Thunder On The Hills

January 1, 2012 1 By Shahwar Hussain

Text: Shahwar Hussain

Photographs: Anuj Singh

It is still not the height of summer but already the heat is unbearable in the plains and more so in Delhi, what with its concrete jungle and smog. I was itching to take a trip to the hills to enjoy the sights and the winding roads. But to get out of Delhi and on to the hills, I had to travel a considerable distance through the plains. Boring, hot, dusty, congested plains. And that’s what I dread, but the lure of the hills is a dangerous thing and it just keeps getting stronger.

I have been to Mussoorie but never beyond and that was a long time back. I have heard that once you cross Mussoorie, the traffic progressively gets thinner and an easy ride up the hills can be very satisfying. What better motorcycle than the Thunderbird, the cruiser bike from Royal Enfield. With its low seating position and high handlebars, it makes for a typical long distance bike.

The route that we had planned was almost 1500 km long and we had to prepare the bike accordingly. Nothing much mechanically, since the engine was perfect but we did need to change the brake shoes. Brakes are something that you simply can’t compromise with. We also fitted in two racks at the rear for our bags and they made our life much easier. The frames were of the smaller variety. All the better, because, with photographer Anuj Singh as pillion rider, it made riding on unpaved steep gradients rather dangerous. He weighs 90 kilos and I, a mere 60 kilos. Coupled with the weight of the luggage, the rear section became a little too heavy. I had to let him ride on a lot of the gravel section. He is not really overweight, just slightly healthy, as he loves to say.

We started out at about 8 o’clock in the morning, a day after the elections in Delhi. A mistake. Even though the roads were relatively empty, the sun was unforgiving. We should have started out at least three hours earlier.

By the time we reached Moradabad, the sun was shining in all its glory. By late afternoon we reached Mohand from where the road starts a gradual incline. There are huge Saal trees on either side of the road as it runs alongside the impressive Rajaji National Park. By this time the two fried brains were in no position to enjoy the beautiful sights. We did that on the way back.

Gradually as the road started winding up, we began to enjoy the ride. All along the way we rode with the headlight on for better visibility to oncoming traffic.

A few kilometers before Dehradun we came across a tunnel, and as we entered its dark recesses, we started cursing the bike’s headlight. The high beam indicator flashed on the instrument panel but we could not see any beam up front. Lousy light, we concluded. A few seconds later we realised we had our dark glasses on! That’s what the sun does to your brain. Beware!

Dehradun was crowded as usual and more so in the evening. So after a light snack we decided to push on straight to Mussoorie. The 34-km ride to Mussoorie with numerous hairpin bends is delightful and even though it generally takes an hour to reach, we managed in all of three hours. Ride slowly and you can’t help but stop along the way to admire the beautiful landscape. The cool mountain air takes away all your tiredness.

Mussoorie is alive and happening at night and because of the heat in the plains, the place was teeming with domestic tourists with a few Israelis thrown in. Mussoorie was once called the Queen of Hills and although the gleam has faded a bit, it is still worth a visit. I am sure most motorcycle tourers (including me) would like to avoid the usual tourist places and instead look for offbeat locations that offer fantastic rides and views. There are also lesser tourists in these places.

The Mall Road in Mussoorie is where all the activities are. It is so crowded that you would feel claustrophobic in no time. Motorists have to pay a toll to enter the area. Just as well, makes it less chaotic. We found the Mall highly avoidable and so after a heavy breakfast we set out for Mori. We thought we would never make it because we stopped ever so frequently to soak in the beauty and shoot pictures.

Just out of Mussoorie, the road dips dramatically all the way to Yamuna Bridge. 10 km out of Mussoorie we came across the Himalayan Adventure Institute that offers courses on a variety of activities, ranging in duration from three days to three months. The charges are reasonable too. One of the activities posted on the signboard at the entrance mentioned shooting, among other things. But we were rather disappointed when told that there were only .22 air rifles. Anyway, we tried our hand at rock climbing on an artificial rock face. It was fun but I realised it calls for a high level of fitness.

As we made our way towards Kempty Falls, traffic gradually increased. Kempty Falls was rather empty of character and water but it certainly was full of tourists. The plunge continues till Yamuna Bridge, at a distance of 12 km from Kempty falls, and then starts a steep climb. Here the Yamuna flows out of the mountain into the terai region.

