We took the boys on a day ride to get familiar with the bikes and left-side driving. Back up Solang Valley and they all looked solid so we headed halfway up Rhotang La for lunch. The dry road gave them some idea of what they may be in for without the added stress of hundred meter mud puddles and water crossings, plus traffic was light because we timed it so that we would not be competing with the tour buses.
Larry cut a corner too sharp on the way down and was surprised by a Tata coming around the bend. His front tire caught in the sandy duff and over he went. He had a smashed headlight all right but no injuries, so it was a cheap wipeout. Good to get the first one out of the way so everyone could relax.
Day one on the road involved traffic and heat. We had to wait for a bus to unload all the people from the roof and some from inside so that it could climb up and out of our way on the road to Jalori Pass. Shortly after we passed the bus, Anu pulled over and said, “We stop here for night.” There was barely enough room to park the bikes and all I saw was a cornchip Granny stand. He told us to leave our bags cuz the boys would get them and led us down a little cow trail that turned into a sidewalk. “This special place, in no books,” he said.
The hotel was beautiful with spectacular views of the valley. We could hear singing from down in the bottom of the valley and after we pitched our bags, one of the boys took us down to the annual Raksha Bandhan, which is a festival honoring brothers and sisters.
Women lined up from oldest to youngest with linked arms performed a set dance while singing to a similar line of men. Both lines circled seven or eight men with drums, two men with some kind of oboes and two others with six foot long silver horns straight out of Dr. Suess. The festival lasts for three days with people constantly joining and leaving the circle.
It’s been great to reacquaint myself with our route. Things have changed a bunch since we were here last. The road to Solang no longer requires bouncing over round river rocks for three-quarters of a mile. The future ski resort, a project ten years in the making that Carl, Matt, and I toured won’t open, power lines now criss-cross its slopes.
We stopped for lunch in Recong Peo and I led the way up some crumbled and uneven concrete stairs. I remembered thoroughly enjoying our lunch there last year. I topped out on the stairs and found only a pile of broken bricks where our café had been. They hadn’t knocked out all the windows yet so I was able to point out the AkRider sticker to the boys to prove that it was the right place.
We ate next door which was convenient but somewhat below standards, not quite as dark and dirty as the asshole but you could see the hemorrhoids from there. The boys were troopers though; they’ve all traveled quite a bit and rolled with the third-world shake of the dice.
We slept that night in Kalpa, which is an apple orchard community at about 10,000 feet. The neighborhood dogs held quite the symphony for us crescendoing with enthusiasm until the rains started.
We scheduled the tours much earlier than our scouting trip so snowfalls would be rarities that didn’t stick to the roads and avalanche closures would be non-existent. But it’s always something and this time of year is monsoon season.
The dogs quieted all at once up and down the valley as if the maestro’s stick had suddenly stopped. I wondered what had happened. There was no shout from a neighbor followed by a shotgun blast to scare them like I remembered in my youth when dogs were being unruly. I was mid roll over when the rains came.
There was no howling wind or a sprinkle that built in intensity. The sky just opened up. It did whatever was two notches above poured for three hours. Then it didn’t taper off, it simply stopped. The sun poked over the ridge and my favorite blend of heat and humidity cranked while we packed.
Anu voiced his concern at breakfast. That kind of rain often leaves landslides as a reminder of its passing and we would be spending most of the day exposed in that kind of terrain. We had sixty kilometers to cover through a canyon construction zone which is the biggest hydroelectric project in the entire Himalayas, and that’s saying something in a country where the Colorado would be just another river.
We got lucky on the landslides. The rains turned some of the duff into peanut butter which was pretty exciting to spread with our street bikes, but mostly it just kept the dust down.
We drove through shanty towns with rusted corrugated steel roofs dotted with satellite dishes full of naked children and mothers doing laundry in muddy streams and past the various construction zones where men wearing hardhats and flip flops ran jackhammers.
