Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Day 7: Riding back home

The day started with mixed feelings. The joy of going back home to the loved ones was all mixed up with sadness that the tour is going to end. Lot of hugs and wishes exchanged before the start. I am sure there would have been quite a few moist eyes. As an every day of the tour, people started leaving in groups. The slower riders who were determined to complete the stage left ahead followed by the faster riders. I was on board the Scorpio loaded with Gatorade and Water. Along with me were a couple of riders who opted out of this stage since it was the same highway that they rode on Day 1.


This gave opportunity for lot of riders to try new bikes out. Nachiket was on a road bike (for the first time?) - A Trek-1.2. Dickie has been riding a MTB (his specialty anyway) since later part of yesterday. We started the stage 0700 hrs. In less than 30 minutes, we were on the Bangalore - Mysore Highway. The highway was monotonous and riders stuck to their rhythm and moved ahead steadily. The weather was so pleasant that they did not even feel any discomfort.

We reached the food point between Maddur and Chennapatna - a BP gas station with McDonalds. Soon a few riders Venky, Iggy, Sangwan... mostly road bikers. By their calculation, they would need another 2 hours to be at JnanaBharati from where our Victory lap would start. So they decided to take a break - long one. Nilgiri's food was served - Curd Rice, a version of Bisibelebath, set curd, badam milk, cold coffee and so on... Somebody even cut some water-melon and everybody feasted on it. Nelly was at his usual - showing off tricks on a MTB.

Back on the road, we caught up with most of the riders who were battling the heat and head wind. Some of them were glad to replenish their fluids. Once we entered the ciy, limits the wind got reduced and riding more easier. The excitement of completing the tour was also high. So the pace picked up. Srikanth was the first to be at the finish line - followed by Dinesh, Datta Patil, Sourabh and Mani. All of them relaxed under the fig tree sipping fresh Sugarcane juice and Tropicana.

Many more riders finished in a matter of minutes and everybody jumped and cried in joy. More on our grand entry into Bangalore in the next post.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pune Cycle Prathistan in TFN

One of the objectives of TFN is to create a network of cyclists. In order to do so, RAC-F (Ride-a-cycle Foundation) has tried to include people from different backgrounds and cities into the TFN08. Three riders from Pune have joined us on the tour - Ulhas, Nachiket and Shantanu. They represent the PCP - Pune Cycle Pratisthan. It is an organization, much like our RAC-F. Like most cycling organizations their charter puts promoting bicycle use as their main mission.

[Left <= Nachiket & Shantanu]
The obvious way to get people into cycling is to make them feel that it is fun. Ulhas & his friend Dileep started to go on small rides (get-aways outside the city). The first week only two turned up for the start even though more than 20 had enrolled. Ulhas simply described how wonderful he felt on the ride to those who missed. Next week, there were 6 guys... the numbers started growing and growing... 8, 10, 20... now, after two years, they have a strong contingent of about 120 people who ride on 20Km get-aways every first week-end of the month.

For the more adventurous, the longer version of the ride also happens on the third week-end. That has an average attendance of 60 to 80. Pune Rocks. Apart from local rides the PCP also organizes expeditions that are carried out on no-profit-no-loss basis. There is a Ladakh expedition that happens in July-August every year. As Ulhas says, Ladakh is best explored on a bicycle. The monasteries, the white deserts, the never ending inclines, the pristine air, visibility up to infinity are all very easy to be missed on a motorized transport. To give you a few stats, the Ladakh expedition has 7 stages and covers 480 Kms. The entire tour has altitude of 10000+ feet. The highest point on the tour is 18385 feet. The entire stretch is on very rough road and tough conditions. Road bikers, please excuse them - this tour is only for MTBs.

[Right ==> Ulhas]
If you thought such expeditions are for adrenaline junkies with costly high end bikes, the PCP has a different solution for you. The Konkan expedition involves riding country roads along the Konkan coast line. It is for the normal people. It aims at getting even the house-wives on the bike. It happens in January and has 30 ladies and 30 men enrolled. Most of them beginners. Hence they pedal only 50Km a day for 4 days. It is a joy ride with short climbs of steep gradient. The message is clear - if beginners can do such a tour "cycling as a mode of transport is feasible and safe"

Good job guys!! Long live Pune Cycling Pratisthan.

Day 6: A ride through the jungle

The rest day has given a chance for every one to attend to their body aches and socialize. Today, we will descend from the Queen of hills through the precarious Kalahatti (or Shigur) ghats. It is a long long highly technical descent. Beyond that we will pass through two long stretches of reserved forest before we come back in touch with people. The rest day talent show had prolonged till late in the night. Nights get really cold in Ooty. -3 was the lowest temperature of the night. Most of us got up early. Not because we wanted to, but because of small holes in the blanket that lets the cold air in. A small fire was made and everybody awake huddled around it. People who slept in the tent outside told stories about what body parts froze in what order... Somebody got tea ready. Pongal and Vada was served as breakfast. A photo shoot for local media was arranged and our enterprising riders posed very nicely.

Since it was a treacherous descent the organizers wanted to make sure that make sure that the fog had lifted. In the briefing the riders were asked to check their brakes and reduce saddle height to gain more control. After all riders completed necessary checks, we could flag off by 0945hrs. It took a while to get out of the Ooty city. We re-traced the same path until the bridge at the 8Km mark. Here, we go straight instead of left. There is a small uphill section to be climbed before we start the Kalahatti descent.

The Kalahatti (aka Shigur) ghat takes us down by about a 1.6 Kms in 14 kms. That's 12% average gradient. It has a total of 36 hairpin curves. The idea was to allow the MTB riders ahead since they would take more time to get used to the gradient. 10 minutes and 3 curves later we could smell the rubber burning. But it was heartening to see that riders had realized the virtues of group riding (although a descent like this is not suited for it). At the check post the policeman promptly stopped our ambulance from going ahead. He said he had orders that vehicles as large our Ambulance were not to be allowed to descend the Kalahatti ghat. (no problem for climbing it up). He was just following his boss's orders. Dr Renu spoke to the right people at right offices and got orders passed to make an exception for our Ambulance.

Even though the riders were cautious, they set a good pace. I am sure thoughts of climbing the Kalahatti ghats would have crossed every riders mind... It would be hard, but worth every inch of the incline we climb. This is a tailor made for anybody who wants to train. Most of the hairpin curves turn inwards. If it was difficult for us to navigate the curves on a Scorpio, one can imagine how hard it would be on a cycle with V brakes. The first double bend is at curves 20-21. The boards along the road always reminded riders that if they did not break in time, they would be plummeting into deep valley below. If you break late, you will be on the ground face first. You have to break just enough and just at the right time. We were descending so rapidly that our ears would pop every 15 minutes. There are are small stretches of straight road now and then - we would feel imbalanced driving through them. The curves are addictive. We ticked off one bend after another... more of the same.

