In the third blog of this travel trilogy, we go cycling around Corbett Park in Uttarakhand. We start in Marchula and end in Dehradun…
After spending four glorious days in Kumaon, it was time for us to get back to Garhwal. As we reflected on the past few days, the differences between the two places got more pronounced.
Garhwal is pilgrim land. People visit the area for pilgrimages and the locals have got used to seeing pilgrims. The entire economy is built around these visitors. The hills are steeper and there is visibly more deforestation.
Kumaon is greener, people are friendlier. The entire ecosystem is oriented towards tourism. The locals in towns and villages appear to have more exposure to the outside world. Pilgrims are less likely to spend money than tourists. As such food and accommodation is better but pricier. Traffic is better in Kumaon. Since tourism revolves around the environment, people are more conscious of keeping it clean and green.
But most importantly for us cyclists, the dogs didn’t chase us in Kumaon! Most dogs chased us in Garhwal, not a single dog chased us in Kumaon. I cannot think of any explanation other than the fact that even dogs of Kumaon have more exposure to the outside world…
Cycling Around Corbett…
Marchula is in the forest. Before reaching Marchula we were in the forest. After Marchula still more forest. All of this forest area was in the vicinity of the famous Jim Corbett Park, known for its tigers. For the most part of this section, we were either in tiger populated forests or in leopard territory. Once in a while we needed to worry about elephants as well!
Day 10: Marchula to Nainidanda
After waking up to the gorgeous view of the sun rising over the Ramganga river, we were ready to leave from Marchula. But not before being reminded to take the shortcut to Nainidanda. This time by the hotel cook. We would save 40 km, he said.
It was a climb from the first pedal stroke onwards. A regular nice mountain road for a few kilometres till Shankarpur, before taking the turn off for the shortcut. Shankarpur was also the point where we bid adieu to Kumaon and re-entered Garhwal.
The asphalt was broken in patches. That was the best road surface we got on the climb. The road went up and the road conditions went downhill!
We got all kinds of bad road, from loose mud, to gravel, to broken asphalt, to rocks, to hell… You could have any kind of road you wanted, as long as you wanted something bad.
The road is also steep. We climbed 900 metres in 18 km, the road surface only adding to the challenge. Another challenge was that it had no trees and we were starting at river level. It was hot under the burning sun.
There was nothing along the way. Not even a tea shop. Finding water was a challenge. Once we filled from a village and on another occasion from a mountain stream. I recommend this route only for the solace you find there.
Solace & Agony
While it was all solace and bliss for me on the climb, it wasn’t quite the same on the other side of the fence!
C-4 was peeved with the climbing. Not so much the climb, but the fact that tons of people had recommended this route!
She would start with cursing under her breath, which got progressively louder. Till she was yelling epitaphs to be inscribed on the tombstones of everyone who suggested this route. The more she cursed, the faster she would ride. The faster she would ride, the less she would curse.
While the Himalayan climb was constant, C-4’s cursing went up and down like the rolling terrain of the Western ghats!
Food for Thought
After what felt like the entirety of the Pleistocene Age, we finally reached Nainidanda. A village which sat at the top of the climb. The end of the ‘shortcut’ and back onto the regular highway.
We were exhausted and famished. The fatigue clearly showing in our legs and faces. We went straight to the only visible dhaba there for a late lunch. And it was just in time, because the owner was winding up for the day.
We were provided food to eat and for thought as well.
This was tiger country. The villagers of Nainidanda told us that there was a tiger on the loose in that area for the past couple of weeks. The tiger had gotten out for an evening stroll from Corbett Park. This bit of info was corroborated by C-4’s brother, who had seen it on the news in Bangalore!
And just like that, the little dhaba was suddenly filled with 8-10 people, all trying to convince us not to go ahead for the day and stay in Nainidanda itself.
If Looks Could Kill
It was clearly the end of the day for most villagers, as the ‘bottle’ had already been opened for the evening.
One uncle in ‘high spirits’ was adamant that we shouldn’t proceed. He kept reiterating the fact that, I should be doubly careful because there was a woman with me.
The woman of course was incensed. How dare he think that a guy on a cycle can face a tiger, but a woman cannot. She gave him the full daggers drawn look.
Until he said apologetically, “Madam, aise mat dekhye mujhe. Main kuch galat nahi bol raha!” (Please don’t look at me so angrily, I am saying this for your safety only!)
The Kanpur Connection
The dhaba owner then proceeded to ask where we were from and the regular Q&A session followed. But this time with a twist.
Dheeru, the dhaba owner was born and brought up in Kanpur, same as me. And that was it.
