I twisted uncomfortably in the sleeping bag. There was a rustling sound outside the tent. I freed my head from my woolen cap and listened again. May be there was nothing. I must have been hallucinating. But I couldn’t rest. Paahji seemed to have fallen asleep by my side after the toils of the day. I could hear a soft snore. For the first time since evening, I felt a little scared. The object of fear was abstract but the general sense of vulnerability was overpowering. It was close to midnight and we were in the middle of a jungle far away from any human existence. All we had around us was oodles of snow and silence. Every little sound outside startled me. The flow of adrenaline kept me on the edge as I frequently felt the butt of my hunting knife. A strong gush of wind made a loud whistling sound in the dense canopy of deodar and pine. I thought it was going to rain hard. But, that was not the case, much to our comfort. Every few minutes, I felt like waking up Paahji, but didn’t. Outside the tent, the campfire was still burning strong. The mere sound of it was warm and comforting. Paahji woke up a little later. Almost instantly, I felt secure and drifted off to sleep. Now, it was Paahji’s turn to awaken his senses and feel the power of a dark night amidst pristine wilderness.
This ride was going to be special for more than one reason. I was returning to riding after an 18 month hiatus. And, after a long time Paahji and I were going to ride together again; just the two of us. That’s the way we had started and after many rides with various companions, we were both very happy to revive our original combination. Paahji wasn’t really expecting it when I proposed a Christmas ride back in September, especially after what had happened with me last year. Nonetheless, he was very happy. We weren’t bothered about our destination or any other thing at that point. Just the anticipation of starting our Bullets and hitting the highways again filled our hearts with excitement. The plan was put on a low flame immediately so that it could absorb all the flavors of the occasion and develop that rich taste of undiluted adrenaline rush. By the time December arrived, our mental, physical, and mechanical preparations were complete. We were heading to Chakrata for four days of riding and camping in the heart of north Indian winters. Chakrata was a bit of an unknown entity to us. In our six years of riding, we hadn’t been to that side of Uttarakhand. Our research revealed Chakrata as a quiet, secluded, and serene place, unspoiled by the mad rush of mundane tourism. It was exactly the kind of place we were looking for.
Day 1 – December 21 2012, Friday
Route: Noida-Modinagar-Meerut (70 Kms)
Meerut – In a dingy hotel room
At 8 PM on Friday, we found ourselves parked in an awfully dingy and infuriatingly expensive hotel room in Meerut. All Meerut hotels were cashing in on the seasonal inflow of students arriving to appear for some goddam exam. Our hotel boy actually looked at my fully armored riding gear and asked curiously, ‘Exam dene aaye ho?’ (Are you here for the exams?)
The excitement of the ride really set in as Paahji and I sat in the hotel room and discussed our elaborate plans for the next four days. We had started off on Friday evening to earn ourselves a small buffer time in the unpredictable weather conditions. But getting started wasn’t easy. My son was down with fever for the last few days and I had almost decided to cancel the ride. By Thursday evening, he got better and after observing him anxiously throughout the night, I finally confirmed to Paahji on Friday morning that the ride was on. Then, as we started off, nightmares of my accident kept flashing in my mind. Paahji could sense my apprehension and tried to talk me out of it. Still, I rode all the way to Meerut with quivering nerves.
But reaching Meerut changed it all and I felt particularly happy to be pursuing my passion again after a major setback. Paahji too had rediscovered his passion for riding after a bad phase of low motivation. We spent a relaxed evening with good food and drinks and, with a long day of riding ahead, decided to get as much sleep as we could.
Day 2: December 22, 2012, Saturday
Route: Mujaffarnagar-Roorkee-Dehradun-Herbertpur-Vikasnagar-Kalsi-Chakrata (273 KMs)
At 2 PM at a fuel station in Vikasnagar
In order to execute our camping plans, we needed to be in Chakrata by 2 PM. Instead, we were refueling our Bullets in Vikasnagar, still 50 odd kilometers away. Right at the start of the day, we had lost our two-hour buffer due to the dense fog in Meerut. At 6 AM, we couldn’t muster the courage to start, such was the fog. We stood sipping tea outside the hotel waiting for the fog to clear. After a fidgety one-hour wait, desperation set in and we finally got going. The fog was worse on the wide open Khatauli–Mujaffarnagar bypass and our progress was very slow and stressful. Conditions remained more or less the same until Dehradun as we covered 180 odd kilometers in six hours. Though the sky cleared up in Dehradun, it wasn’t possible to cover up such a massive delay. If that was not bad enough, we got on a country road instead of the main Dehradun–Paonta Sahib route towards Herbertpur. Since that road actually ran parallel to the main road, it wasn’t much different in terms of kilometers. But the bumpy 40 Kilometer ride tested the tensile strength of our spinal cords and delayed us further.
