SHIMLA, THE “QUEEN OF HILLS”

SHIMLA – June 18, 2012  -  After leaving Chandigarh at 5 a.m., I soon began the gradual, winding ascent to Shimla, about four hours away. Shimla is the gateway to the Himalayan region and was the favorite summer refuge for the British Viceroy, his family and entire staff during the 140 years of British rule in India.

The “Viceroy’s Lodge”, a suitably grand affair for the crown jewel of the British Empire, is considered the finest example of British colonial architecture in northern India.  It is in use today as the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies, a post-doc think tank with about 80 researchers in residence here, subsidized by the Indian government.  The British connection to the Lodge, as with other remnants of the Empire throughout India, is conspicuously down-played.  In fact, the photos the Indians have chosen to display on the walls of the drawing room seem intended more to draw attention to the vanity and goofy pomposity of the whole English colonial crowd here – ermine robes, bejeweled mitres, crisply-uniformed servants and all.  Two side-by-side photos of a particularly foppish-looking couple, not even framed, have handwritten cards beneath them, saying merely “Count” and “Countess”.  I was half-expecting to find a photo that said simply “Whatever” but I came up empty.

The weather in Shimla was cool, pleasant and a welcome relief from the stultifying heat of Delhi and the plains.  My guest house was ideal (and cheap), so I stayed for four days touring the area before continuing further up the mountains.  The Spars Lodge is operated like a bed and breakfast with a rooftop dining and meeting area, and plenty of opportunity to socialize and compare notes with fellow travelers.  One extraordinary fellow I met was Bart deVries, a 38-year-old native of Holland who spoke fluent English and seemed to live on adventure.  Also a solo traveler, he was in the middle of a 10-month bicycle tour of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. Knowing what the ride from Delhi was like on a motorcycle, I just couldn’t see how it was possible to do that on a heavily-laden bicycle.  He showed me around the fine details of his rugged and high-tech bike (“German, of course”, he grinned) and I couldn’t get enough of the details of his adventure.  “It has actually been a lot easier than the Philippines” he said modestly.  “You’re my hero”, I told him, and I meant it.

[To get more details of this remarkable ubermensch, check out Bart’s website at www.thefundracer.com.]

After he rode off, pedaling smoothly under all that gear, I resolved never to let any upcoming misfortunes or difficulties discourage me.  That is, until I nearly met my maker at the Jalori Pass a few days later.

Click the link below for a brief slideshow of the road to Shimlahttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630276049148/show/

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SHIMLA TO NARKANDA, A SPLENDID RIDE

NARKANDA ROAD – June 20, 2012  –  I was gaining more confidence in my motorcycle now and was eager to get away from the diesel-belching trucks and the tourist traffic streaming north from the sweltering plains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers.  “No problem”, lodge-owner Arindam told me as he pointed along my map.  “Go to Narkanda here, then go north over the Jalori Pass to Bhuntar, then along the Beas River to Naggar,and you’ll have a very beautiful ride.  When you get to Naggar, you can call my friend Raju.  He has a nice homestay there.”

“How about traffic?” I asked. “Virtually none”, he replied, “much of it is one-lane but with a small motorbike, you should have no problem.  “One lane?” I asked a little incredulously. “How can you have two-way traffic on a one-lane road?”  “Only in some parts”, he laughed.  “People pull over, you know, you just go slow.”

“Is it all paved?” I asked hopefully. Arindam shrugged his shoulders and said “You’ll have, maybe, 20 kilometers going over the top that’s dirt, but it’s solid and a good road.”  “Many switchbacks?” I asked, making a serpentine motion with my hand in case “switchback” didn’t register.  “Oh, yes” he replied. What a dumb question, I thought later. How else are you going to get up a steep mountain?

Lots of red flags there, but I fell into the “hear what you want to hear” trap.  I was so eager to get off the beaten path and into more isolated and remote villages, I decided to go for it.  I packed up that night and left just before dawn the following morning.  Shimla was blessedly free of traffic at that hour and I easily found my way to the Narkanda road.

The next three hours were the most beautiful I’ve experienced on a motorcycle in years.  I was starting to get glimpses of the distant snowy peaks of the Himalayas and I was thrilled to finally have a solitary road to travel on.  The black granite cliffs sheltering the swift-running Sutlej River and the wind-bent stands of Himalayan cedar were breath-taking.  The changing aromas of peppermint deodars, orchards of plum and Indian mango, the freshly-tilled earth, filled me with a sense of complete serenity and well-being.  I thought – This is it, this is the good stuff, this is what I was looking for.  I stopped frequently just to listen to the quiet wind stirring the purple meadowgrass and fix in my aging memory the stunning glory of these sacred peaks pushing insistently to the heavens.

