June 13, 2010

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Free as a Thunderbird



Rather ironic how this post is being pieced together roughly one year after the original. The sequel, however, is set on home soil, in massive airports and well-planned cities, along mighty rivers and amidst snow-capped mountains, in cheap dormitories and expensive suites, in monasteries, temples, mosques and gurudwaras, on SpiceJet flights and Metro rails, day-trains and trauma-causing overnight-buses, on Thunderbirds and cycle-rickshaws, sightseeing buses and river rafts, surrounded by affluence, surrounded by effluents, punctuated with broken Hindi and torn jeans. What follows is what I remember. (I apologize in advance for any discontinuity one might encounter in this post, as it is exceedingly difficult to watch Lionel Messi play football, and type simultaneously.)

Now, my vast legions of readers could probably tell you that I had mustered a few resolutions for 2010. One of them was to make a "long-overdue trip of North India". All that was missing was a reason. Till about 2 months ago, when we(two buddies from work and I) heard that an office acquaintance was getting married in Rajasthan. Shamelessness being the mother of opportunism, we ventured to rekindle the friendship, in the hope of securing, if nothing else, verbal consent to attend the wedding. Within a few days, the friendship had been rekindled, the invitation had been secured, and I began the arduous task of asking some website to make my trip. The task of booking a flight was also compounded by the (then)sudden increase in the number of incidents involving low-cost carriers. A detailed analysis ensued, and, as any South Indian worth his salt should, we eventually struck a balance between discomfort and cost. The outcome: a no-frills round-trip to Delhi that set us back by roughly six grand. With the spade-work done, we had about 2 weeks to come up with an itinerary. 2 weeks of Google maps, weather forecast sites, redbus.in and spicejet.com. Most of it on company time, at that. The weather forecasts, however, were not very heartening, as Jaipur was supposedly reporting maximum temperatures that, if my 7th standard Chemistry serves me right, were sufficient to melt Aluminium. Someone suggested Leh, and, engulfed by "youngistaan ka wow", we all agreed.

May 28
A very hectic day at work, made tolerable only by the thought of our 20:15 departure from BIAL. It should've been pretty straightforward to the airport atleast, but we realized once we had boarded the Volvo, that we were already facing our first cash shortage of the trip. The conductor exchanged a few pleasantries with us; we apologized profusely and promised to pay once we had reached the airport. He agreed to this, and, on arrival, directed us to the closest ATM. Nothing of great significance thereafter, except for our insanely beautiful air hostess(@airhostess: if you are reading this, can we make franship on Facebook?). A few hours later, our flight touched down in Delhi, only to spend fifteen minutes circling the airport, in search of parking, I presume. Fair enough, considering that it is the largest airport in India. We spent that night in a Gurudwara that had been "booked" from Bangalore, and since it was too hot to sleep indoors, we slept on the terrace.

May 29
A distinctly Punjabi breakfast of rotis and dal, followed by lassi, and we were good to go. We took the Metro to a friend's aunt's place, and there, we spent some time trying to get used to the day temperatures in Delhi. The Metro Rail system is extremely impressive, and for the fifteen minutes or so that we spent on the Metro, it was easy to forget that we were in a third-world country. It was soon time to head to the railway station; we had a train to catch. Once in, we took up our customary position at the doors, and were disturbed only occasionally, by vigilant TTs and exiting passengers. We reached Chandigarh before sundown(around 8pm) and we would soon get used to the longer days. Once again, we were all wowed by Chandigarh, with its wholesome women, Sector 17, broad roads and overall hygiene. Our travel, so far had been planned in advance. It was soon to get interesting, as we were told that there were no seats available on any bus to Manali. In the great Indian spirit of making do, we were assigned three seats in the driver's cabin, and soon had two of the driver's buddies for company.