Our camping destination Deoban was roughly 20 kilometers from Chakrata much higher up on the mountains. At 2 PM in Vikasnagar, we were still looking at a good 3–4 hours of riding. Though we remained defiant, the odds of setting up a camp that night were low. There was no time to lose, so we made a move for Chakrata in full vigor. The entire stretch from Kalsi to Chakrata is cruelly robbed of its natural beauty. Rarely had we seen such a lifeless stretch on the mountains of Uttarakhand. It was good in a way because we didn’t feel like stopping at all and made it to Chakrata by 4 PM with just a short tea break at Sahiya, a small-time commercial center en route.
The locals at Chakrata informed us that Deoban was completely snowed and would be inaccessible. That was disappointing but not completely unexpected. I had called up the DFO office in Kalsi a few days back and they had said the same thing. We were really banking on the recent good weather, but had kept other options open. We switched to plan B and headed for Koti Kanasar, which was roughly 30 kilometers away on the Chakrata Tiuni road. Deoban, Mundali, and Kanasar are all beautifully secluded places around Chakrata with forest rest houses at pristine locations. With just a couple of hours of daylight left, we were racing against it to reach Kanasar and set up the camp. Very quickly, we bought some packed food and one liter of kerosene for the purpose of lighting a fire.
We kept riding for about an hour on completely deserted mountain roads devoid of any road sign or milestone. It was evident that we were gaining a lot of altitude. Defiance made way for despair as we parked at the roadside and wondered if we were on the right track. But a rare vehicle coming from the opposite side confirmed that Kanasar was roughly 10 kilometers down the road and there was plenty of snow on the road ahead. That was unexpected and we had to seriously consider returning. Returning from there would have meant heading back to Chakrata and forgetting about camping that night. Our desperation for camping made us ignore the writing on the wall. We decided to ride on until we met snow and then see what was to be done. 3 kilometers hence we reached Lokhandi, a seemingly unrecognized pass at about 11,000 feet above sea level. The pass was heavily snowed on both sides of the road. Fortunately for us, the snow was cleared off the road surface. We wondered if we could camp there somewhere. A lonely shopkeeper at Lokhandi told us that 6 kilometers downhill Kanasar was the only likely camping spot in the region. It was getting dark and we were in the middle of nowhere. We were in no mood to discuss anything and just kept moving on the narrow road with a thick blanket of snow on both sides.
As we lost altitude, snow disappeared but it got completely dark. We were still hopeful of pitching our tent in the yard of the Kanasar FRH. After God knows how many kilometers, we reached Koti, a dark and insignificant market place that boasted of a small dhaba (restaurant). The FRH was not in sight anywhere. We checked with the boy in the dingy dhaba if the place was Koti Kanasar. To our horror, we were informed that we had surpassed Kanasar by 4 kilometers. We had missed the Kanasar FRH in the dark, which was an inconspicuous detour from the main road. Our camping plans were officially ruined. Temperature too had dipped rapidly and we experienced bone-chilling cold. Desperate need of the hour was to find a shelter for the night. The dhaba boy hesitantly offered us two beds with quilts in the small room adjacent to his dhaba. We took the offer with both hands. For kilometers either side of that place there was nothing even remotely resembling a hotel.