There was a natural stopping point at the end of the construction zone where we watered up and Mariska pointed across the valley and up maybe 600 vertical feet to where the new road would be. Last year we could see the frontline folks blazing the trail with pickaxes while a team behind them trundled rocks down to build up the sides. It looks like it may be ready to pave already, truly an incredible amount of progress to make in one year by hand.
We stayed the night in Sarahan. A work crew mixed concrete for the third story of a building next to our hotel. They had the old rope and shovel team (one man holds the shovel, his partner pulls the shovel through the pile via a rope attached just above the spade, then the handle holder lifts and dumps the rocks into the waiting basket) filling basket after basket with aggregate, an old man (who looked about a hundred and twelve but was likely in his fifties) shoveling sand and a young boy adding water. I watched for a long time trying to figure out what sort of mix they were running. Knowing that an extra quart of water in a yard of concrete weakens the mix by thirty percent, it was easy to imagine why the story below sagged on the far end.
I read a book after dinner until two boys with music blaring out of their cell phone came up and asked me if I had any money for their foreign currency collection, a common scam here. I told them that I had already converted my money to rupees and asked them if they wanted to join me.
School is compulsory here until age eight or nine depending on whom you ask. They looked to be about that age so accounting for poor nutrition, I put their age at ten or so and asked them if they went to school and how old they were. Yes, an hour bus ride each way and thirteen year old twins. Their father owned our hotel which made them some of the wealthiest kids in town and still they showed no signs of puberty at thirteen and were much slighter in build than the average American third-grader. I guess I don’t mean average third-grader but the ones whose parents don’t consider Sunny Delight and Ho-hos as a snack option.
They gave me some Hindi lessons at my urging. I won’t be conversing about the local cricket team or whether India should really be focusing on going to the moon with the locals anytime soon, but my pleases and thank yous are now pretty solid.
We’ve been on the Inner Line for the last few days and are currently layed over in Kaza. The Inner Line was opened to tourists, Indian and foreign alike, in the Nineties. It is a well-maintained, by Indian standards, road with very little traffic save for military vehicles. It was built because China decided to move the border about five miles closer and the Indian government decided that that was shit up with which it should not put.
Our first night in the restricted area was at about 12,000 feet in the village of Nako. I hiked up to an abandoned monastery with Colin. The whole area is terraced with rock walls and aqueducts channel snowmelt to the apple trees and pea patches.
The tops of all the walls and fences have flat rocks with Sanskrit symbols carved in them and I’m talking the top two feet of many miles of walls and fences stacked with flat rocks carved by hand from long before the Iron Age. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around how long people have been carving on those rocks; it must be in the thousands of years.
Just got back from a day ride to a one thousand year old monastery and the highest road accessible village in India. At the monastery a little boy of four or so grabbed Mariska’s hand and pulled him up two flights of stairs and into a dark room with candlelight shimmering off the walls. The boy waved to a monk in the corner and left. The monk asked us if we wanted tea.
His master relieved him and took us on a tour of the facilities. He had been brought there by his parents when he was six. Twenty-four years later, he is about halfway through his training. He has taken a vow of celibacy and poverty as have all of the 170 monks there.
The village of Kippa gives them food and that along with donations keep the lights on. The fourteenth Dali Lama stayed there in 1971, 2003, and is slated to again in 2010. The monk showed us the bed, it is the same one each incarnation of the Dali Lama has slept on since the monastery opened.
Many of the rooms are filled with ancient scrolls, paintings, and the like. But what most impressed me was the monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in the last room we visited. He held a thick hemp rope in his hands. He kept rhythmically leaning back with his arms straight which pulled the rope.
The rope spun a prayer wheel, which is really a cylinder, that was about eight feet tall and six feet in diameter. The top edge of the wheel had one silver bar maybe a foot long protruding from it. The bar struck a knocker on one of two bells as it went by.
The bells were different sizes and so gave off distinct peals as the cylinder spun. The monk kept up the pulling as a form of meditation until another one came to relieve him. The cylinder has been spinning and the bells ringing twenty-four hours a day for four hundred years.