Rob: Waking up from some of the hardest beds we’ve experienced here, but actually good coffee for a change, we set out to ride back down the river valley and up to the Monastery at Dharkar. The ride up the road is a Motorcyclist’s Dream. Very tight corners all in full acceleration and climbing mode. We both really appreciated the big push we received from all of the engine’s torque to throttle up the road as quickly as we did. It was a really fun ride on mostly well paved road. The view approaching the Monastery was another stunning setting. Once again, Buddha always has the best view in this part of the world.
After lunch we made the very windy canyon-run back to Tabo as we retraced several steps reversing course to get to the remainder of our unfinished loop.
In our little sitting area and bay windows of our Tabo hotel room we made ourselves a mini Himalayan Honeymoon with candles, a 2 course room service dinner complete with a fresh bottle of local apple based Arak.
Between Tabo and Pooh we started riding mid-morning amidst a dark and cloudy sky. The low clouds were hiding the higher snow covered Himalayas which reminded Lacy of hiking the Annapurna Circuit last year and our peekaboo relationship with the high mountains then. The rain began, but stayed light. The temperature dropped quickly as we climbed once again toward Nako along the same route we had run before. Our target along the way was a point 2/3 of the way to Pooh where an “English Wine & Beer” shop was strategically placed. While we enjoyed a cold Godfather Strong Beer, we started a game of cards. After a bit, another patron advised us that we were not allowed to play cards here per the owners request. He was a young Indian guy who had a big friendly smile on his face in between rosy chubby cheeks. Just the kind of outgoing personality who might be playing a joke so I also smiled big and asked him if he was bullshitting me? He smiled back one more time, but said sincerely that we were in a very conservative tribal area and that cards were associated with gambling so really not allowed. I quickly made the connection with gambling and apologized to all not wanting to be disrespectful to the tavern owner and thanked him for his help. This is the first time we have come across this type of request so we will try to be more conscious where we play our long running Rummy games going forward.
In Pooh we stayed at Tanzin’s welcoming Om Hotel again and were invited to his family’s home for dinner that evening. His family lineage traces back 500+ years in written history and likely much longer in unwritten history to the area. Every generation of his family has a fully committed member to the Tibetan Buddhism faith, becoming a monk, and his family Temple is the center for Buddhists in the region. They have hosted visits from the Dalai Lama and have a tradition of having foreigner travelers in their home. Tanzin is following in the footsteps of his Father, Uncles and ancestors before them continuing this tradition of service and hospitality. The warmth and kindness we felt with him and his family has touched our hearts and souls forever. Thank you for so much, my Friend.
After a great night in Pooh we decided to stay inside the old village area of Kalpa. It was one of Lacy’s favorite visits on our way up the Spiti Valley. The wood buildings in the Temple area are stunning and so beautifully crafted. She wanted one last chance to soak in the great spirit of this little mountain hamlet.
Departing Pooh towards Kalpa we left early to head through a very dangerous part of the road where we previously had a difficult time. It sure lived up to its reputation and continued to challenge every inch of my strength to keep us on two wheels. In one area of landslide clearing construction, we were lucky to have an ambulance be allowed as the first vehicle out of a dynamite blast area with several motorcycles tucked right in behind it including the Royal Beast and us.
After a nice night in Kalpa, we headed out early again due to the long route planned for the day. We made it all the way to Shoja that night. Losing altitude meant that the temp was coming up quickly to become quite hot and hazy in the middle of the day. By the afternoon, we began to climb out and through a different set of mountain roads than we had been in before as we cut west and north from our earlier path.
On these skinny mountain roads there is always the potential for danger, but also for drama. We came upon two 4x4s nosed together but slightly askew in the middle of the road. Either could back up just 3-4 meters or so to a wider part of the road and let one-another pass by. With a rising rock cliff face to our right and a sheer drop to thick jungle to our left we stopped behind them. There was no where for us or others who came upon them on either side to go. The two drivers were locked in a pissing contest with neither tiny ego giving in to help the situation. With cars lining up, the 4x4s drivers and passengers just got out of their trucks for a smoke and ignored each other as well as all the people they were blocking. This wasn’t the first nor would it be the last silly display we have had a front seat to watch in frustration. Weren’t the first few things we all learned in kindergarten about how to share, cooperate, be polite and have understanding? Two of the important Tibetan Buddhists Deities we have learned to respect and admire here are Wisdom and Compassion. The drivers here could spend some meditation time on these virtues. One driver finally gave into the pressure of the crowd and gave way for everyone to pass. Soon after, we were finally climbing higher again over the course of several hours into another set of foothills only to wind back down more single track roads to a lush valley below. This had to be one of our biggest losses, gains and losses again of elevation in a single day.
We left Shoja in the morning on our long and final push to Manali. We were covering more miles each day over the last four riding days than ever before spending 10 or more hours a day on our iron horse. A horse that has made us both very saddle sore from this last set of repetitive long rides. We spent the morning once again on one lane mountain roads. Approaching cars, trucks and busses were heart stopping moments. The road had just enough traffic that you had to avoid a head on collision at about every other corner. As much as I despise the significant overuse of horns here, I may have worn my own out in the last day and a half in every corner approach to be sure anyone knew we were coming around our side of a blind corner.