After the descent we entered the Madhumalai forest range. No photography allowed inside this (and the Bandipur) forests. I did not have any riders ahead of me as well. Today we were assigned as the "Sweeper" car. A sweeper car has the duty to tail the last rider on the road and make sure nobody is left out. So I have no cycling stories to tell. However, when I saw Dino on the road, it made me wonder what on earth is Dino doing so far behind. We got a chance to chat up and he told me that he had gone off road a bit to meet his friend. There had been an elephant death in the area and post-mortem was going on. The most likely cause of the death was suspected to be poisoning. One of the tusks of the elephant was missing. Elephants have strong family bonds. They even mourn family deaths. Dino tells me that people have been misbehaving in the forests very much. They blow loud horns, glare head lights at the elephant herd just to get some response from them. All this only to get a story to tell back home. This behaviour is as bad as hunting itself. You dont kill them at once, but trouble them untill they die. This plays with the psyche of the elephant and makes them rogues. There was a series on Nat Geo on human impact on the minds of these gentle creatures. Why do they some times kill even when they are vegetarian? There are simple rules while passing through a reserved forest - No horns, No Stopping, No Photography (cause the flash upsets the animals), No cooking, No fire... all these seem so common sense. But if they had to write it explicitly, then we can understand how insensitive people in respecting the homes of wild animals.

We passed the beautiful forests of Madhumalai and Bandipur with out much action. I gathered later from the riders that they enjoyed every stretch of it. Who would not? gentle slopes, green every where, ocassional brush with wild life (monkeys, deers, boars sighted). Some riders did have an anxious moment or two when they found themselves too close to an elephant. Once we were out of the Bandipur range, we had lunch at Pugmark restaurant run by the jungle lodges fellows. A complete buffet... salad to dessert. The road from Bandipur to Gundlupet is horrible. The road bikers struggled to get accross. The MTBs had no problems at all. They formed a small groups among themselves and enjoyed every bit of their ride.

The road bikers found their rythem after they crossed Gundlupet. They also formed drafting groups and started setting some super pace. Since most of the road bikers took an hour long nap at Pugmark, they were riding as if it were a new day. Since most of them had now found out their own speeds we got to see a lot of single file riding. As the sun started setting, the temperature cooled down and made riding much more easier. Some city riding in the dark got us back to YHAI, Mysore. Rest for the day.

Tomorrow we are heading home. There is a grand show for the home-coming riders. Be there to receive the riders @ Cubbon park: 5:00PM, 31-Dec-2008.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Day 4: The mother of all climbs on TFN08

Today we would head towards Ooty from Sulthan Bathery using the round about way through Gudalur. The day involves at least two major climbs - one at Devarsholai (5% to 7%) and another one being the Ooty climb (7%-8%) itself. Last night's nightmares spilled over even to this morning. Breakfast got delayed (in spite of shifting to Wind Flower. Ethesh, Naveen, Kamesh and me decided to try out local restaurant. We had puttus and baked bananas. Yes, you can bake bananas (if you get the nendra variety from Kerala) and they taste yummy - sweet and sour. One need not worry about how it is cooked because it is boiled with the skin and it is peeled right in front of you.

For some reason I chose this day to ride. After much searching, I found the bike I would be riding - a Firefox Tempest, six gears, front shocks, and V-brakes. The best part of the bike was that it has a bell. It comes in handy in crowded villages that are not used to seeing fast moving cycles ;-) Today we decided to ride as a group - that would be the best bet against the being swept. Since I am riding today, I may not have any images for the rest of the post. Apologies. Those that are posted are cliked by Modi, Nelly, Deepak and others on support cars. Thanks Guys. Finally we started the day around 0900hrs.

The day started off slowly. We were cautions even on the gentle downhills - riding slow and steady, cracking jokes and waving to excied children. We passed through many tea and coffee estates and small villages untill we come to the first climb of the day. It would be approximately 5% and for 7kms. This was supposed to be the pre-cursor for what was to come later in the day. The reward for climbing Devarsholai was the food van would be waiting for us. The climb as really mild. So mild that at Devarsholai we kept asking if the climb was over or still to come. On top of Devarsholai, we were welcomed by courteous Nilgiris crew serving us cold Badam milk. "Excellent!" I told my self. The brunch consisted of nice chapatis, mixed veg subji and set yogurt. I felt fully charged up after that. There were couple of people leaving the tour from Gudalur. This is junction where one road leads to Ooty and one to Bangalore. Ram, Vishal and Ullas would take the Bangalore road. Hence I took a some time to take leave of them.

After Devarsholai, the road goes winding down the hill. Since I had to catch Ethesh and Naveen, I flew through this down hill. I stopped only at couple of places to get the first look at the Blue Mountain Range. I caught up with Ethesh in the next up hill climb. There would be couple of more mild (3%-4%) climbs before we reach Gudalur. I was accompanied by Ashwin for the last few Kms before Gudalur. Ashwin is an enterprising kid studying in 8th grade in the local convent. He inquired about the shocks on my bike and proudly exhibited his. He said, he had to removed the gears on them because it would not work. He took leave of the tour just as we hit the Ooty highway. A Sunday well spent for him.

The start of the ooty climb is vicious. I remembered that I had plain water only. So, stopped at a house to add salt into it. The family was so forthcoming to help us. A kilometer later, I saw the Manipal ambulance waiting for us. We filled Gatorade into our water bottles - to form a potent concoction, ate one banana each and owed to stop only at the 10Km mark (he he he... what were we thinking?) For the first few kilometers, I was scared about the heavy traffic that was mentioned in the rider's docket. However, the traffic was not much... They were surprisingly well mannered too... (barring a couple of morons any way). We Put our heads down and marched ahead. We rode past villages, churches and shops before we felt totally alone. 30Kms of hard climb was ahead of us. I later understood from Rajesh that the gradient never dropped below 4%. This is still acceptable considering that the other way to Ooty is through Masinagudi (Shigur ghats) involving up to 12% gradients - even if it were for just 14 Kms. (It will be fun to get down the route tomorrow).

After 5 Kms up the climb, we lose touch with any civilization. On either side of the road there are nice tall Eucalyptus trees. I was on the road with hill on one side, valley on the other side. Eucalyptus trees on both sides seemed to be of the same height. Ethesh was ahead of me. It is amazing how tall these trees are... they grow absolutely straight. The bark on them seem to curl up counter-clockwise. The reason I worked out in mind was that it had to do with movement of Sun from Uttarayana and Dakshinayana. When you are on a bicycle, and going so slow - up hill, you tend to think observe and think about a lot of stuff... On a car you can stop only when there is a shoulder... On a cycle, you are always on the shoulder watching everything ;-)

There is a signage on the road, an enlarged "Z". This is the most dreaded sign. This means that there are two back-to-back hairpin bends coming your way. If you see this when you are in the last ring, you better get off the saddle to get some momentum going. While we are at the road signages, the speed limit for the vehicles going up the gradient is 30. That's seemed so irrelevant. Ethesh and me, people who owed to stop only after 10Kms, were waiting for the other to call for a stop to take in some fluids... or a leak break... or to eat the honey-cake. We passed Shankar a couple of times who had some hard time due to shoulder discomfort. Ooty road is being repaired... nothing is wrong with the road, but it was the embankments along the road that were being reinforced. The up hill lane was closed at many points for this work which caused many anxious moments for me. [last but one] The only way was up up and up. I changed to my 1st gear (last ring) some time between 10th and 12th Km of the climb. I was under the impression that there would be a support car at the 40Km to go mark... did not find one. After some more Eucalyptus (Nilgiri trees), I spotted the Black Santro of Amit. They were watching the green forest from the Madhumalai Forest View point. We replenished our Gatorade bottles and marched ahead... When I saw a shop board that said Naduvattam, I was ecstatic. I remembered that the rider docket mentioned that it was the end of the 8% climbs... the toughest part of the climb was behind us. The Manipal ambulance was once again there to hand out Gatorade and water.

