“If you can imagine a hidden place, tucked safely away from the world…concealed by walls of high, snow-capped mountains…a place rich with all the strange beauty of your nighttime dreams…then you know where I am.”
-Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer wrote this to his son in his autobiographical masterpiece “7 Years in Tibet”. The place in concern is Tibet or rather it’s capital Lhasa.
Mcleodganj or ‘the little Lhasa’ is no Tibet. As a place, it doesn’t get anywhere close to the above definition. It’s not a hidden place by any means and is not exactly concealed by walls of snowy mountains either. Yes, you can spot the odd snowy peak peeking out of somewhere, but that’s it. Yeah, the place is beautiful, but strangely so? I’m afraid not. So, why is it called ‘the little Lhasa’? First look at Mcleodganj tells you that the basis for comparison with Lhasa is more political than geographical. As the Indian headquarters of the Dalai Lama, Mcleodganj has a very Tibetan feel to it. The locals are predominantly of Tibetan origin. 7 kms above Dharamshala you feel you have entered a different world. You can spot graceful lamas in their maroon robes just about everywhere. Restaurants and small eateries mainly cater to the Tibetan and western tastes. Though I didn’t explore Mcleodganj well enough to comment on the availability of authentic Indian food, on the first look it looked rare. In fact, the Indians look the odd ones out there. The tourists are predominantly western. The general atmosphere is very relaxed and easy. Shops open leisurely at 9-30 AM; eateries light their stoves at around 10 AM. It’s quite a contrast to the other popular hill stations in India. But there is more to Mcllo than meets the eye. A closer observation reveals an understated air of hope and despair. Every little article being sold in the market has a message printed on it, ‘Free Tibet’ or ‘Save Tibet’. There is a strong resentment for Chinese tyranny in Tibet. But there is also a disturbing contradiction. Like other Indian cities, Chinese goods are being sold in volumes and nobody seems to mind. That’s professional attitude, one might argue. But I won’t buy neither the goods nor the argument. Mcllo is also different in terms of the tourist attractions it offers. The usual temples, waterfalls, sunset points don’t merit a mention. The main attractions there are the different trekking routes and picnic spots. There is a buzz about trekking, mountaineering, camping etc. around the place. Mcleodganj is not your average Indian hill station.
Paahji (Vishal Chopra) and I are passionate Royal Enfield riders. Every 3-4 months, we mount our bullets and ride off to one of the many magical places of our country. To us riding and touring is more of a religion than a hobby. It’s our second nature. In two odd years, we have added quite a few adventurous chapters to our motorcycle diary. But a journey to the western Himalayas had eluded us this far. The time factor was to be blamed for this more than anything else. A 1200 odd kms (both ways) ride couldn’t be planned in a 3-day window and we rarely got more time than that. This January, the Republic day being on Tuesday gave us the scope of taking Monday off to make it a 4-day window and it had to be Mcleodganj this time. People thought we were crazy to plan this trip in January. But Paahji and I were quietly confident of our planning and preparation. With half a dozen rides behind us, we don’t get unnecessarily flustered by public opinion. But things were slightly different with another person. Dubeyji (Suryodaya Dubey), Paahji’s dear friend and colleague, had made an advance booking for the back seat on Paahji’ bullet. In adrenaline rush, he started exuding ‘when the going gets tough the tough get going’ type of sentiments. We had to calm him down. We occasionally ride with pillions provided our frequencies match with the people concerned. Dubeyji perfectly fitted the bill.
22nd January, Friday
In that period, north India was experiencing an unprecedented spell of fog and cold. To counter that, Paahji suggested starting on Friday evening instead of Saturday morning. The idea made sense as we could possibly make it to Ambala before the evening fog started and that could also give us a head start on Saturday morning. But leaving the office by 3 PM was no mean task. I literally stole out at 3-30 and rushed home. My cramster saddlebags were ready. I just loaded them on my bullet and set off. My 9-month old son saw me off, as did the rest of the family.
