Up On High

Manalai, Himachal Pradesh. 30th September 2020

The ride to Manali was another good one. This hilly area is very pleasant for biking. When I got there I went up to the old part of town, looking for the place that had been recommended to me. But as I rode further up the steep road fewer and fewer shops were open and the the streets looked ever more deserted. I didn’t fancy this at all so I went back down to the main town. After a fair bit of wandering around I found a hotel that had wi-fi and wasn’t too expensive. It was a big place and had a decent restaurant. I was now getting 4G on my phone but it was a bit hit and miss, so that wi-fi was essential.

Once settled in I went out for a walk. Manali was the town where, ten years ago, I started my trip up into Ladakh. It was were we collected the bikes and set off for the mountains. The hotel was at the top of a now pedestrianised street called The Mall. Just off it was a market place and, despite the changes to it over the years, I recognised it from last time. I recalled walking round it with a guy named Bill and we became good friends on that trip. I was saddened by the memories because he died in a car accident only a few months ago.

The market is calm and well set out, compared to most. Bill’s ghost wanders around.

Manali is a gateway town to the Himalayas and many of its interesting areas. At that point in time they weren’t all open but, crucially, the road to Leh was. Leh is the main town in the Ladakh area and from there it’s possible to get to some very interesting places, which I’d visited ten years before. There were plenty of businesses offering tours, adventures and sightseeing up in the mountains. Most of them were closed. I felt really sorry for these people. The area only has a six month window, between snow melt and the next snowfall. Covid had eaten it up. I wish them better for next year.

I was in Manali almost a week, mostly resting and generally trying to feel a bit better before heading up. Manali is only at 1,800 metres, so my congested chest was nothing to do with the height. I was obviously run down for some reason, confirmed by the fact that several mouth ulcers flared up. A sure sign of being under the weather. Fortunately Manali is a pleasant town to spend time in. There’s some good places to eat, including some that sold western dishes. One of these was the hotel restaurant, which meant I could get tasty food without even taking my slippers off. But I had a few things to organise before leaving too.

Access to the hotel menu involved scanning this QR code to show it on your phone. Very modern.

There’s a pass that needs to be ridden over, en route to Leh, called Rohtang La. I had to apply for a permit to do that. The hotel staff showed me where to get it from and copied the documents I needed. This included an emissions test certificate, for the bike, which I had obtained on the way there. The authorities are very concerned about the effect of pollution on the environment, to the extent that vehicles older than ten years are banned. I’d read that the pass was free for motorcycles so was a bit miffed to be charged Rs300. But it’s not much, so no real complaint. They’ve just finished building a tunnel to replace the pass, about nine kilometres long, but it wasn’t quite open yet. A shame because I would have liked to have tried it.

I’d been getting emails from Mustafa, from SECO, the shipping agent, asking about payment. I assured him it was on the way. As a foreigner any financial dealings with businesses in India are difficult. I’d used the SWIFT international payment system, which had been problematic because the Indian government demanded the answers to five extra questions. It had taken me several attempts, and some conversations with the bank, before I managed to send it through. I assured Mustafa it was on the way. I know he had a particular sailing date in mind and also that it was imminent. All I could do was to hope the money got to him.

Manali is a Buddhist town, as this building suggests.

Meanwhile I had a self inflicted disaster. My laptop screen had been flickering, at a regular rate of once every three seconds, for a couple of weeks. I’d contacted a knowledgeable friend who said it was most likely that the connector was a bit loose. Looking at the video he sent me, removing the screen to fix it looked straightforward. Once the bezel is removed the screen is held on by double sided tape. All I had to do was to separate the screen. You all know what’s coming next, don’t you? Of course, in the process of pulling the screen away from the very sticky tape at the back, I broke it! This was a real blow and I felt so stupid. Lots of time to kill and no laptop. Repair would be impossible until I got to a big city. There’s little that’s more annoying than your own avoidable failures.

Something I wanted to do, but couldn’t, was to visit the Himalayan Buddhist Cutltural School, which is near Manali. I sponsor the education of a young lad there and I really wanted to call in and see what it was all about. I’d been given the address but I couldn’t find it, even with the help of Google. Covid was restricting attendance, meaning my lad may not even have been there. I’d emailed the head teacher about a visit but had not had a reply. This was a real shame but I’m confident I’ll be able to get back there sometime.