From then on the climb relaxed a bit. It was still about 4%... However, I had some chance to go back to the second gear. I will tell you why it is important to be in 2nd gear. It will give you some hope that if it gets worse and you are about to hit the wall, you can change to one lower gear. If you are already in the first gear (the biggest ring in the rear), then there is no way to escape. You are looking at the wall... an you will hit it. Luckily, today I was not in such a situation. When ever I felt totally down I remembered the two bus full beautiful girls from Bangalore that went past us. Two of them even wished us luck. "Have to catch them at Ooty!" I kept remembering.

After some time, the gentle gradients turned into a steep downhill. I went to 2nd, 3rd and the 4th gear. This sudden difference in tension was flagged by some muscle behind the knee... Ouch!! It was also an alarm that I had not taken any fluids for the last half hour... I stopped to stretch a bit and more Gatorade. That was when Ethesh passed me egging me on to continue. Both of us did not know at that time, that the road ahead was winding up and down - mostly down. With 29 Kms to go, we tailed one another on all the slopes until we reached the last support car - 22Kms to go. I stopped for a Gatorade refill. But Ethesh did not stop. That's when I lost him. Only 22 more to go, filled with fluids I started pedaling hard - hoping to catch Ethesh again. The road was being less and less harsh on us. Downhills got lengthier and up hills shorter and milder. For once the Kms stoned seemed to be fair. We were happy to see some "Drive Slowly" boards which clearly mean that road went down. The kilometer stones kept passing by with ease. At the 8Km to go point, I was inspired by the encouraging words of Dikki sir. Thank You. Further more the gradients did not matter. I just kept peddling asking for directions to Charing Cross. At Charing Cross, Dikkie was still asking for directions to the Youth Hostel. There are three such hostels in Ooty. After pedaling around for some more time, we finally ended our ride at YHAI, that was next to the cemetery near the bus-stand. All the riders thoroughly enjoyed the ride in spite of aching buttocks. Its that thing with us cyclist - the harder it gets, the happier we are.

After a hot water bath, cozy campfire, spicy dinner (not ready to make), singing and dancing we all called it a day. Tomorrow is a rest day. May God bless us.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Day 3: Enter the God's own country

Today we leave Madikeri, heading towards Sultan Bathery. That will be the halt for the stage 3 of the TFN'08. One can imagine how cold it gets in Coorg during this time of the year. But we did not expect it to be this cold. Riders felt way too comfortable in the Wildcraft fleece jacket. Apparently it was a very good combination of style and comfort. Nevertheless, We had to wait for the fog to lift to make it safer for the riders. Even though the scheduled start was @ 0630hrs, the fog delay, birthday celebration of Kaushik Iyer and some logistical issues pushed the start to almost 0720hrs. It was a bright and upbeat start. Two riders joined us today. Arun Katiyar will be there for a day. George was representing Swiss people in the tour. Everybody started pedaling hard and wanted to make as much distance as possible before the sun came over the head and roads got bad. The roads were supposed to get very bad after Gonikoppal when we take a right turn towards Kearla. So, TFN had organized for a "bike float" - a ferry service for all the road bikes that would find hard to navigate. This would shuttle the bikes beyond the Kerala-Karnataka border when the roads would be magically good.

Until Gonikoppal, the road was manageable - not good not bad. Weather was fantastic... We (people in the makeshift support car) stuck to the same strategy of zoom-halt-serve-zoom. Within a couple of hours we (and about 30 riders) were at Gonikoppa. Although the roads were marked ahead using chalk, many riders missed the sharp left. This was the start of bike ferry. But many road bikers hard a long look at the road ahead and siad "This aint that bad after all!!" and pedaled ahead. Many other riders like Shankar took opportunity to take in fluids and chat up with others. Cyclists riding expensive cycles just did not want to take the risk of getting mechanical failures. The road apparently got better and better, encouraging the road bikers. But just before the Kerala Border the road got really worse. If became a pain for the car drivers of Bangalore, you can imagine how hard it would have been for the Road Bikers.
At the Karnataka - Kerala Border, the police were over whelmed with what was happening. They were not sure whether the cars were support cars, or trafficing food. They made us open the boot up and peered inside the back seats and let us go only after they were fully satisfied. Menakshi used her linguistic skills and the cops let us go easily. Other cars were not that lucky. They got more suspicious when they say truck loads of Aquafina and Nilgiris foodies. Since we got the clearance and many riders were ahead of us, we did not wait for everything to be sorted out. The roads in Wynad district of Kerala is maintained much better then Karnataka (Are you hearing Mr Dr BSY?)

After the border check-post, the roads were just wonderful. The forest was dense... the vegetation alternated between bamboo and teak. The terrain was a gentle downhill all the way through interleaved by mild gradients. One can climb thousand such gradients if he were going through such a beautiful forest. The bamboo portion of the forest is called as "Bitherkaad" (forest of bamboos). This stretch of bamboo along the road was planted some 60 years ago. Six months ago, they all came of age and bloomed with flowers. It must have been wonderful. Too bad that the main stream media did not cover such a wonderful event. Yes, some or other bamboos bloom every year. But since these lay so close to the road - it would have been very accessible wonder to watch. To see such grand scale blooming, we may have to go deep into forest, or wait for another 60 years. Bitherkaad is home for a tribe named - Paniyas. Dino had a good two hour chat with them after some off riding. Like all good things, the reserved forest had to end and we came back to civilization. I am disturbed at the shrinking size of our forests. My concern about all kinds of forest dwellers - including the humans. Do they not have the right to exist? and in the manner they choose to be? That's another debate reserved for another day.

Once we were out of the forest, we came to Katrikulam. This was our lunch stop. I had full meals - while boiled rice (the huge ones), bhendi sabji, tomato subji and majjige huli (more kalingu in tamil). But it was predominantly a non-veg place. The waiter was surprised when I inistested on eating vegetarian dishes only. At Katrikullam, we were updated about the change in plans. We are not going through the scenic shortcut through another forest - but a long cut right through Manathvadi to Sultan Bathery. That made the rest of the journey (ride) boring. The last few kilometers to Sulthan Bathery was made a little interesting by the slanting rays of the setting Sun.

At S. Bathery, a accommodation was a mess. I am told, that was the best available in the city at the time of planning. That is a fair explanation considering that all the other hotels in the city were equally horrible - except for the newly constructed Wind Flower. The rest of the night is best left alone.

