Shimla, India. 10th October 2022.
When I left Delhi I rode into complete Sunday chaos. Who knew that there were so many keen shoppers around at that time of day? I didn’t and neither did my GPS or Google maps. I couldn’t manage to get through it all so turned around and went a different way. That descended into chaos as well. Added to that was that the main highway out of town was roadworks hell. It was two and a half hours before I cleared the city.
I was heading for Shimla, one of the jewels in the crown of this part of India, before heading further north. It was too far for one day so I stopped at a hotel. The young lad there said it was Rs1500 for a room. I said it was too much. He came down to Rs1400, I offered Rs1000. We settled on Rs1100. Fine by me. But when an older guy arrived he wasn’t happy with that and wanted Rs1300. We settled on Rs1200. Good enough. Every little helps.
When I got to Shimla I went straight to the station to check out the renowned Shimla to Kalka railway. It’s special for several reasons. Firstly it’s one of India’s five narrow gauge railways, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage site. Secondly its ninety six kilometre length rises 1419 metres, which is quite a climb. Thirdly is the terrain it had to cross, using one hundred and nine tunnels and three hundred and sixty nine bridges to do so. It’s an acknowledged feat of engineering. But why at the end of the 19th century did the British Raj decide it was needed?
Delhi was the capital of the British Raj and since 1864 they had used the hill station at Shimla as their summer capital. Delhi was simply too hot. The moving of the government was effected by use of ox and horse carts, a massive annual undertaking. When the railway line from Delhi reached Kalka in 1891, the opportunity was there to complete the job. It opened in 1905. I would imagine that many people breathed a sigh of relief at that point, probably along with the horses and oxen. I rode up the same road to Shimla as they would have used and I can’t imagine how long it would take to haul the machinery of government up it.
I was able to walk along the line a bit, see the engine sheds and take plenty of photographs. The station is still looks original and it’s clear the staff are proud of it, judging by its excellent condition. My one regret was that I didn’t have time to take a ride along it. Something to save for another time.
But I couldn’t sleep at the station so I went searching for a hotel. The problem with Shimla is that it’s built on the side of a hill. A very steep hill. I tried, and eventually succeeded, in finding one that was in the lower part of the town. Too many of them were up very steep and very narrow roads that I just didn’t fancy getting stuck on. Even so, the manoeuvring that had to be done to get my bike parked safely outside the hotel was still quite a feat. Riding up a very steep path, then rolling backwards and spinning it around. I definitely needed some helping hands to get it located where it needed to be. It reminded of scenes from a silent comedy, what with all the pushing and turning. A relief when it was done without any mishaps. I pushed thoughts of getting it out again to the back of my mind.
Once I was settled in I went for a walk up to Scandal Point, at the top of the town. Two of Shimla’s most important roads, The Ridge and Mall Road, intersect here. It’s pedestrianised and is a favourite place for people to meet, day or night. It’s got statues, shops, viewpoints over the surrounding hills, and a welcoming and friendly ambience.
But what of the name? Bhupinder Singh, the local Maharaja, is supposed to have eloped with the British Viceroy’s daughter in 1892. She fell for his rakish attitude and easy charms after meeting him at what is now Scandal Point. Lord Kitchener, for it was he, could have inflicted heavy punishment on the Maharaja but decided to merely banish him from the town. The Maharaja set up his own summer capital in Chaul, another town about 45kms away. A great story, no? Well no. Not true at all given that the Maharaja was only one year old at the time. Its foundation is probably from the fact that his father had an English wife and that when an adult Bhupinder had several wives and was a womaniser too. It is true that he enraged Lord Kitchener and was banished from Shimla. The truth of the story has been lost over time, but it makes for good tourist entertainment.
I enjoyed walking around, people watching and taking in the atmosphere. Being a tourist destination I was able to get a decent cup of coffee, and then to admire the illuminated buildings as night time rolled in. The walk up the very steep hill had been worth it.
When I woke up next day it was raining in a way that suggested it didn’t mean to stop very soon. I immediately booked in for another night. Last night the chef at the hotel had rung me up and told me to call him when I wanted anything as he spoke good English. I couldn’t get hold of him at breakfast time but another helpful English speaker came up to my room to take my order, then delivered my food. I was quite taken with this degree of concern for the satiation my appetite, especially when he told me the rain would stop by lunchtime. Now I know that the hardened riders among you will say that I should have just got on the bike and got on with it. But it isn’t fun and I wasn’t on a deadline. Instead I took another walk up to Scandal Point, once the rain had stopped around lunchtime, as predicted.
