We are in Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas (Indians pronounce it him-arl-lee-is) acclimatising at 2200m for two nights.
An afternoon walk up to the Shimla “mall” is busy and intriguing. It’s Sunday and everyone is out wandering and making the most of the shopping. Paul and I venture into the local bazaar and are the only white people in the narrow, bustling precinct.
We come across a local biker group so stop to say hello and shake hands. They have flown up from Mumbai and hired Royal Enfield Himalayan bikes with a mechanic and a support vehicle. Their high-vis vests have their bike group name on the back and their armour is worn on the outside – like a badge. They are heading up on a similar route to us so we wonder if we’ll see them on the road.
The Royal Enfield is a classic Indian motorcycle and ours are about 2004 vintage. They are single cylinder, with first gear up and three gears down and two neutrals. The brake pedal is on the left and the gear change on the right so we have a bit to get used to! Essentially they are clunky and quite cumbersome compared to what we’re all used to but everyone is in the same boat. There is definitely a security in numbers and it’s quite fun riding as a big group for us.
We head out of town through busy morning traffic and eventually the road starts to become less busy and there’s more forest but the smog is still present, in amongst the low cloud. I start the day being able to get into second gear but still can’t manage the kick-start. My bike has more compression than some of the others but I will make it work!
In the caste system in India, our guide Kamal is the highest you can go. This is most apparent in his looks so when he gets out of a vehicle to find out what the hold-up is, we are immediately let through – like royalty! When he speaks, everyone listens. He comes from the small village of Narkanda and tells us that everyday is a “fight” in India for the basics: electricity and water.
We stop for lunch in Kamal’s home village – right opposite his house in fact! He seems to know everyone and has explained before how when Indian people move overseas they feel very isolated and lonely as everyone talks to everyone here. There’s always someone to talk to.
We eventually reach a valley floor with a swift-flowing khaki-coloured river – this is still at 900m – and we follow this for quite a time through small villages. The road starts to deteriorate and then we start to climb and it just seems to go on and on. We finally reach the village of Sarahan at 2100m where our accommodation is in the local temple. It’s pretty basic but perfectly adequate. Time for a walk round town.
The Kiwis on our tour are a great lot, all very adventurous and up for anything. They’re also quite funny – Fiona wanted to know if I wanted a walk up the street to “find a dairy” (milk bar)/convenience store)! Then she says “I wonder if it’ll be run by Indians” (as they all are in NZ)!
Day two of serious riding and the riding gets very serious! We ride back down the “hill” from Sarahan and follow the river through the valley, past massive hydro schemes with water the colour of milky coffee. The pattern is a mid-morning stop for hot chai, then lunch.
A lot of people in India have a mobile phone as GIO offers all of India 2GB per day for 250 rupees per month!
The road seems to deteriorate even more with lots of roadworks. As the rain increases, the roads become muddier, the potholes fill with muddy water and things became more challenging.
To ride a motorcycle in India you need lots of guts, determination and basically the will to live! This is not a ride for novices. During the afternoon, the roads became more precipitous and crazy but we have no incidents. When Kamal tells us it’s 30km to go, that can mean two hours of quite hair-raising riding.
We arrive at the isolated village of Sangla and our hotel is virtually brand new with a stunning view of the river and the mountains. We are now at 2700m for two more nights of acclimatising to altitude.