Mystical India…

Having finally resigned ourselves to missing the ride from Manali to Leh due to snow, “the highest road in the world” (actually the second or third highest), we decided to totally skip visiting Manali and instead headed to Dalhousie, then Chamba with a plan to cross the Saschs pass into the Lahaul valley, then onwards to Kishtwar through a place that the guides described as “incredible scenery in a place time had forgotten”

This being India, and us being us, we were prepared to be disappointed, actually we’ve had a bit of a laugh coming up with slogans for Indian Tourism like… “India, prepare to be disapointed”  or “Mystical India, you’ll never understand why people come here”, or “India, stinking hot one day, and filthy the next”, you get the idea, but now I digress.

Goodluck - Youre gonna need it!!

Goodluck – Youre gonna need it!!

So off to Dalhousie we rode, first down to the hot plains briefly, then back up into the relatively nice mountains again, arriving there we found yet another hill station with really nothing to see or do, we were refused entry to the standard 6 or 10 empty guest houses (“full”), and eventually found one run by a Sikh gentleman who allowed us to spend a night there.

Next day we rode to Chamba, which while apparently less touristy, was actually much more interesting.  We found a cheap hotel with a courtyard to park in, a filthy room and an interesting high street to explore.  I spent the rest of the day rebuilding (unsuccessfully) the clutch master cylinder on Betsy, and we kicked around town, eating rajma (black beans – dangerous!), drinking tea, and quizzing the local taxi drivers about the Saachs pass.

“hi, can you tell me if the Saachs pass is open?”

“yes yes, 400 rupia, 4 hours one way” 6 men form a huddle around us…

“actually we have a  motorbike, we just want to know if the pass is open”

“yes yes you can visit pass, 4 hours”

“we dont want to visit it, we want to cross it.  Can we reach Killar from here”

“Killar?” much discussion… ” Yes yes you go Kishtwar first”  kishtwar is on the other end of the road, after Killar.

“no we want to go straight there from here, over the Saachs pass”

“yes yes, 400 rupia, 4 hours one way” sigh… deep breaths…

“no…  we ride motorbike over Saachs pass?  Yes can, or no cannot?”

“Yes yes, ok…. no cannot, snow, too much snow”

This scene repeated a few times before it became clear that it wasnt going to be possible.  Disappointed we decide to ride a different route that would still take us to see the same “place that time had forgotten” albeit much less of it.  So after a night spent trying not to inhale the smell of urine in the bed, we packed up and went off in another direction.

A cheeky monkey

A cheeky monkey

It was quite a spectacular ride this time, taking us to the border with Jammu and Kashmir, where the road climbed steadily until it was actually cold and the air was noticeably thinner.  The road passed little hamlets of ten or twenty houses, where the buildings were all hand made from rough cut blue stone, the roofs covered in slate.  Shepherds herded long haired cashmir goats and sheep, and little streams burbled away crossing the road, which by then was a narrow path, often with incredibly steep unguarded edges.  It was really pretty.

Cashmere goats... so thats where its from!

Cashmere goats… so thats where its from!

donkeys are still a genuine mode of transport for various goods over here

donkeys are still a genuine mode of transport for various goods over here

Eventually we arrived at the border post for Jammu and Kashmir where we were greeted by soldiers and a boom gate.  They were quite friendly, not much english, but we understood that there had been landslides and the road ahead was closed.

“can we at least go up and see the landslide” I ask, thinking that maybe we could get across it.

“ok but you need to sign, say you understand the risk and take your own responsibility”

Sally was looking worried, but I signed our lives away.   Then amist talk of being careful about bears, (with visions of Bozeman in my head) we continued on.  It was only another 8km of narrow winding track until we reached the first signs of the landslides, with rocks and rubble strewn across the road, then further more of the same, then a small landslide of shaley rock that we got over without too much fuss.

narrow ledge huh!

narrow ledge huh!

safely across

safely across

But then further down we found this one…

yes thats going to be more difficult

yes thats going to be more difficult

We poked around it for a while, but the huge pine trees hanging by their roots precauriously in the eroded cliff above looked ready to fall at no notice, and with no real reason to get over it (other than to avoid riding back), it seemed reasonable to turn around.

With a few people around to help it would have been a 5 min exercise, but with just Sal and I, it would have been hours work.  Although Sal did remind me that even if she is only little, she is still quite strong 🙂


the view was amazing

A little disappointed we returned down the mountain once more, ate some lunch and pondered our options.   There was another road into Jammu and Kashmir further to the west, which we could reach without leaving the mountains so we made for that direction with daylight fading, and no idea where we were going to spend the night.

Lucky for us, our road passed a hydroelectric dam, guarded by some english speaking guys, who told us we wouldnt find anything in that direction, and we needed to return to Dalhousie to find a room.  Balls.  It was 6pm at that stage, and even Dalhousie was still 40km away, so… keep riding team!

lots of guards like this in J and K

lots of guards like this in J and K

We pulled up just short of Dalhousie in a less touristed area, and ate our regulation dinner of dahl, rajma, rice and roti.

Next day it was a long ride down to the plains again, before heading back across the border on another road to Jammu and Kashmir.  This time the area was more densely populated, and we could really see a step change in the surroundings.  Shepherds running goats on the road made for frequent stops, the surface was more broken up than in Himanchal Pradesh, and the mobile phone advertising painted on all the buildings was replaced by ads for cement and concrete reinforcing bar.  Because you need lots of that apparently.