Click the link for some photos along the Narkanda road: http://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630295068718/show/

NEXT:  REALITY AT THE JALORI PASS

[END OF POST]

Finding my way in Delhi

ARRIVING IN DELHI

DELHI – June 12, 2012

“Just be careful”, Rekah said when I told her of my plans to motorcycle from Delhi to the Himalayas in northern India.

“Of what?” I asked, wondering if she might have some new insights for travelers in Asia.

She paused for a moment and said “India is still a poor country.  Many people in the cities are always looking for a way to squeeze a few more rupees from foreigners.  They’re always looking for a little edge.”  She emphasized this with a twisting-knife motion of her wrist.

Well, nothing new here, I thought, sounds like commerce pretty much everywhere.  It reminded me of Allegiant Airlines wanting to charge me $3.00 to rent one of their pillows during a recent flight to South Bend.  (I declined.)

Rekah and I had been chatting for much of the flight from Amsterdam to Delhi.  In her early 40’s, she and her husband, plus two kids, had given up their Indian citizenship and moved to Holland.  She was now on a buying trip for her Indian clothing shop in The Hague, and her husband was “in the police”.  When she said they had left India about 20 years ago, I did a quick calculation.  “That was about the time of Rajiv’s assassination?”  I asked.  She looked over at me with a mildly shocked expression, then said quietly “Yes, that was so frightening.  That’s why we left.  We felt our country was becoming too violent.  We wanted a safe place for our children.”  She talked at some length about life in India during those years, how most Indians just wanted to live in peace, how their politicians instead kept stirring things up with Pakistan, China and other neighbors.  “Indians just want a better life.  They don’t care about all these other things that politicians keep forcing on them.”  I sympathized with her and told her we pretty much had the same thing going on in the U.S. now – phony issues andspeech-making that agitatesrather than enlightens.  We agreed that if politicians couldn’t create division and apprehensions among people, there would be no reason for their existence.

Disembarking in Delhi, Rekah grabbed my arm and said “You come with me, we’ll get through Customs quickly.”  As we were standing in line, she wrote her name on her business card and handed it to me.  “You should come motorcycling in Holland.  Lots of people have told me it’s a wonderful thing to do there.  And you must stop by my shop, I’ll show you The Hague!”

Sure enough, we got through Customs in no time.  When I spotted my hotel driver holding up a card with my name on it, I turned to Rekah.  I told her how much I enjoyed talking with her and that perhaps we’d meet up in Holland.  “I hope so,” she said, then added “but I must tell you something.”  As I waited for her to continue, she leaned closer and in a strange whisper said “Please forget what I said about Rajiv, you know, and the others.”

 

SHOPPING FOR A BIKE, WITH MY POSSE

DELHI -  June 14, 2012

One of the great things about travelling solo is that local people instinctively feel you are not only approachable, but also in dire need of their participation in your plans.  This has led to some memorable, poignant and occasionally hilarious encounters along the way.  Like the 40-year-old British lady in Terengganu, Malaysia, who lived in a treehouse.  And the elderly man and daughter from a poor village in the Sierra Madres who nursed me back to health after my motorcycle crash.  And the cab-driver in Johannesburg who choked up when talking about the black-on-black violence in his country. “I don’t know why we kill each other,” he said simply.

The morning after I arrived in Delhi, I was telling the desk clerk about my plan to buy a motorcycle as soon as possible.  I had heard that the Karol Bagh district was the best place to go looking.  As the staff, all guys in their 30’s, heard us talking, they gathered around and quickly agreed on exactly where to go and who should go with me to help negotiate a deal.  Literally within 10 minutes, three of us shoe-horned into the world’s tiniest car and rattled through the crowded, hot, dusty streets.  Soon we were in the middle of a noisy market with hundreds of motorcycles parked everywhere.  They took me straight to a grubby open-air kiosk of sorts where I met Deepak, a solid, unsmiling guy about 40 who seemed to rule over the immediate domain like a godfather.  He gestured to a well-worn plastic chair in front of his desk and I sat down.  People were calling at him from the street, stopping in to see him, paying him money, taking orders from him, receiving money to go fetch a bike part.  He was definitely the straw that stirred the drink.

