Monday afternoon, Oct. 7th: An old rattling minibus brings us from the airport to our hotel in Delhi. Traffic flows well in the outskirts of the city. For kilometers, we drive through some green thick city jungle. At times, there are men with tired eyes in dark rags just lying beside the road, or cows seeking something edible in piles of smoking garbage. The closer we get to the train station, the slower we get, until we are in the middle of a deadlock on a small junction. Cycle and motor rickshaws and pedestrians with hand carts fill every emerging gap between cars, trucks and buses immediately. Just imagine the ear piercing horn concert. Eventually some stout-hearted men start to untangle the mess.
After visiting the Red Fort with its amazing palaces, a tout guides us to some lassi stand. Unsure about the quality and the area, we decide to hitch another motor rickshaw to get away. Just after boarding, I feel a soft touch on the calf, and realize Kathrins camera has vanished from the backpack between my legs. I look around, and see a guy in dark rags with the camera in his hand, looking desperately at me. Same instant, an old man on a cycle rickshaw just beside us starts yelling at the thief, and a second later the camera is back in my hands. Incredible!
We manage to escape Delhi two days later. Not by train as Kathrin wished for, because I couldn't cope with the hassle of our luggage at two crowded train stations. Our plan is to reach the Indian Himalaya range still before winter. A Sikh with a big new taxi brings us and the bikes and bags to Chandigarh for ten times the train price. We arrive late at night, find only an overpriced and very basic hotel room. Speaking about hotels, rooms are equipped with at least a dozen of switches of varying functionality. Indian electricians seem to be paid by square meters of switches they install. But thats just beside. Finally we unpack the bikes in the room and I desperately wish for some happier events here in India.
We leave early the next day. Lovely breakfast from friendly people at a roadside shack, then we hit Highway 22 towards Shimla. On a big display over the 4 lanes it is written: “Welcome to Himalayan Expressway”. Our spirits rise. Some 20 kilometers later the highway is just an ordinary road winding up a hillside. We enjoy the fog in the thick jungle, the monkeys on the roadside and the birds singing. Heavy traffic and notorious horn concerts are less adorable though. By afternoon we find a neat “Nature Inn” guest house for a fair price. Our quiet room is below the road, overseeing the misty valley. The Indian room neighbors recommend the local fruit wine, and by nightfall, after one bottle of plum wine, we feel like in heaven.
After total three days of climbing up and down foggy green hills we reach the outskirts of Shimla. Shimla has been the summer capital of the East India Company. In the city center, the so-called “Mall”, many colonial buildings still exist. Pushing our fully loaded bikes in the strictly traffic-free zone we search for a suitable guest house. Not long after we escaped some tout, we find ourselves in a wave of Indian pilgrims on a small, steep alley with merchants and beggars. Kathrin spots her nightmare – a big snake handled by a guy. My nightmare is the entire crowd, and I am more than happy when we can finally escape it. Like often before, we enjoy a fine vegetarian Indian dinner with its great variety of tastes to forget about the worries of the day.
Monkeys balance everywhere on the roofs and in the trees of the city. The Jakoo temple on one of the hills is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey-faced Hindu god of power and speed. Manu, a friendly Shimla resident tells us about the Ram festival later today at the temple, and we hurry to get there before the crowd arrives. A giant red Hanuman statue overlooks the treetops of the forested hill. Monkeys follow the pilgrims on the trail up to the temple. Most of the monkeys gather at the temple itself in wait for the sweets handed by the priests to the pilgrims, or other opportunities to fetch something. We see a monkey with glasses beside the trail, and a smart man dumping some shiny and bigger thing nearby to retrieve the glasses again. The trick works out perfectly well.
A sleepless night in Kufri induced by a girls class entering our (expensive) hotel by 10PM, followed by another sleepless night in chilly Narkanda (2700m) with a student group partying below our room. I feel I am getting older, and wonder what Karma have I collected in those wild sleepless nights years ago. Now I only wish for proper night time sleep.
We have one more spicy Indian Chai break. That is tasty black tea with spices, milk and lots of sugar. A man approaches us, waving with a 100g bar of Charras in his hand. Well, uhmm, thanks.
On the back of the menu in Negi Dhaba, Narkanda we see a beautiful picture of Mnt. Hatu and the likewise called temple on 3200 elevation meters. Dinesh, the friendly waiter, advices us not to leave the road when hiking there to avoid to get lost. Every once in a while, there is outlooks to surrounding white peaks. It is sunny and warm on top of the mountain and the wooden temple is beautifully carved. Most Indian pilgrims come here by car, despite the quarrel of getting around opponent cars on the narrow road. Imagine the deafening honking concert in the otherwise quite peaceful woods. They are curious for the two Westerners, ask where we are from and take a few photos. However, we are happy to chill our feet and ears on a rock for a while. Then Kathrin spots a trail leading down, somewhat parallel to the road – way less noisy, and way more picturesque. Luckily, there is a power cut that night and we finally sleep peacefully.
From Narkanda, the road leads 35 kilometer downhill to the Satluj valley at less than 1000 elevation meters. The first 12 kilometers are so bumpy that Kathrins rear brake pads crumble. At the bottom of the valley, it is warm enough for rice paddies and bananas on the banks of the mighty river. Colorful birds with long tails climb better in the branches than they fly. Our road winds up and down the rocky flanks of the narrowing valley.
Just before Rampur, we reach a Hotel called “Grand Shangri-La”. In front of the hotel, we meet an Austrian-German couple with a packed Enfield motorbike, the first foreigners since Shimla. Nina and Daniel have been traveling from Dheradum via Manali through Spiti valley on their Enfield. We are glad to meet them, happy to get information on the road conditions and share some experiences with these long-term travelers. Apparently the road is still open, however the stretch from here to the 160km away Pooh is very bumpy, narrow and unpaved, with frequent landslides. Sounds like a good reason to take a bus tomorrow. Never mind the icy river crossings at Kunzum La...