The sight of water bodies soothed our state of mind. We took a right turn from the bridge and 12 km later we reached Nainbagh, a small, rather insignificant town. A left turn from Nainbagh ultimately leads to Yamunotri and that’s where most of the pilgrims were headed.

The hills in this region are rocky and barren with little vegetation. They seemed fragile but the ride was hugely satisfying. The sight of the Yamuna flowing below was awesome at times. 30 km out of Nainbagh we took a diversion that leads to the historical village of Lakha Mandal. Here Duryodhan built a house of lac where he planned to burn the Pandavas. The village is protected by the ASI and has some amazing temples and artifacts from the time of the Mahabharat. There are still some families here who practice polyandry but the practice is on a decline. We reached Naugaon after sundown and the first thing that we did was tank up. Naugaon has the last petrol pump for a very long way and there are none on the route through Chakrata till Mussoorie that we planned to take.

For a small town, Naugaon has an unusually high concentration of guest houses. I wondered why, until I was told that this was a stopover for pilgrims on their way to Yamunotri. The lodge where we stayed was cheap, clean and friendly but the only grouse I had was the beds which were too small. Half my legs hung out and that sure is not a very comfortable way to sleep.

The vegetation gradually starts to change and from Purola onwards deodar trees cover the slopes and the air gets progressively cool. The ride till Mori is one of the finest I have had in a long time. As we neared Mori we could see the Tons river gushing down below. Mori is the only place in India where Duryodhan is worshipped.

Anuj had a mild case of food poisoning and so we decided to stay at Mori. We met an acquaintance, a forest ranger, and he arranged our stay at a forest guest house. Mori is such a beautiful place that I could have easily stayed a couple of days more but time was at a premium. The fresh air and wooded slopes are unspoiled as are the banks of the Tons river. The water looked so inviting that we couldn’t help but take a skinny dip. We should have taken our tents as there are some lovely camping sites here. Maybe, next time. At Mori you can go river rafting, cycling and trekking. Or you can simply become a recluse, do nothing in particular and just enjoy the place.

From Mori we took a left turn and reached Hanol, a Hindu religious place. Operators conduct river rafting both in Hanol and Tiuni, but pity, we could not step into a raft. From Tiuni we rode down to Chakrata, a distance of 77 km. There are some who will be disappointed by what Chakrata has to offer. It is not half as commercialised as Mussoorie but the ambience has to be soaked in. Chakrata was established 125 years ago by Colonel Hume of the British army. This small cantonment area is still in a time warp. The neat bungalows with their flowers, green hillsides and walks on the Mall, all give it a very colonial feel. Chakrata houses a regiment of the army’s special force and perhaps this is one reason why the place is so neat and clean. The terrain offers excellent training facilities to the Special Forces. We spent quite a few hours riding through the narrow roads and lanes and concluded that each new bend offers a view that seems better and grander than the previous one. This is one big advantage of taking a bike tour as it allows unlimited freedom to explore and discover at will. We wanted to spend a night at Chakrata but Anuj was not feeling particularly well and so we decided to push on to Mussoorie where he could see a doctor. Oh yes, we ran short of petrol because of our exploration exercises and had to buy fuel at Rs. 80 per litre. Expensive, yes, but at least we got it.

After Chakrata, the road winds down most of the way till it reaches Yamuna Bridge at a distance of 52 km. Although the road is black topped there are stretches with loose stones and on gradients these can be particularly dangerous. We did face some difficulty at places but overall the weight and the wide tyres of the Thunderbird saw us through.

We crossed Kempty Falls late in the evening and thankfully it was quite isolated. We checked in the hotel and after a bath strolled down to the Mall almost at closing time. We encountered a maverick salesman who managed to sell us some watches and a few knick-knacks. If we had lingered on a little more, I am sure he would have emptied our wallets.

The ride down to Dehradun was delightful with all those curves and the Thunderbird behaved impeccably all along. We lost our way in Dehradun and stumbled upon an antique shop with amazing stuff. I am usually able to resist the Goddess of Temptation much better these days but I succumbed and bought a very old table fan, made in the late 1800s for Rs. 1500. I wish I had the money to buy the other fan that ran on kerosene and had wooden blades.

So far it was fun riding in the hills but I dreaded riding through the hot and dusty highway from Dehradun to Delhi. To avoid the heat we started late evening but it is not a very wise thing to do. Truck drivers do not know the meaning of the dipper and maniacal Sumo drivers make riding a very risky proposition. But we did manage to reach home in one piece with a bagful of dust in our eyes.

No more highway riding at night.

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