Hopefully, tomorrow will be a nice ride. After all, we are going to ride to the queen of hills - Ooty.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Day 2: Warm and Cozy Home stay

The road from Mysore to Hunsur was excellent. This is perhaps the best stretch of road available on the entire tour. Road was perhaps only as good as yesterday, but the X factor was the lack of traffic. This frees up 50% of mental energy that a rider would have to spend worrying about monsters running them down. Looks like they used the free 50% to set some fast pace, and keep smiling at the same time. We were riding the un-official support car - Ram's Swift. Like all other support vehicles, we were fully loaded - Gatorade, Aquafina, Cream bun, cup cakes, Glucose anything that any rider could ask for. Since we were operating in addition to the "planned" support vehicles, we worked out a plan for ourselves. We would drive past many riders and then pull-over at a nice location (most photo worthy). Get the foodies out on the roof and chill out. As soon as any one of us spots a rider, we offered all things we had and waited for him to choose. A few riders felt so welcome that took a little break chatting with us. When we were satisfied that we had served quite a few riders, we would zip past all of them to our next pitstop... So on and on till Mercera. But there are always disadvantages of travelling so fast. Apparently, every rider remembers seeing a tree full of honey combs. This was one of the most discussed topic today. However, for guys in the car for us, it was just a passing remark.

Just before Kushalanagara, the road condition drastically changes. It gets a lot worse - and hence tilts the power balance towards the MTB riders (for the first time). We could see the first few MTB riders gleefully zipping over the rough roads. The road bikers need only 6 inches of good road to ride on. They struggled to find even that. The road was not only bad for their biceps, but their mind also had to think about the impact every jerk had on the truing of the wheels. I slept through most of the climb to Madikeri while Thej was driving. By the time, we came to Madikeri the overall plan had changed a bit. The Raja's seat assembly had been skipped and we were asked to directly go to the home stay. We hit the Madikeri-Virajpet road and at the sixth KM mark we get a bridge. This is the landmark at which we must turn left. But the road at the bridge was so bad that, the bridge could easily go un-noticed.

Once inside the home stay, we just hung around doing nothing. Riders as usual were exchanging notes about the morons manning motorized vehicles. This time around the road condition also came in their line of fire (mostly from the road bikers). The riders could still not freshen up because the luggage van is either lost its way or doubling up as sweeper vehicle. Nobody was actually minding that since the ride was so good. People just spent time just chatting about everything under the sun - career choices, american depression, FM Kariappa's son's home so on and on... By the time lunch was being served, the last few riders on the road were encouraged to cross the finish line by loud applauses. Poor Samim and Dipanker... there is no one to clap when they arrive at any finish lines on this tour ;-)

Luch menu had a choice... Chicken Biryani or Veg Biryani or both. Surprisingly there was no gravy. May be Nilgiri's must note this... Biryani is too dry without some gravy. Misti Dahi for dessert was just perfect. For the caffine addicts, there was some cold coffee served too...

By the time we got through lunch it was time to get ready for the press meet (if any) at the Raja's seat. Since the local ride was unanimously cancelled, all of us boarded all possible support vehicles and headed to down town Madikeri. We entered the Raja's garden with just enough time to witness the sun set. There were sooooo many people. If they are all tourists, then the tourist season must be good. If they were localites, they have way too much free time to be there on a week-day. In any case, it was way off from my imagination of the romantic sunset that the Raja must have enjoying with this dear Rani. It was dark by the time we got back and dinner was about to be served. Somebody had a campfire going too... Dinner was cyleon parantha, jeera-rice and alu mutter. Pineapple (or strawberry was it?) pastry made a awesome dessert. A can of diet pepsi each completed a satisfying 3 course meal. (ayyo, are you wondering how can one be satisfied unless he has curd rice with mango pickle?)

What worked well:
Most of the things went well today. Nobody is hurt. No rider ever got thirsty when there was no support car near him. Our plan for the extra support did help a lot of riders that were far apart. The fact that we emptied most of our loaded supplies is a good proof of that. The no-scheduled-stop idea clicked. Skipping Raja's seat in the afternoon was excellent decision. Riders were much more comfortable waiting for the luggage at home stay (below the fan, under a tree) than be on a bench in Raja's seat answering questions posed by curious on-lookers.

What still needs improvement:
I remember my mathematics lesson that 3 variables can not be resolved with 2 equations. Food van and generator van need to be at the end point much ahead of the riders. The only other van must carry the luggage. So, it must also be ahead of the riders so that they get it as soon as they reach the finish line. That leaves with no vehicle for sweeping. This problem can officially closed as unsolvable mathematically. Let us wait to see if the tour think tank can come up with some thing creative here.

As I write this, there is a symphony of snoring going on... I have the Dolby stereo effect with Francis and Kaushik on either side of me. I hope one of them will concede defeat and this battle will not continue too much into the night.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Day 2: A good start - gentle slopes.

The scheduled flag off was at 0600 Hrs. Got a wake-up call from Deepak... 0442 hrs. Damn! is the night over already? I am pretty sure every rider felt the same. We were very orderly in our dealings... Fold the blankets, sheets, pillow covers and return them to YHAI. We had to wait a while for our breakfast to be made. In the mean while, the tea/coffee was served with all the snacks we had yesterday. All the riders came down with their bags and lined it up to be loaded on the support van. The bicycles were unlocked and most of the riders got busy mending their bikes. Almost every one added the "biking cleaning cloth" to their must-bring-next-time list. It's seems so mundane in hindsight, but only the pros had got them ;-)

By 0630, the breakfast was ready - to the delight of any South Indian. Idly-Vada and sambar. All by Nilgiri's ready-to-eat range. My grandmother needs to hear this... "Now even I can make idli, in 10 minutes". Pradeep arrived a little late and took control of the arrangements. He made some quick positive announcements. Plan of action for the day: To keep it simple, there would be no brunch. It would only be heavy carb loading breakfast and a late lunch at the halting place. He gave very clear road directions, notes on road conditions and arrangements to get through the short stretch of really bad roads. The simple no-stop plan made really good sense. The Raja's seat at Madikeri is going to be the finish line for the day. From there, riders will be shuttled to the night camp in 2 batches of 20 each. Freshen up, and do the *optional* local ride. The optional part was very well received.

7:15 start: This was special for the birthday boy - Sharath Raju. After savouring the pineapple pastry Sharath lead the bunch out of the hostel campus for the Stage 2 of the tour. The first 80 Kms of the stage boasts really wonderful roads with gentle slopes (both ways)... Riders seems like they are enjoying... All smiles and no aches. Body aches seem like are a history now that every body is sufficiently warmed up. We are now at Kushalanagar. Roads have gotten worse in the last 5 Kms or so. I do not know if this is the bad patch that the tour director was mentioning about. I hope, the canopy of trees will make up for the bad roads. One worrying niggle is that food van is still behind us ;-) Will be updating this post from Madikeri.

TFN08 - Let's hit the road - Day One

A lot of people braved the morning mist and freezing temperatures. It is encouraging to see such a turnout for a cycling event. Mostly friends and family of the riders... But a few did turn up just for the event. Nilgiri's had sandwiches, bun, bananas ready on time. The hydration packs were all loaded. Hugs, kisses, wishes, claps and we were all set to go. At 6:45, just 15 minutes past the scheduled start we did have a flag off. (believe me, just 15 minutes delay in the very first edition of such a huge tour is actually commendable).