This time I found a quicker route up the hill and enjoyed taking photos of the government buildings up there, mostly dating from the early 20th century. They often have a unique design, reflecting an amalgamation of Indian and British style. It seems as if the architects feel much freer to experiment and express themselves more. The Post Office was in a mock Tudor style and the nicely illuminated building I’d seen the previous evening turned out to be the Town Hall.
It was sunny, albeit chilly, and there were plenty of people around enjoying the views and the sights. It’s quite fascinating to look out across the steep hillsides and see gaily coloured houses rising up the slopes among the trees. And also a little odd to remember that yesterday I was riding up the road past these little boxes, mostly ignoring them.
In the middle of the square was a low podium with a police woman standing on it. She was wearing a smart uniform, but what really stood out was her hat. It had a strange looking cockade on top, looking really out of place. I went over and asked her what she did, to which she replied that she directed traffic. I didn’t bother to point out that the square was pedestrianised and asked her for a photo instead. Equilibrium was restored by apple pie and coffee.
No rain next morning so I paid up and hit the road. Getting the bike down the steep slope, backwards, turned out not to be the drama I thought it might be, although I had a couple of helpers just in case. It was my two foodie friends, who’d been so determined to keep me fed and I gave them both a tip. Something I rarely do but they’d both been so nice to me.
I’d been getting some noises from the chain over the last few days and had checked it over when I arrived. It seemed to be a dodgy split link so I replaced that and adjusted it. It seemed a bit quieter but I’d reached the conclusion that it was getting worn. I think I’d forgotten to properly adjust the chain oiler and was suffering the consequences. Time to replace it, I concluded. I was heading for Manali eventually, further up in the hills and gateway to the high passes. That would be the best place to get it done, along with a service.
Before getting to Manali I planned to take a ride eastwards, out along National Highway 05, which went towards the Chinese border before turning north, then westwards again. The road came back through the Spiti Valley, a place made famous by its natural beauty and a ‘must go’ destination for all the motorcycle tour groups that visit this area. The road would finally climb over a high pass before getting me to Manali.
At one point I came across a couple of touring cyclists, from Germany. Anna and Rio had been on the road for seven months and were heading for Vietnam. We chatted for a while. They’d ridden the route I was heading for but in the reverse order. I asked them about the pass that went from Spiti Valley back to Manali but their journey over it had been several days ago so their information was a bit out of date. I’d heard rumours of snow so was a bit concerned about it being closed.
As I progressed along the road I left behind the rough sections and the water crossings to find myself on an impressively well surfaced section of road. I had to admire the way the road was cut out of the sheer rock face, with the overhang just about allowing the loaded trucks to pass underneath. I mentioned the nearby Chinese border and I’m sure the excellent road and the numerous army bases I rode past were merely coincidental, or maybe not! Regardless, I enjoyed some good riding above the fast flowing river, in the warm sunshine.
But all good things come to an end and what stopped me was a checkpoint where they asked for my permit. The one I didn’t have and without which I would go no further. What was this permit? It was an Inner Line Permit, which was required when travelling in areas that are close to the Chinese border. I remember that we’d needed one when I was up in Ladakh in 2010. Where do I get one from? The nearest place, they told me, was in the village of Pooh, 5kms back along, at the Admin Centre.
Once I’d found the place, and located the helpful official, I hit what seemed like an insurmountable barrier. I couldn’t ride that route on my own. The rules, which he showed me in his instruction manual, said that only groups of two to five riders were allowed on that road. No solo riders. I didn’t know whether this was because of weather risks or security risks. Either way it wasn’t happening. No choice other than to turn round and head back, then take the road to Manali. My plan was to try for a permit somewhere else and ride this loop in the other direction. I came across my German friends and stopped to tell them my bad news. They sympathised, of course.
This map shows the route I wanted to ride, but couldn’t.
I found a hotel that night, where they offered me a room at Rs1950. I reacted with horror, told them I needed something far cheaper, whereupon they offered me a room at Rs950, albeit three floors down. At that price I didn’t mind climbing a few stairs. The episode reminded me of the previous night where I’d gone to the only decent hotel in town and been asked for Rs1200. I offered Rs1100 and he countered with an offer of Rs1000! I accepted at once.