We took refuge with our entire luggage in that humble room, dimly lit by a candle. Initially we thought that electricity hadn’t reached that place and were pleasantly surprised when the power got restored. The dhaba was not that poor after all. It had a fridge and gas connection. When we inquired about dinner, the boy said he could cook us chicken curry and rotis (Indian bread), if that would do. Wow! God was a little too kind on us. The disappointment of not staying in a tent soon vaporized. Unpredictability leading to adjustment in plans isn’t a bad thing after all. Such things actually add to the excitement. Paahji and I pulled out our bottled spirits to beat the chill. It was quite an experience spending the night in such an unassuming little place. The hot chicken curry was especially made for the occasion. Paahji and I got stuck in to it like it was the last chicken on the planet. A long day’s ride, Old Monk rum, and a fiery chicken curry ensured that Paahji and I were totally at peace with ourselves.
With two days of camping reduced to one, we were all the more determined to make the most of next day. We were very close to where we needed to be.
Day 3: December 23, 2012, Sunday
Route: Koti Kanasar to Deoban via Lokhandi Pass (35 kilometers approx.)
Camping in Deoban
The chicken we ate last night was definitely not the last one on the planet. There were at least two more in the vicinity of the dhaba. Their incessant crowing since the wee hours of the morning had spoiled our sleep. If Paahji had his way, those two would have become dinner as well. The morning in Koti was chilly, deserted, and uniquely beautiful. It was so cold throughout the night that the drain’s water had frozen. Right across the room was an apple orchard, but not in bloom. The apple season was over and the trees stood dry and bare.
Our dhaba didn’t have the luxury of a toilet and our first challenge of the day was to disappear into the forest to relieve ourselves. Paahji and I disappeared in different directions with bottles full of ice cold water. Only people with firsthand experience of this would understand what I am talking about here. Anyway, with that over and done away with, we focused on the plan for the day. We had the entire day to find a suitable campsite and set up the camp leisurely. Staying true to our instinctiveness we decided to give Deoban a try. The weather had been good for the last few days and we thought we could just get lucky and make it to Deoban, which literally meant God’s own forest. After all, Deoban was our first choice.
In a couple of hours, we found ourselves sitting on a lovely green patch of land basking in bright sunshine, halfway up to Deoban. To get there, we actually had to ride back towards Chakrata and then take a steep left turn 4 kilometers from the town. The road was steep right from the word go, but it was bright and sunny with no sign of snow. A few kilometers up we came across Spider Colony, a discreet training camp of a critical wing of the Indian Army. We knew that it existed and were truly thrilled to see it. That camp is the main reason behind Chakrata being a restricted area for foreigners.
Sitting there on the green patch overlooking Spider Colony, we felt exactly how a falcon would feel when flying high. For as far as we could see, there were just waves of misty mountains. Paahji and I felt lucky to be living our lives exactly the way we wanted to. On our back was an intimidating rocky wall, behind which lay Deoban.
A kilometer or so up from that place, we started spotting snow on the road side and then, all hell broke loose. The first 20-foot stretch of snow on the road made me really nervous. There were paths through the snow made by what must have been army vehicles, but those paths were strewn with treacherous black ice. Paahji looked nervously at me as I struggled through that stretch. He was slightly better off with his long legs working as outriggers. There was another such stretch in the next corner and then there was another. After a number of snowed stretches, we got to a Y point where the road on the right went to Mundali and the one on the left went to Deoban. We took the left one and as we got closer to Deoban, the quantity of snow on the road kept increasing. Fortunately, the road was not too steep and it was somewhat manageable. Suddenly, Paahji took a left turn and stopped. He asked me where we were heading. The road ahead had two feet of snow for as far as we could see and we definitely couldn’t take our bikes through that. Paahji looked at me with a huge question mark on his face. We got off the bikes and looked around. Wow! What a sight! The place was about 4 kilometers short of Deoban. There was a shallow gorge that slid down to a frozen pond. The slopes were heavily snowed on all sides except for the areas that were getting direct sunlight. There was a nice and flat green patch on the right of the pond where tree-cutting work must have been on till recently. Loads of firewood lay abandoned alongside freshly cut logs.
The place looked ideal for camping but the risks were evident. It could snow overnight and our exit could be sealed, and we would be far from any help in case of an emergency. For once, the Punjab da puttar looked double-minded. But the conviction in my eyes helped him decide. Paahji and I usually think alike and when in doubt, we trust each other’s instincts.