We assembled at our customary meeting point at Badarpur border. Riding in winters meant a lot of extra luggage. Paahji’s bullet looked severely overburdened. So, I urged Dubeyji to come with me and let Paahji carry the extra luggage. As we were about to start, I closed my eyes to calm down and let the tension of the day ventilate. It was important to relax and savor the start of the ride. Dubeyji, on expected lines, was ecstatic and Paahji was his usual ‘positive’ self.
We muscled our bullets through the city traffic and crossed the Azadpur bypass by 7 PM. Just as we were looking to build some momentum, the rear tire of my bullet went flat. Expletives flew everywhere as we parked by the roadside. Paahji was mostly at the receiving end for his ‘be positive’ remarks. It was pitch dark and attempting to fix the puncture by ourselves was tough. Paahji and Dubeyji took the tire to the nearest puncture shop and got back in record time. Still we lost at least an hour and chances of reaching Ambala looked increasingly bleak. As expected, fog came down in full fury by 9 PM. We rode carefully till Karnal and decided against proceeding further. We spent the night in a shabby hotel room in Karnal. We were too late for dinner though. Paahji’s stock of cup noodles and hot water from the ‘geyser’ saved us the night.
23rd January, Saturday
Fog persisted in the morning and delayed us further. Right at the start, we lost the 3-hour advantage we had gained and made it till Ambala only by 1 PM. From then on the fog lifted, much to our relief. From Ambala, we took the road to Ludhiana (Shambhu Border) and after 12 kms, took the right turn just before the toll plaza. That road took us to Kharar bypassing Chandigarh and in the process, saved us some precious time. But then, a noble move went wrong at Rupnagar. In October 2009, we had seen the Rupnagar-Nangal main highway under massive double-laning works. It caused a great deal of choking at that time. On the advice of a friend, we took a shortcut from Rupnagar to Nangal. That road cut right just after the 600 meters long canal bridge, popularly known as ‘purana pul’ (old bridge). The road per se was nice, but being a state highway it was narrow and had two-way traffic. We lost a lot of time on that route and reached Nangal by 4 PM.
Nangal to Una is again the national highway and we revved up to cover for lost time. Then, something happened that we’d never ever forget. A scooter coming from the other side suddenly collided with something and the impact launched the scooter, the rider and that ‘thing’ several feet in the air. Paahji reacted quickly and went wide of the crash. I had a little bit more time but couldn’t brake on time with Dubeyji behind me. Instincts took over as I avoided colliding with the ‘thing’ that had recovered and got back quickly on its feet. It was a deer and a very big one at that. Can’t tell what species it was as I could see it only for a few seconds. It came rushing out of the grasslands and fell on the path of the poor scooter rider. We stopped as fast as we could and saw the deer disappearing in to the grasslands on the other side. The scooter rider was hurt but in one piece. A silent gratitude to the Almighty and we set off again. Later, we came to know that such accidents involving wild animals are alarmingly frequent in that stretch. Proximity to the forests and hills are to be blamed for that. But authorities need to make better arrangements to keep the animals off the highway.
Una to Amb is a 25 kms stretch of bad to very bad roads. A Chinese construction company, contracted to build that stretch, faced some visa problems with the Indian government and had to put the project on hold. The result is a gaping wound on a smooth body that is the NH21. Riding with a pillion was really hazardous on that stretch. Dubeyji aptly termed it ‘riding in vibration mode’.
Day light was fading by the time we reached Amb. We were late by at least 2 hours. Mcleodganj was still 90 odd kms away. We took a short break at Amb and pondered over the prospect of riding on the hills in the dark. Paahji, on expected lines, urged us to ‘be positive’. We sincerely hoped that all the troubles for the day were behind us and 3 hours of careful riding should see us through to Mcleodganj.
