Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An experience of lifetime - Himalayan Odyssey 2007

Jhooley, friends.

I've been protected by some unknown forces and has landed back safe n sound after a 14 day trip to the planet named 'Himalayas'.

(Warning: This is a long post)

Rewind….. July 2006 – Dhanush and Me watching Himalayan Odyssey 2006 in NDTV with awe, in Bangalore. Months of planning. Mixed emotions. The ecstasy given by the very deliberation of disappearing to the highest motorable roads on a Bullet. A bit of hesitation. Getting the bike in shape for taking the trip by its horns. Some Confusions. Transporting the bike, and hesitantly adjusting to the fact of not riding it for a month’s time. Medical checkups with extensive tests to make sure that I am physically fit to take the expedition. Phone calls with Dhanush every evening to confer the preparations and strategies. That feeling of guilt for taking a break from work when my presence was really needed, and that prick of conscience of leaving Amma for 2 weeks. Answering the same old question most people had “Have you really gone crazy?”, as if this is the first time I am going insane ;-). Then boarding the flight to Delhi in Air Sahara on 22nd June. That’s the last I remember about this corporeal world. Being transported to a different planet is an experience to be enjoyed in person.

It all started in the dry scorching heat at around 45-48 degrees in the Delhi-Chandigarh highway on Day 1, with a more human climate between Chandigarh and Manali on Day 2. The opening day was inauspicious for me, with a fuel overflow recurring at regular intervals due to the impure petrol from Delhi – but I was fortunate to get it solved by shaking the carb, and was even more lucky as that was the sole problem my bike showed for the entire trip. The second day was quite appalling for our group, as some among us had pretty ghastly accidents though luckily nothing was too somber. As the third day started we observed a Buddhist Llama doing some poojas for us, and when our organizer Sachin told “Picnic is over. Real trip starts now” we got an insinuation of the ominous things in the offing for us. We passed a lot of tourist traffic till Rohtang pass, and from then on traffic was merely zilch except for a rare truck or army vehicle. The road to Keylong from Rohtang set things in perspective, as the whole concept of ‘Road’ started depleting with every kilometer and all that was residual was a lot of rubble with sand and mud from landslides.

The much acclaimed ‘water-crossings’ started to present themselves in front of us. The streams just surge down the mountains and rule over the path, leaving it to our luck to negotiate the slippery rocks that are hidden inside the gushing water - the depth of which remains abyss. During a lengthy stream-crossing, the front tyre of my bike hit a rock that concealed itself deep inside the torrent, changing the direction of the bike to head right at the visage of our photographer Sundar who was kneeling down on the banks of the stream with his camera focused on me. Thankfully, somehow the direction of the bike got changed towards that of a narrow gap between the cliff and mountain named ‘road’and I could observe the amazingly quick reflexes of Sundar which made him run a mile atop the nearby mountain in 0.85 seconds to escape my bike maneuvering skills in streams :). Another 50 kms drive and we stopped at the fuel station at Tandi to top up our tanks. A signboard near the fuel station read “Next filling station 365 kms ahead”. I’ve never seen a signboard that has a better impact on your 'shiver' cells!

At Keylong, the snow-capped mountains were luring us and it was sure that one of those mountains could be Baralacha La. The next day hosted the nastiest road that we encountered in the trip (from Keylong to Sarchu). As I read somewhere during the research before the trip – Baralacha La is known as the ‘Killer Pass’, since it’s the first time we are to climb altitudes of the magnitude of 16000 ft and Acute Mountain Sickness will hit you out of the blue. The climb to Baralacha La started from a small camp at Darchu, and hardly 5 kms drive through pebbles and dust from Darchu we were welcome by an insane sight. Rubble was dumped to a height of around 10 inches in whatever was residual as ‘road’, that too for a stretch of around 4 kms of steep climb – Maybe for tarring the road in future. As we ran our bikes into that mess, an enlightenment of the intricate task at hand flashed right into our eyes. The tire was unable to grip at the layers of loose metal, while the ardent task of giving enough power for the bike to maneuver the acute angle climb was already making the journey thorny. People were using both their legs to gain balance and everyone knew that one false move at the right end of the road would take them down the cliff. Many bikes got stuck in the metal, and some went off balance. However the riders were up to the challenge and after some real testing moments, all of us managed to cross this unbelievable terrain. There was dust all around and we could see people gasping for breath after crossing this section. Personally for me, this was the most notorious part of the whole trip. After many more water crossings and non existent roads which were competing to give wake up calls to our spines, we reached Baralacha La. The presence of life had almost reduced to void with hardly any signs of civilization. It was just mountains, mountains and more mountains – snow capped ones, brown ones, green ones, rocky ones. The oxygen levels started to hit an all time low and I could feel it while driving, as I started to breathe harder. Even the activities that we normally regard as inconsequential were taking a toll on our body and no one was stopping at the chilly Baralacha La for taking snaps. All I could manage was to sit in the bike to take the camera from my pocket to take a snap of the signboard ‘Baralacha La’.

