Cycling to Jalori Pass, Himachal Pradesh

My First Himalayan Ride

All First times are special like a first love, first job, first salary, and first bike and first whatever … My first Himalayan experience has been extremely special as well. Himalayas have been a benevolent teacher to me forgiving my many numerous Himalayan blunders.

It was in Apr 2012 that I experienced Himalayas for the first time in an Yhai’s cycling trip in Himachal Pradesh - from Aut to Jalori Pass. But it wasn’t the first time I was in Himalayas. I’d been there twice before on hop on and hop off family trips to Kashmir and Himachal, but being there and experiencing it are two different things.  At that time, I had been training hard for a mountaineering course with one hour of aerobics and one hour of gym every day for 6/7 days a week for months together. I had also trekked across the Western and Eastern Ghats covering Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. I was to go to Darjeeling for my mountaineering course then, but due to some constraints at work I renegotiated a compensatory vacation to Himachal for delaying my mountaineering training by a few batches.

My Himalayan Bloopers

Due to my rigorous training, I was super confident that cycling in the Ghat roads of Himalayas would be a cinch. The only knots in my stomach were that I was travelling alone up north to a place where, I didn’t know the place, the language, or a single soul around. And it also turned out that I was the only girl in my batch.  Life is weird. It turned out that all things I was afraid of turned out to be great and all things I was super confident about bombed.

I had just forgotten a few minor details like I hadn’t cycled in ages, esp never in the mountains and that Himachal Pradesh happens to be at a slightly higher altitude than Chennai at sea level where I had done all my training and had spent most of my life.

Base camp at Aut

I was clueless about the effects of high altitude on a person. The Base camp was at 3500 ft in a small town called Aut. Even at that altitude I had a slight head ache, first sign of altitude sickness. I dismissed it as due to the incessant travelling in the 24 hrs + before I got there. Around the campfire (which in YHAI has no fire, only a discussion in the tent with a cup of hot drink) tales of mountain sickness including that of hallucinations were shared. It never occurred to me even once any of that could happen to me; I had the usual ‘those are for others to worry about’ attitude.

We, the team

Our group had two Ex- IIT’ians – Rahul and Atul, three guys who had just graduated from XLRI, Apoorv, his friends Mandarr and Manyank, and Parth and his uncle Hitesh, and ofcourse the unmissable me J

Being the only girl in a small group has its own advantages. You are the apple of everyone’s eye and most people never lose sight of you and are always happy to help.  To begin with I borrowed a rain coat from the camp after hearing tales of torrent train from participants who were back.  My super confidence of ‘It doesn’t rain when I trek, cos I don’t like it that way’ was slightly shaken. 

Bloopers and Cover ups

My lack of preparation had no end. On a late after thought together with sheer stupidity I had left my shoes behind thinking I had always trekked with a floater; I’ll do the same this time around too. I didn’t have a good warm sweater thinking my woolen pullover could do the magic since I thought how cold can a place be in mid may… the wind chill temperature of Shimla (cos that was the one city I happened to remember in HP then) showed 24 degrees Celsius and that’s not much different from the office AC where we often wear sleeveless. 

Day 0 – Reporting

The misjudgement (to put it mildly) sent me on a shopping spree on the reporting day and the day of acclimatization. I bought a really sturdy shoe in a local shoe shop for 600 bucks in spite of the person telling us that they make only shoes for men. We thought it was a steal then.  But in actuality it looks rugged but hurt my leg, there is no way that it was going to let me do the run in PT which was probably the only time I really needed the shoe.  I also bought a nice sweater in a local shop. Aut is a small town with absolutely no shops for tourist and the only shops are those on market used by localities. At least that gave me the feeling it’s a bargain and I’m not being robbed for my inadequate prep as one normally is in a touristy spot.

Day 1 - Acclimatization Day

The acclimatization involved climbing a nearby hill with two blankets in the rucksack and a bottle filled with water. A guide was assigned to us. The co-leader Apoorv was asked to stay in the lead with the guide while Rahul the group lead was to be the last man and ensure no one gets left out. Everyone sincerely attempted to talk in English, as they probably couldn’t bear to hear me talk in Hindi. Parth and his uncle, Hitesh, still generously gave me the opportunity to murder Hindi. Most times though, I was clueless as to whether they were talking in Hindi or Guajarati.