The first stop was in front of Bangalore University - More than a pitstop, it gave opportunity for us to regroup and organize ourselves. The first group to leave was of the faster riders who had already found others of their type and were ready to burn the road. Support car specialist from Red Rooster Racing followed them with same precision as he would have done if it were a pro-race. Behind them things were different. People were still trying to find out who to ride with.

As a result, the not-so-fast bunch got stretched too long. There are only limited support cars. And they had to operate in multiple modes - stand still, follow a slow rider (shielding him from traffic), zip through the same traffic to reach the next rider on the road. I stress on the fact that we had to zip through, because even on a Scorpio, catching these riders was not easy. Scortching pace.

Next pit stop was for lunch (brunch V2.0) about 10 Kms after Chennapatna. It was also the halfway point. I was surprised that it was so early. Samim and Dipanker (both pro-riders) did not want to stop anywhere until finish. They rode on. About 20 riders were already assembled there by the time we (Crew on the white Scorpio) reached there. Since the cooking of the food would take time, we were asked to help ourselves to a wide range of bakery snacks from the Nilgiri's kitchen. Honey cake, chocolate cake, cup cake and what not. Nelly brought a home-made energy potion - honey + salt + water/Gatorade. It is supposed to work wonders if you had been dehydrated earlier. The snacks were so filling that one bunch of riders (about 10 of them) decided not to wait for the elaborate lunch and took off. Most of us waited for the lunch, taking a much need break in that pretext. This break gave riders to talk to each others and exchange stories and laugh about their aching muscles.

Finally the lunch was served: methi roti served hot out of the tawa, hot alu-matter, jeera rice, misti-dahi (set sweet yogurt)

Holiday traffic on Mysore road was intense. Driving in these conditions is not easy - let alone riding. All our riders strictly adhered to traffic and tour rules. Yet there were three minor incidents - involving a dog, a road block and an idiot respectively. While the dog, the road block and the idiot got out of the incident unscathed, our riders were mildly hurt. But there was cheerful news when young Sukhdev completed half the distance in style. He quickly had his food, and was ready to tackle the other half as eagerly as the earlier.

After lunch, the fast just got faster. It got hotter and hotter also. This meant that the support cars had to do work that much harder to get water / gatorades to those who need it. Since we knew that were a bunch of riders (who did not wait for lunch) who would need fluids, we drove past one rider at a time handing over the magic drink. In some instances we were a tad late. One rider found himself asking for salt to mix with his Aquafina. The shop keeper lady had helped him - no strings attached. Pradeep was quick to spot this genuine helping nature and returned the gesture by offering her our supplies. By the time we reached the top of Chamundi Hills (finish line for stage 1) we had replenished all the riders ahead of us (except Samim and Dipankar, who were cooling their heels under a tree).

Slowly people started trickling in. The first to come were the road bikers - because of their obvious advantage on this terrain. Couple of MTB guys rode their hearts out to match the road bikers. Some of them got unfortunate flats - Nelly and Iggy. A sense of accomplishment swept across the entire gathering. Riders were deservedly happy to have completed the longest stage of the tour. Organizers were happy that it went on without any major hiccups. The bikes seemed happy with the intense work out that they got. It was a time once again for riders to share stories. Most of them revolving around the newly discovered muscles that were making sure that their voice be heard. Some of the stories were about reckless drivers.

As the bikes rested and bikers waited for food, Aravind Teki - our star photographer took leave of TFN08 and returned to Bangalore. Riders kept cycling past the finish line to be welcomed by an orchestra of claps by other riders and wise-cracks by Nelly. Honestly, I did not believe no many riders could finish this stage, especially in this heat. We shifted our base from top of Chamundi Hills to the Mysore View point so that we could serve food well there. After all of us had food, we proceeded towards Wild Flower resort for the Mysore Press Meet. The hospitality at Wild Flower resort was amazing. Coffee, Tea, Samosa, cookies and pastries... as much as you like - and on the house. Are we just lucky or what?

Local ride was a let down. Not much local attendance. Not much of ride either. After that, we rode towards the YHAI hostel in Mysore for our final pitstop - Dinner. Puffed Parantha, Ghee rice, Mixed veg curry and Chocolate chip pastry. There was also a non-veg dish that I don't know the name of :-( Half the team went to Yatri Nivas to crash, while the other half made itself comfortable (really comfy) in the three dormitories of YHAI.

What went well:
The idea of spare cycles was a super hit. It is still the first-day and all the spare bikes have been used. The idea of all three kinds of sweeper vehicles worked out very well, even though we had to multiple sweeps. First aid, food supplies were all timely and much appreciated.

What needs change:
We have learnt a lot of lessons today. We have realized that agility is our strength. Agility sadly is also our weakness leading to some degree of confusion. I have seen our think tank give some serious thoughts into how the day paned out this way. They will deliver. The riders have now discovered their strengths/limits. Tomorrow each one of us is wiser than today - and that should count.

Tomorrow will be another day. A better one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shoot out at the cake show

The annual Nilgiris cake show has begun and will go on till the rest of the year. The cakes really look as beautiful as they taste. It is every traveller's dream to see the seven wonders of the world. Cakes and pasteries tickle anybody's taste buds. If you can get both for just Rs 30/- it is the proverbial sone-pe-suhaga. This year the 33rd edition of hte Nilgiris cake show is organized at St Joseph's Boy's High School ground (next to Mallya Hospital). There is ample parking space for 4/2 wheelers and as I found out - parking is free for cyclists ;-) If you are around the area please drop by.

The cake show was also the venue of the pre-tour press meet. A lot of press photographers and reporters showed up. Representitives of our partners spoke about why they are supporting the tour of Nilgiris. Ravi talked about why tour the Nilgiris. As a managing trustee of Ride A Cycle Foundation, he appealed to take up cycling for commute and hoped to send home this message by conducting local rides in all the stop-over towns of the tour. Some sections of the press covered it as an adventure event, some as sports, some as nature evangelist event, some thought it was recreation. Reminds me of the story of elephant described by blind people. The tour of nilgiris is actually all of them... and much more. There are elements of adventure, sports, nature, recreation and much more. Truly the whole is greater than the sum.

And then, the shoot out started. The press went ga-ga over the top-class cycles and the top class cyclists. I clicked a whole bunch too... Sad that all of them are locked inside Deepak's camera. Will be posting as soon as I can lay hands on them.

In the mean while here are the links to the press coverage:
Deccan Herald:

Times of India:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why am I so excited about TFN'08?

Last week I won the blogging contest and I get to go in the TFN as part of the "media" crew. That was what led me into the contest - to be on the tour. As a bonus, WildCraft - the accessory partner of TFN threw in an all weather tent to go along. Nice... Now I am covered even if my father kicks me out of the house ;-) [not that he would do it... But, just in case...]

