Summary of India diary entries by Rob Shackleford
Diary Entry 8 – The Joshimath Road
Read the other India Diary entries:
Start in Mumbai
Up & Down
Into the Desert
North to Rishikesh
Kathmandu and Home
We leave early to ride further north to Joshimath, a town close to the highest mountain in the Indian Himalayas: Nanda Devi. It is one of our chief goals, to visit the Himalayas, though we understand the road can be challenging.
We wave to a few fellow guests, clad as they are in scarves and yoga pants for their dawn yoga class. Because it is early, the ride starts well, though it is not long before we fight the traffic and the roads that has been ruined by recent monsoons. Life still has to go on for these people.
As we ride, there are breath-taking views as the pale-green Ganges boils and carves into the valley below. Brightly coloured villages perched on the steep slopes, many only accessible across tiny bridges or after lengthy, winding roads that are little more than tracks.
But as we ascend, our pace slows to almost a stop. Too many times, cars and buses try to lever past and pretty well push us off the road. The only problem is that there is no place for us to pull over, where we are too often faced with an abyss that drops about 500 meters to the valley below. The driving becomes horrendous, even by Indian standards.
For us, it becomes emotional.
Half way through the day, we stop for a break and lunch. Here, monkeys scamper across the roof and one threatens Kyle because he looks at it for too long. the aggressive male leans forward and screams at him with a wide, open mouth, long incisors exposed . Kyle’s flinch has the locals laugh uproariously and we join in. Despite the popularity of Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God, many Indians seem afraid of monkeys. We see stickers of a muscled Hanuman that coats the rear windows of passenger cars, or are used in most forms of advertising. Yet monkeys generally aren’t treated well. Rhesus Macaques are by far the most common throughout India and perhaps the fear is justified as the creatures act so aggressively.
Our ride becomes ever worse. We are crowded by bikes, little white cars and 4wd’s on a road that is often suicidal. Covered with gravel, the winding mountain roads are often broken, potholed, rutted and muddy. When a bus or car tries to overtake on those roads, it feels like only a matter of time before we witness an accident.
In a nearby village I stop suddenly as a car aggressively overtakes and then immediately brakes. I barely make it, but Kyle runs into me. In a moment, we realise how things can all change. We fall onto the road and dodge wheels as we scramble to our feet. In an act of kindness that seems too frequently rehearsed, locals rush to help and our bikes are soon lifted. Luckily we are alright. Kyle said his mind had wondered for only a second. My tail-lights are wrecked.
Not long after, we witness a motorbike carrying two young men run into a car backing into traffic. The bike looks wrecked and the car owner is furious as he yells at the lads while a crowd gathers and they check their injuries.
The traffic slows to about 10km per hour. It backs up and drivers become ever more aggressive. On that road, where roadworks take place inches from cars and bikes, where roads are often muddy and covered with loose gravel, we are struck with how truly dangerous this is becoming. We check the map and Joshimath, our destination town closest to Nanda Devi, is still 30km away. There is no way we will achieve that before nightfall and to go further is suicidal. The roads are the worse we have ever seen. Kyle shakes his head. “Dad, we have to stop. One of us is going to die,” he exclaims seriously. “This traffic, on these roads, is bloody insane.” We are used to pushing things to get that further, to persisting and fighting the circumstances, but we both realise that won’t serve us today.
We look around. On checking the map we find we are at the village of Laisanga. It is not the place to find the most salubrious accommodation, but I agree, if we persist to Joshimath, as soon as we run out of light, we will also run out of luck.
Fopund Hotel Heaven is a dive. , but I book a room for the night. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t heaven.
They didn’t take card.
Kyle describes it well:
There is this guy at a reception – of sorts.
Dad: So – do you take card?
Him: Oh no sir – only cash.
Dad: Okay, so there’s an ATM next door – we’ll just get the cash.
Him: Um – that ATM does not work, sir.
Dad: Ok – so is there another ATM in town?
Him: Yes sir, but it is empty because this is a bank holiday.
Dad: (With a tone of rising frustration) Ok – well – if you don’t take card, and the ATM’s aren’t working, how can we pay you?
The clerk just sits there for a moment, as if the problem had never occurred to him and then, with a mystified look, says, “Oh, I don’t know!”
Dad turns from him and takes the single stride to the narrow door that faces the street and looks to the sky and says, “Amazing. Just amazing!”
The clerk perks up and adds hopefully, “Maybe, if you give me your card, I can ride to the next village and take the money out for you?”
Surprisingly, he seems sincere.
We both stare at him for a moment.
Dad: I’m sorry, you look like you have an honest face, but if we start doing that, I don’t know where we will end up.”
The clerk looks deflated, then perks up hopefully. “Well, you can follow me to the next village. I’m going to the gym and they have an ATM there.
Dad: “How far is that?”
Him: “Oh, not far, about 15 minutes.”
The last thing we want to do is ride, but we wearily extract our bikes from the impossibly cramped place they are parked and wait for him. It is getting dark and Kyle and I look at each other in disbelief.
Eventually, our hotel clerk shows up, so we follow him through the fading light, through pretty villages and beautiful mountain scenery, to finally arrive at a village with an ATM.
That is not working.
I call out, “Is this working?” I was confused as it appeared to be turned off.
