, sometimes riding off the road.
After the dusty roads, stream crossings were the next challenge. Since we had crossed these the previous day, we were very confident. The initial small crossings were very easy too. But then, there was one particular place where the water was quite deeper than the other crossings. There was a narrow steel plate that was laid over the rocks to make it easy for the riders. But the downside of that contraption was that if the rider missed to ride his bike over the plate even by a slight margin, the bike would be stuck between the steel plate and the deeper portion of the stream. This was exactly what happened to me. I failed to board my bike over the steel plate and was stuck there helpless. Luckily, I didn’t fall. Bharat quickly ran to me and helped me to mount the bike over the steel plate. It was easy then for me to cross the rest of that stream. Whatever ego I had acquired till then was washed away at that moment.
Sometime later, when Antoine took a curve he bent his bike a little too much that it’s custom made carrier hit the road and broke. It could no longer carry the cans of petrol he took with him. So he emptied the cans into the fuel tank before continuing further. On our way ahead, there was a beautiful place ahead with a stream flowing, distant mountain background and a valley full of yaks. Fahad and Siva clicked non-stop while we invented stylish poses. Antoine was complemented for his photogenic looks and his resemblance to Michael Clarke, former Australian cricket captain.
The toughest stream of our ride was yet to come. It had everything that adds to the difficulty of a stream crossing: depth, length, proximity to abyss, fast flow, large slippery stones – it was a combination of everything troublesome. To top it off, we judged the stream incorrectly and took a tougher path. Most of us passed it skillfully without much drama. But perhaps my confidence was shaken in the previous stream. While crossing this one, my bike’s tire was stuck between two large stones and I had to balance on my feet. Ice cold water drenched my shoes and socks completely in a couple of seconds. I could hear some stranger shouting out “Darna Mat” (Don’t be afraid) to boost my morale. I revved the engine trying to get out of that pit but thought it was not possible. But thankfully, the mighty Enfield exceeded my expectations and came out of that pit somehow.
After crossing the stream, I immediately removed my shoes and socks and rubbed my toes trying to alleviate the biting cold. Vikram was the last man to cross. He was intelligent enough to remove his footwear before crossing. He crossed the stream barefoot, dried his feet with paper or cloth and then put on his shoes again. That was the smart thing to do if you were not wearing gumboots.
Just when we were about to start again, Parthi hit his bike against a stone while trying to move through a narrow opening between my bike and the stone.
Antoine was positioned to see this perfectly, and he shouted, “Shit, shit! Your brake wire!”
Parthi stopped the bike and we all could see that his bike’s back brake wire was dangling down. Repair work started immediately with Bharat, Arun and Antoine taking the lead. I used the time to massage my feet trying to keep cold and numbness away. Antoine broke his sunglasses while trying to take some tools out of his tool kit. He was so involved to help Parthi that he didn’t even notice it. I gathered the coolers and gave it to Adelaide.
While the others were busy setting the FZ’s brake right, a girl stopped her bicycle in front of the stream crossing, unsure whether she would be able to cross it. Vikram and I went to help her. I showed her the easier path to cross the stream. My advice to her was to cross it on foot, pushing her bicycle along. But she looked paranoid to cross it alone. Then Vikram did something that was probably the most macho thing to do. He just went near her, lifted the heavy bicycle up above his head and crossed the stream on his bare feet. Just like that.
The girl thanked me for the help. I asked her to thank Vikram instead. She obliged. It was then that another bicycle rider came to the stream. He must have been an absolute professional. He judged the stream perfectly and took an ‘S’ shaped path to cross it with a level of ease that instilled huge respect for his skills among us who watched him in awe.
By this time, it was decided that the brake wire could not be fixed. Parthi told that he would ride slow, using his front brakes. The renewed plan was that Bharat and Mani would ride at a slow pace along with Parthi while the others continued in normal pace.
While passing through the village that was destroyed in cloud burst, we could see a high official inspecting the damages, while being guarded by heavily armed army personnel. I hope that proper compensations and relief measures were given to the villagers.
We stopped at Khardung La for some more pictures. I used the time to remove my footwear and massage my feet. Antoine noticed me walking around barefoot and was kind enough to give me a pair of plastic bags. I could use them instead of socks so that my feet didn’t get too cold. I thought that he would have many such plastic bags with him in his huge saddle bag. But later I came to know that it was the only pair he brought to use in case of any emergency.