But all that is material. There are whole bunch of priceless intangibles that comes along. First and fore most - the people. The positive energy that the organizing bunch have, definitely rubs off. The very fact that the tour has grown to this proportion from being a casual ride plan on bikeszone is a fine testimony of that. This feeling is addictive and feeds on itself. Very soon, it has a tendency to grow out of hand (like the SENSEX in 2007). But this group has both their feet firmly on ground. A perfect blend of gusto and caution.

Secondly, the stars (No, not the Khans... the real ones). I have always been drawn to the mountains (of western ghats) mainly to see the stars. Light pollution in the city makes it impossible to see a clear dark sky. When I say "I like watching stars..." - it is just that. I can not tell one from another. Gazing at a star filled sky fills me with the same feeling of smallness (a happy one) as standing in front of an ocean not being able to see the other end... A star filled sky, moon lit night, gentle breeze... just enough to make the knee high grass create a Mexican wave, a distant hooting of an owl and a relentless cricket concert.... am I getting carried away?

Thirdly - Bragging rights. Being one of the official bloggers on the tour, I would have the second best experience of the tour... (the best would be to ride - of course). I am sure these seven days will give me enough stories to last until the next TFN. Lastly - (Don't laugh) when TFN is over, I would have seen Ooty. 

PS: TFN is organised by Ride A Cycle Foundation. Click to know more.

PPS: I have won many on-line contests before. (no, not the kind that promises rewards if you choose the better dancer between Madhuri Dixit and Cyrus Baroacha). But this is the first time that prize is delivered so quickly. Thanks TFN and WildCraft for being so prompt and sincere.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Tour of Niligiris

Apologies to those who are following the trip to Himalayas. This is a small detour since, this post needs to be posted before it becomes irrlevant

The tour:
This is "our" tour. The French, the Ausies and the Italians may have their famed, star studded, block buster, multi-week cycling tours - but at the end of the day, they are all races... and in a race there is only one "winner". And often this all-or-nothing stakes is what leads to win-by-any-means-possible attitude that has tarnished the image of the sport. But here at the Tour of Nilgiris (affectionately, TFN) its just celebration of cycling. Cycling for just cycling sake - needless to say, that every body is a winner here. If cycling were a religion, we are its missionaries.

The Idea:
What started out as a passing remark in the "Ride Plans" section of bikeszone forum has really taken a very beautiful shape. Any body who  has ridden among mountains understands the serenity and the overwhelming feeling of oneness - the bike, the mountain and you. If you just go by the laws of physics, both the mountain and the bike are forces acting against you trying to prevent you ascending. But in reality every climb, every corner spurs you on to try that much harder - you feel stronger. It must be the pristine air in the mountains - you feel that much lighter. One never feels that mountain is against you. The mountain rewards you every now and then by revealing all its glory... The wind takes away all the the weariness from both body and mind. If you are luck, there will be a tender-coconut seller nearby - just two steps away from heaven.

There are two fames destination of cyclists when they crave for that feeling of oneness. Coorg (Madikeri, Western Ghats) and Ooty(the Nilgiris, Eastern Ghats). Small groups of biking enthusiasts often criss-crossed the two destinations one at a time. We have exchanged notes and photos - admiring what we have missed, often re-living the ride over and over again in picture albums. The TFN combines two of the best routes into one... The weather is just perfect. It has stopped raining (fingers crossed, touch wood, light incense sticks, asTottara archane... and all other offerings promised).  Sun rises a little late. Early morning mist gives most surreal riding experiences. (is it just me, or does every body love the mist?). Yes it is cold. So what!!

This will be a week to remember for long time to come.

The route:
Each of the seven days offer challenges of one or the other kind. After a fast day on the saddle, Day 1 (25th Dec, 2008) has a surprise ending. Climbers in the group will be delighted at the mountain top finish. May the blessings of Goddess Chamundi be up on all of us. The second day exhibits excellent road conditions all the way up to Kushalanagara. But, there is one catch. The road has no trees. They were all cut for widening, and the new ones planted are yet to grow a canopy. So, we better get past this stretch before the sun gets to us. However, there is a respite. All along the road one can find tender-coconut vendors where all of us can re-fuel until satisfaction. 20 Kms per tender coconut is a decent mileage. The final push comes just before the end. Mercera is a tricky crater town. To reach it (and to get out of it) one has to climb up the mountain walls and descend to the "down town".

Day 3 is designed to get some strength back into your legs. Most of the pleasure of going downhill is negated by some bad roads. I have not been to Sultan Bathery, but I hear that it is a very beautiful town with lot of places to visit. I am sure there will some century old temples... more on wikipedia. Finally, we may have decent place for camp-fire. Relax and completely forget about the next days climb. Day 4 is the day of reckoning. We enter the Nilgiris range. After dilly dallying for the first hour or so, we will face 30 kms of climbing - steep and steeper. The rewards are equally fascinating. Once the major climb is behind us, it is just casual ride until Ooty.

Day 5 is a worthy rest day. It only gets easier from here. Day 6 we descend from the clouds into the plains below. Again, much of the effort will be in avoiding pot-holes and crashes compared to pedalling. As we near Mysore, traffic will also start to matter. I have observed that people do give some respect if they see people on cycles with lot of protection gear. Irrespective of that, we must be really careful. The last day, Day 7 (31st Dec, 2008) we ride the mild uphill from Mysore to Bangalore. By this time, all the riders would already be veteran climbers and it will feel as easy as the proverbial stroll in the park. There is also the excitement of the home-coming. All-in-all 919 Kms on the saddle is no mean accomplishment.

The participants:
Cycling by its very nature is self filtering sport. There is not space for arm chair strategists, and certainly not for non-players. In that respect, it is very unique sport. (Perhaps running is another one... not surprising that many cyclists are avid runners too). "Love for Nature" is another trait that every cyclist exhibits. Being eco-conscious is one of the commandments of our religion ;-) This bunch of 40+ people is no different. Each one has trained hard, and harder, and harder to be ready for the tour. 130 Kms a day, against a gradient is not the usual definition of fun. But we cyclists are a different tribe altogether and anxiously looking forward to it.

This bunch definitely has variety. We have professional riders, a professional coach, fitness experts, doctors, engineers, teachers, photographers, scientists... Guess what, we can even arrange a "Career day" shows in the schools on the way. Apart from their professional affiliations, I am sure we will have a very good mix of singers, musicians or even a budding ventriloquist to keep the camp-fires interesting. 

A word about the organizers:
I am amazed at the professionalism displayed by the organizers. Till now, all the multi-day cycling tours that I have heard have been mostly ad-hoc. The night halt location is usually determined by how far (or near) the legs can push. I have noted that as lot of thinking, re-thinking goes on quality time (which could otherwise spent oogling the Nilgiri range) is lost on the tour. When something goes wrong, the dreaded "I-told-you-so" reactions douse the spirits. TFN is totally different. The planners near professional (with lot of riding experience). The tour is so meticulously planned that they surely have a Plan B,C or D already in place if (heavens forbid) something does goes wrong.

Technology and the tour:
Last year during the same time, there were at least three tours that were happening. We were in Coorg. Gautaman and gang were in Mullayyanagiri - Kemmanugundi range. And Sree was doing his cross country ride. We were in touch with one another by SMS. After I came back, I was most happy to track Sree all the way up to Ahmedabad on his blog. This was the first live-blogging  that I had seen.