As an advantage, riding in the dark has fewer distractions. You can’t see the natural beauty of the mountains and there is also a lesser urge for overtaking. We rode past Mubarakpur, Dera Gopipur, and Ranital in that order. The roads were reasonably good and there wasn’t much traffic either. By 8-15 PM, we reached Kangra, zipped through the nice little town and thundered towards Dharamshala. In 45 odd minutes, we reached Dharamshala. We stopped and enquired if we would find accommodation at Mcleodganj as it was pretty late already. People assured us saying there were more hotels at Mcleodganj than at Dharamshala.
7 Kms of steep, winding, dark roads took us to Mcleodganj. Prima facie it looked like a busy little town, small but glamorous and attractive. We stopped at the first hotel on view. Hotel staff, agents, guides, and common onlookers converged on us to have a good look at the men and machines. The brows, wows, and whispers were not new to us. We looked to secure a room as fast as we could. First query from the hotel staff was, ‘Sir, you need rooms?’ and second query was, ‘Will you go for trekking tomorrow?’ So, all the rumors about trekking and Triund were true! Everybody projected it as ‘the thing’ to do in Mcleodganj. But we were too tired to think about it at that point. We unloaded the bullets, secured them in the parking, and resigned to our room.
Delhi to Mcleodganj is a small matter of 550 odd kms and taking the weather conditions in to account, we made it in reasonably good time. Yet another destination conquered, yet another chapter added to our humble motorcycle diary. Paahji and I congratulated each other on our latest achievement. Then, we washed the soils of four different states off our faces before slipping under the warm quilt. Our hygiene conscious Dubeyji though didn’t settle for anything less than a hot bath.
As usual, Paahji had volunteered to arrange the booze and so he did. Out came a bottle of Teacher’s 50 from his bag. Alcohol has therapeutic effects on mind and body if treated with respect. Slowly but surely it relaxed our tired minds and limbs.
Then, as we discussed the plan for the next day, Paahji and I came up with different choices. I was inclined on the Triund trek but Paahji wished to leave for Dalhousie and Khajjiar. With Dubeyji deciding not to cast his vote, the final decision-making was postponed till next morning. We ate a heavy dinner and slept tight.
24th January, Sunday
We were up with the first light of the morning. The best time to explore a place is early in the morning, more so, if it’s a hill station. Besides, we were extremely eager to see Mcleodganj in daylight. On the first look, Mcllo disappointed us a little bit. Geographically, it didn’t look too appealing. It’s not extraordinarily high or cold and it’s not a big town either. Then, why do I call it mighty? Mcllo merits the adjective on the sheer weight of historio-political significance. Additionally, it’s a very rich cultural center. It’s also a hub of Buddhist studies. There is a very classy feel to the place. And on top of all that, it has international fame thanks to his highness the Dalai Lama and some of his illustrious followers.
We strolled around in the market looking for something to breakfast with. But Mcllo seemed very slow off the block. There was nothing to eat apart from green vegetables. We had tea from a roadside vendor and discussed the Triund trek with a local. That guy told us that Triund is located 2800 meters high up in the Dhauladhar ranges. It’s a 9 kms trek from Mcllo town and offers breathtaking views of snow-clad peaks from close range. There are a couple of guesthouses at Triund where guests stay overnight. That much information I already had. Right from the preparatory phase of this ride, I knew about the Triund trek and was very eager to do it. Here, on the day, I convinced Paahji and Dubeyji about the feasibility of the deed. Paahji agreed based on the argument that Dalhousie and Khajjiar deserved a separate ride. We decided to trek up to Triund, spend the night in one of the guesthouses, and come down next morning.
