The stark whiteness of the cold Himalayan desert lay spread out in front of the riders, an endless vista of dazzling white snow and ice, mixed with the azure blue of the sky, and the pale turquoise of the Chandra River. Girdled by a wall of the highest and the most ragged peaks of the Himalayas lying in Himachal Pradesh, Spiti appears measureless, lifeless and ageless. The surrounding terrain is an antique geological canvas, with Mother Nature’s capricious forces having had a free hand at carving intricate patterns in the surrounding mud, sand and rock through the ages, leaving a fancy sand pillar here and an exotic rocky arch there. The high peaks surrounding it are a barrier for even the monsoon clouds, and the valley remains a cold, dry desert. An absolute sense of aloneness envelopes the traveler, the all-pervading silence almost deafening to the noise accustomed urban dweller. A land more secluded, more exotic and more ancient than the Spiti Valley is hard to come upon.
The decision to ride across Spiti in winter on motorcycles had not really been spontaneous. Though spontaneity does help one evade the mind’s inherent predilection towards comfort and safety. Riding on two wheels to snow bound mountains carries with it a heady mix of physical risks and pleasure. This ‘in your face’ physicality of motorcycling seemed to be perfectly in sync with the harsh barrenness of Spiti. And more so with the assumed capabilities of our steeds, the newest, latest and the best motorcycle yet from the Bajaj stables. So, there they were, two people on two Bajaj Dominars, riding the high road to the inner Himalayas. On a quest to experience the extreme Artic-like conditions from the saddle of a machine that can take such stuff in its stride and carry back photos and videos of the adventure to share.
Sunil remembers his thoughts before the ride, “I know it looks beautiful, but that beauty is deceptive. It is dangerous to go there at this time,” said the cautionary voice from within as I weaved my way through the notorious Delhi peak-hour traffic.
“The temperatures will be dipping way below zero, and the wind chill will make it worse! Even if you cover your body in a dozen layers of clothing, the bike will refuse to start in that cold! The roads will be extremely slippery due to ice on the road, one wrong move and you could be plummeting into the valley hundreds or thousands of feet below! Everything will be covered in snow!” The voice continued!
“But then isn’t that what makes it all the more tempting? I argued! I wasn’t going to let the negative voice win that easily, after all I had been dreaming to ride in snow-covered Spiti for a very long time and this was the opportunity to turn that dream into reality. Time was just right, as it was March and the approach road from Shimla would be open with more than enough snow everywhere in the valley. And most important I was on a machine, the Dominar, which suited the ride perfectly. Strong, capable, rugged and with loads to technological ride aids like loads of power and torque (400cc, 35 BHP single), fuel injection that self compensates for altitude and temperature, big disc brakes, ABS and those LED lights. Had I paid heed those ‘sane’ voices from within and you probably wouldn’t do it. The conditions are virtually overwhelming for both the man and the machine. But then such challenges are what make any road trip memorable.”
Shubham Jain, the youngest and newest member of the xBhp core team, was to be Sunil’s partner in crime. And for someone going to Spiti for the first time, that too in winter, gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘baptized by fire’! They hit the road at dawn on the 16th of March, the two Dominars scorching NH44 in search of the proverbial ‘white gold’ in the high and distant Himalayas. The run from Delhi till the gateway of Kinnaur at Karcham is good tarmac and so great but relatively ‘ordinary’ fun. The real deal begins past the bridge over Sutlej 3 kilometers beyond Karcham. The tarmac does the vanishing trick, losing its job to mud and slush with embedded rocks and the riders smell the beginnings of a battle. It was dusk by the time the two Dominars hit this region. A short sharp spell of rain a couple of hours earlier left more slush than usual in its wake. And the closing darkness added to the drama. The Dominar’s full LED headlamps ‘glowed’ in their full glory and the duo could literally ‘dominate the night’ with the illumination intensity and beam spread. Powari came up and it being the last fuel stop before Kaza, the bikes were fuelled up. The Dominar’s 13 litre tank would easily suffice for the 200 kms odd between Powari and Kaza. The road was nowhere near being a road till some 10 kms before Puh whereon it metamorphosed into dream-quality tarmac with cat’s-eyes et al!
Puh woke up to a clear dawn and the riders saddled up for their tryst with a white Spiti. The road past Puh continues to follow the Sutlej river till Khab, the confluence point of Sutlej and Spiti rivers. Beyond Khab, the road climbs up, flicking through a series of hairpin bends, heading towards Nako Lake and Spiti further ahead. Road expansion work for a few miles in between made things tricky as that part of the route is exposed to deep gorges on one side. One tiny error and there’s no getting a second chance at life. The Dominars droned on, unconcerned with either the cold or the altitude. Nako is a pretty little hamlet some 13000ft above sea level. It has a small round lake in its centre and life in the village revolves around farming and occasional tourism. The entire lake was frozen solid, the surrounding mountains covered in white and yet the villagers were beginning to prepare their fields for sowing the summer crop! Malling Nallah beyond and a little higher was a frozen waterfall. It was cold even in the bright noon sunshine. Photos and videos were time consuming but no complaints as the surroundings were extraordinary and the time spent there was priceless.
