Pedalling My Way To Shimla

Prologue

The stares I was getting were priceless. I had ridden into a petrol pump to ask for oil – on my bicycle. After the initial shock, the guy in charge decided it’s better to just sell me the lubricant I wanted than to investigate the issue further.

There were three of us in the hostel common room. I was trying to apply my newly acquired knowledge about bike adjustment. Akash was wearing surgical gloves (which I had lifted from some lab to make balloons) to save himself from grease. Adrita was in charge of the music and providing me with a lap to keep my head on when I needed to work from underneath the bike. I wasn’t leaving because I didn’t like the home I have.

November 3, 2018

I’m not brave enough to take a bath on a winter morning. Especially if I plan to leave by 5. It takes enough determination to just get out of bed. I had taken care of that the night before. A little walk on the roof, however, was enough to get me excited. Loyal to the traditions of my university, I started two hours late.

The weather was perfect. Light grey clouds softened the sun’s rays. I navigated through the narrow streets of North Delhi. Modernity has been thrust upon these streets. At one point, Cars, bikes, men all got tied up in a deadlock because of a Bullock cart up ahead – the bullock seemed to appreciate the importance of leisure and insisted on enjoying his morning walk.

The Delhi traffic proved to be sufficient exercise to get me hungry. I stopped at a dhaba selling puri. They refused to keep an eye on my cycle while I ate inside. A man gleefully informed me that a scooter had been stolen just a few days ago. He looked like a kingpin of some stolen scooter empire. He waved a cheery goodbye to the dhaba owner and sped off on his scooter. The people at the dhaba brought out a chair and table for me to sit outside. They have some soft spot for cyclists I guess. They even gave me a five rupee discount.

I made it past the Ghazipur landfill mountains, and on to the highway. I felt a little rush. A lot of time on my hands, and a lot of road before my wheels. What more could I have asked for…

The Haryana border presented itself. The border, more than being visible, is audible. Haryanvi people replace every N with a R. With a vengeance.

Haryana has golden yellow dust. It was on the road, in the air, everywhere. Sun seeped through the clouds and lit up the dust flying all around. The whole atmosphere was a golden grey.

For lunch, I rode into a drive-through Burger King. The car drivers gave me enthusiastic best wishes. The guy at the counter was pretty nonchalant. He was only concerned with his side of the window and sending burgers out from it.

Eventually, I came to an empty shop. It was a simple tea stall. A storefront, a little bed, a bench made out of a yellow back panel of a truck, with the word stop written on it in red cursive. It was the perfect place to lie down a bit.

Lying down, I could see the sky through gaps in the tin roof. Dust moved on my skin. I watched clouds moving in the sky. I felt like a desert. Free, like dust, like clouds, like time.
I heard a plopping sound behind me. True to my mother’s worldviews, I assumed it to be burglars coming to steal all my belongings. I was pleasantly disappointed to find only a lizard.

The light remained the same all throughout the day. Just my shadow shifted from left to right. A little after sunset, I reached a little tea shop. The man there made sure I drank enough water, washed my face. He also offered to let me sleep in the local Temple, and advised me to get married, in that order. Knowing that I’d continue that day, he gave me some Prasad from the Shiva temple to give me the energy to reach safely and surely.

Panipat arrived, with street lights thrust high into the dark night sky. I needed a place to sleep. Deepika informed me that I won’t be allowed into her home since what I have between my legs is dangerous. I found a gurudwara just as a few raindrops made their way down from the sky.

I got a place to sleep in the basement. The music that came from upstairs washed away my tiredness in waves. The food there was definitely one of the best I’ve had.
A rickshaw puller, a saree trader couple, and a traveller shared the night.

November 4, 2018

I started early. It was dark all around. The skies lit up as I cycled. Over a cup of tea, I watched the sun turn red to gold.

The more I moved North, the more the air got clearer and clearer. The leaves of trees, unlike yesterday, were free from dust. With a deep green love, they greeted the golden sun, they greeted me. The dark black highway lay like a happy child in their arms.

Afternoon came, and with it came tiredness. I found a little room with jars of assorted snacks in the front. I went on to ask for tea. The people inside replied that the dhaba behind could serve me tea, but this was a Desi theka, and I’d be welcome to join them for a few drinks. I accepted. They made me a peg of a local orange wine. It is an energy drink, they claimed. It’ll be good for the next ten kilometres, and I’d just have to pee, to get rid of the alcohol in my system. They also opened a bottle of Royal Stag, to give me a royal welcome. They offered to give me an entire bottle for all the tens of kilometres I wanted to go. That offer, I declined. There are some things you don’t take home to have.

We chatted for quite some time. They grieved that many tourists come here, they give judging looks as they pass by. I was the first to join in. We all knew, in all likelihood, we’d never meet each other again. That didn’t stop any of us becoming friends, for the little time together.

It turned out that their claims were true, and the next ten kilometres passed very fast indeed. Not wanting to be high on a highway, I stopped for food. The dhaba had hammock beds for tired souls. I lay down for a few minutes and started out again.
The sun started to set. It went down, and I rode under soft pink skies. I felt a strange kind of pride. I had watched this day being born. I had watched it end. And I had felt every second of it. I had lived every second of it. This was my day.

