Memoirs of a Wandering Nomad – Part 3 – By Shreekant Vijaykar

Here’s to the third absolutely crazy madcap bike ride of the three Nomads. This time, the distance is the greatest ever. The terrain we scaled is equally great in beauty and the fun, unimaginable…

There’s nothing like unplanned trips. Correction, there’s nothing like trips planned for one thing and which materialize into something totally different.

This is about a trip planned to Mussoorie, which went right out of the window the night before, because of one bright idea. The idea is that we’ll go to Chail (near Shimla) rather than Mussoorie. Reason? Just like that. So we leave Noida Saturday morning 17 August 2002, 7:15am. The weather is pleasant, rather sunny. We travel 30-odd km through Delhi, passing Rajghat, Red Fort and ISBT. We come out of Delhi. The road turns to the right and slowly the signs of the metropolis fade into the background. We cross Sonipat (50 km) and then Panipat (another 50 km). Only a Maratha knows what happens to him with the mention of the word “Panipat”. The Panipat of the actual world is however too crowded and urbanized to be even compared with the Panipat of Imagination. I keep the Panipat of Imagination untouched and move on.

The road to Chandigarh (NH-1) is huge, sometimes three lanes wide. There are lush green fields on both sides almost all throughout. The road is marked with signs of Chow Devi Lal and slogans of Chautala. I hardly had any sleep and the roads with their wide and straight stretches are highly soporific. I find it hard to keep my eyes open. Ambala is 200 km from Delhi. We notice the huge railway yard to the left of the road and the Ambala Cantt to the right. The road gets narrower, has tall trees on both sides and has some character (i.e. some curves!). It is customary that a bee stings Imran every time we go biking. This time it’s even better as two bees bite him at the same time. He screams with agony. We halt at Verka milk outlet, have flavoured milk and ice creams. Imran keeps modulating the screams. We are now 15 km away from Chandigarh. We turn right for Shimla, planning to visit Chandigarh while coming back. We halt at a dhaba on the outskirts of Chandigarh. Bad food, but anything’s good for a hungry stomach. The road takes a slight inclination and we reach Kalka, the base of Shimla hills. The main road through Kalka market is steep uphill and by the time we come out on the other side of Kalka; we see a deep green wall of mountains facing us. The fog on the hilltops makes them look more towering.

The journey here on is beyond description, with the smooth blue road zigzagging upwards and deep valleys on both sides. We pass through Parvanu, a small industrial town. Further up, we see the base of the mountain trolley called Timber Trail. 1.5 hrs on this road and we reach Khandaghat. We leave the main road that goes to Shimla, and take the right turn to Chail. The road gets narrower and more winding. Chail is 37 km from here and the road is simply superb. It winds its way through cedar forests and the chill in the weather suddenly jumps on us, like a white kitten hiding behind a door. Some 2.5 km before Chail, I notice that Imran’s rear tyre is flattened. Thankfully, there is a hotel on the other side of the road, on one side of the valley. The owner of the hotel is a kind old man. He calls up a mechanic in Chail market to find out if the shops are open. We remove the tyre with one collective effort and Imran and Lalit go to the market to get the puncture undone.

I sit in the veranda facing the valley with the hotel owner, with a cup of hot tea in one hand and my sketchbook in the other. The hotel owner, G B Verma, is a retired army chap and has a lot of stories up his sleeves. We talk about life, universe and everything else. He offers me some apples plucked from his own apple orchids. I invite him to Delhi. He smiles and declines. Says he is better off away from the clamour of the metro. Once the two are back, we resume our journey to Chail. It is 5pm by now and positively chilly. There needs alteration to our initial plans of reaching Kufri by evening. Anyway, Chail is so beautiful that it is difficult to let it go behind so easily. Also, Verma has told me that the road to Kufri is very beautiful and if we scale it at night, we’ll lose the fun. We decide to spend the time in Chail. Wise decision in retrospect.

There is a steep uphill road starting from the main mall of Chail and going up in deep green forest, which has a good “road closed” board placed at its beginning. But the sight of the road is so stunning that we cannot resist ourselves and push our machines through the opening. This is perhaps the steepest our bikes have ever scaled. Once on top, we find ourselves near the 75-year old Military school of Chail. Some further steepness takes us to the world’s highest cricket ground (7500 ft). The ground is Military area and properly fenced. But you can see the ground through the barbed door. There is a football ground and a basketball court too. There are a few people playing football and few dogs playing their usual games. We travel back down to the market and then to the famous palace of Chail. It is getting dark by now. There are quite a few visitors strolling the lawns of the palace. The palace is well lit, since it is quite dark by now and fog is setting in the area. The managers mistake us for NRIs, with our bikes and trekking sacks. They are very sorry that it is a busy weekend and they do not have any rooms available. We make sorry faces, make them feel miserable and then walk out, trying hard not to burst out laughing. The tariffs are in the range of Rs. 4000/- per room.