The rest of the ride was without any incident. Those of us who reached ahead in Leh had time to kill while waiting for Parthi, Mani and Bharat. So we went to a Dhabha to have some sweets and snacks. We had tea, samosa chat, gulab jamuns and laddoos. It was interesting to see the excitement on Antoine’s and Adelaide’s face while they tasted the incredibly sweet gulab jamun. They liked laddoos more. Siva discussed about how tough it was to pronounce the names of French dishes like croissant. Adelaide and Antoine told that it was equally difficult for them to pronounce some Indian words. Antoine was trying to pronounce the ‘zha’ sound in Tamil and Malayalam for a few days. When he asked me to rate his success in pronouncing the tough letter, I gracefully gave him a four on ten even though what he said was only a slightly weird ‘ya’.
There were issues between bike renting unions of Jammu Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. So it was not safe for me to ride in a bike rented from Leh to Manali. Vikram was also not excited about riding with a pillion for the next two days. Moreover, I wanted to experience some of the journey alone, in a Himalayan bus. So I returned my bike and bought a bus ticket from the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department. The bus would start early morning. It was a two day long bus ride to Manali and the ticket promised a night stay at Keylong and two meals.
Back in our room, the rest of the gang had arrived. Parthi looked very upset. He could not find any mechanic to repair his bike as it was a Sunday. I suggested him that I can take him to the place I rented my bike. Probably they would be able to help, I told. Parthi readily agreed. Mani also wanted to correct the pickup issue of his FZ. So we three went to the bike rental shop.
The guy at the rental shop initially refused saying that their mechanic knows to repair only bullets. But when I asked him whether he knew some friend of his who could repair a Yamaha, he took the key and drove Parthi’s bike to a neighboring shop. He was back in five minutes and we could see that the brake was fixed. Parthi was happy with the work done, and wanted to offer some money but it was gracefully refused. We wanted to meet this mechanic so that we could thank him and also ask for a fix to Mani’s bike. So we approached the mechanic. He was chilling with his friends and didn’t want to work because it was a Sunday. But when we told him that we had to ride for the next two days till Manali, he was kind enough to help. He cleaned the carburator and air filter but there was only a minor improvement in the bike’s pickup. He told that it would take too much time to find the root cause of the issue and also guaranteed that the bike would be able to reach till Manali.
There was an impromptu party arranged for the night. When Mani and I reached the place, the party had already begun. Vikram chose to skip the party as he needed proper sleep before the ride to Manali. Everybody else was present and we walked in to the dimly lit place where the seating was the highlight. There was a short circular table around which cushions were placed. It was a very casual setting and the ambience was brilliant. Some of us were teetotalers, but the rest of us had beer. The food was also delicious.
Bharat – the gentleman he is served food to some of us. When Adelaide thanked him for this, Parthi told that she was being too formal. She said she was sorry about it. Parthi replied saying that telling sorry is also too formal among friends. Then Adelaide responded with an unexpected “Fuck you!” and all of us burst out in laughter. Parthi was composed enough to join the laughter.
When Bharat asked Fahad and Siva how they met, Siva was sportive enough to narrate their love story. All of us were amazed to know the filmy ways in which Fahad tried to impress her. So the topic of discussion shifted to relationships. Everyone told their stories in varied levels of detail. All of us expressed how impressed we were with Arun’s personality. I told how impressed I was with Bharat’s and Antoine’s riding skills and the helping mentality of Bharat, Arun, Parthi and Antoine.
Antoine told that he used to be a short tempered person. He told that Adelaide was the good influence on his personality that ‘turned him off’ when he got angry about something. I couldn’t resist telling the obvious joke. I told Antoine that he shouldn’t say Adelaide turns him off.
“You must say she turns you on.” – I told.
Luckily everyone laughed even though Adelaide punched my arm.
We discussed how traditional Indian culture was different from the western culture and how it was changing rapidly for the good. We discussed how women have lot of power in a relationship and how love was not the only factor that dictated the rules for relationships even in the western countries. We talked on for a long time that I doubted whether I will miss my early morning bus.
When Adelaide told “You will miss your bus”, what I heard was “I will miss you.” Everyone laughed at me for this and slowly realized that it was time to leave. We clicked many parting selfies before exiting that place. There was one final ride together through Leh town to drop Fahad, Siva, Adelaide and Antoine. All of us hugged each other to bid good bye and like every good thing, that brotherhood had to end there for the time being. But who knows for sure, there might be another ride together sometime in the future.
Leh to Keylong
Mani woke me up early and I quickly got ready to board my bus. Vikram was awake and I told him not to be angry if the others didn’t get up on time for that day’s ride. I told him it was fine even if they took three days to ride till Manali and I can manage alone to go to Delhi to catch my train to Kochi in case they were not able to reach on time.
