Hot On Ice

      

Riding on snow can be exciting yet dangerous. Shahwar Hussain rides to Manali, Solang and Gulaba through slippery and snow-covered roads and survives to tell the tale.
 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania and Anuj Singh


 

The hills have a way of getting to you. If you have been to the hills for any length of time, you will want to head back to them at the slightest pretext. Since India is such a diverse country, the hills have very different textures. Some are perpetually snow-covered while others are dry and cool, and covered with pine trees and then there are some evergreen hills. But whatever it is, the beauty is enthralling.

Most hills districts now have excellent roads and riding through the winding roads on a powerful motorcycle is the dream of every biker. Although I have extensively traveled on hills and on most types of weather, I never ever rode on snow. Well, riding on snow can be very dangerous if your bike is not fitted with specific tyres. And I could ill-afford such liberties.

But snow was what I was looking for and I found it in Manali. There was snow at Auli in Utteranchal also, but somehow the upper reaches of Manali seemed more enticing. And so Manali it was.

   

Our trusty mount, a 350cc Royal Enfield Standard Bullet bore the burnt of our wanderlust spirit all through this winter. We took the bike through some of the worst roads that the PWD and the NHAI could throw up and it hardly ever missed a beat. Riding on the highway is smooth and you can make good time but it does get a tad boring and monotonous. The fun is to take the bike off the highway and on to the narrow and unpaved roads that runs through small villages and invariably leads to many interesting places. Life gets much easier riding on the unpaved roads when you are astride a heavy motorcycle like the Bullet.

After a change of oil and getting equipped with a few êxtra control cables, spanners and a puncture repair kit, we started out on our 1200 kilometers journey. The ride from Delhi to Chandigarh is one long flat stretch with similar landscapes all through, thereby making the ride pretty monotonous. Also, the truckers in this route are immensely avoidable. To escape the traffic and the monotony, we started out quite late at night.

   

Riding at night has its advantages. We encountered light traffic all the way as we rode at a good pace. Motorcycling at night can also be fun, but if you feel that your eyelids are getting heavy, don’t even think about riding on. Stop at a dhaba and hit the bed. Remember, he who sleeps well, lives to ride another day!

We didn’t feel too sleepy since we had countless cups of tea every few hours and so rode on till we reached Chandigarh at an unearthly hour and straightaway made for the hotel.

We wanted to move on early next morning but by the time we started out it was past 10 o’clock and the sun was shining in all its glory. Chandigarh can be pretty confusing if you don’t know the way. You ride through arrow-straight roads and then hit a roundabout that has four or more similar roads. Further down you hit another roundabout, exactly like the one you had just crossed and there will be many more similar roundabouts ahead of you. After having lost our way a couple of times, we were finally on our way to Ropar and on to Kiratpur from where the hills begin. The climb starts gradually and by the time you reach Swarghat, it’s a proper ascent. Swarghat comes under the jurisdiction of Himachal Pradesh and there is a noticeable change in the road condition from here onwards. And it gets better by the kilometer.

 

After Swarghat, the road descends all the way to Barmana and then gradually starts the climb again. To the environmentalists, Barmana would stand out like a sore thumb because of the ACC cement factory that, while providing employment for the locals, is also gradually destroying the environment. Limestone mining is playing havoc with the hills and the thousands of trucks that ferry the cement are really fouling up the clear mountain air. There are many who will say that it is doing more harm than good.

A few kilometers out of Barmana, the road forks out and the right fork leads to the beautiful hill station Shimla, but we carried on straight to Bilaspur. As you keep riding, the placid water of the Govindsagar lake comes into view.There are submerged temples in the lake that can be seen when the water level comes down.

 

For most of the way, we rode leisurely and our finely tuned Bullet 350 just purred along the mountain road. There was no point in riding too fast as we were in no great hurry. But this is not to say that the Bullet does not travel fast. The curves were very inviting and I am yet to come across a rider who doesn’t like to hug the curves. If you are in a Bullet, embracing the curves is all the more enjoyable, what with the bike’s inherent good balance and handling.