Our road eventually hit the national highway going north, where we were greeted by truck after truck after truck… you get the picture.  All grinding their way along at 40km/h on the narrow mountain road, most blaring their horns for no apparent reason, with frequent near misses with people passing on blind corners and thick dust.


We had about 50km of that, before arriving in our planned town for the night, Patnitop, where only one place refused us entry before we found a room.  That night the trucks passed about 30m from our window, all night long, with creative and musical horns beeping and blaring at incredible volume, it was a really peaceful nights sleep.

Our next stop was 120km away, a small town in Jammu and Kashmir called… Kishtwar (you can’t say we didnt try to get there!!).  As the perrol tank is still leaking we can only put ten litres in it at a time, so first thing in the morning I needed to top up.  The first petrol station had no fuel, next one was closed and the third would only sell me 3 litres.

3 litres?? wtf?  I sigh and push 100 rupia into the boys hand as a bribe, but he gives it back and says it makes no difference.  Hmmm an honest kid.  What to do now?  Im impressed, but we need at least 8 litres of fuel as we’re about to leave the national highway.  I resort to begging and he ups the offer to 4 litres but no more.

I havent given up yet, but take the 4 litres, pay and sit and wait for some inspiration about what to do next.  Frustration boils over and some swearing ensues, which thankfully no one understands.  I regain some composure, and resume begging. 🙂

“Please we from Australia, Australia, Cricket! Australia????”

He half smiles

“ok 2 more litres”

“great, I put enough money in his hand for 4 and smile back”

He looks at it, frowns then laughs, sets the pump for 4 litres and hits the button.  “Now I am veeeeerrrry happy!” says Sal, (mimicinga 7 year old girl we paid $5 to for a stone in a market!)

“Veeeerrrrrrryyyyyyy happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I concur, he smiles and we ride away.

The road to Kishtwar is atrocious.  There have been landslides everywhere, and there isnt much of the road that isnt damaged in some way.  Lots of places we can see the substrate completely missing under half the road, and trucks pass in single file as close as possible to the cliff wall.  In other sections an entire lane, half the road, has fallen down into the river below, a 100m vertical drop, the remaining road is buckled and looks ready to follow.  The armco is sometimes hanging in mid air through a bend, we dodge rocks and ride over dirt thats fallen from above.

so much of this road looked like this...

so much of this road looked like this…

“I really cant imagine that this is going to get us there, too much damage” i yell into the intercom

“close your visor, i can’t hear you”

Eventually it does get us there though, to Kishtwar, the town we’ve been trying to reach for the last week.

(Insert more India tourism slogans here)

Pulling up on the main street we’re mobbed by muslim men in long beards and white head coverings, they all look like Bin Laden!  It’s more of the same old india though, and after a few questions a military guy comes over and asks us to move, the road is being blocked by the crowd.  So we head through the busy part of town, put a few more litres of fuel in and ask about the road ahead.

“no the pass is blocked, very much snow, can not pass that way, no traffic”

Without speaking we turn around and find a little restaurant to eat lunch.  Although it’s quieter in this part of town, the crowd of people grows steadily, and pretty soon I can’t see the bike anymore.  I order while Sal goes to look for wet wipes as both our faces are covered in dirt from the road.  We eat chicken, spinach and rice, a nice change from the Indian diet, but the bill of $7 is a surprise…

Eventually some of the men outside make their way in, and start asking us the same old questions… where are you from, how much does the bike cost etc  I catch a glimpse of the bike moving so run outside to see what’s going on.

There’s a guy sitting on it, he’s filthy from head to toe, and other guys are taking pictures of him.  I hiss at him and tell him to get off, but he looks at me dumbly and doesn’t move.

“OFF, GET OFF THE BIKE!”  I dont like people sitting on my bike.

“no no only picture, only make picture” someone calls out.

“GET OFF NOW!” i shout getting angrier

He reluctantly slides off, looking a bit confused and I repeat “NO SIT ON BIKE.  PICTURE NO PROBLEM, BUT NO SIT”

I return to the restaurant and finish eating, this little scene reminding me of a few other times in India.  We pay our inflated bill and go back out into the heat and dust, where Betsy is still surrounded by men in long beards.

They stare at us like animals in a zoo while we get our helmets and gloves on, continuing to take pictures and video, but no one actually says hello… I take out my camera and return the favour, taking pics of them, but they dont get the joke, and just keep filming.

if only someone would say hello it wouldnt feel so weird!!

if only someone would say hello it wouldnt feel so weird!!

It’s 120km back to Patnitop on that gem of a road.  This time it seems to pass more quickly, although I think we were lucky not to get stuck between rock falls, a couple of times there were rocks still falling onto the tar from above as we passed!

Yet again we were in the same town… but this time we’d had enough.

“Time to leave India, lets go to Amritar tomorrow”

That was a couple of days ago.  The ride to Amritsar was backtracking almost to Dalhousie again, then down onto the plains where the temp went from 20deg to 40deg in the space of 15mins!  The driving also took a turn for the worst, with three near misses in as many hours…

“too much time in the mountains, I’ve let my guard down”

But how do you anticipate idiots that pass on blind corners, or trucks making U turns on the express way in front of you???!!!

Anyway, enough for today, we’re into Pakistan in another day, looking forward to the change!

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