After a quick inspection of the site, we took the bikes down to the green patch and unloaded the tent. Setting up a camp is Paahji’s forte. Years of worshipping Bear Grills had taught him a few things. A huge uprooted tree trunk along the side of the gorge covered the back wall of the tent. It is absolutely vital to build at least two lines of defense in a camp if wild animals are in the area. We knew very well that leopards and black bears were lawful residents of these forests. We needed to be ready for every possibility. We lined up the bullets along the flanks of the tent as some solid metal barrier. At the front, there would be our campfire. With the camp ready, we were free to enjoy the magnificent surroundings. It was just 2:30 PM and we had a lot of time to laze around. We were not alone though. A group of local boys had arrived on their bikes. They parked the bikes and left on foot for the higher recesses of Deoban. A couple of army jeeps came trudging down the snow and the drivers got friendly with us. They had taken a few of their officers to the top and had come down to wait for them at that point.
Mobile phone signal was very weak but we still managed to call home and inform about our plans. The settings were idyllic and Paahji and I relaxed under the sweet sun sipping at premixed cans of Teachers scotch. Soon, we were hungry and felt the need to cook something for lunch. Paahji lit up his cute camping stove and got down to cooking vegetable soup in his Man Vs Wild camping mug. While Paahji did all that, I went about the business of gathering firewood. As we sat there relishing the soup and cup-noodles, the army officers came down and were amused to see our tent and us. Their eagerness to get photographed with us was amazing. Normally, it’s the civilians who like getting snapped with army men. Perhaps we were really doing something out of the ordinary.
The army men urged us to be careful and left as the sun started to set. It was just 4 PM and there were early signs of how cold the night would be. The wind picked up as we began to light the campfire and that posed a logistical challenge. From the safety perspective, we wanted the fire as close to the tent as possible. But the strong wind could send sparks flying off to the tent. So, we built the fire at some distance from the tent but that also meant that we would need to build a line of defense at the front of the tent too. As we sat enjoying the warmth of the fire, the boys who had gone up a long time back, came down. They rushed to our fire to warm up and had that ‘wish I could stay here’ look in their eyes. They couldn’t hang around for too long as darkness was setting in pretty fast. After they disappeared, reality finally dawned on us. Paahji and I were all alone in that cold, dark, and windy forest until next morning.
To say that we were thrilled would be an understatement, if ever there was one. To make it a little more challenging, we were short on drinking water. To preserve some water for the night, I decided to melt some snow for a second round of vegetable soup. In the meantime, Paahji had figured out a way to protect the front of the tent. There were a few leafy branches of deodar within our reach and we used those to build a temporary barrier. Wild animals normally do not break through barriers; they like openings and our idea was not to leave any opening. The hunting knife that Paahji had presented to me on my birthday came in handy as I cut through the branches with ease. We dug a couple of holes on both sides of the entrance, set up two upright branches, and put a cross bar on that. That structure supported the leafy branches nicely as we built a makeshift barrier, which, we expected, would protect us in case a Himalayan black bear decided to check on us. A little too ambitious, one might say, but something was definitely better than nothing.
Paahji cooked some more soup in melted snow as the last sign of daylight faded away. Within minutes, it became pitch dark. We sat by the fire chatting and drawing courage from each other’s presence. Camping opportunities would come and go, but rarely would the settings be so picture perfect. Rarely would it give us an adrenaline rush akin to the one we were feeling at that point. Every now and then, Paahji and I flashed our lights all around to see if there was anything trying to sneak in upon us. The fire was our only source of strength and protection.
As the evening set in, it changed from bone chilling to blood freezing cold. Paahji and I snuggled up as close to the fire as possible and enjoyed a few drinks. People wonder how we manage to indulge in adventure despite the pressures of family-life. The answer is simple. We never fake anything; we go hook, line, and sinker for whatever we do and our loved ones love us for that.
It was getting windier with every passing moment and all the campfire smoke was getting straight into the tent. We wondered how we would be able to breathe inside. But before we got inside the tent, we needed to make the fire big enough to last through the night. Paahji prepared me another cup noodle as I gathered a few big pieces of wood. By 10 PM we got into the tent. But before we did that, Paahji put all the trash in a poly bag and hung it on a branch far from the campsite. That was another learning from Bear Grills, to keep hungry animals at bay.
