Manali is an adventurers playground, base jumping, paragliding, white water rafting, trekking – You name it. You can probably do it in Manali or in the surrounding area. Previously a magnet for men having a mid life crisis and looking for the ultimate thrill, they head to Manali, hire/buy an Enfield and head off on what is not only one of the most dangerous roads on earth, but also touted as being the single best ride on the planet.
Starting in Manali the road heads NW and cuts up through the mountains for around 50km until it hits one of the most dangerous high passes on earth. So dangerous in fact, it’s name is Rohtang Pass which translates to ‘ground of corpses’. A bleak recognition of all those who have died attempting the crossing.
At around 4000m at altitude it isn’t the highest pass on the road journey, and falls about a thousand metres short of the worlds highest crossing further along. But it is one of the most difficult passes due to the adverse weather it attracts and how prone the landscape is to landslides. Rohtang pass remains closed for the biggest part of the year, impossibly closed through 20 feet of snow all winter and then regularly closed due to landslides – Only last week did yet more poor souls justify the name, as they succumbed to it’s unforgiving nature.
After chatting with the kids and generally assessing our options they nagged me to hire a motorbike and go exploring the mountainous roads with Rohtang Pass on our agenda. I was none too keen since our last experience on a motorcycle, on a mountain led to us narrowly escaping death by falling off inches from a cliff face. In fact that is the single only time I have ever rode a motorbike and so was cautious.
The guy at the motorbike shop was trying his best to convince me to hire a Bullet. A fantastic machine at 500CC, a real beautiful motorbike and something of dreams for many people. In life you have sheep, not baa baa wooly type sheep, but human sheep and most human sheep dream other peoples dreams. For instance how cliche and boring is riding Route 66 on a Harley…. Well I’ve driven loads of route 66 in a Jeep and its boring, but it signifies for many people a dream – of someone else’s dream.
But then you have those who walk on the grass not the path, those who dream their own dreams. And they dream of hiring a Royal Enfield Bullet and taking it across some of the most baron landscape in the world, somewhere so isolated you have to carry loads of fuel and acclimatise en route. Somewhere that has the power not to flick up a Taco Bell every 15 miles, but to break a man mentally, to sap every shred of energy. From the 30 degrees of Manali to half a day later being in temperatures in the minus. Think a road that is a mud track, wading through rivers, crossing some of the highest passes on earth and risking back shattering drops of thousands of metres; all deep within the Indian Himalaya.
Anyway I settled on a 180CC Yamaha for just 500INR (a fiver) with two helmets thrown in. I had to go without and I was amazed I could still ‘sort of’ remember how to do the gears as we stalled off down the hill heading to Rohtang Pass. The thing ran out of fuel about a mile away and so I had to breath into the tank and run on fumes until we made the gas station. The kids had to walk up the hill whilst I cruised up loving life 🙂
Once we set off again it wasn’t long before we had hit the mountain road and was skirting around the side of a mountain, steeply taking hairpins with thousand metre drops minimum, increasing greatly the higher we got. It wasnt long before I realised the bike was puny. It had absolutely no power when faced with the steep gradient and it got to the point where even in first gear the bike was cutting out. It was really starting to piss me off and as the kids were speechless through the sheer beauty of the landscape (and probably the altitude) We continued on for about another 30 minutes and I saw a tiny little hut, the first sign of life we had seen within an hour except for the occasional jeep creeping past us precariously.
It was around 10am and we stopped for a munch. I figured they’d probably have some samosas left from yesterday and hoped to get info on the route. The bloke surprisingly spoke half decent English and he told me we were about 3600 metres with Rohtang pass being some 10km away. As we chatted I saw some horses carrying people on a track nearby and asked what they were for. It turns out there was paragliding nearby at around 3900m. Now, we had wanted to do this the day earlier but the weather had been off and so I had an idea. I asked how we got there and he said to leave the bike with him and trek up. 300 metres should be a walk in the park and so we ditched the bike and set off. Now, at altitude the air is thinner and thinner air means less oxygen, but also nitrogen and everything else that is present in air. For instance, at sea level (the UK) the body is saturated with 98% oxygen. At 3000m 88% and then every thousand metres roughly 10% is lost. So at 4000m the body is saturated with just 78% oxygen. People react differently, mild symptoms include nausea, difficlutly sleeping, dizzyness, irritability, fatigue, and headaches. Most people experience some form of mild symptoms. Everyone will experience breathlessness under mild exertion. Left untreated AMS (acute Mountain sickness) can, and does kill. Other than popping some pills and offsetting things slightly the only thing to do is descend.