Still retracing my wheel tracks from the previous day, I eventually came to another road that cut across to Manali, the 305. The map showed it as a very wiggly line cutting across the hills. I later learned that it was one of the roads the tour groups use, fitting into that ‘must ride’ category. If I’d known that I might have appreciated the challenge a bit more. Those wiggly lines didn’t lie but it was also very narrow and populated by some determined drivers. “Determined” translates as “mad buggers”. A lot of the time I was happy to follow the car in front and let them act as a trailblazer, while I tagged along behind.
When I stopped for lunch I bumped into another biker, from Mumbai, on a fifteen day tour. He was heading to Spiti Valley, going the way I’d come. I told him about the permit issue but he didn’t seem worried. But he did say the route over the pass from Manali was closed due to snow. Hmmm, not very encouraging. He thought he’d get a permit at a bigger town anyway, so carried on. I wonder if he made it?
At the end of this mountain road, and after going through a tunnel, I came out onto a dual carriageway that took me into Manali. The first thing I did was to locate the bike shop for my servicing, then to find a hotel. It was a bit of a dump but the price was right.
Manali is at quite a high altitude, so nights were cold. After a couple of days, while wandering around the shops, I bought a hat, as worn by the locals. And I’m not sure I actually took it off again as it kept my head nice and warm, especially at night.
But I digress. I took the bike to the shop to get it serviced and fitted with a nice new chain and sprocket set. It didn’t half feel better after that! This shop had about twenty Royal Enfield Himalayans parked inside. I asked if they were for rental use but he said no, they’re used by organised tour groups that go up to Ladahk. It’s obviously big business up there.
I spent a couple of days in Manali, not really doing much. I was there over a weekend and it really surprised me how busy the central mall area is. It’s pedestrianised and is crowded with youngsters in the afternoon and evening. It’s good to see and gives the town a real buzz. I wondered if there was something special going on that weekend but it seemed not.
I’d done some internet research about the Inner Line Permit which suggested that if I went north out of Manali, a route I had to take anyway, then up to the town of Keylong, I could get one there. The idea was that it would save me taking a chance on getting one on the way through Spiti Valley itself.
The road took me through the new Atal Tunnel, which replaces the old road over the dreaded Rhotang Pass. It was a road that went all the way up to the Ladakh area and the government were keen to open the area up by making access easier. Rhotang La was a real challenge for most vehicles, although I’d enjoyed going over it two years earlier. Of course, it also made it much easier for army vehicles to get there as well and I’m pretty sure that was the main reason for building the tunnel. There’s a lot of friction between India and China up that way. It’s a terrific feat of engineering. It’s nine kilometres long, almost straight and, best of all, entirely free.
At Keylong they told me they couldn’t issue a permit there but a guy I spoke to said I wouldn’t have a problem getting one in Spiti Valley, even as a lone rider. He also gave me contact names and phone numbers. He thought the pass into the valley would be open now. Encouraged, I backtracked a short way then took the road east. I stopped for the night in a town close to the road over the pass, fighting a blizzard of sleet for the last 5kms. This didn’t bode well.
This town had no petrol station. Where was the nearest one? Back in Keylong. I’d failed to plan ahead and wouldn’t have enough fuel to get through. Fortunately any town like this will have places that sell “black” petrol; a reference to litre drink bottles filled with this essential liquid. The café next to the hotel had some so I bought five litres, at 50% more than normal price. That’ll teach me to be more organised!
After another cold night I set off for Spiti Valley, wondering how the road might be. Once through the police checkpoint I headed up the hill. I saw some guys on bikes out for a ride and the hillsides did look nice, with their dusting of snow. But when I came to the turning onto the road over the pass what I saw was slippery, slimy mud. I got off the bike and looked further down the road. More mud. Time to accept what the road was telling me: give it up Geoff. A couple of people had said that I’d probably left it a bit late in the year anyway, and they were right. Events were clearly conspiring against me and the thought of picking my heavy bike up out of the mud, on my own, didn’t inspire me much. I was happy to apply that old maxim, about discretion being the better part of valour, and leave it for another day. These roads should be clear by late spring. When I leave India for Pakistan next year I’ll have to come back to the north of India anyway. So I’ll do it then.
Decision made, I turned south, back towards Manali but riding straight through. I regretted not being able to fulfil my plans but that’s the way it goes. I didn’t mind another ride through the tunnel, neither did I mind coming down hill, with the temperature gradually rising. I had the option of riding over the mountain pass and back onto NH05 going east, then trying for a permit again. But I didn’t see the point in doing half the job. The plan for after Spiti Valley had always been to go to Nepal. I’d just get there a few days earlier. I finished my coffee, set the autopilot (Google Maps) for the Nepal border and got going.