After we crossed the Beas River and turned the corner toward Manali, we entered an almost indescribable tunnel from hell. Dark and nearly black due to the layers of dirt and diesel soot covering the dim and mostly non-functional tunnel lights. Horns. Little cars passing us and trucks at speeds far faster than any headlights or vision could keep up with. Blind corners on a mountain road are nothing compared to blind corners inside of a solid rock tunnel. I tried to wipe the dust from my helmet visitor and only succeeded in smearing the oil soot across to mix with the dirt. To avoid being rear ended, I too had to take a deep breath and whip out and around several trucks and began following several cars way too close and way too fast for comfort. If one person crashed, we all would see in the center of a mountain. After finally exiting the tunnel after about ten minutes that felt like I was stuck in a two hour long horror movie, we came out to fresh clean air. No. Sorry. Didn’t happen. We came out into an industrial area of road construction that lasted for about 50 Km. It might have been the dustiest place in India we have driven through thus far. In the middle of it all, we got waved over to the side by a policeman standing in the middle of the road. He waved others over too so maybe I wasn’t singled out or maybe I was. He quickly requested my drivers license. An American license doesn’t cut it here so you need to have an International Driving Permit. $50 online to any number of companies will do it. Many people say that you don’t really need one but today I was certainly glad I had mine. No shake down. No mysterious ticket. No cash fine. Haan Ji (Yes Sir) which I acknowledged with one of my own and we were on our way again.
Do you know who drives the most aggressively of all vehicles? Busses. Overloaded and crowded busses. It makes me cringe to see so many young smiling faces peeking out and often waving to us while their bus barrels ahead way above the limits of its suspension, lights and especially brakes. Sadly, just a day after we went through the Kullu Valley area where we saw too many close calls, the newspapers announced that a local Kullu Valley bus had run off the road and plunged into a gorge, killing half and injuring the other half of the 90+ people on board. Sadder still is that this news won’t deter any of the reckless driving that will begin again tomorrow.
There were so many signs and companies promoting Paragliding and Rafting trips on the sides of the road. Such a juxtaposition to have the ice cold and clear snow melt river rapids cutting right through the middle of these major dust flats. When the dust, dirt and smog finally started to fall away from us as we climbed toward the tall mountains above Manali, we had to stop so we could wash out our eyes and take our first fresh breath in hours.
While getting back on the bike after a roadside omelet sandwich and chai stop, we heard a huge animal commotion. Suddenly a local dog ran out of a jungle area with a baby monkey in his mouth. We were a bit shocked and felt for the family of upset monkeys that shrieked out in vain after the dog.
We finally reached Manali which is a ski resort town in the winter and summer escape for world-wide trekkers, motorcyclists and just your average big city Indian tourist when the weather gets scorching down south and it is still cool and the snow is still on the tops of the mountains here. Accommodations and shopping range from below backpacker levels up to luxury Spa Hotels, street food to pricy restaurants and cheap imported trinkets up to expensive hand loomed shawls. Displayed for all to buy on the main Mall Bazaar Streets.
For us, we chose to stay another 2000ft higher than the town in a tent camp owned and run by Tanzin’s sister and her husband. The mountain road up to the camp was the biggest challenge of our week which meant it had gone totally off the charts in difficulty. My sister has a serious 4×4 Jeep that is built to climb about anything, trees included. I’m certain even she would find this road a challenge to climb. As we bounced and scratched our way up 30 sand and rock switchbacks in a high revving, wheel spinning first gear, I seriously wondered how we would ever get down this mountain again in a few days. When we arrived exhausted from the trip and covered in dust and oil, we quickly had cool beer and fried vegetable / cheese fritters to brighten our spirits and go along with an amazing view of the ski valley / town below and the bigger snow peaked mountains once again above us. We had completed 90% of our original loop plans with the exception of the still snowed-in pass separating Manali from Kaza by riding from about position 6 on the clock around counter-clockwise to 12 then all the way back around clockwise to 11. It was time to rest for two days. Sleep in as late as possible. Eat great organic vegetarian food. Drink cold beer and local grappa. Look out on the mountains, the city lights, full moon and the starry sky over the next few days and nights. Fitting with Tanzin’s family traits, Dashi, his sister was a truly gracious host and best of all, an amazing Chef. Every single thing we ate was perfectly Bien Cuit (well prepared – a big compliment to a true Chef). Our rest time was great while sleeping under the stars and napping in the sun. We soaked up every minute of it.
Upon leaving we received great assistance from a family descending the windy road the same day as ourselves. They gave Lacy and our gear a ride down while allowing me to bump and slide down the mountain somewhat safely.
We spent two more days in the main town of Manali exploring & shopping alleyways and restaurants. I got a well needed massage and Lacy finally got a belated birthday present in the form of a custom made necklace and bracelet from a local jeweler. Beautiful.
OMG – The tunnel ride must have been like a scary dream. Thank you Robert for your magnificent driving!!!
I may have a Jeep that can climb stuff, but it takes the driver to actually do it. You have WAY more courage than I do! I can’t imagine. Glad you are safe after all of these roads and challenges so far.