Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cyclocrossing Jalori Pass -- 25 years ago

“IDHAR ROKO!” SAID THE HIMACHAL POLICEMAN, thumping his lathi on the ground, as if he wanted us to stop our bicycles precisely there. Annoyed, we continued pedaling up the steep slope leading to Jalori Pass. There was a commotion behind and I glanced back. The cop had pounced upon the cyclist at the rear end. The four of us were duly herded to the nearby police post.
     The in-charge of the police post of that little Himachal Pradesh town Ani, eyed us critically. Glancing at my team mates I wondered what he must be thinking of us – after three weeks’ cycling in remote Himalayan terrain, we looked like unkempt bandits.  I hurriedly introduced my team – Jagdish, Sharma and Suresh – and feebly joked that we were not terrorists planning to blow up Jalori pass but employees of the Department of Food, Government of India, on a bicycle expedition from Delhi to Leh. 
MY JOKE ELICITED no smile from the in-charge. He drily retorted that Mother Nature had blown up the pass better than any terrorist could. Torrential rains had just washed away the approach road to the pass that it was dangerous to attempt crossing even on foot, let alone with laden bikes. “So be sensible,” he said, “And take the national highway.”
     He was asking us to re-cross the River Sutlej, return  to the ski resort of Narkanda and from there to Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh. From there we would have to go to Bilaspur and then Mandi, along a highway. Unthinkable. Also there was the time pressure. It was mid-September. Unless we reached Kashmir valley by the end of the month we might be too late for Ladakh. We made up our minds – it’s Jalori or bust.
     It took some patient explaining, flashing of IDs and official letters before the in-charge finally gave in, washing our potential blood off his hands. We waved cheerfully the curious crowd that had gathered outside the police post and pedaled away fast. We had to get out of Ani before the police changed their minds. In this hurry we forgot to buy emergency rations – which we would regret shortly.
blood off his hands.
     The 15-speed gears were proving their worth, enabling us to pedal up the rough slope at a steady 7 kmph. We saw several snakes crossing our path, possibly disturbed by the landslides, but we were wearing tough, ankle high snow-boots and no snake would reach through those.
    At each hairpin bend the road started getting worse and steeper. Even though the intermittent kilometer stones announced that we were cruising along what was left of “State Highway 11”,  even in Ani the road was covered in loose soil. As we climbed the soil gave way to loose gravel and then to little boulders, forcing us to get down and push. [Now, from Google maps it seems that SH 11 has been surfaced all through and has become a real road, and I would love to pedal it up again.]
Families trooped out of their little slate roofed wooden houses to watch the four lunatics from Delhi. Children stared at us hypnotized, evidently seeing bicycles for the first time. We stopped at a school and gave them a talk about India. But the kids were more interested in our bikes so Jagdish got them in a circle and explained the gear system to them. Laughing teenagers pitched in to push our bikes up, so energetically that we had to break into dignified trots to keep up. Though slender and famished, these boys are amazingly tough.
     Often people of one village would accompany us to the next giving us plenty of chance to exchange news. Naturally much of our conversation centered on the life in the mountains.
 LIKE THE OTHER PARTS of the Himalayas we had already passed through, the heavy monsoon of 1988 had taken its toll. [Monsoons returned to the Himalayas with similar ferocity  in 2013 with great losses to life and property. There was another similarity between the two years --- both 1987 and 2012 were drought years.]
The Himalayas are extremely vulnerable to weather, being the youngest mountain ranges in the world. The force that created them in the first place – the tectonic movement – is still at work. In spite of the millions of tons of rock and earth crumbling down from their unstable slopes, the Himalayas are growing taller each year, levered up by none other than the Indian peninsula, which keeps wedging deeper underneath the Tibetan plateau. This natural instability is worsened by human interference. Deforestation was an ongoing process wherever we went.
    We were getting tired and hungry and irritable so we consumed our supplies and made tea and had a song and dance session before proceeding further. Then we came to our first serious landslide spot. Leaving the bikes we went to inspect it. Some fifty feet of the road had slid right off, leaving a neat 60 degree slope. Mercifully it had not rained for the past few days so we were able to gauge crude footholds, shore them up with stones, and carried the bikes and luggage across. It was hazardous – one slip and the next halt would be in the nallah two hundred feet below.
     Then came a broken bridge spanning a rough-and-tumble stream. More obstacles followed, making us increasingly skilled in landslide management. Crossing of the bridge got us completely exhausted. The next village, the locals sitting there said, was Khanag, and that would be the only place where we could expect food and accommodation. The landslides had depressed the morale of the local people. The higher we went the sadder they looked. Apparently for a week no food supplies could be transported and there was food shortage in the area.