Bright neon signs screamed out from Zirakpur. Dust and traffic jam engulfed me. I desperately needed some gloves and cycling pants. My cycle was turning out to literally be a pain in the ass. By the time I had acquired the newly developed necessities, it was a little past nine. According to the distance on the map, it’d take me at least an hour to reach Chandigarh. Yesterday I’d learnt that Gurudwaras close gates at ten, and serve food earlier. Though Mannat was nice enough to help, she couldn’t find any other nice people to let me stay for the night for free. It made no sense to go on. After all, plans are only skeletons.

I decided to sleep at the nearest gurudwara but figured I’d have to eat outside. There was a burger king, and they do fill your stomach without emptying your pocket. I collected my food, but drive-throughs are designed to serve cars, so they just give paper packets – no carry bag to carry the food. I sat in the parking lot, and gulped down my meal in the light of headlamps of cars, and rushed off to the gurudwara I had picked out. It turned out they did not have sleeping facilities.

It was just ten O’clock now. I started off in despair for the next gurudwara. Zirakpur by the highway looks like a first world metropolitan. The further I went inside, the more it became a third world village. All the world’s merging into one another.

I sped frantically through unknown village streets. Finally, I found the gurudwara. There was a man with an orange turban, dressed in white. His long white beard was flowing, and glowing in the grey light of the urban night sky. I’ll never forget the relief I felt in the kindness of his voice when he accepted me inside. With motherly care, he asked me to have food. Surprised, I asked how I’d get food that late. It’s a gurudwara, he said – “we always have food”.

The sleeping facility here was a room, and I was instructed to keep my cycle in the room itself. The dinner was the most comforting ever. I had dust all over me, even my beard had become white with it. The bathroom was a tin shade room just opposite the temple. It had a row of taps for everyone to bathe together. It was twelve thirty. The weather was cold, the water colder. I proceeded to bathing. A sixty-something sardarji joined me. Seeing my efforts and care in washing myself, he kept exclaiming “wah”! It was sufficient encouragement.

I slept well.

November 5, 2018

I woke up and was served the tastiest breakfast and tea. I couldn’t find the underwear I’d hung out to dry last night. On learning of my loss, sardarji offered me a towel, and then a drawer. I was free to choose from army surplus and forgotten belongings of other travellers. I declined. Someone much more in need of such things would come this way I figured. I have enough.

I started out and got the first glance of the mountains. There were little hills in Chandigarh. A little later I was at the same level as their tops. Delhi to Panipat is flat. Panipat to Chandigarh is an elevation you can’t see, but feel. Today I saw the road rising up ahead. A group with a broken down car stopped me. They needed water, their car was overheating. A little earlier I had stopped at a restaurant. I need to use the bathroom and have tea. It was a restaurant made exclusively for the purpose of home deliveries, but they made tea for me. They also gave me a bottle of water to help me on the way. So I had enough water to help others on the way.

The road started winding upwards. The sky kept getting bluer at every turn. Brown red trees appeared against the deep blue sky like dark red lipstick on a pale face. Sometimes I got tired of going up and up. But at each turn, the view of dark green valleys below covered in grey-blue mist, with a river glowing in the sunlight gave me more than enough energy to keep going.

I reached the Himachal border. I couldn’t keep a crazy smile off my face. I didn’t even try to. By the time I got off the highway, and on to the old Kasauli road, it was afternoon.

Old Kasauli road was built by the British. There’s a much more efficient highway now, and that’s the path everyone takes. This road meanders through little villages and mountains. The traffic I encountered was some local man on a bike in five minutes, cars in ten. And that was the peak load.

I stopped at a tea stall. One man dramatically warned me of burglars. Another, not wanting to appear any less of an advisor warned me of tigers with equal enthusiasm. I continued.

Sometimes I stopped to listen to the silence. I had simple conversations with all the wildflowers. The sun started to turn red, the valleys below started to become pink. Framed in sombre smokey blue mountains and a red dust road, slowly the sun went down inside layers of a million shades of red.

Darkness soaked in. All I could see was the little spot of light from my headlamp. The road had practically become a trekking trail by now.

Unknown noises from unknown creatures came from the jungle all around. There were cats like mews, even though there were no villages around. I could hear some stream splashing, far away. Sometimes, if you listen closely, there’s a sound from the forest that sounds like the trees are talking. I also heard the rustle of leaves in the wind. I was tired, but I was happy. I was excited. I was thankful to be alive, amidst all this life. I was elated that I existed. Comprehension sometimes becomes ecstasy.

Long later I saw lights glimmering at the peak. I was dead tired after the long journey. Lights had never looked so beautiful. The warm melody of temple bells welcomed me to the outer edges of Kasauli. Some resorts had been set up for people seeking nature through the religion of tourism. By the time I rolled into Kasauli town, the shops at the border were closing. A man desperately tried to make me some Maggie, but couldn’t. They’d all run out of gas after the day’s work. He said he would’ve invited me to his home and spent the night chatting, but he didn’t have a home of his own. He wanted to have a son for one night, but making a living is getting harder and harder in India.

