A journey from Manali to Uttarkashi by bus, visiting Nelang Valley by car and then finally cycling out of Uttarkashi. These ten days were filled with lots of food and banter!
Cycling in the Himalayas!
Day 74: Manali to Dehradun
After wasting as much time as humanly possible in the Manali hotel I ventured out for breakfast and rushed straight back to the safety of my lodging. The city is touristy and without doubt the worst place I stayed in during this trip.
I went to the cool part of town, old Manali. First up was Manu Temple. As with the monasteries in Ladakh, there was no semblance of religious fervour, just an invisible signboard of pray and pay!
Old Manali is also terrible. Unlike the newer city which is filled with Indian desi tourists, this is filled with pseudo hipsters. Pseudo because, there poor youngsters are trying hard to be hip and cool. If you are ‘trying’, you surely aren’t succeeding!
From parathas and dal chawal you find in one half of the city, the other gives you pasta, wood fire pizza, espressos, nachos et al. All of it is prepared by the same cooks!
The hotel manager was from Dehradun. He befriended me when he got to know that I was headed to his hometown.
The result of which was lots of free chai and conversation! Most of the managerial level staff are from Garhwal, especially around Dehradun. The lower rung of employees are from Nepal. The locals are well off and not willing to get their hands dirty with everyday work.
The owner of the hotel had her hands dirty with political activity!
Nothing is free in this world, including my ‘free’ tea. The hotel manager made me draft and send a handful of emails to prospective clients!
The emails delayed me.
I ran to catch my bus through the busy Manali promenade. The bus was in the bay and I hurried with my luggage and bike.
After climbing some of the world’s highest passes and riding through some heart pumping terrain, the roof of the bus was a mega challenge.
Heights scare me. Clambering onto the roof of the bus with my cycle in hand was my worst nightmare, come true. Trembling with fear I hurriedly fastened my bike. The bus trembled as the big diesel engine came to life!
Mission accomplished, I got into the bus with minutes to spare. As the bus rolled out of the bay, spots of rain fell.
I wanted to yell out to everyone to get out of the hills, with the knowledge that I was escaping by the skin of my teeth.
This was the evening when the rains lashed the mountains and saw buses flowing in the river.
Day 75: Dehradun to Chamba
After the overnight bus journey I reached Dehradun the next afternoon.
The heavens opened up in the morning and it rained incessantly. The weather was acting as predicted. I was glad to have left Manali in the nick of time.
Skin of teeth etc.
Unlike the sheets of rain, news trickled in that Manali was inaccessible. Roads were flooded and bridges washed away.
I was told that it had started snowing in Rohtang two hours after I crossed the pass. By the next day Rohtang was snowed out and traffic had come to a grinding halt.
The Leh-Manali highway was shut with people stranded in between. Luck was on my side and I am extremely grateful for that.
The rain slowed our progress as well, and the bus reached Dehradun a few hours behind schedule. The connecting bus to Uttarkashi had left and I was stuck in no man’s land!
One friendly soul told me to catch a bus to Rishikesh where frequent buses are available to Uttarkashi. The distance between Dehradun and Rishikesh is so short that buses don’t have roof racks.
Ultimately I held my bike inside the bus vertical and stood at the door.
In Rishikesh I was told that the last bus to Uttarkashi had left. This was turning out to be a recurring theme!
I was told that there was a bus going to Chamba, half way to Uttarkashi, from there onward transport is available.
So off I went and hopped onto a moving bus to Chamba. Which was the last bus for the day.
The road from Rishikesh to Chamba was in shambles, as they were in the process of widening it. The addition of rain to the dug up mud didn’t help matters one bit. As a result I reached Chamba later than expected.
Where, guess what. The last bus for Uttarkashi had already left!
Exhausted I stood by the side of the road to Uttarkashi in the hope that a passing vehicle would give me a lift. Unsuccessfully.
Near sundown people stop moving around. Reasons range from religious, ghosts, laziness. But the most convincing reason was that they just want to sit down and start drinking come sunset!
After a day of missed buses I found a cheap hotel and crashed for the night. As I closed my eyes another nightmare began. A bunch of Bengali pilgrims had checked into the hotel. They were loud enough to be heard in Bengal!
As I lay in bed contemplating the mystery of the missed buses, I couldn’t help but love travelling on two wheels. So much simpler than catching public transport!
Day 76: Chamba to Uttarkashi
After a day of missed buses, I woke up, packed my stuff and walked out of the hotel. Only to see the first bus of the day to Uttarkashi go past me. Just another missed bus!
