Wake up early, get hold of our rented bikes, have breakfast, leave by 8 or 9, drive to the lake, enjoy the fabulous setting of the 2700 metres high lake, click some pictures; all the while trying to resemble those cool hippies who drive around on macho cruiser bikes, drive back just in time for dinner. That is how we foresaw our next day. Sounds fun!
We were in Manali (a hill station in the Indian Himalayas), during the summers of 2004. We didn’t have much of a plan coming into this vacation and it was purely the magic of a few framed pictures hung up on our hotel galleries that pointed us in the direction of Parashar Lake. So we look it up in a map that we were carrying. It didn’t have any distances marked to this place beyond a certain village. But judging by the distance between Kullu and Manali, we took an approximate guess at the distance of the lake from Kullu. And since it was off the highway and seemed isolated, we were quite thrilled about the trip.
We managed to leave on time in the morning. We had the company of two antique Yamaha bikes (RX100 and RXG), not in good shape. At least visibly. And since we were no masters of machinery there was no way of determining if they will last the day. We didn’t have to be concerned for long since one of them broke down, one hour into the drive. Going back all the way to get a new bike seemed like wastage of time. Moreover a local mechanic we fetched from a nearby village said that there was some issue with the sprocket and replacement was the only option (which he didn’t have). We had to move on. We couldn’t let an old piece of junk sabotage our ‘plan’. So we left it in front of a hotel, informed its owner of its untimely demise, and moved on with a single bike.
It was a tough going, with weight of over 180 kgs forced onto one poor bike. After all it was no Harley Davidson or Bullet. The progress was fairly ordinary with usual breaks to click pictures, so much so that we had lost track of time. And by the time we reached the forest office to inquire about a trek we had planned to do in the coming days and chatted with the officials there, we had already wasted the better part of the day. It was almost 2 pm. When we did manage to move on and reach the diversion that branches off from the main highway, a couple of people presented helplessness and blank stares on being asked directions to the lake. This worried us. If we were in fact correct with our estimate of the distances, then it shouldn’t have been too far ahead. The next person we asked plainly suggested we spend the night in Kullu and leave the next day for the lake since there was still some distance to cover.
Against his suggestion we continued our movement. The highway gave way to a bad road, and steep ascents, which meant most of the time our bike would overheat and stop. And then, to top it all, it started raining. What this meant for people like us, who had left thinking they would be back for dinner, was that there were no spare clothes in the bags. A really stupid revelation, when it dawned on them. A couple of kilometres ahead we crossed a village, with minds almost made to stop and take shelter from the rains. But the adamant fools inside us, confident about a lake just around the next corner, continued moving. And the rains got harder, fiercer, to the level that we had to stop. A well situated Forest Rest House was our saviour.
Forest Rest houses officially aren’t allowed to let people in without permission, which needless to say, we didn’t have. But the constant rains forced us to beg the guard to let us stay a night. The guard, during our dinner conversation, willingly cleared our misconception about the real distance to the lake. An additional 4 hours from the rest house it was!
The next day we were on the road again. To the lake that is. As we left behind one village after the other and crossed valleys after valleys, we were within the last 12 kilometres to the lake. So what was special about this stretch? For one, there seemed to have been a mini battle fought out there on this road. It was all gravel throughout which made navigating through this stretch a nightmare. And second, the forest around was too dark and dense. There was no way both of us could have made it on that bike, on that steep an ascent. So we waited for an hour before setting our eyes on the first vehicle we saw that morning, a small pick-up truck already filled with people. There was space for people but not for a bike. It was decided that I go ahead on the truck and my friend, the better driver between us, was to drive the bike to the lake. So there he was, all alone on the bike for forty five minutes at a speed at which any animal would have easily gobbled him down its throat; the only thought that occupied his brain for most of the time (something that he revealed to me later). But that was to never happen and we were finally there, chilling at the beautiful lake.
We calculated backwards. 2 pm is when we needed to leave for Manali to reach by around 8. So we started our journey back. An hour down and the bike went into reserve mode. Petrol! Why weren’t we thinking of petrol ever! It had to end sometime! A few kilometres max is what we would have gone and some locals passing by informed us of petrol available in cans at a village some distance away. We wouldn’t have made it. Thankfully most of the way was downhill. So bike was switched off and the slope was taken advantage of. But on one of the stretches, the road seemed unending, without any vegetation on the valley side of the mountain, and sloping massively. This intimidated me and while trying to avoid loose gravel the bike skidded. We didn’t break any bones and both of us were still conscious. So we got up and declared everything was alright to the relief of each other. Just then I noticed a pool of red liquid on the ground. Scary enough for us go frantically body searching, again. No trace of any wound. It took us a few minutes to realise that the liquid on the ground was the leaking oil from the bloody tank of the bike. We laughed off the moment and resumed the silent bike journey.
We drove some, we dragged a lot, and we finally got some oil, got a puncture fixed and started our last leg of the journey. It was already 6 pm and dark and the route entered another long patch of thick forest full of noises, mostly a fabrication of our overtly attentive brains. This was the area around the rest house we had spent the last night. We remembered our talk with the guard about the animals that inhabited these forests, especially bears among others. Now the problem was this: most of the journey in this leg was uphill. That meant excruciatingly slow speed. And since the bike came from an older era, the intensity of the light that came from head lamp was negligible. So we had practically zero visibility in front of us and not a single vehicle had crossed us on this route for hours now. And it was extremely chilly by now, something we weren’t prepared for and possessed only a bed sheet. So this bed sheet was used to cover my friend who was driving now, to shelter us from the chilly winds and I took out the torch I had in the backpack. I kept my hand on his shoulder to aim the torch on the road ahead to add to the dim bike light. And once in a while that torch was used to scout the neighbouring forests of potential dangers lurking out there. And my other hand went into the bag again to search for a dagger that we were carrying and kept it secured in the fist. Just in case! Stupid but understandable given the circumstances we were in.
A couple of hours later, we ended that painful and hair raising journey. But the destination was still far. We were back on the main highway, amid loads of trucks, Volvo buses and human presence, to reach Manali for a late yet safe and warm 10 pm dinner.
We made it back, unharmed, but definitely not as per the schedule. And being out in the wilderness meant no phone calls (absence of network on mobile phones) were possible to our family members either. So it had worried them. A brief scolding session separated us from that lovely dinner.