Mani dropped me on time at the bus stop and the bus started a minute after I boarded. I was happy that mine was a window seat. My adjacent seat was vacant too. But since it was dark outside and I was too tired, I just slept off.
I woke up only when the bus stopped for breakfast. The passengers consisted of an equal number of Indians and foreigners. One Indian guy stood out among them with his knee-long unruly hair. His costume was a mix of east and west – half hippy, half saint. To top it off, it appeared that the blonde girl with him was his girlfriend. The charming man proved that he had a big heart too when he bought many Parle-G packets from a shop and distributed the biscuits among the stray dogs.
After our breakfast, I felt enough energy in me too keep awake and enjoy the scenic beauty outside. An amazing collection of Kishore Kumar’s and Mohammad Rafi’s songs played softly in the background adding to the experience of the journey.
We stopped at Tanglangla – the second highest motorable road in the world. Even though I had Vikram’s SLR and my phone camera with me, I didn’t want to click any pictures there. It was not a major feat to reach there by bus, after all. I watched the others enjoying the moment, silently – without even attempting to make a conversation with anyone.
Back in the bus, one official enquired me about my bike trip as he noticed that I was carrying a helmet. He appeared to be impressed with the grand plan of traveling from Jammu to Delhi in bike. He said he felt sorry for me that I had to leave my friends and travel in bus. I tried to explain him how I liked travelling alone for some part of the trip. But he was persistent in offering his sympathy. So I accepted it finally.
The bus stopped for lunch – a tasteless ‘rajma chaval’. I had the lunch without any complaints and boarded the bus again. I slept a lot that day. Once in a while I would wake up, enjoy the beauty outside while munching on some snacks, thinking about something totally random, only to shift into a deeper slumber.
It felt like a short trip to me. But by night, we had crossed Kashmir and reached our destination for the night – Keylong in Himachal Pradesh. The night stay was arranged in a tented accommodation just outside a government hotel. I was allotted a bed in a five person tent. There was an Israeli couple, a Spanish speaking woman, and a guy from my state along with me to share the tent. I was reminded of the film Queen where Kangana Ranaut’s character had to live with absolute strangers in Amsterdam. The Israeli guy had a guitar with him. He took the initiative to break the ice among us strangers. His name was Afra and he owned a web business. His girlfriend’s name was Bayla. She was happy when I pronounced her name correctly. The loner girl who spoke Spanish introduced herself as Juliana. But she appeared very drawn to herself. The other Malayali guy’s name was Sanjay. When I told that my name was John, Bayla joked saying, “That sounds very Indian.” Afra told that he knew Chinese people who had a western name along with their real name. I don’t know whether he was hinting that my name could not be real, but I promptly explained how I got a Christian name.
Sanjay, Afra, Bayla and I discussed a lot that night. It was new information to me that every Israeli youth had to work in the military for three years. Afra told that it was like a tradition for Israelis to visit either India or Latin America. The topic of discussion gradually shifted to humanity and world peace. We talked about the Indo-Pak issue and the Israel -Palestine issue; how propaganda makes even little children hate his brethren. Afra was very articulate. He explained how the Gaza issue brought trouble on both sides.
“They remain poor and unsafe and we get some missiles.” – He said.
“Both sides just need a reason to fight. Only the arms manufacturers gain, nobody else!” – He opined.
After an erudite discussion, I asked Afra whether he could play a song in his guitar. He politely declined saying that one of the strings of his guitar was broken. Somebody reminded us that it was late and we had to wake up early the next day. So we stopped our discussion, switched off the lights and went to bed.
Keylong to Manali
Next day all the travelers woke up early for the remaining bus journey. The travel officials had arranged excellent poori masala for breakfast. Quite unlike of government run hotels, dinner was tasty the previous night too. If anyone plans to travel from Leh to Manali by bus, I would recommend this package run by the Himachal Pradesh government.
The bus departed on time. When the bus stopped for refreshments, Afra asked me a tough question.
“John, there is Roti, Chapati, Poori, Paratha… What is the difference between all these?”
I explained how Poori is deep fried while Chapati used less oil during preparation. But I could not differentiate between the others.
“If you have all the options, choose Chapati, because that is the healthiest of all.” – I said.
Sanjay gave me his book Freakonomics to read. I was very soon hitched to the outrageous thoughts in it. After reading one chapter, I would think about the ideas in it. By this time, due to popular demand, the volume of the Hindi songs being played was set a few notches higher. That didn’t affect my reading. Somehow I could concentrate on the pages. But the shaky mountain ride strained my eyes when I tried to read. So I slept for a while in between.