About two day’s riding to get there, should go smoothly, with nothing much to report? No. Definitely not. I was still up in the hills which usually means bad roads. An asphalt surface but one one that gets pushed out of shape by the wheels the trucks. So it’s like riding on a dirt track full of ruts, but without the dirt. Like all good things, all bad things come to an end too, and it eventually smoothed out.
As I was going through a village a guy on another Himalayan came past like he was on a race track. But two or three kilometres down the road I saw him stopped at the side of the road. I turned round and went back to see what I could do. He explained that the charging system on his bike had failed and his battery had gone flat, despite being a replacement for the original. Sahil lived in the city of Chandigargh, about 70kms further on. No chance of getting there. I carry jump leads so I linked the two batteries together and used my engine to charge his battery for about half an hour.
He’s a civil engineer, employed by the state, with responsibility for roads. I couldn’t help but point out that he had some work to do about 10 kms back up the road. He grinned weakly. His wife works in immigration. Any help needed, he said, just ring me up. That’s a useful contact to keep in my back pocket, especially given the hassle I’d had in the past.
He thanked me profusely for my help. I told him I was delighted to be able to give something back after all the help I’d had from Indian bikers. He pushed on and I stayed behind him. About fifteen minutes later I saw him stopped again. More charging up. He’d been told by a local there was a bike shop about 10kms further on, so he set off. It turned out that the shop was only 5kms and it was a Royal Enfield dealer. He treated me to chai and biscuits while they checked the bike. The fault was a failed voltage regulator, they had one in stock, so he was now sorted out. I got going again.
Next morning I set off, on a much nicer road, with hopes of reaching the border. No reason not to really. The road went across country, more or less straight, passing through various villages along the way. Very few trucks to be seen, just plenty of farm vehicles. Pony and carts; tractors and trailers; bullock cart;, bicycles. Most of them were laden with farm produce. No surprise in this rural area. But eventually that changed and those coming toward me were laden with sand. Those I was overtaking were empty. There was something going on here.
When I came to a bridge across a river all was revealed. There were dozens of people down on the sandy river banks, carrying bowls filled with sand up to the road and loading it into what ever vehicle there was to accept it. As I carried on, after stopping for photos, I was now passing the laden vehicles, hoping to find out where they were all going to. But I couldn’t. They turned off down the side roads, clearly going to different destinations. Sometimes I’d see a load dumped by the side of the road, sometimes in a field. The only conclusion I could reach was that the sand was used by the farmers on their fields, for reasons unknown to me. To treat the soil in some way probably, but I couldn’t work out how or why. Alternatively there was a lot of building work going on, possibly repair of walls or of concrete water channels in the rice paddies.
After a while I found myself on a smaller country road and it was here my ambitions to reach the border that day were deflated. My rear tyre went completely flat. A large screw had gone through the tyre. A couple of local guys on a bike stopped to help me get my bike on the stand and I tried to pump the tyre up, hoping to limp to a nearby town. No joy. The hole was too big. They got on the phone and before too long a couple more guys came along, one with a large tyre pump. Not really needed as I had an electric one. I had the wheel out by then and these guys took over the task of getting the tube out. I actually had a spare tube but it was no good so we had to repair the original. It didn’t take too long in the end and I was able to get to the town. I gave the guys who’d helped me some money, of course.
I couldn’t see a tyre repair shop in the that town so instead I went elsewhere and got the patched up tube replaced. Then I found an Enfield dealer in another town and bought a spare tube. With that safely put away I carried on to a hotel I’d located in yet another town further on. But this town had a level crossing in the middle of it and I was held up there for twenty minutes. An unbelievable length of time. Can you imagine how traffic builds up in that time? I sat and watched while people on bicycles and small motorbikes wangled their way under the barriers, along with the pedestrians. Very dangerous but I couldn’t blame them. An engineering train went across, then, five minutes later, came back again, but on a different track. Eventually a passenger train went across, then we were free to go. Chaos ensued while the backed up traffic fought its way through but eventually I made it to the hotel.
As I was leaving next morning, with real hopes of getting to the border, the owner of the hotel came over to talk to me. He’d decided, probably because he thought I was Irish (I use my Irish passport), that I needed to hear all about the Catholic boarding school he went to to and how he believed it would be a great place for me to visit. No thanks! I was trying to do a small job on the bike before I left and eventually he shut up and wandered off. I set off, and by lunchtime actually made it to the border.
So of course, dear friends, I will tell that tale in the next post.