We climb down once again to the market, hunt for a hotel, get a room for Rs. 250/- (this is called really climbing down from the palace!) and then have grub at a decent place and hit the sack. The next I know is Imran calling out my name, for it is 7:30am in the morning. I am positively annoyed at Imran for waking me up so early, but keeping in mind the long day ahead, I know he’s right. So we pack our stuff and get out of the room. The hotel owner is busy in his daily pooja and does not notice us taking our bikes out. I wait for him to finish his pooja and then ask him what he would have done if I had gone off without paying. He smiles and asks me, “How much can you take from me?”. I feel better about life already. I pay him happily and wish him well.

The road from Chail to Kufri (26 km) is heavenly. The cedars are tall and huge. The road is old and unattended. It has patches all over and looks like an old ragged mattress. There is very little conversation among us, for the scenery and the bad road keep us sufficiently pre-occupied. I am filled with unbounded joy and peace. We come across a huge resort at Shilonbagh. We plan to have tea and park our bikes in the porche. The place has a full-fledged buffet breakfast and the managers are ill at ease having three vagabonds asking just for tea. We curse them and they give their well-practiced sugar-coated smiles (meant specially for irate customers). We, in turn, have good fun at nobody’s expense. A five-star hotel that does not even have tea! Bah! (It is a different story that the breakfast, inclusive of tea, along with juices, omelettes and what not, is for 200 bucks).

We near Kufri, just before Kufri, we pass through a wildlife park. The road follows the raised & barbed fences of the park. This part is at 8500 ft, the highest motorable road in this region. I have a strange pressing feeling in my ears. Soon we start the downhill and I feel better. At Kufri, we halt near a small joint, order omelettes and tea. The omelettes take long, but are very good. The bread is especially soft. And the weather is just right for tea. We eat silently sitting on the bikes, facing a valley and the apple orchids in it. The downhill road to Shimla is wider than the road we’ve been travelling since morning. Kufri to Shimla is 16 km and the road is quite pleasant. It scales one mountain range to another and we see the entire loop we’ve covered since yesterday. The first sight of Shimla is obscene and unattractive. Shimla is a city. That too, it is the state capital. So it is as filthy and populated as any other. Only it is built on hills, and so the roads are inclined. There is hardly anything beautiful in Shimla (apart from the native girls, of course). So we speed through the city, drop the idea of visiting the mall as vehicles are not allowed and take the road back to Khandaghat. This road is wide, yet winding. It is fun riding. It is also the scariest part, since the traffic is quite thick here. We reach Khandaghat by 12:30pm and resume the road to Kalka and then Chandigarh.

We reach Chandigarh by 2:30pm. We have a tiny rendezvous with the Chandigarh traffic police. The friendly chat mainly revolves around the fact that we had broken a signal and gone the wrong way of the road. We pose as college students, bail out our sad story and somehow come out of the conversation. No monetary loss, thankfully. We celebrate the success of the trip with some coffee in the Chandigarh Barista. There is hardly any reason for me to mention about the Chandigarh girls, for their fame is well spread. We leave Chandigarh by 3:30pm, with our minds and bodies rejuvenated. Some 10 km before Ambala, we get caught in a torrential rain. The visibility is next to nil and our bikes shake with the heavy wind. We are drenched and as wet as one can be. We ride cautiously at 15-20 kmph. With Ambala behind, the furry of the rain subsides. Another 10-15 mins and the rain stops completely. We have a new problem though… the wind. I am pretty sure by now that all three of us are going to go down with pneumonia by the time we reach Delhi.

We halt at a dhaba where I change into some warm clothes. We have “garam garam” pakodas, daal makhani, rotis and chai. Life is much better now. Dusk sets in soon as we resume our journey. The road, as mentioned before, is wide and straight and therefore rather boring. It is the last lapse that is most tiring in any journey. It is so here too. Kurukshetra – Karnal – Panipat – Sonipat… Problem.

Just after Sonipat, some 30 km before Delhi, Imran’s bike does a jigg at 80 kmph in the middle of the road. Our souls come out of our bodies for a moment and then feeling the cold get back inside. The rear tube burst. We were lucky to find a mechanic just across the road. Another half an hour goes. We reach Noida by 11:30pm on Sunday 18 August 2002, safe and in one piece each. People ask me what our next plans are. They are surely joking. Right now, I just want to sleep… sleep like there is no tomorrow. But I also know that by the time the next weekend comes, the Northern wind will blow once again in our ears and we will be once again out on the roads.

– Shreekant

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