I woke up when the bus stopped at some place. When I got down, the place seemed to be covered in mist. I could feel moisture on my skin – so much more than I have experienced in any mist. It was almost like getting drenched in rain. It was only when the air cleared slowly, and I could see the misty whiteness moving ahead of me that I realized that I was standing inside a cloud for some time.
When visibility improved, I could see that Juliana – the loner girl was standing there beside a mile post, taking in the beauty of the mountains. On any other day, I wouldn’t initiate a conversation with someone who seemed to like being alone. But that day, I walked up to her impulsively deciding to speak to her.
“So Juliana, where are you from?” – I asked, to the Spanish speaking lady.
“Argentina” – she said, with a smile on her face.
I was foolishly not expecting any answer other than Spain.
“Argentina, wow!” – I exclaimed in reflex.
“You like football?” – She asked, noticing my excitement.
“Yeah, of course” – I was not lying. Argentina is my favorite team since the Japan – Korea world cup.
“I almost cried when Goetze scored that goal.” – I said, reminded of the2014 world cup final.
She seemed to be intrigued by such intense emotion about Messi & co. from someone outside her country. When she asked, I explained how people often go to the extent of fist fights in my state when the match features Brazil or Argentina.
She explained how sad a day it was in Argentina. But after sometime, when she talked about the greatness of Indian born thinkers like Gandhi and Buddha, I said that Argentina too had given birth to a great humanist – Che Guevara. When I mentioned the name of the revolutionary, the expression on her face changed. She became silent all of a sudden and just left the place. I don’t know the exact reason for her sudden mood swing. Perhaps she did not like Che Guevara’s ideologies. Anyway, we didn’t talk after that.
Lesson learned – when you strike a good conversation about football with a girl, stay with football.
The bus passed through the treacherous Rohtang pass and reached Manali by afternoon. I could read only about hundred pages of Freakonomics that day. While handing the book over to Sanjay, I made a mental note to read the rest of it from a library when I get home. Sanjay bought a bus ticket to Delhi. He had around two hours to spare. So he and I roamed about the Mall road in Manali.
While walking through the Mall road, one man approached us asking whether we need a bus ticket. When we declined he told he can supply anything that we want.
In a muffled voice, he said,
“Ganja… Malana Cream!”
I had heard about the supreme hashish variety in the film ‘Neelakasham, Pachakadal, Chuvanna Bhoomi’. Anyway, we politely declined. Then another man came, trying to sell saffron petals to us. When we declined, he reduced the price from two hundred to fifty in a matter of seconds. Noticing our dark skin, he told saffron is good to improve skin complexion. When Sanjay firmly refused, he claimed that saffron has the same effect of Viagra. We declined him for the hundredth time.
When other traders circled around us, we exited the crowded Mall road. Sanjay had visited Manali a few times before, so he showed me a street where there were a few budget hotels. When it was time for his bus, we parted our ways. Vikram had assigned me the job of finding a cheap place to stay. With Sanjay’s direction, the job became a lot easier. I could find a decent hotel with very low rates. I rented a room and used the time to relax a bit. There was a television in the room and I watched some Hindi music channel for a while.
There was no way to contact the rest of the gang. I didn’t know whether they would reach Manali that day. I went out, had a burger at a small restaurant, and came back to the room to take rest. Within minutes, I was asleep.
I woke up to a phone call sometime in the night. It was Vikram on line. He informed me that they reached Manali and decided to stay in an expensive hotel. He said that Arun and Mani would come to Mall road to pick me up.
As planned, I went to Mall road, Mani and Arun took me to the grand resort. It had luxurious rooms with extremely comfortable beds. It was easily the best room we guys stayed in the entire trip.
It turned out that they had an extreme ride the previous two days. As expected, they started very late from Leh and could reach only at Pang. They met the experienced bikers from Chennai Trekking Club there and joined them in the next day’s ride from Pang to Manali. They struggled to cover the distance alongside the experienced riders and their better equipped bikes. But somehow they conquered the dangerous Rohtang pass and reached Manali driving the last hour with very little visibility.
We had a sumptuous dinner and went to bed early, unsure of the plans for next day. Vikram had decided to parcel his bike to Chennai from Mandi in Manali, but the others were undecided.
Manali to Delhi
It was raining that morning. There was a river flowing beside the resort with immense force. I talked to the riders from Chennai Trekking Club over there. They told that they scrapped their plans to ride from Manali to Chennai. They decided to ride only till Delhi because the meteorological department had predicted heavy rain all over India. Both the western and eastern routes were not safe due to heavy rain.