Since then, the technology has moved on. Now I hear that people can get in touch - near real time - using twitter. Images can be uploaded to flikr/picasa right from the camera. There are youtube videos. For those of people who get bored reading lengthy report, there are web-casts. I dont know how much of all these will be used on this tour - but the possibilities are just immense.

Collateral benefits:
Cyclists as a tribe have to grow. That is the only way forward... Today, the youth of our country chooses to ride a bicycle only when he can not get a mo-bike. We are determined to take the cycle a couple of notches higher in the "cool" scale so that young people are drawn towards it. Hence small rides are planned in each of the stop towns to spread the message of cycling. No Placards, No banners... just plain old spread the word by action. Hopefully some kids will get that cycling is more "cool" than speeding on motor-cycles.

Why am I not riding:
Could not make up my mind (to buy a good bike + the ride) before the slots got full...  Hopefully, I will be saying "I Blog... live!!" and a little bit of local riding. [Is any body carrying spare cycles?]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Day 6: Travel to Badarinath

Day 6 was in a way continuation of the previous evening. Descent... descent and descent. Temperature was not pleasant either. I think it was my new found knowledge about the importance of high altitude sun scream - I felt that sun was extremely sharp. Hm... wonder which cream was Ms K (Ms H.K, Canada to be precise) using. Those UV rays that purported to have burnt my nose en route to Hemkund only seemed to have managed to increase the glow in her face. Nevertheless, she decided to descend to Govindghat on 4 legs - those of the mule. Little did I know that it would be last time I would see her. Well, farewell.

After having seen the high mountain passes at Hemkund, the descent did not seem much interesting. More-of-the-same syndrome kept haunting. Well, even when we had gravity on our side getting down the mountain was not easy - thanks to some serious horse shit. We did not make progress as fast as we had imagined we would. One of the reasons we wanted to hurry was to beat the gate-closure-time towards Badrinath. It was becoming increasingly tiring. Only saving grace was that prices of fruit juices were reducing as we climbed down. A glass of nimbu-pani now costed only Rs 5/- compared to Rs 20/- in Ganghria.

Finally we reached Govindghat a little after noon. The Pittus took leave of us here. Nice people. A big thanks to them. Our brief search for our Qualis ended when we saw the smiling face of Khanduriji. Smiling, he told us that we would not make the gate-cut-off and hence we could take it easy. All of us abandoned our mountaineering (sic) sticks and got into the vehicle. As it started moving... I felt weird. It was the first time in 3 days that we were moving without putting any effort. It felt great. Lunch @ Hotel Bhagat and we were off to an hour drive to Badari Nath. Before we knew it... we were there - Hotel Dev Lok (New). The "new" in the bracket is important because there are many Hotel Dev Lok in Badri as well as the rest of Uttarakhand. It was the first time we had good mobile reception (only reliance) in three days. After about an hour frantic calling home, family and friends it was time for hot (yes, hot) bath.

The hot bath was not in the shower... but at the tapta kunda - the natural hot spring. Water from the hot spring is made to pass through 3 tanks. One is for the ladies and hence is covered from all sides ;-). Another one has only the roof and no walls. The last one is out in the open. The water in the covered tanks is obviously hotter. With enough apprehension, we got into least hot one... one by one. Quite a few men from the IQuest gang were also there. I am sorry to drag the comparison of liquour at a holy place... but our minds were just like a bottle of champagne just popped. We were laughing uncontrollably, splashing water at each other like four-year-olds. The place is naturally crowded. There had to be some one to look after the luggage at all time. A piece of advice - go there with as less luggage as possible... so that you can relax and soak in the hot sauna as long as you want.

There were further programs for the day. So we had to get out of the water and got into dry clothes. But alas!! we had to wait for the ladies. Luckily, in Badarinath any place where 10 people can sit - there will be a bhajan organised. We just sat in one of them right next to the tapta kund. After a bunch of songs, the girls were also ready and we proceeded to the shrine. Since it is one of the four matths that Sri Shankara himself started, it is a very holy shrine for Hindus. For that reason, it is also high on terror alert. Consequently, there is prominent security cover. Once inside I realized that it was just like how my 5th standard Hindi text book described it. There are birds chirping and flying anxiously all around. Some sparrows have made their home inside the sanctum also. So nice. I was so excited to see crows with yellow beaks and yellow feet. Only later did Mamu told that they were not crows but yellow-billed-chough.

After the ashtottara (reciting 108 different names of the Lord) we took prasad and joined another Bhajan group that was singing inside the temple. There is some intoxicating powers that these bhajans have. Here is where we picked up our slogan for the rest of the trip "Jai Badari Vishal!!!". We reserved our places in tomorrow's morning prayers and retired for the day. In the background we could here the priests performing the "shyana pooja" and putting Badari Vishaal to sleep.

Tomorrow promises to be an out-of-the-world experience. Behold.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 5: Hemkund Sahib

Rise and shine. As soon as I woke up that day, I checked all my body parts for any discomfort. None found. Thanked R for such simple medicine. Lesson: Salt and water must be taken in ample proportions to avoid cramps. L also gave very sound advice that I should not carry anything more than the camera and the binos. The pittus are specifically hired for carrying the rest. The socialist in me softened a bit and decided to make use of them. I packed my change of clothes into a small packet (god bless dri-fit clothes again) and put it in the bag to be carried by the Pittu. I wore a light T-Shirt and a jacket over it. Warm and Comfortable... and ready to go. After the near horrible experience at breakfast yesterday, we decided to try out "Hotel Deepak", just next door this time. There was one more attraction sitting in the Hotel, that sealed the deal. Most of us opted for English breakfast - bread & butter (lots of them), Hot porridge, and tea. Kumar had a lime juice... and I ate salt. I had come to like it now. After some time, the attraction in the hotel climbed a horse and went away... so did we.

We again came to the fork in the path - left to VOF, right to Hemkund. Q: Why are the two paths so different? A: Horses are not allowed inside the VOF. The one on left is clean and the one on the right is full of horse-shit. Another difference is that the very first 50 meters give you a glimpse of what is to come... steep incline. Hemkund is only perhaps 5 Kms from Ghangria as the donkey walks. In these 5 Kms the donkey has to gain 1300 meters (Ghangria:3048m: Hemkund: 4329m). Even if donkey meander around in 'Z's to tackle gravity, it still amounts to about 25% incline. We are more intelligent than that, we started making smaller 'z' with in the big 'Z' paths... Sure we would have to climb like 7.5 Kms, but the incline would be manageable... Me and R tried this for about a kilometre... Then it got boring and weird. At some time we caught up on L and Kumar. There were nice flowers on either side of the path... but nothing compared to the valley we saw yesterday. We spotted some red-flinches merrily feeding on the invisible grains. And then two more birds that were of the same size... same voice... Only later was I enlightened that all three are the same species - male, female and juvenile. So, avid birdwatchers derive pleasure out of recognising a bird... but three times more. No wonder Mamu kept falling behind. We took some rest at a snack stall... and moved on. There was some road work going on. A group of horses were also anxious to get past us. I did not want to argue with them... In all the commotion, I lost track of Kumar. I assumed he is ahead of me and hastened to catchup. Minutes later I could see a huge glacier at some distance. I felt as if I had a spring in my step. I started taking short-cuts. Taking the 'I' path in stead of 'Z'. But seeing the men and women from Khalsa tribe climb so effortlessly - the enthusiasm rubs off.