It’s actually difficult to comprehend, but I have a really strong mountain fitness. I can easily scale any of the peaks in the UK barely breaking a sweat, but that 300m walk was an absolute killer. The heart requires oxygen and so beats faster, much faster. Even at resting the pulse races as the body tries to garner the oxygen it requires. That 300m walk completely wiped me, and the kids out. Normally I could run up that bad boy, take a piss then do it again. But it was absolutely back breaking and I physically had to stop to try and slow my breathing down. The kids fared slightly better than I did, but for us all, that 300m, that minuscule near vertical distance really was tough.
Eventually we found the pilots flinging themselves and others off the mountain at near 4000m high (almost half the height of Mt Everest – 13,000ft) Next time you are on a plane and the pilot turns off the seat belt sign after take off, look out of the window. You are likely around 8,000ft. Think almost twice that height.
I couldn’t paraglide because there was no way on this earth, for any amount of money or sex with virgins was I going to walk back up that hill for that motorbike. And so I was told the price was 2000 INR which is around £20 for the 15 – 20 minute descent back to a place we had passed en route. I explained it was too much money, which it wasn’t. I was just looking at how high we were and was having slight reservations. “Ok, I take your son and your daughter, total 2000INR total” This hadn’t occurred to me as there was no way Abi would be up for it. I looked at both kids and they both looked ridiculously excited. “Can I do it Dad” asked Abi. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I spoke to a woman who was up there working for a company I had recognised based in Old Manali where we were staying. She agreed to keep an eye on Abi and make sure she was safe if I left to meet them both at the place where they would land. I left the kids in good hands and fell half the way on my arse back to the bike. I bezzed off down the mountain road and found where I needed to be. Pretty much as soon as I arrived there Charlie came into land. He was grinning from ear to ear. He was ecstatic, the pilot told me Abi was airborne and about 5 minutes away. We stared into the sky and I could see a tiny parachute curving through the sky carrying my little princess. As she landed I heard her screams of joy and she almost instantly said “Can I do it again dad” I was immensely proud of them both. Not sure how many kids their age have para-glided in the UK but I’m guessing it isn’t many. Both kids agreed undoubtedly that it was the single best thing they had ever done in their lives.
I checked the fuel in the Yamaha and realised I had severally underestimated the consumption of the ancient beast. Largely due to the fact we were in such low gears which of course equals much higher fuel consumption.
Rohtang pass was now out, but that didnt dampen the mood one bit as we cautiously made our way back down to Manali. It took around an hour and for some stupid reason I had decided to call at a restaurant recommended to us, I heard a whistle and the police man gestured me to pull over. Having no licence and no license to blag because I had left it as security for the bike (along with no insurance and no helmet) we sped off. There was no chase but the problem was it was the road needed to get back to Old Manali and so we had to find a detour. Which we did, it took us off road, through apple plantations and as we sat eating an apple we had picked, beneath a huge waterfall we tried to get some feeling back in our legs. Then, the funniest (probably had to be there to see it) thing happened. We were in the middle of no where, seriously. No houses, no one else around – Nothing. Suddenly, a bright yellow school bus trundles past with kids inside chilling. Then as the bus passed a little kid, maybe 6 years old comes racing down the road full pelt chasing the bus. Completely bizarre, funny as hell! The bizzareness continued as we came across the worlds hairiest rabbit and a Yak at a stunning, ancient temple. Excellent photo opportunities!
Once back in Manali we ditched the bike and started the hefty walk back up to our hotel. En route we spotted a cafe belting out acoustic classics. Live music is like a magnet to us! And in any case a beer and cold drinks were in order so we nipped in. The woman owner gestured us into a back room and I was just about to explain im not down with that whilst the kids are with me when she pulled back a curtain and there was a TV, DVD player and a load of pirated DVD’s. The walls were painted hippy style and there was bean bags and pillows sprawled about in the small room. I found 50 First Dates, ordered a cold one, a couple of hot chocolates and some sandwiches. We sat back, laughed from start from finish and as we left about 8pm in darkness I remembered just how much I loved that movie – To which both kids agreed, with Abi claiming it had been her favourite movie ever.
It was the perfect end to an amazing day.