There were a few apple trees in the resort. We could pluck apples from trees and eat it fresh. While having breakfast, everyone made the decision. We were not going to ride till Delhi. We decided to ship our bikes to Chennai from the neighboring town Mandi. Everyone was tired from the merciless rides, insufficient sleep, and the overall uncertainty that lurked over the entire trip. But I believe the main reason for us to decide to stop our ride was because all of us were still in love with Ladakh. There was no place that could substitute the absolute raw beauty of Ladakh. So there was not much that the route ahead could promise us to keep riding.
I again took the pillion seat behind Vikram. We started for a short ride of around fifty kilometers to Mandi through Kulu. The narrow hilly roads and the greenery around reminded me of Kerala. The main difference was the apple trees that grew on the roadside.
There was a little more luggage on me now that I was feeling uncomfortable to ride pillion. So, when we stopped for breakfast, Mani offered that I could ride his bike instead. I gladly accepted to ride the rest of the journey in his FZ.
It was a nice ride from there on. Parthi would stop at some place and click pictures, but I didn’t stop. This gave me extra time to ride at my own leisurely pace. We drove through the largest tunnel in India that day. I didn’t know that we had to pass through such a long tunnel. It was a nice feeling to ride through darkness without knowing when the lyrical ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ would come.
When we reached near Kulu, we could see a ropeway that run from high in the mountains to the roads. It was used to transport goods from the top of those mountains, directly to the road in the valley. The simplicity of the design of such a system totally blew my mind. It is something that the other hilly regions can follow – so much effort saved with such a simple idea.
There was a waterfall on the way, very near to the road. It was extremely beautiful. But I didn’t want to stop. I was enjoying my smooth ride so much that I didn’t want to stop. But frequent milestones reminded me that our destination is fast approaching. There was still about five kilometers to Mandi when I saw Mani standing on the road and waving his hands. When I stopped, I could see the parcel office from which we were about to pack our bikes to Chennai.
All of us were sad that our bike journey was over. But we had one important task to do – negotiate the rates for shipping the bikes to Chennai. They were demanding huge rates at the GATI courier service. The system by which they charge the shipments appeared very unprofessional. But we knew that we didn’t have any other option. Even if we drove till Chandigarh or Delhi, it was tough to ship anything those days in train, as Independence Day was round the corner. Somehow we used every trick in the book to negotiate a barely acceptable rate.
We called a number to book bus tickets to Delhi. The bus had already departed. Since we were six people, and the bus had vacant seats, they sent us a van to pick us up. We quickly filled the van with our heavy luggage and sat wherever we could.
It was nice to see the air conditioned Volvo bus that was about to take us to Delhi in one night. This would save us a day and my wish to visit Taj Mahal was still feasible. After having a lousy dinner from a roadside shop, I slept through the entire night throughout the journey till we reached Delhi.
Delhi – Agra – Delhi
We reached the national capital much late than the scheduled time. There was a guest house arranged for our accommodation. We went to the guest house with our luggage in two cabs. When we mentioned about our plan to visit the Taj Mahal, the caretaker of the place informed us that we were quite late for it. There were only two ways to reach there on time– either we had to take a train trip or we had to hire a cab. But still it was not sure whether we would reach there on time.
After a few minutes of discussion, Mani, Parthi, Arun and I decided to go for it. Vikram had already seen Taj Mahal. So he preferred to visit other places in and around Delhi. Bharat decided to go to his friend’s place in Delhi.
The cab driver was a soft spoken Nepali man named Gopal. His slow paced driving made us doubt whether we would reach the Taj on time. But he kept on assuring us that he would reach well before time unless something unexpected happened.
After passing beside many monuments like India gate and Akshardham temple, we reached the beautiful express highway. Our old Tata Indica cab glided through the highway at a steady pace. After a long drive of around four hours, we reached Agra. A few minutes after we took the turn from the highway, we could see the Indian wonder from a distance – and it was incredibly beautiful. All of us were eager to watch the marble masterpiece closer.
Gopal dropped us in the parking place and we chose to walk till the entrance. We bought the ‘normal pass’ which made us to wait in a longer queue. The ‘high value pass’ holders hurried ahead of us poor fellows.
Clicking pictures and talking about random topics, the four of us strolled through the royal pathway to the Taj. A few minutes later, we realized the mistake that we made. We didn’t take any water with us. All of us were extremely thirsty in the scorching heat. This even affected our ability to enjoy the beauty of Taj Mahal.