Rahul, Hitesh bhai and I got lost and found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful village where we got around talking to a woman who was tilling her fields.  I found the conversation quite interesting and was taken back when the lady said she had lived all her life in mountains and has never seen plains in her life.  We thanked them for the conversation and water and found our way inquiring the villagers since we knew the destination point.  I was furious to know that we were to carry only one blanket while I was carrying two and that Hitesh bhai wasn’t carrying any blanket at all in his ruck sack L

After a test ride in the evening checking brakes and air, and ear marking our cycles from the rack we were all set to begin the journey the next day morning.

Day 2 – Aut to Banjar – 22 KM – 4500 ft/1357 m

A delicious breakfast and lunch packed for later, we set off to our next camp site Banjar. Banjar was 22km away but just 500 ft higher. The Aut tunnel was most enjoyable in its pitch darkness and we had our share of ups and downs on the road, but an enjoyable ride overall. We had all reached Banjar by lunch.  Atul, Rahul and I decided to eat a scenic lunch and walked down to the river in spite a few bruises from an itchy shrub. I remember Atul mentioning on looking at a newspaper lying around that they have news like ‘Guy hits his own brother’; it definitely seems like nothing much happens here. As he was from Delhi were everyday occurrences are lot more exciting (like may be murders and rapes: P), this place sure seemed laid back to him.

Rendezvous with the Himachalis

After lunch and a quick nap in my tent, where I was the sole occupant owing to the fact that I was the only girl, I was all up and ready for a walk around Banjar. Apoorv’s gang and Parth seemed to be setting out after a quick snack and I joined them. Since most of us rushed to the river soon after we landed at the camp site, we were looking at for something else exciting. We decide to go look out for a toilet, as the camp toilets were just pits and were far from a desirable state to relieve oneself.  In our quest for the search of toilet, we spotted an old man playing with his grandson and looking at us wondering what this strange group was up to. Apoorv invited himself and the rest of us to the old man’s place.
The next two hours went in conversation with the old man’s family between some tea and biscuits about the culture, dialects, education, and social strata of people and myriad other topics and we managed to keep his grand kid entertained. The family was surprised to know I had travelled alone all the way from Chennai to explore their state in cycle. The second round of tea and biscuits, the sun disappearing below the horizon gave us a sudden realization that we have a deadline before which we have to reach the camp. We thanked them for the excessive hospitality shown on us and bid them farewell. 

After a little chaos due to the three participants who came back later than we had been advised, we were treated to a piping hot dinner by the ever courteous kitchen staff.  It was a fairly cold night which I spent neatly tucked into my sleeping bag. One of the guard dogs took the liberty to come and sleep next to me, in an otherwise deserted tent. I rolled over my body to other side so as to avoid breathing into the dogs face, having no inclination to get out of the sleeping bag to shoo it away.

Day 3 – Banjar to Jibhi – 10 Km - 6000 ft

Next day morning, we proceeded onto Jibhi from Banjar. It was a much shorter route of about 16 Km but with a good gain in altitude.  The intercept devta processions on the way were interesting sights and a great display of the Himalayan culture. The route was extremely scenic which gave us perfectly valid excuses to get out the cycle and take a break, to catch the breath and some great pictures. I often found myself alone in the middle of the pack. Rahul, Atul, Parth and the XLRI gang were ahead of me and Apoorv’s gang along with Hitesh was behind me. Since they were taking too long breaks, I decided to proceed at my own pace and took short breaks mid ways on my own. What followed was a scene I probably would never forget the rest of my life.

Strange Encounter with a stranger

In one such short break, where I let my bicycle lie against the mountain and had taken a seat on a stone nearby sipping the water from my bottle and breathing in the beautiful landscape. An old man took a seat next to me and started asking about me, things like where I was from, what I was doing there, where I was heading. A friendly banter followed. He soon asked me if I was married, I was a little put off but told him I wasn’t. And then he asked me for my age…which got me just a bit uncomfortable as I answered it. He soon told me that he wants me to meet his son and if we like each other then we can get married in the temple just above where we were sitting and I can call and inform my parents. He went about telling me details of their properties to sell his idea better. I was completely caught off-guard by such an offer and having rested sufficiently, and without even getting on my bike (cycle), I ran with it telling him that my group leader may be looking for me now in camp site. The old man tried to walk with me and finally let go after letting me know that he would expect me for tea on my way back.

While I was still recovering from this, and having a good laugh over the slightly embarrassing incident, I saw Apoorv and co, happily inside a lorry with their cycles; they stopped the vehicle and offered me a lift. I refused saying it’s against the rules and I’d rather prefer to pedal my way to the camp. Since I was the only one behind now, the guide chose to stick with me for rest of the journey. Apart from a minor accident when I hit against the mountains, I managed to reach campsite with no hassles.

