Second Great Escape from Delhi

It’s about 04:00 as our alarms sound and we get ourselves dressed and the bike loaded down in the alley in front of the AMAX Hotel. By 05:00 we’re ready to go. We take a few snaps for the album and off we go!

Driving in Delhi at this time of morning is an absolute dream! Traffic is more or less nonexistent, which means your journey is safer, cleaner and faster than ususal. We stop a few times to ask directions out of central Delhi to get us en route to the Grand Trunk Road going north by Karnal (also known as the NH1 or National Highway 1) but all-in-all we have no problems. In fact, once on the outskirts of northern Delhi, we miss an offramp at a major fly-over, and a few kilometres on two young men on a motorbike come buzzing up next to us asking where we’re heading, and as we tell them we’re heading for the NH1 they kindly point us back 4km into the right direction and to the turn-off we need to take. — Did we look lost?? 🙂

Leaving Delhi, I am amazed at the distance we have to cover. I didn’t remember it taking so long the last time I took this route. Also there has clearly been a lot of development, because there are huge metro stations straddling the highway every few kilometres which weren’t there a few years ago.

However the traffic, once there is any, hasn’t changed at all! We’re left with clear roads almost all the way out of Delhi and the traffic materializes only about 2 hours into the drive around Sonepat. Scooters, moto-rickshaws, bicycles and animal-drawn carts mostly in the left hand lane; cars, trucks, buses in all lanes but especially straddling two lanes as suits the driver’s fancy at the time. Overtaking is done from any side and especially by cars, the only quasi-requirement being a toot on the horn somewhere during the manouvre. This is not riding for the faint hearted and requires full concentration at all times and healthy predictive skills! (Or alternatively blind faith in a God of your choosing.)

The NH1 is for the most part just a long straight stretch of relatively even tarmac lined by dusty towns and large eucalyptus trees backed by green fields. Having left so early we’re enough ahead of the traffic that we’re able to ride a steady 80km/h along most of the NH1, except that there is a lot of maintenance going on, meaning that every few kilometres the highway is diverted along a smaller side road of lesser surface quality and more moving obstacles, thus requiring a reduction in speed.

To Ebru this is a new experience altogether: not only is she new to riding pillion on the back of a motorbike, but on a fully laden cruiser in these Indian driving conditions, I can understand why she looks a little bit nervous. We stop a few times for short breaks, to have a refreshing drink or some food, and when I ask her whether she’s comfortable and enjoying the ride, she doesn’t have much to say except that it’s “scary”. Yet fortunately whenever we’re about to move on she still bravely climbs back on and I’m sure she’ll get used to it soon. I don’t mention anything about mountain road riding as I’d rather she have the opportunity to savour the experience fully.

A few kilometres after the city of Chandigarh we start to see the foothills of the Himalaya rise out of the ground ahead of us. Once we reach them the road conditions deteriorate dramatically and the traffic situation decends into total chaos. There are hundreds of jeeps and cars carrying mostly local tourists to the cool heights of Shimla and beyond, heavily laden bicylce rickshaws being pushed uphill by sinuey, sweating men, buses providing their services to various destinations local and remote, and of course, and endless stream of questionably maintained trucks ferrying tons and tons of supplies between the low- and high-lands or making their way to and from a major cement plant somewhere up in the mountains.

As a two-wheeler you need to be under no illusions about your position in the food chain and the journey up the congested, winding road to the city of Shimla is a finely calculated combination of eating dust and exhaust smoke, ganging up with other two-wheelers to form a more effective wedge between larger vehicles, and using your size-advantage to swiftly clear your way past stationery or slow-moving traffic wherever your way is not blocked by obstacles, ditches or cows.

We cover the 100-odd kilometres up to Shimla in about 3 to 4 hours. We stop at a tourist information office on the road side and Ebru makes some inquiries inside. I greet a local police officer outside and am about to light up a smoke, when he stope me and informs me that smoking is not allowed in Shimla.. he must be joking!

It’s been a long day’s riding and we’re glad to have arrived, but finding the accommodation – even the ones recommended by the Rough Guide – is not as easy as we thought, because the main road through Shimla has been declared pedestrian only. We ride around the outskirts for a couple of hours but find no accommodation up to standard or within our price range. Eventually we have to leave the bike chained up in a parking garage at 40INR per 24 hours and carry our luggage up the steep streets and stair-cases to the town centre.

This is tough going! I look at Ebru’s face and she looks like she’s about to pop. There’s a helpless plea in her eyes saying, “please let it not be like this?!” I can understand this feeling from trekking at high altitude – it’s a mental challenge. Aside from a minor break-down she keeps it together and survives the extreme uphill struggle which eventually brings us to Hotel Dreamland, which is up behind the Christ Church and has a nice view of the surrounding hills and valley.

The room is simple and a bit shabby and mouldy but we’re safely checked in at last! We’re not overjoyed with the rate of 500INR per night but it’s half season and we’re at the top of the hill near the centre of town, so we accept it. After a much needed shower we have enough time for an evening-walk through town and we have a dinner of Chicken Tikka Marsala (tandoori) and Mutton Seek Kebab, which is decent and tasty. Exhausted, we head to the hotel and hit the hay!