Once we were inside the Taj Mahal, I got a call from a dear friend Razvi. He called to invite for his wedding. It was fun to tell him that I was speaking from inside Taj Mahal.
I was exhausted during the return walk to the exit. I was so thirsty that I even asked strangers whether they would give me some water to drink. All of them declined. Water was precious commodity. So here is my advice for anyone who visits the Taj during summer. Carry lots of water with you. Here is an addition to the advice that can be applied anywhere. Please give water if someone asks for it. I understand that it might cost twenty rupees a bottle. But it is water after all. And human beings are supposed to give others water if they ask for it.
It felt like heaven when we finally reached the exit and bought some cool water to drink. We had some snacks too. There were a few gift shops nearby. I bought a Sari for my mother, from a government shop. From the neighboring curio shop, I bought a small replica of the Taj Mahal.
Since we were tired, we went to the parking lot riding a camel cart. Gopal took us to a good South Indian restaurant. We had gobs of Dosas, Vadas and the likes to fill our famished tummies.
Parthi, Arun and Mani were to get down somewhere near Noida to go to their friend’s place. So Parthi used the return journey to copy all the photos and videos that I took in my phone. We had three DSLRs and a Go-Pro camera with a helmet mount. (If Parthi is reading this, I am still waiting for the edited video.) In addition to that, Fahad and Siva clicked many pictures of us.
After a long drive, it was time to bid good bye. My return journey from Delhi was planned in a direct train to Kochi the next day afternoon. Others planned to board a train to Chennai later in the night. So there was no real chance that they would return to the guest house from their friend’s place before I left. We shook hands and I asked them to come for a ride to Kerala someday.
Gopal took me to the guest house. Vikram said that he could visit only a couple of places that day. I narrated our Taj trip. Vikram had already done some of the packing I had to do the next day. I completed the rest and went to sleep.
Theoretically my trip was not over in Delhi. I had to make the longest part of it yet – the return journey from Delhi to my hometown Aluva. But the tour was practically over for me. The return journey was mainly used for reading Kahlil Gibran’s book – ‘prophet’ and scribbling my thoughts about the trip on it so that I could write this travelogue. The only interesting thing that happened on train was the discussion with an elite defense officer. His first person account of what really happens in Kashmir Valley might have been biased. But he was honest enough to mention some stories that are not public record.
The days that we chose for our trip were tumultuous in many ways. We doubted whether we would have to cancel the trip even before it started because of bad climate. There were cloud bursts in Kashmir that made many travelers to cancel their plans. Luckily the climate became better in the days we reached Ladakh. We passed through Nagpur on the day Yakub Memon was executed for the Mumbai bomb blast case. There were cloudbursts and landslides at many places in Ladakh on the days of our ride. The Manali – Leh road was blocked for the initial days of our trip. We met many riders who had to change their plan drastically due to this. We were not affected because we chose to start from Jammu. The Leh – Jammu route was blocked at Zoji La on the days we crossed Rohtang Pass. These were the same days when there was a terrorist attack in Jammu. When we reached Manali, there was an earthquake in Afghanistan which shook the grounds of Delhi and Srinagar. Heavy unseasonal rains were creating problems all over the country during our final days of the trip. We escaped all these by luck.
The entire trip was an unforgettable experience. When I finally reached home after the sixteen day long trip I knew that I was wiser than when I started. Mid-twenties is probably an age of confusion. When I started the trip, I had foolishly thought that it would help me clear my mind completely. That didn’t happen. Perhaps the learning is that such a clear mind is not possible. Or is it that such a clear mind is not desirable? Is it good to have voices in your head that debates about routine and global issues alike? Is it?
Yes, confusion is good.
(Note : Some names of strangers I met on road are changed as I don’t have permission to use them.)
Of Guitars and Chicken Biriyani
PS: All characters and incidents in this story are purely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any real person or incident is purely coincidental.
I have written this story in first person, but that doesn’t imply that it is about me.
This story is dedicated to you Nirmal, my friend.
This is not a love story. I assure you that it is not another love story that opens with a disclaimer that says it is not a mushy tale of broken hearts. So while you read on, if you get the impression that it is yet another love fable, be sure that you are terribly mistaken.
I was pursuing my third year in B-tech at a medium rated private Engineering college in Kochi, which if you don’t know, is the commercial capital of God’s own country – Kerala. Speaking about my third year, it was during this time that my academic graph began to plunge like an Indian cricket scorecard of the 90’s, after Sachin’s dismissal. But more importantly, that was the time the Tamil movie ‘Varanam Aayiram’ was released.