By evening 4 pm we arrived at our camp for the day at Sarchu, where tents were setup by our logistics teamm. Mountain sickness had started taking toll on the group, and some people were in doctor’s tent under oxygen support. As night fell, my headache aggravated to an extent incommunicable and sleep was hard to come by. At times I could feel myself slipping off to that narrow gap of unconsciousness. The night was very long with the frosty cold and mountain sickness holding hands to deprive me any sleep, with a very jealous me looking at the peaceful slumber my friend Dhanush was in. I could feel the dawn break around me, but the lack of sleep and the painful headache was making me feel disoriented and it was tough to get the head upright.

Next days drive covered the steep climbs of Gata loops, Naki La, Lachung La and the second highest mountain pass in the world Tanglang La. After some contemplation on taking the day easy by loading the bike on the truck and taking respite in the support vehicle, I decided that I could not let pass the fun. Quite a few people from our gang were already traveling in the support vehicles due to mountain sickness. It was tough to drive due to the disorientation that troubled me profusely during the 21-hairpin climb through Gata loops to Lachung La, compelling me take it easy and slow during this stretch although the roads were pretty ok. The key to driving a bike in Himalayas is to make sure that you do not gaze at the spectacular sceneries that unravel before you – A slightest slip in your concentration, and there you head into a part of road eaten off by the landslide.

By the time we stepped on the 42 km cold desert at More Plains, I was physically doing far better, although the bike had lost a lot of its pulling due to the severe lack of oxygen. The view of More plains was just too celestial that it immediately froze a frame in my mind to treasure forever. A huge expanse of desert, surrounded by brown mountains at the horizon with an outline of clear blue sky - Words can’t describe the beauty nature lends to your eyes. But, the route through More plains is not as nice as its sceneries. Roads cease to exist at regular intervals and you are left to do some off road driving to negotiate the sand in the desert. Driving the bike on lower gears through the deep sand is a skill that we got first hand training on, in More plains. Many of the bikes were stuck in the sand, and we had to stop at times to help those people to move out.

After successfully negotiating More plains, a grand snow capped mountain which sheltered the worlds second highest mountain pass ‘Tanglang La’ loomed over us. With great reverence to the pass, we embarked on the steep ascent to the top of Tanglang La which lasted for around 24 kms. The air was very wintry, with the wind chill making the effect worsen. No one even thought of stopping at Tanglang La and just drove on to flee the brute of nature. The days halt was at Rumtse, a valley right after Tanglang La. Yet another night where mercury dipped to unimaginable limits which left us shivering through yet another bout of mountain sickness. Sleeplessness had become a habit by now.

The following day’s ride from Rumtse to Leh was a nice and relaxed drive of just around 80 kms. We drove into Leh before afternoon in a 2*2 formation, the same way we did in all cities to make sure that no one loses their way. The next 1.5 days were to just relax, to complete all the repair activities for the bikes, and to make a small trip to the Buddhist Monastery at Shey. The visit to Khardung La, the highest motorable road in the world at 18380 ft, marked the half way mark of our trip – amidst the celebrations and cheering from the whole group. Surprisingly, the climb to Khardung La was far easier than the ones we had at Tanglang La and Lachung La. Since Khardung La was just 40 kms from Leh, we could wrap up the visit before noon to have rest for the remaining part of the day. Reaching till this point was a delusion for lot of us just two days back, when we were driving through the rivers and rubbles with attempts to just stay alive for the day.

If the very thoughts of going through the same hardships on our way back were insane, we were up to the task in following up the madness. But the return journey was far easier since our body was acclimatized with the oxygen levels in the mountains and we were familiar with the roads. We stopped at More plains for an official photo shoot, since this might be the only place where all the bikes could be sheltered in a solitary snap. The distance that we covered in 3 days on the onward journey was covered in just 2 days during the return leg, with the only stay being at the Military camp in Pang. Living your life in that vacuum at Pang is not really human, and the first hand experience of what our soldiers are going through made all of us spare a thought for them. With the admiration for the border protection force going up multiple folds, we headed to reach Keylong through the minor snowfalls at Lachung La and Naki La. We covered around 340 kms through the toughest roads in just 2 days. The route we were supposed to take from then on (through Sach Khas-Chamba-Dalhousie) to reach our ultimate destination Amritsar, got blocked due to a landslide near Udheypur. After deciding the alternate route (Manali-Dharamsala-Pathankot-Amritsar), we visited Triloknath temple near Udheypur before heading to the camp set up near Chenab river in Udheypur. Rest of the journey involved just driving on the plains, with maybe the hilly stretch from Mandi to Dharamsala deserving a special mention for the joyous curves the route provides to the bikers. The numerous accidents involving our group as heavy rains lashed out between Manali and Mandi was probably the only difficult part during this stretch. It reminded me of the curving roads of SH33 from Kattapana to Thodupuzha that we took during the BangaloreCochin trip.

