The signs were all there. I just chose to ignore all of them. I had just decided to go on a roadtrip to the most inhospitable of all Himalayan regions with two city slickers who wouldn’t sleep on some sticky pillows if their life depended on it. I just didn’t see it coming.
Saturday 5.30 AM
The much awaited call was made after 3 hours of very fitful sleep. The answer should have been obvious to me a week prior to making the call. K and K are going to be late. At least a couple of hours. No point waiting, I thought, and sped off into the early morning mist of Delhi in November. With that mild chill in the air and the noisy city still struggling to come out of the blankets, I could even have written a poem for the city. I remember thinking to myself that this is going to be sweet, problem-free and awesome ride.
Then it got worse.
My motorcycle started making a racket so loud I had no choice but to stop. The noise wasn’t coming from the wheels or the body. It was from inside the engine. Great! All the memories of 2008 came flooding back when I had seized the engine on my ’74 Standard on this very road on the way to Ladakh. Thankfully, I realized that other than the noise, the motorcycle is running fine. Having decided it was some tappet noise, I started again.
We rendezvoused at Chandigarh. The gleaming Scorpio was ready. The Bull wasn’t entirely. We considered dropping the bull at someone’s house and leave but didn’t. We were off to Shimla. The ride was largely uneventful except for a taking-a-crap-in-the-open-and-cleaning-ass-with-dirty-newspaper incident and a getting-lost-for-an-hour-on-a-straight-road incident. No big deal.
Narkanda was cold. Quite cold. I had forgotten how cold. We ordered dinner worth four bazillion bucks for a lavish night. And barely five minutes after the food arrived, promptly fell asleep after the 17 hour day.
The roads in Kinnaur are quite nice. More so because of the awesome greenery all around you. If you really want to enjoy picture perfect Himalayas and are scared of going to Kashmir, head to Kinnaur. We were passing by a river when it started calling out to us. We promptly stopped and parked ourselves on the rocks. We spoke to her for over 2 hours before saying good bye and heading out on the road again. Kalpa was colder than Narkanda. Very cold. Wiser from our previous experience, we ordered less food this time. This was feeling like a cold but rather simple cake walk.
Then it got worse.
K went out in search of the leaves of the green paradise in the morning. Took him all morning. There we were standing in Recong Peo at 1 in the afternoon planning to reach Kaza. The cause was already lost for me. But being inside a Scorpio changes your world view. I mean this in the most neutral, non-judgemental way I can put it. Problems that motorcyclists face simply do not exist in the Scorpio world. So, we were off to Kaza.
The night was well into its darkest hour when we reached Nako. It was 9 pm and freezing. We were told the water supply to the entire valley has been shut down because night temperatures have fallen below zero. They don’t want to risk burst pipes. We had to continue down the dark, cold path. We finally crossed into the gates of the guest house at Hurling, 9 kilometres ahead of Sumdo. Our regular discussions fell to new depths as we discussed bed bugs and smelly pillows. With a tiny heater filament providing us with moral strength (there wasn’t any heat that we could feel), we dozed off.
Tuesday 8 AM
We were up early as everyone wanted to get on the road and get to a place with some water. Taking a crap was turning into a nightmare. So we bid goodbye, threw some boiling water on the windscreen (which promptly froze upon landing) and headed back to Sumdo where I had left my motorcycle owing to cold. We were on our way on a lovely sunny day to Kaza soon.
Then it got worse.
We reached Kaza at noon (we stopped at Hurling again as the guest house caretaker wanted us to have some Kinnauri apples – what nice people!). All hotels in Kaza were shut. A month ahead of normal. We were stuck. No one was sure if we would find a place in Losar up ahead. We ran out of choices. The Scorpio world and the Enfield worlds collided again when we made the next plan. Go to Losar, see if any places are open and head straight to Manali in the night, in case they weren’t. I didn’t want to. The thought of crossing Kunzum in the night was sending shivers down my spine. However, the only option was to backtrack to Hurling and face the same situation tomorrow. I decided to risk it. What a fool!
The road from Kaza to Losar is through flatlands with relatively smoother surfaces. For the first time in 2 days, I was in the fifth gear and doing 80. I was a man with a mission. Cross Kunzum while there is still daylight in case Losar is also shut down. I was a little lost in my thoughts as I approached Kyato and then it happened. At the last possible second, the till now calm and collected cow decided to make a mad dash to the other side of the road. I tried nothing. It was a lost cause from the moment I saw the glint in its eyes. I crashed straight into it, swerved to the left and was grazing my face and palms down the asphalt.
I wasn’t broken. Not as far as I could tell. My feet were working, so were my hands. But no my hands were actually not. The top was safe thanks to the solid gloves, the underside was not so lucky. My hand was swollen like a papaya. But I had more urgent issues to look at. Petrol was leaking furiously. I stood up, limped till the bike and put it back the right way up. Then came back to the grass and crashed.
I must have been lying there for an hour because I was frozen by the time the Scorpio arrived. The wind chill was strong. I feared having broken at least one finger and severely sprained both hands. With explanations given, bike stowed away at Kyato and arrangements to pick it up made in Losar, we went for hotel hunting. The guest house was open but there was no water even for taking a morning dump. This affected the spirits of all. Being inside the Scorpio now, I also agreed for the dash to Manali through the night. Big mistake.
