This blog first appeared in two parts on the Roads are for Journeys blog.
The next riders arrived in a mere five days. I had to decide whether to stick around in Delhi’s energy-sapping humidity or head back to the Himalayas for a few days of reconnaissance for a new motorcycle adventure. It was risky but I knew where I would have more fun, so I said to myself “let’s do it”.
Waving goodbye to the last of the riders that I had spent the best two weeks of my life with on the amazing Cliffhanger adventure in the Pangi Valley , I made a beeline for the bus depot and a 13-hour overnight trip into the Himalayas.
The 13-hour trip turned into 24 hours when the bus broke down and a replacement bus was summoned, a river washed a road away and we had to walk to another waiting bus and then an accident blocked the road that created an 12km traffic jam. Fortunately, the bus had a TV and DVD player so we were entertained by watching a Bollywood movie…..3 times back-to-back at full volume! India is an amazing place that I find extremely hard to describe, but nothing is more difficult to explain than the plot of a Bollywood movie. If the CIA used Bollywood movies as a form of torture to get detainees to talk, they would have a much higher success rate.
It was late, dark, and cold when the bus arrived close to my start point at Naggar. I had lost a day’s riding so if I were going to make up the time the following day, I would need to be well-rested and get on the bike at the crack of dawn. I don’t remember much of what happened between deciding to hit the bar for a quick drink and 9 am the next morning when I woke up but I’m sure I had a good time. About a decade earlier, I contracted Malaria the day before we crossed the Serengeti in Tanzania to deliver a lowered Toyota Hiace to its new owner. That morning as I jumped on my Royal Enfield, I felt pretty much the same as I did in the Serengeti. It felt like every bone in my body was about to explode but the only thing stopping it was every muscle in my body cramping up.
If I was going to make it to Kaza that night, I would need all 33 Hindu gods (as well as a few Buddhist deities) on my side. Google maps said it was just 230km (143 miles) and should take 6 ¼ hours but having ridden in the Himalayas many times, I knew that it was going to take at least 8 hours. I needed perfect weather, shallow river crossings, zero punctures, and to pass through the military checkpoints without a hitch. With a thumping head and a breakfast of paracetamol and Ibuprofen, I made my way out of town and headed north along the Leh Manali Highway. Traffic was light and the hangover haze started to lift as I started the climb up Rohtang Pass.
Rohtang translates to something along the lines of “pile of corpses” or “field of corpses” and was so named by ancient traders who were fortunate to make it from one side of the mountain to the other. Like today’s Everest climbers, one can imagine traders 500 years ago hunkering down for the night with a chhang (barley liquor) and a charas or five, regaling the new boys with stories of how many of their colleagues they saw frozen stiff on the side of the pass. More recently, Rohtang Pass was featured in Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads when 3 of the 4 American truck drivers refused to drive the road for fear of altitude hypoxia. At nearly 4000m (13,058ft) it isn’t a particularly high pass, but you’ll certainly be gasping for air if you exerted yourself in any way.
The lack of oxygen amplified my headache which made it difficult to stay focused. The clouds hadn’t lifted, visibility was 50m (54 yards), the road was wet, mounds of mud hugged the corners and in one spot, the water cascading down the mountain covered 30m (98ft) of road and was 50cm (1 1/2 ft) deep. It was fast flowing so I could not see the rocks under the water, but I was able to disappoint the locals on the other side with their cameras at the ready, hoping to capture a motorcyclist going for a swim. They cheered as I made it through unscathed and then cheered louder as I nearly rode off the cliff after a 20kmh (15mph) high five went wrong.
Despite the conditions, I was making good time and sped across the freshly laid tarmac at the top of the pass (as much as a 24hp motorcycle breathing 40% less oxygen due to the altitude can muster) into blue skies. I could see the Rohtang Curves, a series of 32 switchbacks were free of the ever-present, snaking line of military trucks. A goods truck had taken a corner a little too quick and rolled into the guard rail. The gods were smiling upon me as I was now feeling alive and in the zone. The bike flicked from side to side, pegs scraped, and the brakes begged for relief. 14km (10 miles) along the river, I pulled into Chhatru and made a beeline for the solitary dhaba (a roadside food stall). Consisting of mud bricks and a tarpaulin for a roof, they only operated in the warmer months and stocked the bare necessities such as Maggi noodles and chocolate biscuits.
With a full stomach, it was time to imagine I was Toby Price and give the suspension a workout on the 30km (20 miles) of dirt road and river crossings to Batal. I was feeling good as I rode into town, so intended to continue, but the place was a hive of activity, so I stopped to see what was going on. A tiny lady with weathered, leather-like skin, smiled a toothless grin as she handed me a chai. Standing next to a well-dressed n Indian gentleman, I watched as a class of early secondary school children get off a bus. The children milled around in an odd way that held my attention. As they started to unroll a banner, I turned to the gentleman who I gathered was their teacher, and asked if they were on a school camp. He smiled as he pointed to the two peaks in the distance and said, “those two peaks are both over 6000m (20,000 ft) and these children are going to climb both of them this week.” I was impressed but my jaw dropped when I saw the unfurled banner which read “Kolkata school for the blind mountain climbing club”. Incredulously, I said, “They’re blind and they’re going to climb not one but two mountains in a week” to which he replied “They understand English and have excellent hearing” which was his way of suggesting that I should lower my voice. It was a life-changing moment for me; anytime I feel like an obstacle in life is unsurmountable, I think back to those kids and get inspired.