Every one around consoled me and said another bus will be on its way within the hour.
As I gobbled down a delicious breakfast, the second bus of the day also went past.
I am generally not a superstitious man. But there was a nagging feeling that a black cat crossed my path breaking plenty of mirrors while doing so!
Black cats aside, like a commando I ran for the third bus and didn’t let them leave until my bike was secured firmly on the roof.
What wasn’t secured was the paratha in my stomach. Half way to Uttarkashi, my breakfast made a second appearance. Out of the bus window and on the road!
Café TFH + Old Fox = FOOD
Finally at Uttarkashi I made a beeline for Café TFH, a wonderful eatery run by xBhp’s very own Old Fox.
It stands out like an oasis for the weary traveller in the temple town. The other establishments are dirty, grime covered places meant for pilgrims who don’t care about food. TFH gives you delicious food in a spotless atmosphere.
Old Fox knows me well, before I could sit, a couple of chicken patties were placed in front of my starving belly. Followed by coffee, sandwiches, burgers, salads and pasta.
The only thing better than the food was the conversation!
After all that food it was time for dinner! Home for the next few days was OF’s house where I stuffed my face with delicious food, day after day after day, without a break. Trying hard to gain all the weight I lost in Ladakh!
Day 80: Uttarkashi to Nelong by car
After a couple of days in Uttarkashi doing nothing but enjoying good grub and banter it was time to head to the magical land of Nelang Valley. The valley has only recently been opened to Indian civilians and it was a treat to go there.
We were in cars. With no pedalling to be done, I assumed it would give me more time to enjoy the scenery.
Apparently not, you can barely see anything in a car. You peep through a window rather than have a 360 degree vision. The automobile is moving so fast, that you don’t see anything. It is no surprise that most peeps sleep off in a car!
Post lunch we trekked to Gartang Gali, a short 2 km walk. It is a place with a wooden structure cut into a vertical rock face. Part of a walking path to Nelang Valley, no more in use. After repairs it was usable again and supposed to be developed as a tourist attraction. Vested interests saw the walkway being partially destroyed.
Extremely sad to see something beautiful being axed, in this case quite literally, just to maintain some babu’s fiefdom.
A disappointment later we were back in the cars and headed to Nelang Valley. There is a section of road where rocks constantly fall. We were late and the bulldozers had stopped operations for the day. The big rocks on the road wouldn’t let our cars through. So a couple of us jumped out and removed the rocks. One hand on the rock, two eyes on the hill above us. Small rocks were falling constantly, it was the big ones we were afraid of!
In Nelang Valley accommodation for the night had been provided by the wonderful people of ITBP. Everyone in camp played wonderful hosts and we were delighted to experience the hospitality of the uniformed men in such inhospitable conditions. The stark contrast between the intimidating terrain and friendly people was hard to miss!
Day 81: Nelang to PDA to Uttarkashi
It was a relaxing day.
Breakfast was in Nelang. Once again the ITBP friendliness left us speechless. The food was delicious, but the care and concern was unmatched.
From the camp we could see the snow covered peaks on all sides, and it was a magnificent sight to behold. Especially with the gentle morning sun. We saw a large group of Barwal (mountain goat) on the opposite hill. It is quite insane the near vertical rock face that these animals dance around on.
Public Display of Affection
After a scrumptious breakfast we jumped into the car and headed to PDA. As it is weirdly called! The actual name is Pulam Sumda, but you won’t find that anywhere on the milestones. The military calls it PDA, and that’s that!
This is the last point where Indian civilians are allowed near the India-China border. Beyond this only the military go. The villagers from this area and Nelang were resettled lower down in the Himalayas, as this place is of strategic importance.
The terrain is not of the Himalayas, it is in fact the Tibetan Plateau. A mini Spiti or a micro Ladakh, if you please. Very few people visit and even fewer know of the existence of this place. It is rugged beauty and is a handful of kilometres from the lush green Himalayan mountains.
Nelang Valley is a lovely place to visit in Uttarakhand and I cannot wait for them to open the doors to cyclists and motorcyclists, then it will be real fun!
Day 84: Uttarkashi to Banyani
My lovely stay in Uttarkashi came to an end with me bidding adieu to the warm hospitality and feeling of being at home, in the abode of the Goswami’s.
As I exited, I noticed the colour purple was a popular choice for painting houses. It was everywhere. I think a helicopter full of Asian Paints accidentally dropped bucket loads of purple in Uttarkashi!