The last day of the trip seemed to arrive in a flash. . The route from Pathankot to Amritsar deserves a special mention - for the ruthless high speed drivers irrespective of the vehicle they are driving and the presence of flies. After covering the 275 kms between Dharamsala and Amritsar in around 5 hours, we promptly headed to the Wagah border to watch the famous India-Pak flag retreat. The body did not accept the sudden increase in temperature, and lots of us were totally dehydrated by the time the retreat was over. Next dawn was spent in packing the bags, and parceling the bike back to Kerala through GATI. The chequered flag of the trip was marked by a quick visit to Jalianwalah Bagh and Golden Temple.

The fact that the dream trip had ended hit me hard while sitting in the train from Amritsar to Delhi. The wonderful people that we got acquainted with in the trip and the blissful places where we drove on - all of them hung as frozen frames in my mind. The helping hands that we got from the support engineers from Royal Enfield, each of them – Jagdish, Vinil, Alex, Lovely, Solomon Annan and Ganesh enabled our group to ride on, in spite of the rough terrain, rivers, oxygen issues. The wonderful logistics arrangements by Ashokji combined with the organizing efforts from our leader Sachin, made the trip such a pleasant experience to remember through the life. A special gratitude to our team doctor Dr. Bishan for giving us the required support in spite of the harsh conditions at those altitudes. The oxygen cylinders certainly benefited many team members to survive. Then the terrific Mallu gang that came with us – Anoop and Gopettan - The encyclopedias of bikes, giving us the much looked-for gyan on many things that we didn’t know about the technicalities of bikes, Aravind with his daring attempt for doing such a grueling trip on the oldest bike of our trip – a 1987 model Standard 350 – Me and Dhanush rode with Aravind for most part of the journey and always tried to stay behind his bike due to sheer respect for the pioneer, Then the energetic spirit of the oldest participant of our group – Balettan, the 50 year old banker who led us by example in keeping our energy levels high and spirits upright throughout the journey. One mandatory thing during a trip, especially an arduous one like this, is a group of people of comparable wavelength and that’s unerringly what we had in this one. Then, of course, one Mr. Dhanush is always there – from planning and execution, to closure – suffering from acute chalu sickness due to my presence – without whom, the whole trip would have still remained a dream for me.

You tend to forget the unhappy incidents in the trip – the accidents and health issues of many team members (most of which I have not mentioned here), and take your psyche back to the breathtaking memories that nature gave you. What I experienced was totally different from what I had thought as a na├»ve thrilled biker who wanted to just roam through places. The resilience test that you will be put through is much harder than what you imagined. But, you emerge a much strong hearted person and the memories can’t be more rewarding. I close my eyes and can see those gorgeous brown mountains capped with snow, gradually merging into the dazzling cerulean skies. Those castles carved by wind on the faces of mountains, the eerie stillness of the valleys that you see for miles below, the twisting winds that roam freely in the cold deserts, and a mere mortal watching it with awe…. It’s just a ‘once in a life time’ experience. Between 24th June and 7 July, I was ported to a different world altogether. A world where you had two wheels instead of two legs and your heart was a 350 cc engine that religiously took you from one destination to another. A world where you can turn your head around to see no signs of life for miles to come, but yet feel to be in the company of a heavenly power. A world that makes you realize how stunning this abode named earth is. A world that heaves you into vacuum, a world that throws you a foreboding challenge every single second of the journey through the toughest of terrains and most scenic of surroundings. A world that shows the insignificance of something named ‘me’ and makes you lose your identity. A world that makes you just surrender yourself to the overwhelming aura of nature. That’s Himalayas for you. For me, it will take some time for the reality to sink in. Half of my mind still roams in those gigantic peaks….among those valleys and snow clad castles, with one hand on my faithful partner - my Bullet.

Friends, what are you waiting for? Go for it. The Manali-Leh highway is open only between June and August end. Hurry!! :)

My complete set of snaps from the Odyssey are available at

A video from the sand dunes at More Plains is available here