We got back to the hotel room and got down to prepare for the trek. Paahji and I loaded our small backpacks with all the essential stuff. Extra warm clothes, bottle of whiskey, cans of beer got carefully loaded. Light snacks, candies, and cup noodles too got picked. Matches, Swiss knife, and pocketknife completed the backpacks. By the time, it was 9-30 AM and we went down to have breakfast. Luckily, one Italian restaurant had opened and we compromised with a humble ‘farmer’s breakfast’. Back at the hotel, we checked with the reception if we’d get mobile phone network at Triund. The guy said, ‘Of course, there are two big towers up there.’ We took his word and eventually paid a big price for it.
The Triund Trek
When we started the trek, we didn’t know what to expect. Whatever I had read about Triund on the Internet was the only information we had. Asking the locals didn’t prove too helpful either. The three of us headed for Dharamkot at 2 kms from Mcllo. The initial revelation was that we had over estimated our stamina. We huffed and puffed our way to Dharamkot with Dubeyji the worst affected. I was also struggling and although Paahji stayed in a state of denial, he too was feeling it.
On the way to the Galu temple, we took our first break. We had four cans of beer that we planned to use judiciously. The plan was to open one can at a time to wet our throats and lift our spirits. The beer gave Dubeyji a sudden burst of energy that surprised us all. ‘Do the kingfisher guys mix glucose with beer?’ Dubeyji wondered. Every time, the burst of energy lasted 10-15 minutes and aided our progress.
At the Galu temple, I called my wife and informed her about the trek. That turned out to be the last call we made for the next 24 hours. More about that as we progress. The route up to the Galu temple is motorable and many people prefer getting a ride up to there. We bought some chocolates from the lone café at Galu and moved on. There on, the real trek began. We started gaining altitude rapidly stepping on stones, boulders, pebbles, and tree roots. At the start, there were only the occasional steep climbs with a fair bit of flat path thrown in between. The further we progressed the tougher it got. We were stopping every 200-300 meters to get our breath back. Still, it was not as bad as it was at the start. Our lungs, heart and muscles had adjusted pretty well to the conditions and a 4-5 minutes’ rest gave us enough energy to climb a further 200 odd meters.
Beyond Galu, the views became enchanting with snow capped mountains, lush greenery, and the occasional rhododendron bush laden with crimson flowers. Paahji’s latest buy, the Canon DSLR, clicked away at everything and my Sony cybershot too did its bit.
Cans of beer, candies, chocolate, and a never-ending supply of banter kept us going. Very soon we started meeting people on their way back from Triund. Some of them had climbed last night and some very early in the morning. Most of them were foreigners in groups of 2-3 or more. We met people from England, the USA, Hungary, and many more countries. Dubeyji kept repeating the same question to everyone, “How far is Triund?” The answers varied from 2 hours to 3 hours to 45 minutes back to 2 hours. Everybody made a subjective estimation of the time and distance based on their individual speed and stamina. The information didn’t help us much but the interactions were refreshing.
Soon, our destination became visible adjacent to the snowcapped peak we were following all this while. It looked high and far enough to scare the hell out of us. The trek was definitely a lot tougher than I had expected. I was feeling a little sorry for putting my friends through that tough ordeal. But, they did what friends do, kept pulling my legs and braved whatever the trek dished out.
The last kilometer was real tough going with nothing but big boulders haphazardly strewn over the side of a mountain. There was just the semblance of a path and at many places we had to make our own. We had started off at 10-30 in the morning and finally, reached the summit at 4-30 in the evening. The 6 hours we took was in line with the average speed, so, our prides were not too badly damaged.
We were left dumbstruck on reaching the summit. Triund made all words and expressions seem inadequate. The serenity and tranquility of the place was unmatched. Triund is a lovely green plateau protected by deep gorges on the eastern and southern sides and a towering snowcapped mountain on the northern side. On the western side is the route down to Mcleodganj. The mountain on the north looked frighteningly beautiful. We had never seen a snow-covered mountain from so close. There was sporadic snow on Triund also. Not a hell lot, but enough to amuse city dwellers like us. The January evening was extremely cold and we were shivering despite bright sunshine.