With the monsoon rains having petered off, the Bhagirathi was a beautiful blue as I crossed it, unlike the turbulent brown when I had arrived a week ago. Winter was setting in, there was a slight nip in the air.
Uttarkashi sits extremely low in the valley. The downside is, when you leave, you have to climb out of there. The first 25 km was all climbing.
Overconfidence is never good.
After spending many days on the road, and having climbed some of the world’s highest passes, how difficult could the ‘small’ hills of Uttarakhand be? Apparently quite!
It was hot, humid and because I was riding after so many days, my bags didn’t have a single chocolate or packet of biscuits. The 25 km climb was necessarily going to take me 3 hours. With no food to top up my depleting energy levels, I was in trouble.
But who cares about trouble, when riding through pristine forests, freshly washed by the monsoon rain. The Char Dham yatra season was also close to an end, and there was barely any traffic on this stretch.
The road quality was near perfect. Perfection for an extended period of time breeds boredom and as such I dove off the road at the slightest hint of a trail and some mountain biking fun. Going down a steep dirt trail meant that I had to get off the saddle and push my loaded bike up. Which wasn’t much fun!
As I neared the top of the climb, the road meandered through pine forests, with tall trees providing ample shade to the weary traveller. The temperatures dipped and the climb was a real joy. My legs were fresh after many days of rest. I pushed on an empty stomach without paying heed to its acidic cries.
The road tops off at Chauranghikhal, where I grabbed lunch and as soon as the first morsel went down my throat, trouble started brewing.
I had pushed too much, for too long without an energy replenishment. It was a big mistake which was going to bite me in my arse for the next few days.
In the dhaba while I was stuffing my face with food, the television blared. There was something familiar yet odd about the movie playing on it. Then it struck me. Almost everywhere in the hills, the films being watched were dubbed South Indian movies. Apparently, the hill folk also love the over the top cinema of the south!
Tourism…or lack thereof!
This part of Uttarakhand is Garhwal.
The most striking feature about the place is that they don’t give a rats ass about promoting tourism. They are solely dependant on pilgrims and cater to them only.
The worst sign of this is the lack of interest in their signage! All the signboards, including the warning boards, are in chaste Hindi. If you are a foreigner or from non-Hindi speaking parts of India, you can go to hell! Even though I was born and brought up in the Hindi heartland, I struggled to understand many of the signboards.
Warning signboards more often than not went like this:
Devbhoomi mein aapka swagat hai. Aage xyz ka khatra hai. Kripya savdhani se chale. Agar koi road band ho, toh in number pe sampark kare
Translation: Welcome to Devbhoomi. There is a danger of (insert impossibly difficult to understand Hindi word). Please drive carefully. If you find the road closed, please contact the phone numbers below.
All of this text on a tiny board, the size of which in Ladakh would only have three words, “Shooting Stones Ahead”!
From the very first inch after the dhaba, the road descends. With smooth tarmac, steep gradients, zero traffic, zero hairpins, fast flowing contours, zero wind, this was the quickest I have ever gone down.
The mistake of the first half of the day reared its ugly head. The second climb of the day started. I struggled and after some time died, slowly and steadily! Time was passing depressingly slow, it was more than I could manage. After 10 km of torture, I gave up and stopped at the first lodge available.
The lodge was an interesting one man show. This man alone ran, a chemists, where he prescribed medicine as well, a shop, dhaba and lodge. It was ridiculous how every two minutes he donned a different hat.
On getting to know that I was travelling alone on a cycle, he gave me a room for just 200 rupees. It is the generosity of strangers like him, who make living on the saddle such a pleasure.
The lodge was in the middle of nowhere. As such, I needed to walk a kilometre towards the closest village to get phone connectivity. Being out of reach, is both a blessing and curse!
Route Profile: Uttarkashi to Banyani
Once you cross the river and get out of Uttarkashi, the road starts climbing. For the next 25 km it is up up and away! Till Chauranghikhal.
Then it is down and out, till you cross a small river where the second climb starts, which is even steeper!
The road is narrow and at that time of the year it had little traffic, but during peak pilgrim season, there will be a lot of vehicles plying on this stretch.
Food is available in every village you pass along with shops to buy chocolates, biscuits etc. Being off the regular tourist beat, food is much cheaper than in most places in the Himalayas.
Accommodation is also available in most places along the way. But the places to stay are extremely basic, with no pretence of frills.
Expenses: Uttarkashi to Banyani
Food Rs 120/-