“What do you want?” he finally blurted at me.  “I get you anything you need.  You want Enfield, Honda, Bajaj, what?”  I told him I wanted a 2 or 3-year old Honda or Yamaha, about 220 cc, that I could rely on to take me all over India for three months.  He looked at me without changing his expression and thought for a moment.  “Come”, he said, and abruptly stood up and bolted.  The three of us followed him single-file across the packed narrow street, up an alley, through a dimly-lit repair shop and into another trash-strewn alley.  He pointed out three bikes that exactly matched my description.  He gestured at them without smiling and without saying a word.  “How much?” I asked.  “Fifty thousand rupee, 45 thousand, 45 thousand”, he said as he pointed to each one.  With the help of my new posse, we picked one out and made a deal in 10 minutes.  He would do a complete service, change the oil and add some new saddlebags ($10 extra!).  He also agreed to buy back the bike after the three months if it was still in good condition, and he wouldn’t deduct more than 30% from my purchase price.  I calculated that this would net me the use of the bike for three months for less than $300.  A superb deal by any measure.  He put everything in writing, did all the legal paperwork, prepared the bike and had it delivered to my hotel three hours later.  What I thought might take a week or two to accomplish wound up taking 45 minutes.  Deepak rules the universe.

 

BAPTISM BY FIRE – RIDING OUT OF DELHI

DELHI to CHANDIGARH – June 15, 2012

You already know about Delhi traffic.  Or can easily guess.  It is no place to learn how to ride a new motorcycle AND try to find your way out of the city at the same time.  Streets go every which way, rarely have signs, and the drivers are pitiless.  So I hired one of the hotel guys to drive ahead of me at 5 a.m. the next morning to lead me to the Grand Trunk Road, the main highway leading north to the mountains, about 120 miles away.  I knew it was going to be 40-50 minutes of mild terror but we set off the next morning as planned.  Even at that hour, things were already getting chaotic, particularly around the truck that was completely engulfed in flames right in front of us at a busy intersection.  People were running and shouting.  “Just get me out of Delhi and I’ll be fine”, I kept muttering to myself.

After 30 minutes we were still careening through traffic as I stayed glued to my guide in front of me.  An eternity passed and he finally pulled off to the side of the road, got out of his car and ran back to me.  Pointing straight ahead to three roads going in different directions, he shouted emphatically “You take middle road, don’t change, stay on THAT road all way to Chandigarh!  “How long?” I asked.  “Four hours!” he yelled back.  I clapped him heartily on the side of his shoulder and shouted over the traffic noise “I’ll see you in three months!”

The training wheels were off, I was on my own.  I can’t recall being so intense and focused in my life.  I merged into the mayhem and began watching carefully, trying to see how everything worked.  If someone behind you honks, it’s not to move over, it’s to let you know he’s about to pass you so he wants you to NOT move over.  Don’t look behind you, you’ll just get confused.  Watch only 45 degrees to your left and right.  You can go faster than the other traffic, but God help you if you go slower.  I realized for the first time that my mouth was completely dry and my hands were nearly cramped from the death-grip I had on the handles.  I started to relax a little.  After two hours, I was starting to match the other drivers’ aggressiveness and realized that as insane as it is, it actually works.  Everyone keeps moving and no one gets angry.  It’s just the way it’s done here.  In the U.S., we think of our momentary position on the road as an endowment of certain rights and privileges.  He cut me off, he swerved into my lane, I had the right of way – these concepts would be ridiculous to the Asian driver.  In Asia, roads are a convenience.  In the U.S., they’re turf.

Shortly before reaching Chandigarh, my destination for the night, I rolled into eight or nine lanes of stopped traffic, waiting to pay the toll.  As I inched my way forward with everyone else, I became aware of drivers looking off to the left at a uniformed policeman who was blowing his whistle furiously as he worked his way between the cars across the lanes.  As I watched him, I realized he was heading in my direction.  Worse, I then realized he was coming right at me!  Oh christ, I thought, what kind of shakedown is this going to be.  He stormed right up to me as everyone looked on, then gestured for me to follow him.  WTF, I muttered to myself.  I turned the bike perpendicular to the traffic and followed him across the entire eight lanes as he kept whistling and waving his arms for everyone to let us through – the ultimate perp walk.  I wanted to announce to everyone “Hey, this isn’t MY idea!”  I tried to remember where I had stashed all the documentation that Deepak had given me and images of bribery flashed through my mind.  We finally reached the outside area of the toll plaza and he turned to me.  With a slight bow, he gestured with his left arm to the narrow lane reserved for 2-wheeled vehicles.  “You go this way!” he shouted with a grin.  “You no pay!”

I couldn’t believe it, what an unbelievable relief!  I mean, he didn’t have to go through all that for some idiot foreigner.  I gave him a snappy salute as I sailed through the no-pay lane.  I wished I could have told him I was just kidding about all those thoughts I recently had about him, and I certainly didn’t mean that about the whole bribery thing.

NEXT:  SHIMLA AND THE JALORI PASS