In the heritage market, a man found me and took me to a cheap hotel, as per my requirements. The hotel, it turned out was one side of a home. The woman in charge said it’d be 500 rupees for the night. I was too tired to bargain. I could’ve stayed for free like the nights before, but a hot bath was worth that much to me tonight. The man in the market had promised me a top floor room. The woman insisted on giving me the entire ground floor so that I could spend the night with my cycle. This was a palace. There was a bathroom attached to a room-ish corridor which led to two connected rooms with king size beds which ended in a balcony overlooking the street below. As I settled down, the man of the house came to have the peg he had started to make before my arrival. He rescued another bottle from the box bed for the rest of his night and hid it inside a cupboard made into the mountain for such purposes.

I went out for food. Learning of my address for the night, the dhaba people gave me wry knowing smiles. I asked if it was a hotel at all. “They call it a guest house”, was the reply. It was a shady establishment indeed, the kind that is built for not checking ID proofs. Shady or not, it gave me a shade that night. I had stumbled upon a heaven meant for couples seeking heaven, I guess.

Hot water over my tired body, a glistening mountain town on my eyes, and the most comfortable of beds under me sent me to a very deep sleep.

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P.C. Shairik Sengupta

November 6, 2018

I woke up late. I was too tired to cycle anymore. Yesterday’s ride had shaken up my cycle quite a bit. Neither ride nor rider was in any shape to go far. I had heard it had snowed in Shimla. I missed snow, so I decided to find some other form of transportation there.

I wooshed down the slopes. In the clear morning, I could see snow capped peaks in the distance, basking in the sun’s glory. At the nearest railway station, I came to know that toy trains are too small to carry cycles. I found a bus to Solan and another bus from Solan to Shimla. Shimla interstate bus terminus is well below the city. Steep slopes lead down there. That’s probably to give rest to long-distance buses – they could amble down the last few kilometres, and buses starting their journey could warm themselves up for the road.

I took my cycle down from the roof and started cycling up. My mother had booked a hostel for me. It was in the city.

I cycled up, and afternoon turned to evening. Long rays of the sun reached lazily through long pine leaves. Darkness crept up from greyish pink foggy valleys below. By the time I reached the supposed to be the location of the hostel, it was dark.

My phone insisted that I had arrived. The environment suggested otherwise. Helpful drunk men sent me up to the ridge. I figured there’s no harm in going up. Coming down, should the necessity arise, is always easy. I walked my cycle up through the streets of Tibet market. Tibet market is a street made up of storefront spaces. Two people would have trouble walking side by side. It’s almost like you either go into the shops, or you go into the valley. I reached a prettied up square, and hotel brokers flocked down on me. They tried to convince me that opting for a dorm for 500 rupees when I could have a whole room with balcony parking for 600 is utter foolishness. Unwavering in my resolution to stay in a mixed dorm hostel, I disgusted them thoroughly. I had to call up at the hostel to find it. A beautiful Himachal girl came to show me the way. The brokers got even more disappointed.

The hostel was gorgeous. It was a little below the busy market. There were some single rooms in one side, a kitchen, a dinner space, a common room, a common balcony, and the dorms. I went out to walk around in Shimla. Between beckoning food stores and an antique bookshop, it took a few hours to get back. In the common room, there were the hostel girl, the hostel man, a biker from Jaipur, a couple from Kerala, and me. They were one of those couples who could embrace each other and still embrace the world. We shared food and stories late into the night.

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P.C. Shairik Sengupta

November 7, 2018

With a cup of tea made in the kitchen and one hand dipped in a bowl of hot water, I watched sunlight pour down the valley. It was time to go.

I took a bus down to Kalka, and then a train to Delhi. A British couple fed me some nice food.

It was Diwali night. The parcel office people (who were nowhere to be seen in the parcel office when I reached there) complained about having to do odd little jobs like releasing my cycle while they had loads of work to do. Maybe a load of work is easier to ignore than singular ones.

The city streets were empty. With crackers bursting all over the sky, yellow sodium lamps flooding the atmosphere, parting sheets of smoke, with an escort of various street dogs I came home.

Epilogue

I finally understand why tea is a girl in Hindi.

I have cycled over 300 kilometres. I travelled across Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal. Kindness was always there. Help was always there when I really needed it.

All the love and care I received from the people I met, would have lied out of reach had I not gone out. What a wastage would that have been…

The answer to all who asked me, “where do you get so much inspiration from”, is simple. Life.

There’s too much beauty to miss out on.

Someday I’ll be in a coffin, I know. Call me insane, but I can’t afford to live inside barriers while I’m alive.

I’ve learnt something on this journey.

In the smiles of people, in the silence of wildflowers, in the empty roads, in the warmth of a conversation in a cold night – I realized that there is so much in our world, that there is no such thing as solo travel.

I’m never alone.

2 thoughts on “Pedalling My Way To Shimla

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