There was no way in the world that he was going to let us go ahead. He locked up his dhaba and took us home and made us stay at his place. His wife cooked special dinner for us and served it with the most incredible apple chutney. A lovely duo the two of them were.
Of all the places we stayed along this trip, spending the night in Dheeru’s village in his house was surely the most memorable. It was a proper Garhwali village experience. And the hospitality was beyond words.
His only request. When you go home, tell people about this gorgeous village sitting pretty behind Jim Corbett Park. A little bit of tourism would go a long way in helping the economy of the place. As the region is side-lined. It is neither in touristy Kumaon, pilgrim Garhwal or jungle Corbett. All that it has to offer is a lot of rustic charm in its full glory.
And we highly recommend visiting Nainidanda and its surroundings. Just don’t take the shortcut!
Day 11: Nainidanda to Sisaldi
Cycling near Corbett had its own charm. We managed a relatively early exit from Dheeru’s village, before climbing 4 km back to Nainidanda village and then dropping down like eagles all the way to the forest reserve.
C-4 was overjoyed at descending. The road was reasonably broken, which meant that she was flying and there was no way in the world I could keep up. She had an exceptionally big and evil grin every time she stopped and waited for me. Then she would ask, what took you sooooo long!
The road finally bottomed out at the village of Maidavan, which was bang in the middle of thick tiger reserve forest. Late in the morning, it was still quite dark under the shady trees.
Elation in Elevation. Again!
Post Maidavan, it was once again a climbing fest. I was a happy camper. C-4 on the other hand was waiting for the next downhill to put me in my place!
This was another day of riding on deserted roads. Barring the few tiny villages enroute, the rest was to be enjoyed all by ourselves. At one such tiny one dhaba village, we stopped for lunch and had the best tea of the trip. The icing on the cake was getting a freshly baked bun to munch. The macapao in me was delighted!
A few villages later it was C-4’s turn to find her roots. She was overjoyed to find chikki. Well, not quite the Lonavala chikki, but good enough considering the circumstances.
The previous day, we had finished off our ride far too early in Nainidanda. It was therefore necessary for us to ride a little longer and harder. We had to make up for the time lost.
Which is why we barely clicked any photos and went about grinding our pedals all the way to the top.
We had been told we will get accommodation at the top, in a village called, Chaukhuliakhal. When we did reach the top at dusk, we found nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a solitary dhaba with an old uncle who told us to ride ahead a few kilometres for accommodation.
Neither of us like riding in the dark. Much less descending on narrow hilly roads in the dark. Worse still there was a road sign which stated that this is a perennially foggy region. That signboard was accurate and we had to ride at excruciatingly slow speeds.
We stopped at the first sign of light. It was a ramshackle old building with one grumpy fellow who wanted to charge an exorbitant amount from us, just because it was dark.
Having none of his bad attitude we rode ahead.
Fortunately we found a nice hotel in the middle of nowhere. We had to stand outside the locked doors and holler for a good 10 minutes before the caretaker came to our rescue and found us a room in the deserted hotel.
He even gave us vegetable he had cooked for himself for dinner. An excellent place to stay, the only downside, there was no phone network. We had to literally hang off the balcony to get enough network to send a message home.
It had been a long day, we had ridden 85 km and climbed 1700 metres. Phones and internet not working was a blessing…
Day 12: Sisaldi to Rishikesh
We woke to a magnificent road. It was 8 km on a gorgeous strip of black asphalt all the way down to Sisaldi village.
In the village we had breakfast. Normally not something to write about. But the breakfast in Sisaldi was something to write about. The food was dirt cheap. It was embarrassing how little they charged and the servings were humongous.
Food portions so large, it felt as if we were in Punjab! So much so, that we didn’t eat another meal all the way till dinner.
Lansdowne, but not really down!
I don’t know why they call it Lansdowne. It is at the top of a bloody hill. From Sisaldi, we climbed constantly till this famous hill station. Only to be disappointed. Not by the climb, the climb itself was stellar.
The town at the top of the climb was a disappointment. If Ranikhet was bad, Lansdowne is worse. It has more signboards telling you what not to do, than a mother telling her 2 year old kid!
Lansdowne is basically a cantonment. Loosely translated it means, all forms of art and passion is sucked out of the soul. What you are left with is a shell of boring humanity. We can only thank all the artists in the world who add colour to what would otherwise become a drab existence.
One of the few places I would never want to visit again…
Down and Out
We had a long way to go before the day ended and thankfully it was mostly downhill from Lansdowne.
