Waking up in a palace puts you in a good mood right from the start, I find. So does watching wild monkeys play just outside your window. The second day of riding started with good omens and lots of chai.
From Chail we headed towards Narkanda, which sits slightly higher in the mountain range (at 2708 metres to be exact). But what goes up, must come down – and in this case that meant taking a long and winding road down the hill to a valley between the towns, and then the equally long and winding road up the other side. The changes in altitude were significant, and so were the temperatures: the morning in high-altitude Chail was like a pleasant British summer’s day, but the burning midday sun at the bottom of the valley made riding a difficult task. Once we reached Narkanda the temperatures were at more bearable levels again.
The high temperatures and intense humidity meant that wearing riding kit that was both cool and protective was difficult. I got pretty close by simply wearing my Forcefield Pro Jacket X-V armoured technical layer without an outer layer. It was nice and cool, letting lots of air through, but it meant that I didn’t get the abrasion protection that a regular jacket would provide. However, our average speed was so slow (around 18mph) that I figured I’d be better off not having a heat stroke on the bike than protecting myself from unlikely abrasion. And I still had the impact armour in the jacket in case I had a spill.
It might have just been my slowly but surely melting mind playing tricks with me, but the pine-forested scenery and serpentine roads seemed strangely reminiscent of Alpine passes – you just get more monkeys in the Himalayas, and the cows don’t have bells round their necks. Oh, and you’ll find the ladies fashion is a tad more sari-based. Come to think of it, I didn’t see a single cuckoo clock either!
One thing I am sure of is that the driving still scared the living daylights out of me. I thought we had left the madness of Delhi traffic behind us, but even on the mountain roads, the general rule was that the biggest vehicle wins. The ornately painted lorries with ‘All India Permit’ signs at the front and ‘Blow horn’ painted at the back were the kings of the road. They chugged on at their own pace and didn’t move for anyone, whether they were coming from in front or behind. Next in the pecking order were the jeeps and cars, which had to give way to the lorries (or die) but nobody else. Then came us, the motorcyclists, who dipped and dived between everyone else. The only ones below us were pedestrians, who had to jump out of everyone’s way – not that they really seemed to be in a rush to move.
Actually, scrap the above. I forgot the real top-tier creature of the Indian caste system for the roads – the holy cow. They are everywhere. Some are just wandering around on their own, while others are being herded. In any case, they have the religious equivalent of diplomatic immunity, and not even the big bad lorries are allowed to mow them down. On a couple of occasions I was reminded of the ineffectual response of the Himalayan’s brakes when I rounded a blind corner and came face to face with a cow in the middle of the road. Luckily, I managed to keep a respectful distance at all times.
This part of India is a big apple-producing region. As we rode through little villages, the sides of the roads were full of parked lorries, each carrying roughly twelve and a half times the European legal load of apples. You could also see the apple orchards on the hillsides, with big nets protecting them from the birds and hail storms, which apparently aren’t too uncommon here.
The roads we travelled today were much easier than yesterday’s. There was less gravel, and more tarmac, which meant that we arrived at our destination of Narkanda after 120km feeling much fresher than when we had arrived in Chail the night before. What was most tiring today was following the apple trucks on the gravel roads – if you couldn’t overtake them quickly the dust clouds soon covered you with a coating of fine white powder (and no, not the sort that gives you energy and a false sense of self). With zero visibility, eyes and mouth full of dust, and given the unpredictable nature of the traffic, this was not the best part of the trip.
Finally we arrived at our hotel for the night, which turned out to be a skiing resort. There was no snow to be seen, but apparently in midwinter this place gets plenty of snow and turns into a skiing village. So maybe the Alpine comparison was not so far-fetched after all.
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