I’m guessing these are parents protesting at having to pay school fees to closed schools.

The day before I left the town I went for a Covid test. In Pathankot I’d simply gone to the Civil Hospital and I did the same here. I had to ring up a doctor, send him my details then go to the hospital. They booked me in then told me to walk across the road where a small van was parked. A guy in a Covid spacesuit shoved a stick up my nose, twirled it around then handed it to the guy in the van, which was clearly a mobile lab. Ten minutes later I was given my negative test result. All for free once more. More than anything else I was amused and impressed by the careful handling techniques this process involved. In the morning I felt much better, and well rested, so I rode off in the sunshine and headed for Rohtang La.

Not exactly touchy feely. But safe, at least.

The road out of Manali was very good, having been recently upgraded to serve the new tunnel. The road up to the pass was its old self; steep, twisty, rough in places but manageable. I got stopped at a checkpoint where they looked at my pass. A mini disaster happened here. As I pulled away, over the stony ground, my front wheel got baulked by a stone while I was going very slowly and on full lock. What happened next? Why, I fell off of course! You really didn’t need to be told that. The problem was that I broke my left hand mirror. Nothing could be done. I was on an Indian bike, in India. Who needs mirrors?

At the top of Rohtang La.

I stopped for photos at the top, then carried on. The road was generally good, mostly new but with the usual share of stony sections. The bike coped well, the rider was mostly OK. New bridges were being built in some places and they always seemed to have really rough sections down to the old bridge. This was especially the case as I approached the one near my planned overnight stop of Sarchu. The road down to it was more like a stream bed, because of the water that poured off the steep slope alongside. The flow had washed away the small rocks and stones, leaving big rocks and big gaps. My front wheel dropped in to one and over I went. A truck coming towards me stopped and waited. After a short while he worked out that he wasn’t going to get anywhere on the single track road until he came to help me. I carried on into the town, looking for a bed.

Sarchu is very much a seasonal town. At a height of 4,300 metres, it’s a six month place. Most of the buildings are of corrugated iron, but in good times there’d be rows of tents ready to accommodate the tour groups that pass through. Not this time. Covid had seen to that. No tourists, no tents and no room at the inn. I bumped into a group of guys who turned out to be soldiers from the army camp I’d passed on the way in. They spoke to the village headman for me but everything was closed. Fortunately they  reckoned I’d be able to stay at their camp. Unfortunately it was back across the bridge and up the “Road Also Known as Stream”. They got stuck going up it in their 4×4, so I wasn’t too surprised to fall over again. Another trucker helped me up and I made it to the camp.

Tin Town. Devastated by Covid.

They put me in a room for visitors, which had eight bunks and a very effective paraffin stove. It warmed the room up nicely. The food they brought me warmed me up nicely. The Major came to talk to me and he brought rum. That finished the warming up job properly. We had a good chat. When the snow comes it seems they decamp to Leh and wait the winter out. They’re in the area because of problems with the Chinese, who are trying to nibble away at India’s territory at various sections of the border. It’s been an ongoing problem for over sixty years, and led to a minor war in the 1960s. There have been clashes between troops recently, but fortunately with fists and sticks rather than guns. He was heading to Leh in the morning on his Enfield Bullet, at 8am. Given that the night time temperature was reckoned to be about -10 degrees C, I told him I would not be joining him. I’m not a brave soldier.

Army Major, fellow biker. But braver than me.

It was a cold night because they turned the heater off for safety. So I was very glad when an orderly came in to turn it on, and later brought me breakfast. It was reasonably warm when I set off. This time I managed to defeat my watery nemesis, with the help of a pusher. I hadn’t felt good when I woke up and I knew that part of it was nerves relating to that section of road. It’s strange really because I normally enjoy those challenges.

India’s claims reach the heights.