There was almost nothing along the way, we survived on the chikki bought the previous day. It was a strange day, with our trip coming to an end, a long way to go, we ended up clicking next to zero pictures. Or even stopping to enjoy the scenery.
The sun set in the midst of a cloudy, foggy, dreary sky. And we were still far away from anywhere!
A month before the ride, C-4 had asked me if she should buy a headlight. I said no, we wouldn’t be riding in the dark.
Eventually on two consecutive evenings, she had to ride in the dark without any light. She cursed me.
While riding in the dark she crashed and ripped the skin on her hand. She cursed me more.
After the crash she got back on the bike immediately and continued riding with blood and abuses flowing freely!
Her crash had caused her cycle gears to malfunction and she couldn’t ride in the bottom gear. Every small climb was a massive struggle and she pedalled on like a proper Braveheart.
The closer we got to Rishikesh, the road got progressively worse. That didn’t help our flailing spirits!
It was 13th of February, a weekend. As we approached Rishikesh, the date and day became apparent. All the riverside camps were filled with drunk Delhites partying Valentine’s Day away.
From the serene Himalayas, we received a culture shock with blaring punjabi music in the valley. Each camp trying to drown out the sound from the other.
The cacophony reached a crescendo as we rode past. A drunk Delhi car stopped in the middle of the road to ask me random questions. A local honked behind his car and out he came to abuse and fight.
15 days in Uttarakhand and not a single negative experience. One encounter with a Delhite and that serenity was shattered.
I was more afraid riding in the dark with those folks around, than I was riding in Corbett with tigers around. And I recalled the statement of the gentleman in Nainidanda, “Be careful, you have a girl with you”…
After a tiring day of riding, we reached Rishikesh at 9 PM. With most places already shut, we stayed the night in a hotel at Lakshman Jhula. There was the regular hustle bustle sounds of a town in Rishikesh, but peaceful sounds, not the brash grotesque scenes at the campsites…
Day 13: Rishikesh to Dehradun
After the excitement of the mountains, riding from Rishikesh to Dehradun was expectedly boring.
Which is why we spent a few hours pottering around the town located on the banks of the Ganges.
Rishikesh is a perfect example of religion being used to make money. Heck, that statement is probably true for any religious place!
But Rishikesh was a mixture of Garhwal and Kumaon. It is a potent mixture of religious tourism. Aimed often at the foreign tourist and the conforming Indian hippies!
Meat and alcohol isn’t sold anywhere in town. But cigarettes and rolling paper is available everywhere. You either have your nostrils filled with the scent of incense or marijuana being smoked!
We left from Lakshman Jhula and rode to Ram Jhula before crossing the river at this iconic bridge. It was then all boring old highway till Dehradun.
You want Excitement, You Said?
Be careful what you wish for in the mountains…it just might come true!
I had been hoping that something interesting will happen on the last day’s ride. It did.
My cycle’s rear tyre which had steadily been disintegrating over the bad roads for the last 3 days, finally gave up. The tyre was ripped open. Such a big hole, that I could put my finger through!
Yet, every time I travel, I end up being extremely lucky. After riding 800 km in the mountains, where no help would have been available. The tyre burst 200 metres from a cycle repair shop.
You can’t get any luckier or blessed than that!
It was time to continue our boring journey to Dehradun. Now that the tyre was functional, it was uneventful.
The one thing I noticed was the amount of litter strewn on the sides of the highway. It was filthy. The traffic consisted almost entirely of cars. People travelling were rich enough to buy cars and bottled water. But were not rich enough to educate themselves about not chucking garbage on the road.
Once in Dehradun, we headed straight for the AdvenThrill office, where Vijay was hosting us. Over multiple cups of chai and pizza, we spoke about the fast growing cycle culture in Dehradun.
It makes me exceptionally happy to see cycling as a lifestyle grow in these smaller cities. There is hope for the future, where there are cyclists!
Happy Valentine’s Night!
It was Valentine’s night. Lovers had already filled hotels of the city. The only vacant rooms were either too shady or 5-star pricing. Like ghosts we floated from one part of the city to another in search of accommodation. With no luck.
Eventually finding a hotel from some bygone era. Modernity hadn’t been introduced there. The hotel had no WiFi, no credit cards, no digital payments. It had 20 feet high ceilings, bearers who stood at the door waiting for a tip and rooms the size of basketball courts!
The hotel was an oddball among its contemporaries. A fitting end to our trip. Since we were a couple of oddballs as well, who were riding through the Himalayas in winter on cycles. Not really fitting into the modern life of ‘Netflix and chill’…