The unique beauty of Triund made us numb for a little while. The moment we recovered, we looked for network on our mobile phones. Tough luck, no network. Contrary to what the hotel guy had said, there were no towers at Triund. In a rare act of recklessness, we hadn’t updated our families on our Triund sojourn. Now we were faced with the prospect of spending the night on a remote hilltop with our families in the dark about our whereabouts. At 5 PM, we surely couldn’t risk going back. I had discussed Triund and its guesthouses in detail with my family and in my last call too, had told my wife that we were on our way to Triund. We had no option but to cling on to straw and hope that our families guessed our situation.
What couldn’t be cured had to be endured. However worried we were the fact remained that we were at a magical place, a place we may not get to ever again in our lives. We decided to suspend all worries till next morning and make the most of Triund. It was easier said than done though. The government guesthouse was at hand and so were a couple of tea stalls. We went to secure a room. With the option of booking rooms from Dharamshala, the caretaker had to wait till it got dark to be absolutely sure that nobody with booking was going to come. He asked us to wait and promised to make some arrangement for us whatever the circumstances.
The tea stalls are the lifelines at that place. They serve tea, maggi, biscuits, snacks, also a humble dinner of daal-chawal (rice and daal). They use mules to take their stuff up to that place. The rates too are reasonable considering the remoteness of the place. The piping hot maggi tasted wonderful in those extreme cold conditions.
As we were photographing the mesmerizing place, the caretaker of the private guesthouse crossed our path. He said rooms were available in case we needed. All the while we were wondering where the private guesthouse might be. Well, we found it on the other side of the hill on the eastern side. That settled the night stay issue and we were happy to find another Delhi group sitting out in the open and having fun. They urged us to join them but we had our own arrangements. The caretaker arranged firewoods for bonfire and also committed to provide daal-chawal for dinner. With the promise of a great night on the top of the world, we concentrated on capturing the awesome sunset with our cameras.
It soon got dark and bone shakingly cold. We put on all the warm clothes we had and lit the bonfire. We probably couldn’t have asked for better settings to sit with friends and enjoy a few drinks. Only if we had duly informed our families about this adventure, we could’ve had the biggest blast of our lives. Deep within we all were worried, concerned, and restless. But as the whiskey settled in nice and easy in to our bellies, all negative thoughts had to make room. The unusually clean and starry night sky loosened all our emotions and our bachelor Dubeyji narrated to us his own story of love, sacrifice, and anguish. That became the topic of the evening as Paahji and I unleashed our array of knowledge to provide Dubeyji with ‘valuable’ guidance.
By the time the caretaker served dinner, we had emptied a full bottle of Teachers 50. The emotionally overwhelmed Dubeyji ate a quiet dinner and got in to the room. Paahji and I made him comfortable under the quilt and came out to sit by the smoldering coal. We rewound to our bachelor days when we used to sit together at my place and drink like fish till late in the night. We could have sat there for ages. But the silence of the mountains is scary especially in the dark. With everybody else in their rooms, Paahji and I felt an eerie sensation. With the coal extinguishing, we retired to the room. To our surprise, it was not yet 10 on the watch.
We spent a terrible night with very little sleep and a persistent restlessness perhaps owing to the thin air. As is the case with sleepless nights, lots of thoughts kept hovering in the mind. Triund had changed my perspective of Mcleodganj. There is some geographical likeness with Tibet after all. Triund or other remote highlands of Mcllo do get pretty close to Heinrich Harrer’s definition of Tibet. The remoteness, snowy walls, strange beauties are all evident, albeit at a lesser degree. That meant I could call Mcllo mighty in all senses. With all these bullet rides, Paahji and I are actually preparing for the mother of all rides ‘Delhi to Ladakh’. We expect that ride to be physically demanding, emotionally draining, and philosophically enlightening. But Mcllo presented a nice little prelude to the Ladakh ride.