After close to two hours on the road, the driver made a customary halt for dinner, at a rather innocuous looking dhaba. Having spent all of our lives in Bangalore, with our knowledge of dhabas restricted to unhygienic food, cheap liquor, dim lighting, plastic chairs and nightmare-inducing toilets, nothing could have possibly prepared us for this. As the waiter(who also happened to be the owner, chef, manager, accountant and busboy) took our order, we unwound on charpais. What followed was not for the faint of heart. Our butter naans and paneer butter masalas were presented before us--dripping with butter and generous strips of paneer. We wolfed down the naans, and then ordered pulao. A huge slab of butter atop the pulao ensured that my cholesterol was no longer under control. All this was topped off with a large bowl of dahi and sugar; all I needed now was an angioplasty. Note to self: Marry a Punjabi, maybe even two. 

Back on the bus, I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life--that 6 grown men have no business spending the night in a confined space. The overnight journey was scarring, to say the least, but the trauma of a sleepless night and an aching body were instantly erased as we woke up the next morning to find ourselves travelling alongside the Beas. We then began the ascent to Manali; the pleasure of seeing snow-capped mountains for the first time was diluted with the pain of seeing the ladies from Chandigarh for the last time. 

May 30-June 1
Once in Manali, we checked into, what seems in hindsight, like a very expensive room. We got to work right away, with KF premium from a rather conveniently placed wine shop. The rest of the day passed by quite quickly--we spent some time looking for prospective bikes to rent, eating Maggi(which was pretty much the staple food there), making impractical purchases, and the evening culminated with an unfortunate decision to watch Kites. We all woke up the next morning with a severe headache that only an illogical Bollywood movie can cause, and tried to ease the pain with thoughts of Barbara Mori. This worked better than expected, and after a long-overdue shower, we left the comfort of the room and hired a taxi to Solang Valley. This would prove to be the start of a very hectic, but satisfying 3 days for the three of us. Though quite crowded, Solang offered a lot in terms of adventure sports, ski lifts and scintillating landscapes. I bring this up, only to brag about having tried my hand at paragliding here, for the first time. The whole experience was wicked and the thrill of flight is absolutely inexplicable. It would've been a lot easier to explain with a video, but for the moment i suppose this will have to suffice. The person in the picture is me, fyi. Word around Solang was that it had been snowing consistently near Leh for the past few days. We were also told by many locals that the road to Leh had been closed for the same reason. We still continued looking for bikes to rent, and came across all kinds of bikes, from well-maintained but savage Bullets to Pulsars that couldn't be stopped to Apaches that couldn't be accelerated to uncharacterestically unreliable Yamahas. We kept our options open as we returned to the room that night and prepared ourselves for the road trip that would follow the next day.

We woke up early the next morning, did our business, and were soon off to pick up our bikes. We eventually settled on a Thunderbird and an Avenger, and began our ride to Rohtang. The road was decent, in patches, but treacherous for the most part. However, the scintillating beauty of the surrounding mountains and snow took our minds completely off the roads. Rohtang is about 70kms from Manali, but we took almost 4 hours to get there, with frequent stops for fuel, chai, Maggi, the occasional Patel shot and the odd traffic jam caused by swarms of people headed towards Rohtang, on four wheels. However, time spent on the road is always time well spent and the combination of a growling engine, slippery roads and rarified air somehow helped clear my mind. Any wavering thoughts were quickly dispelled by the thump of the Thunderbird. The ride to Rohtang is filled with moments that remind you why you travel--new places, new people, different lifestyles--all combining in some strange proportion to help you forget everything you never needed to know.  

As we went higher, the roads got worse; I felt every bone in my body rattle, as the shock absorbers worked overtime. The entire stretch leading up to Rohtang Pass was littered with several local shops that rented out all sorts of accessories to ensure that you didn't return with frost-bite--from snow suits to leather gloves to mufflers and water-proof boots. We rented out all the essentials and resumed our journey. Soon enough, we reached Rohtang Pass and the initial sense of accomplishment was quickly wiped away once we noticed the massive crowd there. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat, and then set out to test the snow-worthiness of our accessories. One hour flew by, as we lay in the snow, unwinding after a very tiring ride. Then, in a last-ditch attempt to lose the crowd, we got on the bikes and headed a couple of kilometres further from Rohtang. Perhaps the best decision of the entire trip, as we not only managed to lose the crowds, but were also treated to spectacular views of unblemished white mountains and untouched valleys. After another round of Patel shots, we were ready to leave. Keylong beckoned us, but this would mean renting the bikes out for one more day, so we decided against it. The return journey was equally memorable; we would reach Manali shortly before nightfall. We returned the borrowed bikes to a naturally anxious owner and thanked him for the hassle-free bikes. We returned to our room, exhausted, and overcome by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, we almost ate a Bournville.   