I’d dressed up warmly which, given that I went up over several high passes, was a wise decision. Tanglang La is claimed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world, at about 5,280 metres. India loves to make these claims about its high passes but it’s often a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t care. Some of the road was quite bad but the view was always stupendous and the terrain, mostly of bare rock and scree-covered high slopes, looked raw and unchallengeable. It was a great place to be on a clear day, with deep blue skies above, often occupied by birds of prey, riding the thermals as they hunted. Ten years before the group had stopped somewhere for a break and I’d seen fossilised shellfish on the surface of the vertical rockface, next to the road. Proof positive that these mountains used to be seabed. I was on the look out for more of them, but had no luck.

Not a bad backdrop for a bike photo, eh.

The effects of erosion can be quite magical.

Coming down from that pass, the road became a beautiful stretch of newly laid asphalt, winding through the valley between those beautiful bare hills. There was a good breeze blowing but it didn’t matter. I was on a high plateau, pretty much bare of vegetation. I passed what I thought were some ancient cliff dwellings but closer examination revealed they were the results of erosion, where wind and water had scoured out the rock and stone. That was a ride I enjoyed very much. The Himalayan lapped it up, cruising along at a comfortable speed and seeming to enjoy the bends as much as I did. Lower down I found chai and a checkpoint. They were happy with my Manali certificate, I was pleased to find.

Too spectacular not to share.

Eventually I came into Leh, having ridden past some places that were familiar from ten years ago, when I was here with Blazing Trails Tours. But the city wasn’t. I was trying to find the Tibetan Market, which I knew to have been at the top of the town’s steep main street. But I couldn’t, and Leh seemed to have far more streets than I remembered, most of them steep. As with Kashmir, the security situation meant very little phone connectivity so my search for a hotel became difficult. Most of them were closed for Covid. It was dark by the time I found one, and it wasn’t cheap either.

I settled into my room but before long reception asked to see me. They’d happily accepted my Covid test when I arrived but were now saying that because it was only a rapid anti-gen test, I would need to quarantine for seven days. The authorities in Ladakh prefer the more accurate PCR test. But even with one of those I’d have to quarantine for five days. When I expressed some, shall we say, discontent, he said that inspectors come round to check on people. I’d filled out a form when I arrived which was shared with the authorities, so they knew I was there. I asked when the inspector would visit, thinking to talk to them, and he said they come unannounced. I smelt a rat, a hotelier’s con trick. The clincher was when he offered me a “good rate for the seven days stay”. I told him I’d let him know.

While I ate I reviewed my options. I’d been quite breathless at times, and not just due to the height. I didn’t fancy walking up and down those hills while exploring the town and some of the nearby places I wanted to revisit were closed off for security reasons. The ride here had been good in parts but I hadn’t enjoyed it the way I expected to. Imran was right, I shouldn’t have bothered coming back. Therefore my decision was to leave the next day and continue round in a loop back to Srinagar.

Not far out of Leh. The magnetic effect is supposed to make your vehicle go uphill, against gravity. But it didn’t work on my bike.

In the morning I discovered that my payment to Mustafa, the shipping agent, hadn’t gone through. The feedback was that the account didn’t exist, meaning I’d filled out the form incorrectly. With no laptop, doing it again would be impossible. I decided to try another method. I was heading to Srinagar and I would draw out the cash, give it to Imran and ask him to pay Mustafa from his bank account, so avoiding the palaver of international transfers. I messaged him to let him know I was coming back and that I needed his help. The hotel then charged me what I felt was a lot of money for the uninspiring and ordinary food I’d eaten. And to cap it all, I later realised I’d left my phone charger behind. I was glad to be heading out of town.

If you want to read about my trip around Ladakh from ten years ago,  this is the link to the report.

The previous evening I’d stopped for fuel and had forgotten to put my gloves back on. They were now lost. I felt really guilty about it because they were the very nice ones that Yatin had given me. I rode around to various bike shops but the only place that had any gloves only had small ones. I took the opportunity to get my chain cleaned and lubed though. Fortunately it was warm enough not to need gloves, although I’m unhappy about riding without them, especially given my occasional close love affair with mother earth.

Small and pretty stupas, alongside the road.

It was a very nice road to my next overnight stop, in Kargil. More of that bare, brown, tree free terrain. A 4,200 metre pass to go over, meaning I was very glad of the heated handlebar grips on my bike. I’d used them several times since leaving Manali. I passed lots of stupas, and small shrines with prayer wheels in them. The people around here were of Tibetan origin, hence all the Buddhist buildings. A stop for chai and cake, then I pushed on into Kargil. I wanted to start drawing out the cash I knew I’d need, but none of the three ATMs in town worked. But I did find a hotel, so that was something.