The Suriya starrer movie had two major effects to the college boys of that time.
a) Many started hitting the gym; six packs were back in fashion.
b) The rest began to learn guitar.
I was of the second category.
It was not like I wanted to be a rock star. But there was this cute girl with curly hair and deep dimples that I was infatuated to. She joined that year in first year CS, thereby distracting my weak mind for the days to come.
Her name was ‘Daisy’ and there was a stupid romantic film song in Malayalam about platonic love that goes like this:
‘Orma than vaasanda nandana thoppil,
Oru pushpam mathram,
oru pushpam mathram…
La la la la laa.. ‘
This translates roughly as :
“In the Eden garden of love, there is only one lovely flower. One flower, that is ‘Daisy’ “.
The fresher’s day was round the corner. Arts club secretary was my friend and he would give me a chance to play this song if I learn to play it without inflicting heavy damage to the music. So the plan was to play the song in guitar for a while, and when the ‘Daisy part’ of the song comes, I would look at her amidst the entire college and sing aloud:
“Daisy… Daisy…. Daisy… la la la la laaa…”.
This way of expressing love to a girl is rather childish, I know now. But at that time, I found it innovative. I was proud at having found a new filmy style of proposing, which was not yet featured in any of the Kolywood, Molywood or Bollywood masalas.
In order to learn to play, I bought a second hand Yamaha guitar from a friend of mine for three thousand bucks.
Three thousand rupees!
That was a lot of money for a college student like me who lived in a humble bachelor room with very humble monetary rations from my father. It was enough money to leave a hole in my wallet.
A very big hole!
Speaking about my wallet, I was standing beside a busy road near my college and was inspecting the contents of my five hundred bucks worth Levis purse. Other than the useless bits of rubbish, there were two ten rupee notes in it, with the Father of the nation smiling at me, in each one of them.
That was a Saturday and I had come out to have my brunch. Since I had only twenty rupees, I didn’t have many options.
I walked into Balan chettan’s ‘thattukada’, (kind of Malayali Dhabha). The ‘Oonu’ (meals) was cheap. Just fifteen rupees. The ever smiling Balan chettan served me his modest offering of unlimited rice, sambar, two varieties of thoran, a pappadam, pickle and some slices of onion dipped in vinegar. I had two rounds of rice and was about to ask for a third round. But then, I had a prick of conscience. How would this simple man get a profit by feeding shameless morons like me, and that too for just fifteen bucks! So I decided against the third round, paid Balan chettan, and headed to my rented room with a five rupee coin in my Levis wallet.
Back at my room, my roommate Sami was still sound asleep. His short skinny body was covered from head to toe in his ‘lungi’ (colourful dhoti) which had the miraculous ability to double up as a blanket whenever it was too cold or while the mosquito bites increased beyond a limit.
‘Wake up, you rascal’– I kicked my lazy roommate’s skinny backbone.
‘Get lost you #@$#’ – The last word was not clear as Sami yelled at me. But I could very well fill up that profanity for myself.
I always wonder how Sami could sleep till late afternoon on any given holiday. This was impossible for me, as my hunger always overwhelmed me. It compelled me to wake up at relatively respectable hours so that I could at least have my brunch.
I looked around my stinking bachelor room. However hard I tried to keep it neat and tidy, Sami would spoil it always. Books and clothes coexisted in that room without any order. I would have told Sami a hundred times to keep the books on the table and the clothes in the shelf. But it was my third year of college with this moron and he had not tried a bit to make any attempts to keep our room clean, and I had given up.
‘I like my room to be dirty’ he used to say, ‘for intellectuals are always untidy’.
But then I saw something that shattered my heart apart. The bastard Sami had left his underwear on my guitar! I took my guitar in my hand and looked at Sami, still sleeping as peacefully as a baby. My instincts were to give one strong blow at his head with my guitar. But the sum of three thousand rupees flashed over my mind. I controlled myself from doing so. After all, my adorable musical instrument had other divine duties to perform.
I took my guitar and gently rubbed off the overnight dust with a soft cloth. I had been practicing with this guitar for over a month now. My friend who sold it to me, had helped me learn to play it. He initially tried to start from the basics. But as I insisted, he agreed to teach me to play this one song ‘Daisy’. For me, learning guitar had only one single objective -to play the song in front of the entire college and sing out my love to Daisy. But as I progressed with my guitar lessons, I had started to develop affection towards my guitar. I adored the curves of my yellow Yamaha beauty more than that of any Hollywood actress.
I began my practice.
‘Orma than vaasanda nandana thoppil…’
It was getting better day by day. I was gaining in confidence.