At the base of the glacier, it melts and starts a stream. It is perhaps the purest water source possible... I had to drink it. I looked up. I felt like going closer to the glacier... I started climbing towards the right of the stream. I reached the glacier... touched it. It was cold, not as soft as I had imagined it to be. It was just like a gola (grated ice). I took my time... The feeling was very much like being in a temple... can't explain why. But that was how I felt. Since I had gone off path and alone in front of a natural wonder I was seeing for the first time. The moment I turned back, I realised that down was definitely not the way to go. It was too slippery and I did not trust my floaters any more (after yesterday's fall. If I have not written about it, it is deliberate). So I started moving up and side hoping to re-join the path in some time. Actually, the path comes really close to the galcier. From this point, one can see the entire glacier stuck in a wedge between two mountains. Beautiful... I can imagine how bright would it look on a clear day. Time to move on.

I saw a small shrub of the Himalayan Blue Poppy (the majestic neelkamal) with so many flowers. Isn't is beautiful? I went a little off the path to get a close up. This time I made sure that I did not so off that I could not return back the same way. By this time, I came to realise that Kumar must not have been ahead of me or he was possessed by a horse (or some one on it). Nevertheless, it did not make much sense to wait. I carried on. Somebody had written that Neelkanth Peak would be visible from Hemkund... I wanted to see that too. The returning horsemen never tell you how far is the destination. They always waiting for some guy to give up and take the horse to the shrine. As I marched on, I asked a few pilgrims (old men) how far the temple was. They showed me a flag post that seemed two mountains away... That was the holy "Hemkund Sahib". I flaunted my binoculars pretending to guess how long it would take me to go there. The elders also took turns to see the flag post up close... and approved of my gadget.

A little ahead is a fork in the road. There is a easy path of really wide "Z"s or the very steep steps that takes directly to the door step of the shrine. In addition to saving time, the stairs meant that it would give much needed relief from the horses and horse shit. The choice was simple. It was here that I mingled with a troop of pilgrims. They were practising sikhs from some district in Punjab. It was little Jagan's first time in the high mountains. He had a unique way to stall climbing (so that he can get his breath back). He used to volunteer jokes and songs and ask every body to listen. I stayed with this group all the way to Hemkund. They were happy to be my guides. Punjabi is not much different from Hindi and I could get most of the jokes from the punch line. As we came near the shrine, the shout of "Jo Bole So Nihaal" started louder and louder... I joined in with "Sat Sri Akaal" every time. This is in fact a sikh hello, a war-cry, conveys devotion, denotes jubilation and many other emotions. It is a proof of our Indian tradition of remembering God at all time ;-)

Once inside the compound, Sandeep (one of the pilgrims) told me that I should not delay taking a dip in lake. We must do while the body is still warm from the climb. Five dips is what one must do - and it will give lot of brownie points in the heavenly account book. Sir, Yes Sir. I disrobed and went near the ice cold water. I saw that people were jumping out of the water after just one dip... there were a few who survived even 3-4 dips. I reckoned, 5 must really be a lot of brownie points and was determined to get them all... and more bonuses of available. There are iron chains whose one end is fixed on the bank of the lake... I wondered why would iron chains be required to take a dip in hip high stagnant water. I found the answer when I got up from my very first dip. I almost lost my balance. I could no longer feel my foot, let alone make it move on my command. Some reflex action kicked in and regained balance. Two, three four and five... By time I got up from my fifth dip the numbness had hit my head. I collected my points in full and let the bonus points go... Perhaps I would not have survived a sixth. So, this is what people call hypothermia. This is one place, being fat helps. Once out of the pond, I realized that my change of clothes is yet to come... Sandeep, who advised me on the 5-dip-theory sprang out just after one... Did he just con me into spending 10 excruciating seconds in frigid water without proper dry clothes to change into?

Next stop was the ritual of "Matha Tekhna" at the Gurudwara in front of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. It felt warm inside the Gurudwara. I went round the holy book and touched my forehead on the ground before it. This is Matha Tekhna. After coming out of the Gurudwara, we had hot tea and khichidi at the langar. Langar is the free food service that can be seen in almost all the Gurudwaras. Sikhs never turn back a visitor hungry. Sikh pilgrims consider it sacred to help out in the kitchen and doing dishes. It is a self sustaining process which the temple official only facilitate. With fuel in my stomach, I started to go around.

The lake is surreal. After having seen the water solidified in the glacier, it is hard to believe that such a huge lake can exist at this altitude. On the far side of the lake, one can see glacial water flowing ever so slowly into the lake. The excess water flows out into the mini-hydel project that caters to the power needs of the shrine. Beyond the lake, there are mountains on all the other three sides. On the slopes of these mountains, we can see foot high shrubs of the legendary Brahmakamala. This flower blooms for about 15 - 20 days a year and only above 4000m altitude. The semi transparent pale yellow petals hide the intricate design of the black pot shaped pistils. Its a see-it-to-believe-it kind of flower. I could see trekkers trying to climb those mountains to see what is beyond... Since I was still waiting for my friends to come, I did not want to venture too much. Later I learnt that there is a path that leads to Khag Bhushandi Taal (The lake of the crows) from here. It is supposed the be even bigger than Hemkund and another 1000 metres higher in altitude.

Towards the west of the Gurudwara is the Hindu temple of Laxmana - brother of Lord Rama. While the Sikh legend has that Guru Gobind Singh did meditate here in his previous life, the Hindu mythology says Laxmana meditated here. Similar story lines definitely indicate that this is an ideal place to meditate. I took a couple of photos and videos to tell the story. Again, electronics can just not record emotions. Too many people and the constant noise does irritate a bit. But if you can mentally block them out, this is as close as it gets to heaven. Wonder if potato, onion and raddish grow at these heights... If so, one can live here and declare independence from the rest of the world. Every two years, I would sell some potatoes and buy a new tent and thermals.
Just as I was thinking all kinds of international treaties that I would have to sign with India, China and who else... a thick fog covered the entire area. Visibility got reduced to just 10 feet. Light drizzle, frigid air. I asked a security guard how long would it take for the fog to lift. He said, some time it could take minutes, some time it took days. That day it did not (at least until late afternoon). My friends reached the shrine only now... L and Kumar were the first, then followed by R and then the rest. I played the role of tourist guide - first the pond, then the Gurudwara, then the temple and finally the langar. We got back into the Gurudwara since it was warm in there and they provide thick blankets for all pilgrims. We took ample rest - even slept for a while. Outside, the rain intensified and tourists became more chaotic... just the same effect that a drizzle has over Bangalore traffic. Sorry to remind of hell when we are in heaven.

Nothing notable happened on the way back ;-) More pictures of the Lake here.