I slept like a log and enjoyed a good breakfast, finally leaving at about 10.30. It was not much more than 200 kilometres to Srinagar so I took it nice and easy. The road went over a pass at about 3,500 metres, the highest it got. There was only one rough section but it was a long one of about 30 kilometres. The road had been laid using concrete pavers, and I’m guessing these were preferred for their ability to with survive the cold. The problem is that the trucks break them up and the road soon becomes the stony hell I’d come to know and hate. I kept stopping to let trucks through as I was in no hurry. Towards the end of this section they were re-laying the road. Not before time!

Sometimes the views were just stunning.

These small cafés are a godsend for the traveller.

I came down into a beautiful valley. My first task was to find chai and food. I stopped at a typical wayside café, where the owner, despite the remoteness, spoke very good English.  Possibly because this attractive place was a tourist centre. These Himalayan foothills offer rushing, stony bedded rivers, gentle slopes and trees. Yes, trees at last, after nothing but bare rock. Mostly pine but interspersed with larch, which is tall and straight, with lovely light green foliage. A very nice tree. There were pony trekking centres and river activity centres too. I imagine this place would be popular with city folk, who could hop a flight to Srinagar and then get transported to here, all within a day. I rode through, hoping the Covid ravaged tourist industry would be able to make a bit of money before the snow arrived.

On the way into Srinagar I passed four or five herds of goats, being driven along the dual carriageway by hill tribe people. I got to the hotel I’d stayed at previously and was greeted like a long lost relative by the guys there. Same room, same price. I was happy to have arrived.

Herds of goats and the hill tribe people. (Sorry about the quality.)

Imran has a motorcycle spares shop. He rides a Royal Enfield but, to my surprise, isn’t bothered to stock parts for them. He focusses on the small, everyman bikes ridden by the general populace. I wanted to buy some gloves from him but he didn’t stock such fripperies. Pistons and gearbox parts were more his line, and he tended to be quite busy. But not so busy that he couldn’t help me. But fortunately Imran had a spare pair of gloves, of the type I needed. He said he never used them and gave them to me. They’re excellent and were just what I needed. A typically generous gesture from this lovely man.

I explained the problem and he was happy to help me by paying Mustafa from his bank account, on my behalf. I had hoped that the act of buying something from him, and paying by debit card, would have enabled me to put the money for the shipping directly into his bank account by overpaying him. But his shop was a card free zone, so no go on that idea. Instead I was going to have to draw out the cash from ATMs. It was here that India’s over cautious approach to dealing with foreign bank cards threw a spanner in the works.

I have two cards that enable me to draw money out of foreign ATMs, fee free. I planned to use them in several ATMs, over a couple of days, to get the cash. I knew I could only draw out a maximum of Rs10,000, and I needed Rs96,000. Ten transactions in all. But computer it said NO. I discovered that I can only use a card one time on any one day, regardless of trying different ATMs. On an esoteric level I regard this as very clever. The Indian central banking system is well organised. Up there in Srinagar I saw it as a right, royal pain in the backside. Limited to a maximum of Rs20,000 per day I settled in to wait it out. Imran rang Mustafa for me. I’d had no internet for a few days and the poor man must have been wondering what was happening about his money. As well as apologising on my behalf, he explained our payment plan, with which Mustafa was happy. We agreed to pay him Rs60,000 on Monday (today was Saturday), and the rest on Wednesday.

Enjoying the dog days of summer.

I now had time to kill. I bought some detergent and washed my riding gear, shedding an estimated 5kgs of weight in the process. The bike got washed too. I spoke to my family about coming home for Christmas and the decision was to not bother. The family get together wasn’t happening this year and everyone else I knew had plans, which meant they wouldn’t be around. Even if I could actually get a flight back to the UK, I was faced with being Billy No Mates anyway. I’d find somewhere nice to stay in India and have a self indulgent break somewhere.