Jibhi Camp and Waterfalls

Jibhi camp site was part of a resort next to the river and had pretty good facilities like a pucca toilet with water and light (it’s a luxury indeed, if you are thinking I was sarcastic), camps by the river, a very cozy restaurant. After lunch and rest, while we were getting ready to explore Jibhi, Rahul and Atul were heading back and told us that a beautiful waterfall was nearby and told us the route to take.  We were all sold and headed towards there, following a beautiful forest route, which had some absolutely picturesque scenes and small bridges across pools of water. The waterfalls was breathtaking, yet too cold to be completely drenched in it,as we also did not have spare clothes handy and the offset of evening in wet clothes could really be disastrous to the rest of the trip. So we just let ourselves drench a little bit in the drizzle and the shutter bugs went clicking. Parth made some great SRK poses and also came up with great ideas for the group pics. On our trek back Hitesh bhai joined a local group of men, who were just settling down to booze and we jogged back into the camp site. I was offered a room in the resort over a separate tent, which I refused for the great joy of outdoors.

That night we had a real camp fire and sat around it playing Dumb sharads, Antakshari and singing random songs. A couple of tourists from the resort also joined us. Everyone wanted me to sing the then famous Tamil Kolaveri song, which I should confess they sang much better than I did.

Day 4 – Jibji to Sojha – 10 Km 

The next day was reportedly the toughest climb up. It was just a 7Km ride, but the slope was consistently at about 45 Degrees, I doubt if any one did much cycling at all. The slope was so much that it became impossible to even stand with your cycle as one keeps getting dragged backwards. The crowd had thinned down as there were not much villages between Jibhi and Shoja. Hitesh Bhai, me and at times Parth dragged ourselves to the last leg of the ride. The milestones were just not coming and the roads were jus not ending, and we were probably just not going anywhere J :P  I was an happy soul when I saw the village kids waving at me, for I knew now the camp site can’t be far away. As I approached the campsite, I saw the whole team waiting for me impatiently. Parth put my cycle away in the parking, while others were telling me that the bus to Jalori pass is to arrive shortly and we can get there by bus and visit the Raghupati fort, which is a short trek from there.  We heard the bus, and I grabbed my lunch and hopped in with the rest of them.

Jalori Pass at 10,700 ft

The bus was crowded and we were standing.  Atul was trying to negotiate or rather argue with a local that he must vacate the ladies seat and give it to me as I had come all the way from Jibhi. The local argued he is coming from even far away, and then Atul tried to make sense to him by saying she rode a cycle not hop into the bus. I was so touched by Atul’s gesture but told him I’m fine standing and we as travelers can’t argue with locals and we left it that.

Jalori pass at 10700ft, was indeed a beautiful place with a great panorama of the mountains around. But we first decided to feed our tummy before we fed our other senses and ordered lemon tea and Maggi in the fort view Dhaba.  After inquiring the route, we set off to the fort, what the locals considered to be a 30 min climb seemed never ending esp with our lack of acclimatization. The ridges in pass made the whole place look like a valley and I chose to take some rest in one of them and admire the scene rather than test the patience of my body. Ultimately, none other than Rahul reached the fort, rest chose to return at different a point as Rahul dissuaded them saying it was far more important to get down before sun goes down than get to the fort where the view wasn’t more brilliant than where were standing.

So we got down, and took a sumo back to the camp site. I retired early that night and we had a leisure day to look forward to lazying around a bit next day since the morning activity of Jalori pass was already complete. Apoorv’s gang and the XLRI folks chose to leave early albeit without a guide straight to Aut camp. We the lazy folks decided that we slumber and enjoy sojha with our sojha (Sleeping). I spent most of the day with my legs up the window sill, staring into the golden tinged Himalayas with the sun making its contours even more beautiful and sipping hot chai. The day couldn’t have been any better. 

Day 5 – Sojha to Banjar

While I was glad that all uphill was over, I quickly realized that downhill is going to be no cake walk on a now 45 degree descent slope esp the right side of the road being the one downhill. With 1st gear in front and full brakes, my cycles still sped at greater than 45 Kmph. On a mountain bike (cycle) that had no bells, it helped that I screamed throughout the descent as if I was on a joy ride, only thing was that the risk was lot more real than in any roller coaster !!!