That night, we slept like babies. The next morning, as expected, we got up with sore backs and stiff necks. The ride to Rohtang was pretty much the high point of the trip, quite literally, and the only thing that drove us off the beds was the 12 o'clock check-out. We boarded a bus to a place called Pirdi, which, we had been told, was at the heart of river-rafting in Manali. As is generally the case, we were able to pass off as students, as opposed to lazy, overpaid techies and this helped us in getting an extremely good deal. Once again, we were in for the ride of our lives, as our rafting instructor(who, at 5'2", weighing 55 kilos and in an oversized Google t-shirt, wasn't exactly radiating confidence), gave us a crash course on how not to drown in the Beas. This was followed by basic rowing instructions and Q&A. We then set off on the mighty river, and had only another couple for company. The instructor, as expected, did most of the horse-work, and allowed us to take control of the raft as he stopped to catch his breath. We spent close to two hours on the water, escaping rocks and experiencing rapids. Time flew by, and before we knew it, we were at the end of the rafting trail, soaking wet, from where we were picked up in a van, and taken back for lunch. After lunch, we set out for Kullu, and another overnight journey lay in wait.

June 2,3
The 3 days spent in and around Manali had taken their toll and the rickety government bus that took us to Dharamsala seemed like a lounge that night, as the three of us slept in complete oblivion, unaware that there had been a halt for dinner. We reached Dharamsala around 3 in the morning, and, as the whole of Dharamsala slept, we resumed our sleep in the bus stand. At daybreak, we took the first bus to Mcleodganj, having been told by the locals that there was not much to see or do in Dharamsala. On arrival, we checked into an uninhabited dormitory that, at 500 bucks per night, ensured our transition to economy mode. We spent 2 days there, and quite honestly, apart from a customary visit to the monastery of the Dalai Lama and the spectacular views offered from some of the rooftop restaurants, I have no remembrance of what else happened. But the time spent in Mcleodganj was refreshing and rejuvenating, perhaps due to the wonderful natural settings and the laid-back nature of the locals.

June 4-June 6
The return to Delhi was quite peaceful, apart from an unfortunate throwing-up incident, caused by hairpin bends and the previous afternoon's chana batura. Once in Delhi, we returned to my friend's aunt's place once again--we would spend the last few days of our trip here. That day, for the first time during the entire trip, we felt like tourists, as we took a package tour of Delhi, accompanied, in an air-conditioned bus, by excited, fake-t-shirt-wearing pensioners and over-enthusiastic Andhrites wearing cheap sunglasses, all of whom clearly seemed to be enjoying bachpan at pachpan. We were shown all the customary tourist attractions, out of which, the Lotus temple stands out clearly in memory, as a benchmark for any place of worship. That night, we were to indulge in our last shopping spree of the trip, quite appropriately at Karol Bagh, with its bustling streets, enterprising salesmen and dimly-lit gullies.  The next day, we took the Metro to Noida, but the experience was a hollow and meaningless one, as we wandered about in a massive mall for a while, before settling down with some Zinger burgers and Pepsi.          

The last few days spent in Delhi were a real eye-opener for me atleast, if not for all of us. It was unfortunate to see affluence and poverty, both in equal measure, sharing a forced co-existence that can initially seem very jarring. What was immediately evident was the absence of a (numerically, if nothing else)dominant middle-class, replaced instead by menial workers and BMW-driving businessmen, leading nearly parallel lives. On the other hand, 1 week in North India had done a world of good for my ailing Hindi, that had begun its gradual descent a few milliseconds after my ICSE Hindi exams. That apart, for perhaps the first time in my adult life, I had felt a sense of being Indian, a sense of heritage, a sense of awareness that, let's face it, had not come out of a lifetime spent in Bangalore. Hindi, History and Geography had combined like never before, and the product was irrepressible. If travel does indeed broaden the mind, a toll booth stands in my cranium, as proof of this trip.

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