We wanted to get to Manali at the earliest and so we rode almost non-stop from Sundarnagar till Kullu. Although it had snowed at the upper reaches, it wasn’t uncomfortably cold and riding didn’t pose too much of a problem. As we reached Thalot after crossing Mandi and Pandoh, we could see a lot of development activities. There are two huge tunnels still under construction and riding through them produces wierd sound effects. A few kilometers out of Thalot, we reached Bajaura, a small town that is well known for the 11th century Shiv temple. Not many people are aware that Bhuntar, which is situated a few kilometers out of Bajaura, has the second highest airfield in Asia. I didn’t know either until a govt official told me over a cup of hot tea.

We entered Kulu late in the afternoon and stopped by a roadside dhaba to warm ourselves by the fire even as we gulped down a couple of cups of hot tea. Kulu is the Valley of Gods and it is during Dussera that the true essence of the valley can be seen. It becomes a sea of colours as the inhabitants of the villages carry their tribal Gods on highly decorated palanquins.

By the time we reached Manali, it was almost dark and we headed straight for the hotel. Since it was off-season at Manali and we were able to get a very decent double room at an equally attractive rate. If you like snow, visit Manali between December and February. The low hotel rates at this time make the snow all the more enjoyable.
 

 

Manali wore a relatively deserted look and the usually bustling Mall Road didn’t have the usual crowd of tourists, but that was relief. Generally the Mall is so crowded during the season that I feel claustrophobic and the numerous taxies and buses clogging the roads don’t make matters any easier. This time around, we were able to ride through the Mall without anybody honking like crazy from behind.

Manali experienced light drizzle and snowflakes fell dipping the temperature even further. We wanted to ride up to Solang but the weather detoriated further and so we sat near the Bukhari at a friend’s place and drank gallons of coffee and tea.

The weather cleared the next morning and we started out for Gulaba. The distance from Manali to Gulaba is hardly 30 kilometers, but the going is painfully slow. Snow is not the best of surfaces to ride on. Since we didn’t have the specific tyres, riding on snow was all the more difficult. When we reached Koti, we felt that all our hard work had come to naught. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which mans these treacherous roads, had put up a barricade. The BRO closes the route for vehicular traffic from the first week of November till May. The jawans manning the post certainly didn’t look the kind you would want to mess around with. However, our photographer Anuj with his wonderful sense of humor had very soon charmed his way to the jawans’ heart. The jawans were so much taken in by Anuj’s charm that they invited us to their barrack for tea and later specially opened the barricade for us to proceed to Gulaba. The jawans warned us not to exceed our four-hour deadline. And that was fine by me.

The BRO bulldozers had cleared half a kilometer from the barricade, but after that it was all snow. The bike kept slipping and sliding making it impossible to keep it in a straight line. Although it was difficult to ride, it was good, clean fun. On one downhill stretch, the road was covered by frozen ice. We rode in first gear with closed throttle, but all of a sudden the bike turned 180 degrees and we found ourselves flat on our backs. One moment we were slowly

riding and the next moment the bike just slipped out from underneath us and there was nothing we could do. We still went around riding on the snow and our stipulated four hours were over all too soon.

 

The next day we set out for Solang, the centre of winter sports, and it was teeming with tourists. To reach Solang, we rode out from Manali to Palchan from where we had to turn left. Solang and the entire region have had quite thick snowfall and this has been a boon for the tour operators and agents who deal in skis, boots, snow scooters, gliders and other winter sports equipment. Solan was teeming with tourists and wore a very festive and colourful look. We rode a powerful snow scooter that was great fun. But we couldn’t try out the skis nor the glider.

Riding the Bullet on the snow was an altogether new experience. There were places where the Bullet seemed to be giving away on the hard ice, but on the soft snow it held its own in a very commendable manner. I have been travelling in a Bullet for quite sometime now and I found that the bike handles very well both in the hills and on the plains. In fact I think it behaves impeccably on the hilly stretches. I never ever felt that it would lose control. Since my bike is fitted with a CDI unit, there was also no problem with the timing.

We departed from Manali by midday and reached Chandigarh after sundown. We contemplated spending the night but the thought of riding through the straight and boring road to Delhi with the sun frying our brains didn’t seem too exciting a prospect. I had a story to write and time was running out so we rode through the night with a couple of stops for food and numerous stops for tea. By the crack of dawn, I was in my bed and a few hours later I was as fresh as the snow and hitting the keyboard in right earnest. '