The pick-up driver told us there is some ice on the top but that there is a detour to the right which is totally ice free. In any case, this is all new ice and totally breakable. We were feeling fine.
Then it got worse.
Approaching the top, we encountered our first ice. A 10 metre long, at least 5 inches thick block covering the entire uphill road. There was no way we could cross this. Remembering the pick-up guy’s advice, we backtracked and found a detour to the right and took it. It was steep and dusty but the 2WD Scorpio took it well. We were on gravel again and climbing. The MapMyIndia GPS was working well but then GPS can do only so much in a remote mountain. Very soon, we were at the top – 15,000 feet and well below freezing. That’s when we were posed another question. Another detour went to the right.
We had no idea about this second detour. Or was this the one being talked about and the first one just a figment of our imagination. It wasn’t a road, the first one. This one was, however, a nicely defined path. K insisted we go right. I said I was indifferent. The other K said nothing. We ended up heading straight.
Then it got worse.
On the second hairpin, our slow but steady Scorpio slid just a wee bit. By the time K braked, it had already dawned on us. We were already on a chunk of ice with almost zero grip on any part of the road. We tried backing it up with stones in front of wheels but no luck. We were stuck in between gravel and snow. K got out and slipped on the slippery ice and bruised his palms a little bit. By this time, I am on the outer edge of the cliff checking out how far the ice goes. At this time, the other K steps out with the intent to break the ice with a stone. To make the greatest impact, he chooses the largest stone he can see and hoists it above his head. And then it goes all wrong.
Instead of throwing the rock down from where he stood, he stepped forward into the ice. Bad move. He slipped, became horizontal and fell back on the ice with a thud. The stone he was holding comes crashing down on his left thumb – his writing hand. His thumb is immediately crushed under the weight and is almost severed. There is blood gushing out and bone sticking out. He is in pain and shock. Somehow he makes it back to the vehicle. I rush to my medicine box and pull out all the gauzes and bandages I can find. Ten minutes later, we have his finger wrapped in bandage, an ice pack and protective covering. It’s a crude job but this will have to do for now.
Now we face another question. Where is the closest medical help? Kaza is unlikely to have decent medical facility to deal with a severed thumb. We had to go to Manali. We still had the ice to cross. K took to the wheel and I took position on the outer cliff again to direct his wheels. Inch by inch, the car moved down and avoided slipping wide enough to go off the cliff. Almost an hour after we first stopped, we had crossed the 15 metre stretch of ice. And we had a serious injury on board.
Hairpin after hairpin down that slope from Kunzum, we faced ice, snow, water and ragged edges. The road just did not let up. The entire riverside drive to Batal and Chhatru was a copied from the worst rad movie ever made. Stones, water, ice and snow created a combination so painful, I have never come across anything like it in all my travels. Slowly and steadily, K manoeuvred the Scorpio through that hellish track all the way to Rohtang and down to Manali. It was 2 am and we planned to sleep for 4 hours before heading out from here.
Then it got worse.
Wednesday 2 AM
At the emergency room of the Lady Willingdon Hospital, the two doctors woken up from sleep gave us the bad news. An artery has been completely cut. The bone is shattered. And there is unknown damage to tendons. Thankfully, the nerves seem to be in position and there is some muscular movement. We must rush to Chandigarh right now. The skin is not getting enough blood and there is a chance that the finger may have to be amputated. I can promise you that when you head the word amputation being told to you, pretty much everything you think of as luxury and comfort of life ceases to be so. It’s a traumatic word. I can only imagine what went through K’s mind as he heard it.
K took to the wheel again at 4 am after the wound was dressed and secured for the journey. Driving like a controlled maniac, he flew through the ever growing truck traffic. Various phone calls and family advice sessions later, we decided Delhi was a better bet and that doctors in Manali were being unnecessarily paranoid. There was a flight leaving Chandigarh at 11.30 am and we wanted to make it like our life depended on it. We were at the border of Chandigarh at 10.45 am. There was no way we would make it to the airport by the time the flight took off. The next flight leaves in the evening.
We got the wound dressed by another doctor (a dentist, no less!) and hit the road again. Despite this being a weekday, there is sufficient traffic to make us cringe as we roll into Delhi in the backdrop of massive traffic jams at Azadpur. Snaking our way around traffic took another hour and we finally walked in – dirty smelly unkempt – into the swanky Medanta emergency room at 8 pm.
We had been on the road for the last 48 hours. We had crossed hellish roads to reach hellish traffic. We had encountered two accidents. We had lost a motorcycle and almost lost a thumb. We hadn’t had any sleep or food for better part of the journey. And we were back in Delhi 4 days after we had left for Spiti.
But we had done it. We covered the entire stretch. And the parts that others (read non-idiots) normally avoid. I said to K, a successful journey is one which gives you a great story. And by god did we have an awesome story.
Full marks to K and K for holding it together with a bad thumb and driving 36 hours respectively. Now waiting for the bike to be shipped to Manali and then to Delhi.