Part II of 11 short stories on the journey to Spiti valley
It appeared like the worst was over. We had done whirlwind riding on first day, and had barely made it to Swarghat. It was 6 AM and razor sharp golden rays of morning sun were streaming into the room from the cracks between heavy dark brown curtains. On one hand my heart was beating like a sledge hammer wanting to be on the road again. On the other hand I was feeling lazy. “Spiti was far but who cared”, I thought as I lay in the warm bed with eyes half closed.
I stepped out barefoot in pyjamas into the balcony, and had to squint my eyes and cover them with my palm. The smoke and chaos of Delhi was now far behind. Nikita was sitting below on the edge of a stone wall beyond which was a deep valley of terrace farms. She sat still, buried in a large green jacket, ear muffs and gloves, soaking in the morning sun and cold mountain air. Apparently, mumbaikars have little tolerance for winter. She was looking far away as if penning down a story in her mind and whispering it to herself. Story around a pretty but abandoned hut that was in the valley below, the narrow stream of water that was flowing near it, and few goats that were fooling around.
“Were you not tired after yesterday?”, I tapped on her shoulder and asked.
She took a deep breath as if she hadn’t done it for a while. “I was, but I didn’t want to miss the sunrise”, she replied while still gazing towards infinity.
Manali was only 215 km away, and I was sure that we could reach there easily even if we didn’t rush. We loaded the dusty bags on our black horse on wheels, and yet again, tied them with a mesh of rope. If only we had two cowboy hats, leather jackets, skinny pants, cigar to chew on, percussion revolvers and a real horse. I swear I could have even galloped away to Mexico.
A family of husband and wife with graying hair, and two grown up teenage children was getting ready to leave in their car. The father couldn’t resist asking us about our journey. Apparently he had similar dreams to go on long distance motorbiking but hadn’t done it yet. Too many of us get trapped in the mundane daily chores, and slowly our dreams fade away only to be revived occasionally before getting lost again. I strongly believe that one cannot avoid the mundane daily life, but if the desire to fulfill what you want is strong enough, you do make it happen eventually. That doesn’t mean that guy didn’t have a great life. Too many times I have considered those people who do not travel as I do as inferior, but not any more. Even though one of his dreams was still unfulfilled, he seemed to be genuinely happy with his life and his family. Before moving on, we didn’t ask for his name and he didn’t ask ours.
We wanted to reach Kaza from Delhi in two days. But soon realised how unrealistic our plan was, and thus sobered up. Huge pine trees beautifully shaded the roads to Manali on which we rode, whistling and often making faces at others. We often stopping at roadside shacks. Fortunately, the tea brewers here were better. One of them had even sourced milk from the buffaloes of his village. The hissing sound of tea swelling up in the pan over the stove, and the fragrance of pine and burning wood from a village nearby was intoxicating. Our muscles were wound up like a pretzel by riding so long on first day. The steaming cardamom and ginger tea with the sight of a blue lake in the valley below helped us unwind. There was a little nip in the air. While Nikita was already bundled up in her jacket, I had shed off mine to feel the cold wind brush my skin. It seemed like she would take longer to get used to the Himalayas.
We crossed Bilaspur. It was a small town having few beautiful traditional mud houses with thatched roof, white paint and blue windows, and some ugly modern concrete ones. We started feeling hungry sooner than we thought, and picked up the fragrance of rice, dal and chicken much before reaching the restaurant outside Mandi. I parked my black horse in front of the restaurant but didn’t want to unload the bags. We took a table from which one of us had a clear sight of the bags. But even if someone had stolen our bags, he would have found more food than anything else in them.
A heavyset man whose face was shining like a peeled boiled egg was sitting on a table next to us having lunch. He was wearing a khaki jacket and rubber boots, and had a proud mustache. He had a small backpack, helmet, gloves and knee guards on the table next to him. It is often not difficult to identify people who ride an Enfield. “Which bike are you guys riding?”, he asked us in his overtly cheerful voice. Having seen us, he was already bobbing up and down in his chair. He was amused when we told him that we were two people riding on a single Pulsar 180 cc with two saddle bags all the way to Spiti. “You are brave”, he said, and got busy with his meal.
We moved on at a leisurely pace confident about reaching Manali in broad daylight, and even planned to stroll around the pretty old town. “Hey, there is a waterfall up ahead. Let’s stop here”, Nikita squealed. I thought she would jump out of the horse even before I had a chance to stop. There was a river between us and the waterfall so we couldn’t reach it. We climbed down a little and found a mat of white pebbles to sit on. The waterfall and a mountain towered in front of us. It was still afternoon; the skies were overcast with strange clouds. Someone up there was smoking a cigar and was filling the sky with dense round smoke balls.
I was lying down looking at the houses up the mountain when I heard Nikita’s voice. She was chatting with and clicking photos of a shepherd boy who had come over. They were already giving high fives to each other. He was thin, dark, had bright black eyes and thick black hair, about 12 years old, wore a white shirt that was yellowed with age, brown pants and had a stick to guide his sheep. He was posing for photographs oblivious that his sheep had wandered off and had made themselves busy chewing grass further downhill. I wonder how these animals are always hungry. The boy’s name was Padam, and he lived with his two little sisters and parents in a nearby village named Takoli. He studied in a government school but enjoyed more while he was out watching people go by on the highway to Manali. His wish was to move to a big city, own a house and a job. It is so ironical that a shepherd wanted to move to a city, and I want to have a farm in mountains with a few animals and definitely two dogs.
We moved on again but none of us realised that how fast the sun was now setting. We had spent almost 2 hours chatting on riverside, and yet again forgotten to give books and food from our stockpile. As soon as the sun was gone, chilling wind began to blow. We could no longer refer to it as just a ‘nip in the air’. We were once again riding in the dark. It was a full moon that night and even the stars seemed to be extra bright. The night was beautiful; worthy of lying under the moon by a campfire. But we had reality to face. Nikita was beginning to get frosty bones and even I was tired. By the time we crossed the police check-post of Manali, it was well beyond 8 PM. The shops were closing down, and only few women were still up selling woolen stuff on streets.
We hadn’t booked a hotel, but finding one in Manali was an easy task especially when you arrive at the end of the tourist season. I didn’t like the dark green paint on the walls and dingy alleys of the first hotel we stopped at. Yet again, we felt like fresh meat here. We found another one nearby which was well lit and had helpful staff. When the staff saw two half frozen riders arrive with lots of luggage, they tried to help us untie the bags with little success. After all they were novices. We on the other hand, had attained a graduate degree in handling the bags even with eyes closed.
Heavy mist had descended upon the main square when we finally strolled out of the hotel. Nikita was packed up in her thick jacket, but she still purchased woolen gloves and a muffler. Damn! Was she planning to wear two layers of everything? Even I got a pair of thermals. I was well covered waist up, but needed something to save my legs from freezing up. We never got time to go for a stroll in old Manali, but somethings should be left for a reason to come back. Today’s riding was easier than what we did the previous day. Things could only get better from here on, or so we thought.
Feature image: Old Manali by Neeraj (Mysterious Himachal)
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