On the Monday I went to see Imran at his shop, clutching a big bundle of banknotes. He despatched one of his guys to the bank, who got the deed done. Then Imran rang Mustafa to let him know. After that I went for a walk along by the river, where I found some nice buildings and a park alongside the bank. I had a look around a very nice, newly built mosque, with quite a unique style. I chatted to an old guy there, who’d studied in London as a tailor. A bakery café provided me with coffee and cake. Such are the ways of pleasantly passing time when you have no laptop on which to work.

Stylish outside.

Beautiful inside.

You will have picked up from when I was last in Srinager that Imran refused to accept any offers of payment for the meals we ate together. He would always simply say that it was his duty and his pleasure. But I wanted to find a way of thanking him for all his kindness. I knew he wouldn’t accept a gift from me but I also knew he had a daughter. I hatched a plan, which was to buy something for her, feeling sure he’d not be able to refuse it.

Street side markets are always full of colour.

While riding around the city I’d seen a very interesting market area which I thought might be a good source of toys or something. I walked over there and looked on all the stalls, but couldn’t find anything. But I enjoyed the market anyway. Plenty of clothing stalls, but also delightful looking produce for sale. Not just fruit and veg, but nuts and spices, piled into colourful pyramids.

How do you sell this without spoiling the lovely pyramid

Google maps identified some toy shops, not too far away. But after a fair bit of wandering around I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Then I came to a mall, which specialised in children’s clothes. The obvious answer! I rang up Imran and asked him his daughter’s age and size. To my surprise he didn’t ask why I wanted to know. I found a couple of jumpers I hoped she’d like. On the way back to the hotel I passed another area full of stalls and got a couple of cheap jewellery items. I reckoned that would do.

It all happens in these busy places.

I also walked through a busy market area, mostly with small shops. Here I was delighted by the colour and the goings on. The colourful sarees of the women, the colourful shops that sold them. The colourful characters selling things from stalls. The place was crowded and fascinating. All human life was there. I loved it.

Yet more carrying skill from a hill tribe woman.

By the next day I’d drawn out enough money to pay the balance so I went to Imran’s shop to sort it out. Once it had been done I was left with Rs200 in change. I tried to give it to him to go in the staff tea fund, saying they could get some cake or biscuits. No dice. Absolutely no way would he accept it. So what on earth would his reaction be when I gave him the gifts for his daughter? In fear and trepidation (just joking there) I handed it to him and explained what they were. He knew I’d got him! He said that was cheating. I said that’s exactly why I did it. He had to concede and accept. We said our goodbyes. I was truly grateful for all his help. Later on he sent me a short video of his daughter thanking me for the gift. She’d had to learn the English specially. Her name is Shuub, with translates as Grace. I wonder if she’ll grow up to be a motorcycle adventurer, like the other Grace I know, from Australia?

I was away at a chilly 8am. For reasons I don’t quite understand now, I decided to follow the main road to Jammu instead of looping round, as before. I think I had it in my mind from last time that the traffic coming south seemed to have had an easier passage. I was fooling myself. But the bigger problems on this ride were more immediate, and they wore camouflage. The CPRF were everywhere and they were controlling all the junctions. Something was afoot, but I don’t know what, of course. Even the dual carriageway was constantly blocked. Once on the single lane road, and heading up into the hills, things became even worse. At one point traffic was stopped for half an hour. Higher up the military left and the bad road arrived. How could I have been so stupid as to have forgotten what this road was really like? There were constant hold ups, mixed in with dirt, stones water and truck fumes. The only respite was a lunch stop – coincidentally at the same village as on the way up – and the two tunnels. But in the way that all good things must come to an end, so do all bad things. That night’s hotel wasn’t cheap, nor was it in Jammu, but it was comfortable.

I’ve only ever seen these in Chandigarh.

I travelled on to Chandigarh but simply found a hotel, ate, slept then headed to Delhi. If you’re reading this Manush, I apologise for not contacting you. Once again I saw some of the strange vehicles shown in the photo above. They’re made by Bajaj-Tempo and originated in Germany in the 1950s. Commonly known as a Soowar, or Pig. No need to ask why. Smoky, two stroke engines and chain drive. Very much suited to India.