25th January, Monday
We woke up to a bright morning. As we were having breakfast in the tea stall, the sun rose. Just like last evening, the settings were awesome. But we had to rush. The worries willingly suspended last night came back to haunt us and made us descend as fast as we could. Still it took us full three hours. Down at the Galu temple, we got mobile signals and nervously called home. The initial sigh of relief at the other end faded quickly and the pasting started. The barrage of offensive allegations blew away our feeble attempts at self-defense. But normalcy got restored soon and all was well.
Initially, our plan was to leave Mcllo that day itself but our bodies demanded some rest. So, we took the risk of riding Mcllo to Delhi in one day with the fog factor still at the back of our minds. After lunch we made a move for Dharamshala. Bad luck! Dharamshala town is closed on Mondays. There was nothing for us to view or enjoy. Back at Mcllo, we spent the evening relaxing at a beer bar with brimming glasses of lassi in hand. Yeah, you read it right. Lassi it was. How it was there in the menu of a beer bar was beyond us, but we went for it to beat the dehydration caused by too much of alcohol.
26th January, Tuesday, the Republic Day
We slept like logs last night and were up by 4 AM. It was important to make an early start considering the distance ahead. By 5 AM, we were on the road. Imagine riding in the cool breeze on a chilly January morning and that too in the hills. We were well protected though and made rapid progress. We appreciated the serene settings of Kangra, shadowy roads at Ranital, and lovely mango orchards at Dera Gopipur. We missed all of these while riding in the dark.
Then, we negotiated the bad stretch from Amb to Una again and made a dash for Nangal. It was great to find the Nangal-Rupnagar highway in great shape. It was routine riding till Chandigarh where we stopped for lunch at a KFC joint. And troubles started that point onwards. First, I lost my night vision shades at KFC. Then, on the way to Ambala, my bullet’s front brakes jammed and as we were addressing that, my helmet fell off the seat and the visor broke. Paahji rectified the brake problem but I was forced to expose my eyes to the flying dust and sand.
But, purposeful riding through the day made sure we were pretty much on time despite those small troubles. It was just a few minutes past 8 when we stopped for a tea break at the Panipat-Sonepat border. But there was one last trouble in store for us. Delhi was just an hour away when fog came down with the suddenness of lightning. Within moments visibility got reduced to zero. There was absolute chaos on the highway. All vehicles came to a virtual stand still and were forced to follow the tail light of the vehicle ahead. The biggest fear for us was losing each other in the gloom. It was not possible to tell where we were going. It was the worst fog condition I had ever seen and I feared it getting worse. Then, out of the gloom appeared a Punjab Roadways Volvo bus to our left. It looked seemingly unaffected by the conditions and made steady progress. We reacted quickly and got behind the Volvo. It was a wonder how the Volvo driver was effortlessly driving the bus through that thick fog. He was God’s gift to us and we couldn’t be more thankful. Dubeyji, very thoughtfully, named the driver ‘Rock of Gibraltar’. High degree of familiarity with the road only could explain Gibraltar’s assured and unshakable driving. Against all odds, we reached Delhi in little more than an hour. Fog conditions were not as bad inside the city. We saluted Gibraltar and headed home.
I got really busy in office soon after the ride. In the rigors of work, my mind often transported itself to the snowy plateau of Triund. Often, I closed my eyes and tried to feel the cool breeze blowing from the snowy peak, but the office AC betrayed me. And I was not the only one feeling that way. Paahji called within a day or two and expressed his desire to go for another trek. Dubeyji too exuded similar feelings. Triund might just have started a new chapter in our lives. Take a bow mighty Mcllo or should I say “the little Lhasa”.
1. Vishal Chopra on his black Bullet Electra 4S.
2. Anandarup Nandi on his silver Bullet Electra 4S.
3. Suryodaya Dubey as pillion.
Thank you for reading through.
This is Anandarup Nandi signing off.