Somewhere between Solang Valley and Rohtang Pass came acceptance. This trip to Manali, taken at the invitation of Riderthon, an independent community of biking enthusiasts, to cover a ride to Rohtang in celebration of World Motorcycle Day (June 21), would not go as planned. Disappointment had set in the day before, the minute our group of journalists reached Manali and learnt that the event’s promised music chapter featuring local and Nepali artists had been called off. None of the bikers had reached Manali either.
They would surely be there by the time we started for Rohtang the following morning, I was assured. Finally, as I sat fuming through the drive uphill, we had a single rider on an Indian keeping us company. The weather decided to be a spoilsport too and there seemed little chance of spotting another biker in the steady rain. I had two options: I could either forget my disappointment by focusing on the breathtaking landscape, or try and salvage the situation. The second option presented itself when we approached Rohtang and saw three bikes approaching.
As the group, riding on Pulsars stopped to drool over the Indian, I got talking to one of the riders. “We like to come to Manali and then ride on to Rohtang or Leh,” said Vicky who works with Pepsi in Chandigarh. Then, as the weather began to clear, more bikers rode in.
“Over the years, the number of bikers passing through Manali onwards to Rohtang, Leh or Ladakh has gone up,” says Shikhar Babbi, 33, a retail professional, who was returning from Leh. “Biking on these roads gives one a sense of adventure. But every biker needs to be equipped with safety gear, extra fuel, a basic medical kit and basic parts for the bike while on the trail,” he adds.
“This trail tests you,” says Nagarjun N, 25, an Infosys employee from Bangalore, with a smile. This is his first ride in the mountains of north India. “There are remote stretches where you won’t even find a mechanic. There is no pick up either,” he says sounding elated.
For software engineers Shreedevi Thakur and Rupesh Marwade from Mumbai and their friend Neelab from Pune, the ride to Leh would be their longest one till date. “Manali is well equipped to cater to bikers. There are bike rentals, mechanics and other facilities to help bikers. But I wish there was a blog by bikers who have undertaken this ride before, which could guide one with practical information,” says Neelab.
The increase in the number of bikers has meant more business for Manali. “Two years ago, there were about 10 shops renting bikes and gear for bikers in old Manali and Vashisht. The number has gone up to about 20 today,” said Khekram, manager and part owner of Voyager Expedition, a company that provides bikes, guides and back-up jeeps for bikers. “In recent years, the profile of bikers who ride up to the hills has changed. Until very recently, most bikers were foreigners.
Today, there are more Indians,” he says revealing that Royal Enfields are especially popular. Bikes can be hired for anything between `600 to `1500 per day, depending on the vehicle’s condition and year of manufacture. Other kinds of support systems for bikers are also coming up. A month ago, Sneh and Godwin, both biking enthusiasts, opened Ride Inn, a guest house and rider-themed café in Shanag Village, Manali. The Inn has a Facebook page where it posts information about road and weather conditions helpful for bikers on the Manali-Rohtang-Leh trail. “We have been booked full ever since we have opened,” says Godwin, “The beauty of the Manali-Leh trail is that the roads and scenes differ with each season, each ride. So there is a new experience waiting for riders every time they take the trail.”
No wonder then, that on June 21, which was also the day of the summer solstice, I found so many bikers headed for Rohtang, even if they were not the ones I had originally set out to meet.