As I said, our tent was filled with smoke and it took some time for it to clear up even after opening the ventilators. We got into the sleeping bags and zipped ourselves up. Excitement slowly made way for nervousness when we realized that we could just hear things but could not see. Paahji’s drifting off to sleep left me all alone to enjoy the vulnerability of the wilderness. I wondered if we had gone a step too far this time and if the night would have surprises in store for us. This was something that could not have been possibly compared to sleeping in your bed in the safety of your house. I just wanted to wake up Paahji and spend the entire night sitting up. Paahji woke up just like that after a while. He was struggling to get his feet warm. It was insanely cold even inside the sleeping bag. All night, we took turns sleeping or fighting our inner daemons.
Day 4: December 24, 2012, Monday
Route: Chakrata-Yamuna Bridge-Kempty Falls-Mussoorie (120 kilometers approx.)
At 5 AM, Paahji opened the fly of the tent and waited for the first light of the day. All that remained of the campfire was a big ring of smoldering coal. It was a good time for me to catch up on some deep sleep. At 6:30 AM, Paahji woke me up as the sun came out. The morning brought us relief, freshness, and energy. We quickly built a fire again and Paahji got down to melting some snow for cooking breakfast and washing purposes. After relishing a rich and hot soup, we started breaking the camp. Everything was loaded back on the Bullets in no time while I used some snow to douse the fire. It was time to bid goodbye to Deoban.
On expected lines, the soft snowy patches on the road had turned into solid during the night. The ice was clear as a mirror on many places. We needed to be even more cautious than the day before to maneuver the Bullets through. As we left the snow behind, the ride till Chakrata was a cakewalk.
After a heavy breakfast of momos and fried rice in the town of Chakrata, we got going onto another unfamiliar route to Mussoorie via Kempty Falls. The road was nice all the way and was definitely more scenic than the Kalsi–Chakrata road. It was a smooth ride to Mussoorie barring one error of judgment. After crossing the Yamuna Bridge, we needed to take a tight right turn towards Mussoorie. Unfortunately, we missed that and continued on the left. After traveling 5–6 kilometers on the wrong route, Paahji’s instinct kicked in and he inquired from a passerby about our whereabouts and we returned to take the correct road. That must have been the umpteenth time that Paahji’s traveler’s instinct had rescued us from unforeseen hazards.
After a nice hot shower in the hotel, we hit Mall Road in the hope of some ‘random clicks’. But after Kanasar and Deoban, Mussoorie felt a little too noisy and polluted. We spent the evening drinking beer in a bar and talked about what had scared us the most last night in Deoban. It was hard to determine who was more scared of the two of us, but one thing we understood was that you have to have fear in your heart in order to be brave.
Day 5: December 25, Tuesday
Route: Dehradun-Roorkee-Meerut-Delhi (270 kms)
The ride back home
It was an inauspicious start from Mussoorie when I found out that somebody had stolen the left rearview mirror of my bike. We were forced us to visit the RE showroom in Dehradun for installing a new pair. Beyond Dehradun, it was the usual story of fog and cold and we shivered our way back home.
Never before had reaching home safely felt so good. On my last ride, I had got back home in a taxi with a couple of broken bones. I considered myself very fortunate to be riding again. Though I did wonder at some point about how my wife and parents allowed me to ride again. I got the answer on reaching home. After my accident a year back, my family’s biggest fear was that my left arm may not get 100% functional ever again. They were visibly happy to see me perfectly normal again. Accidents do happen, but they cannot dictate how we lead our lives. I had to get back to riding for my family, particularly for my son who like all sons in the world thinks that his father is a superhero. And, I had to get back to riding for Paahji, who had always blamed himself for my accident. He said he struggled to make eye contact with my wife because he couldn’t bring me back to her safely the last time round. And personally, I had to rise again after falling just to prove a point to myself. All these are emotions that make a man. On this day, I proudly raise a toast to my family and friendship.
1. Vishal Chopra on his black Electra 4S
2. Anandarup Nandi on his silver Electra 4S
Thank you for reading through. Until next time,
This is Anandarup Nandi signing off.