We sighed a relief as we touched JIbhi as the sharp descents were over. The descent is a lot more gradual post Jibhi and most importantly the roads are way better. To celebrate this, we stopped over at a momo place and had some local delicacies. The view from the restaurant was awesome and there was a water mill right behind us.  After resting our butts and refreshing our vocal chords, we set out to the Banjar camp site.  The rest of the ride was comparatively a breeze. The only near miss incident I had , was when I was cycling down the Banjar market road which has another 45 degree plus descent on the way down, I was cycling down with full josh at probably  45- 55 kmph, two locals decided to cross the road carrying a huge bundle between themselves. The mountain bike with poor brakes and no bell..and I was too stunned to do anything …even shout !! Well I just missed them, the local turned and shouted to me ‘Sorry Babe!!!’,..uh…did I say a local it was !!

Back to Banjar Camp

Parth and I were the first to reach the campsite, which kind of surprised me as Rahul and Atul were almost always ahead of us. We relaxed with a welcome drink, waiting for the rest of them to show up.  Rahul arrived and announced that Atul fell off his cycle trying to avoid a motorbike and had been taken to the hospital by the guide. The primary health care center, gave him the first aid and he had some stitches and bruises in chin.  

The first injury in the trip

Atul insisted he will stay with us and complete the trip and not go to base camp. So there he was with us in Banjar. While we were inquiring with him a little worried about the accident, Atul was needlessly trying to impress us… so the conversation went like this:

Me: Hey Atul, Kya hua yar… (Hey Atul, what happened)

Atul: Mein full speed mein aa raha tha aur beech mein ek bacha aagaya.  Who bacha ko bachane keliya, mein wo hi speed mein, I hitthe mountains. (I was coming in full speed a kid crossed the road, so to save the kid I went and hit the mountains)

Me(still concerned): Baccha….bike mein ?? (What kid.. that too in bike…Cos Rahul already told us he was trying to avoid a bike!!!)

Rahul: Ah…Bacha… bike pe..aur puri parivar ke sath… (Ya..Kid in the bike…with the entire family)

And then we all laughed loudly to Atul’s great embarrassment. Then we tried to think of many heroic incidents that he may narrate back home related to this accident and scars, some even included leopards and may be Katrina Kaif :P When I met  Atul later in Delhi, I had asked him so what did he finally tell his folks he said “I told them, I fell off the bike”…all that creative stories for no use !!! Poor us… But within a few minutes, our emotions towards Atul went from pity to laughing butt!!

We spent rest of the day by the river side, in long conversations, trying to catch fish and the guys trying to cope up for the many days of missed bath. Parth was telling me his many love stories and about his family, the fraternal love we held for each other became overwhelmingly so.

Day 6 – Banjar to Aut 

After another well spent evening in the beauty of the camp site, we proceed to the base camp Aut in cycle and Atul, with his broken cycle already dispatched to the base camp took the bus. The ride was more fun than we had anticipated as it was lot more down than up and we hardly had to get off for a breath. We chose to wait before we enter Aut area, so as the guide handover can happen. We saw the batch leaving on that day to the higher camps and wished them luck.

Teary Farewells

Hugs and teary farewells followed at our own camp site as different people were leaving at different times. I am writing this near 2.5 years after the trip, and it is amazing how I am able to recollect such small details about the trip, which goes about to say how much the trip meant to me. 

I landed there as a girl lost in a strange world with limited linguistic skills and in a little over a week Himalayas has become a second home to me, I had made friends for life, many of whom I’m still in touch with thanks to the digital revolution, but more than any of all things I had mentioned, the fact that I had successfully completed the trip that I started with apprehensions together with the magic of Himalayas has had a profound effect in my life till date. The Journey to Jalori pass was much more than a bike ride in Himalyan Ghat roads, in more ways than one it was a spiritual journey on itself.

Traveler Tips 

1)      Have your medical certificates and other reporting formalities printed prior. These facilities tend to be minimal and inconsistent in the smaller Himalayan towns and also much costlier.

2)      The Base camp his currently back at Aut, but has earlier been moved a little further ahead. Please refer YHAI website for latest info on the same

Traveler Warning

1)      Please put in some hours into training every day before you enroll for any rigorous adventure trip, so that you may enjoy the trip as best as possible.  When your fitness is low, it is difficult to enjoy an adventure.

2)      If your reporting camp sites are away from a town/city, please try to finish shopping before you start for the trip as much as possible.

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