Once in Delhi I found a hotel rather than a hostel and focussed on getting my laptop repaired. Then, over the next few days, I sorted out all the things that were on my list. Getting the laptop screen replaced was easy. A friend of Imran’s, named Nikunj, had told me where to go. It was one of those typical Asian areas where there were endless shops all selling similar goods; electronics in this case. The repairer really struggled to get the old screen off. The double sided sticky tape was super sticky and I know I’d never have got it off damage free. That made me feel a bit better. I bought a new phone charger that came with a lead, then was really annoyed to find that the charging lead didn’t transfer data, so I had to buy one that did. My comment here is that a data lead will also charge the phone so why the hell supply one that only charges??

Nikunj invited me to join him at a friend’s house for a social evening. There were ten of us in the end, so physical distancing was a bit difficult. Three of the people I met were notable. Our host, Pashto, had ridden all round India, which is less common than you might think. He’d been up to Leh a couple of times and also down to Goa. Another guy, when he was much younger, had walked from Delhi to Leh, twice. It’s almost 1,000 kilometres and he did it in the late 1980s, when roads would have been little more than tracks. Amazing. The third guy was India’s trap shooting champion and would be going to the Tokyo Olympics. He and his girlfriend had Bengalese family so I showed them my Bangladesh photos. A very enjoyable evening all round.

It’s such a shame that signs like this are still relevant here.

I met up with Abhi again and roped him in to help me order a replacement mirror, making use of his bank account. Jay would have done it but he didn’t have the time. It would be delivered to Jay’s house. I also needed a new phone holder and replacement handguards. One had got broken when I dropped the bike. To this end I went to Karol Bagh market, in Old Delhi. This is a big area filled with suppliers of car and bike parts. It’s like being in the middle of a whirlwind of commerce, with bundles of goods on the back of carts and pick-ups, people rushing about, streets crowded with cars and bikes. I managed to find both items after a bit of walking around, so was happy with that. The prices were good too.

I spent the next day with the almost novel experience of having a laptop. You can only do so many things via your phone, and it’s just not the same as having the proper gear. But during the day I got a shock. My CCM had arrived in Tilbury! I wasn’t even aware it had been shipped. Given that I’d only paid Mustafa a week ago, this was amazing news. I knew he had a particular sailing in mind, which I seem to recall was the 18th September. It’s reckoned to be a thirty day sailing time, but had taken about less than four weeks. And also it was supposed to go to Felixstowe. It seemed the world had turned upside down. That’s service that goes above and beyond, so if you ever need to ship anything out of India, then contact Mustafa of SECO Shipping, in Mumbai.

It’s good to have ambition.

A fellow CCM owner, John, lives near Felixstowe and had already agreed to collect the bike for me, and to deal with paying the UK agent and getting the Carnet stamped by customs. Top man that he is, he offered to go and get it for me from Tilbury, then deliver it to my house just across the River Thames, in Dartford. I most definitely wasn’t going to say no to that. I liaised with my son and they sorted it out between them. John even posted my carnet off to Germany for me. When I’d been feeling a bit run down in Manali, I think that the worries about the shipping was probably one of the reasons. So knowing everything was now sorted out was a real lift. Thanks John, you’re clearly something of a magician.

All I needed to do now was to suffer the soulless ride from Delhi to Lucknow, which was just as much of a drag going back as it had been coming up. A long day, but when I got back to Poshtel I was warmly welcomed by Jay, Prince  and all the others. I’d stopped to buy beer on the way, so I had a nice, relaxing evening, feeling like I’d arrived back home after a long journey.

More to come soon.

The photos below are of signs put up by the Border Roads Organisation. The BRO are responsible for building and maintaining roads in the far flung corners of India, near to the Pakistan, China and Nepal borders. With these quirky signs they hope to reduce the dreadful accident rate.

The BRO slogan.

Wise words.

Good advice.

More good advice.

Probably very true.

Most of this area is Buddhist, hence the reference to Lama. But Gama? He was an Indian wrestler famed for his aggression.


6 thoughts on “Up On High

  1. Bob Hines says:

    Hi Geoff,finally got around to reading about yet another incident packed adventure. Not good news if you’re thinking of coming home,10 days in a hotel @ £1500 (no haggling here). A really great read and great photos.


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