‘It’s not bad, but I guess you are playing it one note high or two notes low’ – that was Sami’s expert comment about my current status with the song.
I continued my practice and lost track of time. Sometime later in the day, I dozed off.
My gastro enzymes did their amazing job once again. I was awake once again out of hunger. I realized that I had overslept as it was dark outside and the solitary forty watt Philips lamp was spreading yellow light all around my room. I saw Sami busy getting dressed up. He was wearing a T-shirt with a logo against weed.
‘Dude, are you coming to Sangeetha? We will have Biriyani’ – Sami said as he adjusted his thick specs.
The word Biriyani triggered my taste buds. My mouth was filled with saliva. A small paper boat could have sailed easily in my mouth. The people at Sangeetha hotel made real tasty chicken biriyani. The chunks of chicken were boneless and large. The aroma of the traditional masala was melody to the heart of a foodie like me. But I knew I was broke. All I had was a five rupee coin in my wallet.
There are some strange situations in life were your ego takes command over you. Ego is so powerful a devil, that it can override even the toughest challenges from a starved stomach of an accomplished food lover like me.
So, even though my instincts implored me to go with Sami and make him pay the bill, I found myself saying:
‘No man, I am not hungry’ – Sami looked at me in disbelief, for it was the first time he was hearing a ‘no’ from me in a matter associated with food.
‘I even have a stomach pain’ – I tried to reason my rejection.
‘Ok then, carry on with your stupid guitar’ – Sami left without any further word.
A part of me had hoped Sami to compel me for the dinner, but that was not to be expected from this rascal.
I came out of the room and sat down at the door looking at the horizon. The crescent moon seemed to give a ridiculing smile at me.
‘Chettaa.. Chettaa’ (Meaning big brother) – I heard a kid’s voice.
It was Kittu – the four year old boy who lived in the nearby home.
‘Can you open this up for me?’ – He asked, showing a Snickers chocolate bar.
I took the chocolate and noticed the Arabic script written all over the cover. It was obviously foreign, for Kittu’s father was an NRI, who worked in the Gulf. Dubai or Muscat or Abudabi – I am not sure.
‘Open it quickly chettaa’ – Kittu was impatient.
I opened it up and gaped at the chocolate. I had to eat it, it was too small a snack to pacify my hunger, I know, but it was food after all.
May be Kittu sensed my cruel intentions, for he snatched the chocolate from me and ran to his home without even thanking me.
‘These little creatures are so ill-mannered’ I thought.
I went inside and walked around the length and breadth of my room in distress. Many minutes passed by, as I shifted my positions from bed to chair and back to bed. Hunger was taking its toll on me. I cursed myself for telling no to Sami. I looked at my guitar. For the first time I felt a hatred towards it. Three thousand rupees! Why did I buy it? I could have bought fifty Chicken Biriyanis with that money. But then the curly hair and dimpled cheeks of Daisy flashed in front of my eyes.
Love can make people do crazier things. Can’t I do at least this much? – I tried to suppress my hunger with such platonic thoughts. But philosophy has historically been no good medicine for hunger – I realized.
I took my guitar and started playing. ‘Orma than vaasanda nandana thoppil…’ I have heard many stories about music. Music could cause rain, it could unite divided people and all those stuff. But it was not doing any good for me. At least my level of music was not sufficient to satisfy my stomach’s cravings.
I had a glass of water. It was a temporary relief, I should admit. But that was the best I could do. Nobody is going to die if they skip a supper. I lay down in my bed with my face down, spending as little energy as possible.
I hoped to catch some sleep.
It was a bit later that Sami came leisurely into the room, I was still awake and famished.
‘Sleeping early? What about the practice, great guitarist?’ – Sami ridiculed me. But I hesitated to look at him. My eyes were deep immersed in the fan, spinning over my head with a creaking noise.
‘Well if you have some time, you can have it’ – Sami said, keeping a paper packet on my guitar. I was startled and I opened the packet to find the Sangeetha special. Chicken Biriyani it is! The chicken chunks were boneless and spicy as ever. I pounced on the feast like a starving dog.
It was only a while later that I looked at my friend Sami. He was already in his bed with his lungi- blanket on. I could sense my eyes getting filled up out of gratitude. It was one of those twenty – thirty instances in a man’s life where his eyes get filled up out of joy. My friend Sami could be a rascal. A lovable rascal, I realized. However, what I did not realize at that instant was that I was having my Biriyani, keeping the packet over my divine guitar, using it as a table.
The three grand worth guitar was finally of some real use!
– John Jose