    Finally Khanag Village came into view, perched about which was the PWD guesthouse. But there was no food available in the rest house or in the village. Oops. We felt so foolish not to have even the basic foodstuff with us. We were carrying food everywhere we cycled but hadn’t needed them. But now we needed food and nothing was there, not even a packet of biscuits!
     To top matters the chowkidar of the rest house was not there. Only the gardener was present. We showed him our IDs and explained we were central government servants. Could we spend the night in his resthouse? The gardener, who had never heard about the government in New Delhi, wanted to know if our central government came under the state of Himachal Pradesh. We had to admit it didn’t. It took the local schoolmaster to explain things to him and he reluctantly let us in.
     Once we were inside, the gardener became very friendly. Realizing we were hungry, eh fetched us his subsistence food stock – a dozen or so small potatoes.
     Then came the good news. In view of the rare nature of our visit, the local tea shop man had agreed to make dinner for us. The dal-roti we had in that little  teashop with plenty of stimulating conversation with the assembled Khanagites was one of the gastronomic milestones of our expedition. The dinner was on the village despite our protests.
     Back in the rest house, as I drifted off to sleep that night, an authoritative voice same from the verandah – Sharma was educating the gardener on center-state relations in India.
NEXT MORNING WE bade goodbye to the newly enlightened gardener and got ready for the final push. From Khanag is it only 1,500 feet climb to Jalori top. The scenery became increasingly lovely. A dense growth of pine and deodar gave shade throughout, chilling us whenever we stopped for a breather. By noon we ambled up the last hairpin bend and reached the top of Jalori pass.
     The place was bit of an anticlimax. Most passes are. We were at 10,500 feet but there was no indication of that. What could be seen was a gentle grassy mound, sloping to the north and the south. Two green hillocks flanked the east and the west. But for the conifers and the nip in the air, the place could have been in central Kerala.
     Jalori top was surprisingly inhabited. There was a temple and nearby two dhabas served frugal fare to travelers walking their way between the valleys of the great rivers Beas and Sutlej. The people told us that from April to July the pass was sort of motorable, but not from the Sutlej side which had been completely broken down for years. Once the rains start the road falls of in chunks. And by the time the repairs are complete it would be winter, and everything gets buried under  snow.
 THE NATIVES recalled with nostalgia when only a few years back (in the late 1970s) Jalori pass had risen to prominence as the most adventurous stretch in Himalayan Car Rally. By the mid-1980s the road had become so bad that the rally had been diverted to a different route.
     The northern slope of the pass was reasonably intact. The view was spectacular, the distant snowcaps of Lahaul-Spiti partly framing the northern horizon. As we freewheeled down, a heavy downpour caught us unexpectedly, before we got a chance to don our raincoats.
     In spite of the chill we felt great, knowing we had made it.

Ani to Jalori Pass from Google Earth:The distance which took us almost two days was merely 30 km! Now it seems motorable and can be reached in less than an hour.


  Creative Commons License
This work by Sajjeev Antony is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All photographs appear here are the joint property of Sajjeev Antony, K. L.Sharma, Suresh Kumar and Jagdish.