Hoorling has a small dhaba serving great paranthas with dal and curd-garlic chutney that is out of this world. See a dhaba with a small prayer wheel outside and that’s it. The road beyond Schilling has deteriorated beyond the usual this winter. The ruts and potholes are deeper and more numerous. The icy slush makes it worse. But the Dominar’s well set-up suspension is the saving grace. The bike’s saddle doesn’t kick back at any point and the bike remains easily controllable. Those photoshoots had consumed the daylight hours and it meant at least a couple of hours to Kaza in pitch darkness.
As Sunil recalls, “Night-time isn’t exactly the right time for riding when the temperature has already gone well south of the freezing mark and you are expecting notorious black ice formation on the road. Not to mention the patches of non-existent roads and the fear of falling rocks from the mountains beside the general risks of riding at night. But then once again the super bright full LED headlight of the Dominar came to the rescue. I don’t have anything but tons of praise for the folks at Bajaj for the Dominar headlight. What seemed like just another cheesy tagline to sell the bike – Dominate The Night – proved to be the true USP of Dominar. Every minute detail on the road was clearly visible and that made all the difference. When we reached Kaza at around 8:45 p.m., it was extremely cold. Multiple layers of clothing on the upper and lower body kept us comfortable, though the same couldn’t be said about the fingertips and toe tips. There is anyways very little blood that reaches there to keep them warm; poor things took the maximum brunt upon themselves.”
Tandup’s homestay in Kaza was an oasis in the cold desert. Heater warmed rooms, hot home-cooked food and comfortable beds were a dream come true. The snows could wait till morning. The following day dawned clear, crisp and white. Anything horizontal or at an angle even a little less than perpendicular was covered in white! And the cold was killer. Extreme sub-zero had suddenly become physical and real. The bikes had braved it all through the night in the open. The seats were crusted over with hard hoar frost. Will the bikes start? There’s no back-up kick start and batteries are not really cold friendly. A turn of the key, short whine of the fuel pump priming up, thumb presses the starter and the Dominar is up, awake and idling merrily away in -5 deg C conditions. Wow! Can it get any better?
With the bikes wide awake and the intense chill limiting morning rituals to just using the dry toilet, things were ready to roll. The whiteness was beautiful as was the blue of the sky. Click blindfolded and you’d get a picture postcard shot. It was cold, wind-chill being well below zero even in bright sunshine. The next 3 days were a routine of waking up, saddling up, choosing a direction and riding that way till we could ride no more due to the snow on the road. The CEAT Zoom Tyres (110/70-17 at the front and 140/70-17 at the rear) performed well in all terrain – be it off-road, dry or wet tarmac. Riding on the snow requires specialized tyres though. But we had fun riding in the snow till wherever we could, sliding and dancing around, after all that is what we had come for. Funnily, the otherwise much despised roadblocks became our destination as everyday we’d go out searching for one and be super happy if we found one. Pin Valley was incredibly beautiful in white and the views down from close to Kibber were breathtaking. The snow just refused to melt despite the sustained bright sun; such was the wind chill all over. Three days in this white heaven and it was time to head back. Doing the complete circuit of Delhi – Shimla – Kaza – Manali – Delhi wasn’t possible as the Kunzum and Rohtang Passes were completely snowed, so we had to return via the same route we’d used while going.
The Dominars performed impeccably throughout the grueling ride and were as crisp and sprightly while returning as they’d been while going. The beating they’d taken at the hands of non-existent roads, extreme chill, slush and what not had made no difference to their performance. That’s what a motorcycle is supposed to be – capable AND reliable to take the rider the distance and in conditions that he wants to ride in. The Dominar, quite unlike a few of its contemporaries that depend on the rider’s efforts to take them through the ride, lets the rider enjoy his ride to the hilt without worrying an iota either about a breakdown or lack of performance from his steed.
A ride as extreme as this has proven convincingly enough that the Dominar is a great choice when it comes to owning a middleweight category motorcycle. A machine that is ready for even the most extreme kind of touring while at the same time being rider-friendly enough to be used for the daily commute. And all that without any compromises on reliability, bang for buck and road presence.
About the Dominar: The Dominar really proved its weight in gold on this ride. We wouldn’t mind if it was a little lighter though. The riding position is comfortable for you to ride more than 8-10 hours a day without any stress on your back, wrists or shoulders. There is ample power and torque especially in the mid-range that would keep you in the 3rd or 4th gear at around around 50-70 kmph mark comfortably in the mountains most of the time without having to shift repeatedly. Also when you are riding in a terrain as vivid and challenging as Spiti, you have to have a bike that offers you reliable braking whenever you need, and the ABS equipped brakes of the Dominar along with its LED headlight and the torquey engine make for the perfect companion for the long haul!
Check out the full video of this ride!
Photos: Sunil Gupta, Sandeep Goswami and Shubham Jain