He looks to me from his bike and then to the machine before he replies, ”Oh, no sir.”
I have had enough. All I can say is, “Really?”
He looks to Kyle and gives a panicked grin. I go to my bike and start it up. He leads on and we follow him to the next ATM. Relief! It works
I extract the cash and pay him. With barely a word and with a hint of panicked relief, he dashes off.
We ride back through the gathering gloom, but traffic is minimal. Exhausted, we get back to our room. Somehow, I manage to get some hot water and have an Indian squat bath, but for some inexplicable reason there is no hot water for Kyle.
To make matters worse, neighbouring room residents stand outside our window and play their phone videos, talk loudly and fart enough to wake me. It is 11pm. Dogs shriek throughout the night. Luckily, Kyle is not awoken.
Morning we arise early, but it seems everyone rises early for the reverse rush to Rishikesh. Buses are piled high and four-wheel drives are full of passengers. We opt not to try to get to Nanda Devi. It will only be more of the same from yesterday, so we decide to return.
Surprisingly, the ride starts well with our fellow drivers almost polite. There is no frantic haste and we all co-exist nicely. The roads are as atrocious as yesterday, with one terrifying aspect being a crane that has somehow torn from the semi-trailer carrying it. It is being salvaged by another crane. We have to edge past the second crane with about half a metre between the crane and a sharp drop. As I place my boot into a massive blob of grease, I wobble. It was a terrifying moment, for to lean to the edge would take me over, to fall down a precipitous 500m drop.
It was not long after that when the traffic gets a little crazy. To make matters worse, I fall when a bus forces me to stop on a ridge in the road. I was helped up, but I hurt my right ankle. Kyle tries to catch our ride on Go-Pro, but success is variable.
Kyle has a meltdown, stops the bike and, furious at the Go-Pro and the traffic, pulls off his helmet and, with a cry of “Fuck this! I’m fucking sick of this!” tosses it over his bike. It bounces and then goes into the bushes. It takes a moment before we hear the second bounce. We know what that means. The helmet has fallen down a very steep incline. We have no spare helmets.
“That’s enough! Now you go get it!” I exclaim angrily, regrettably sounding just like a Dad. Our nerves are getting frayed. “We have to keep a lid on this! You have to get your anger under control!” Having the same issues throughout most of my life, I know the battle he has ahead of him.
Kyle is ashamed of his tantrum. Head down, he says not other word, but wanders down a path to find his helmet.
I don’t know how he does it, but he finds the errant helmet. It has bounced quite a way down a scrub-covered cliff. He arrives back to the bikes, shame-faced. “Well that’s Karma, I suppose. I just got stung on my face and arm with stinging nettles.” Thankfully, we end up having a good laugh about it.
It’s not my day, for I later fall again. this time I was forced off the road and against a rock wall by a little-white-car. A sharp slope to the wall means I again have nowhere for my foot and the bike pins me to the wall. My left mirror and speedo cable are broken. Now, my bike looks like a wreck.
As we near Rishikesh after a solid day of incredibly dangerous riding, the traffic seems ever more frantic. Though not as busy as yesterday, it feels more aggressive. All was not bad news for bike riders, for there is the advantage of three complete road blocks that stop any cars, buses, trucks and vans going our way. Bikes can sneak past as earth moving machines heft rocks around us, as little as a metre away. To pass so many cars and buses has us pump our fists into the air in victory.
This must be typical for locals who must ride this dangerous road every day. So many Indians take this road as it is a sacred area, where bathing in Mother Ganga is the goal. So many buses trundle along, loaded to the brim with poor villagers.
When we finally arrive in Rishikesh, there is a feeling of celebration that we are alive. We are so sick of aggressive drivers. Kyle said that one car drove at speed less than a foot from the back of my bike. There is no need for such appalling driving. It does have results. The annual road toll in India is almost 300,000 – the world’s highest. It is interesting that China is second and the USA third.
Yes, we need to rest. to chill and get off the roads.
I book us into the Ganga Vatika boutique hotel, which turns out to be run by yellow-robed female Spanish Hindu monks. They view our arrival in near panic, for we have arrived into a peaceful complex with a roar of engines. Every step I take sends out a puff of dust. From reception there is the sound of chanting. As the pretty, shaved headed monk helps, Kyle’s look is accusing. A ‘what the hell have you gotten us into this time?’ look.
Our accommodation is really quite okay. There is a shower that works. We are incredibly grotty and filthy, but the shower is a shared resource. As soon as we lug our weighty, dusty bags into our room, a little two-year-old wanders in to see what manner of creatures have arrived. She sits, without pants, and has me colour in with crayons.
Later, we take the bikes to a local mechanic who goes by the name of Lucky. The bikes, which look somewhat battered, need a fix and service, so are left to his magic touch.
We then hit the street food and it is amazing. Westerners really should take courage, for Indian street food is a defining gem of their incredible culture.
Tonight we sleep like rocks. There are, thankfully, no barking or shrieking dogs.
Rob Shackleford is author of Traveller Inceptio, published by British publisher, Austin Macauley.
If you read Traveller Inceptio and like it – please place a review on Amazon and the Austin Macauley site Here
Kyle Shackleford is musician under Milo Hunter Band and a Chef.