With over 70km (50 miles) to go, I got back on the bike, crossed the river, and climbed up and over Kunzum Pass – 4550m (14,931 ft). Descending into the northern end of the Spiti Valley, the engine was purring as the tires struggled for grip on the twisting narrow rolling ribbon of a road. With empty roads, no police, and a rapidly descending sun, it was time to channel my inner Rollie Free. The Spiti locals didn’t need to see me in my budgie smugglers so I kept my clothes on and crouched low to see what the old girl would pull. The speedo showed 130km/h (80mph) which was a little too optimistic, much like my mum was when waiting for my school reports. The bright blue sky checked out for the day as dusk rolled in and turned everything a shade of grey. 8 hours after I left Naggar Castle, I pulled up in Kaza, home to the iconic Key Monastery. I wanted to test the romantic notion of staying in a 900-year-old monastery however, there would be a mutiny if I put paying customers in an alcohol-free dormitory with basic food and shared bathroom facilities after 8 hours on the road.
After a ripsnorter of a day, I was as rooted as a Koala in a bushfire. On a cloudless night, standing on the monastery roof with a cold beer and a fragrant bidi in hand, I could see all 4548 stars in the Milky Way. Truly an unforgettable experience that every motorcyclist should experience. It wasn’t long before the rock-hard mattress and thick blanket were beckoning me. I didn’t fight the feeling as I let the night sweep over me, closing my eyes completely content.
If I was staying in a bigger town, I would have been woken by barking dogs and the call to prayer at a local mosque. If you’re going to be woken by religious fanatics, then choose the soothing Buddhist chants over the screeches of a cleric that make listening to Cardi B an appealing alternative. Jumping out of bed like a springbok, an old one with arthritis that had been trodden on by an elephant, I creaked my way to breakfast with the monks. As I dipped my khambir bread into my butter tea, I thought about the day ahead. It was foolish to expect two perfect days in a row but if I was going to try and fit a normal 4-day ride into 2-days, then I needed to hit the frog and toad straight away. I didn’t have the time to wait for the gas station to open so I found a driver of a tourist minibus and I slipped him 1500 rupees (about USD20) for him to fill my tank from his backup supplies.
Yesterday I stuck to the road I was familiar with on the south side of the Spiti River, but I’d heard that the newly completed Chicham Bridge on the north side was said to be one of the most spectacular bridges in the world and the highest in Asia. I wanted to see if we should include this section for riders on our Middle Land and Top of the World adventures. The road to the bridge was a narrow sinew of licorice sliced out of the side of a mountain that climbed up an imposing gorge, certainly not suitable for riders with acrophobia. As I rode along the cliff, I could see a series of switchbacks on the other side of the gorge and thought I must be close to the bri… whoa! No words can do the view of or from the bridge justice. This route was definitely making its way into future itineraries.
I’d been on the road for less than an hour when about 2 miles from Kiato, the side of the mountain I was riding on, moved. It was like when sand forms mounds after you let it fall from your clenched hand, except the grains of sand were the size of basketballs and were bouncing down the mountain to the river below. If I had skipped my breakfast with the monks, I’d be buried under the landslide and probably not found for another 500 years like the mummified monk in Gue.
The road was covered in boulders and dirt for about 50 yards, but it appeared passable. I needed to decide quickly whether I was going to risk crossing the landslide or backtrack 50 miles and lose nearly 3 hours. Having just read Richard Branson’s “Screw It, Let’s Do It” I took it to heart and decided to risk it. The debris hadn’t settled so it was going to be a struggle as the bike sank past the rims. The clutch and throttle got a hiding as I desperately tried moving it forward. My heart was in my mouth as pebbles bounced down the mountain and ricocheted off my helmet. With one eye on the rocks above and the other on the river below, I finally scampered to the other side with both myself the bike panting for oxygen. That escapade had cost me 30 minutes so, with no time to dwell on my luck, I made a beeline for Losar and back up to Kunzum Pass, where I’d give the bike a break by turning the engine off and freewheeling the 6 miles down to Batal.
As I turned right onto a bridge, I saw a rider wriggling underneath their motorcycle. The bridge wasn’t completely flat as there were raised wooden planks on the wheel tracks which the rider had misjudged. I stopped, lifted the bike off the rider and we rode the 150 yards into town. I was welcomed with a wide smile exposing the betel nut-stained teeth of the owners of the dhaba. Eating Betel nut gives one a buzz equivalent to six cups of coffee along with minor side effects such as oral cancer and flesh-eating tumors.
I ordered a bowl of Maggi Noodles ignoring the fact that they had been banned for 5 months for containing too much lead. They aren’t good for you but they’re like a high five for the mouth. Washing the noodles down with bottomless cups of chai and I was ready to tackle the second half of the day. With 70 miles to go, I could make it home by sunset with a quick stop 20 miles up the road before attacking Rohtang Pass again.
Leaving the other motorcyclist to gather their confidence, I head off along off on the dirt roads which are surrounded by bus size boulders. About halfway I ride up to a wide fast flowing water crossing that is much deeper than the previous day. I stopped to try a pick a safe line and notice that my front tire is losing air quickly. I knew I had a spare tube in my backpack, so I fished it out to find it’s only a 19-inch tube. The bike had a 21 inch front and a 17 inch rear, so I screwed that up. I whip the wheel out and am busily levering the tire off when I notice the motorcyclist that I had helped earlier was heading my way. I wave them down to ask if they had a spare 21-inch tube, but they kept going straight into the water crossing. The quizzical look on my face was quickly replaced with a stifled laugh when they went tits up in the river. I kept working on the tire and stretched the smaller tube onto the rim and got the tire back on and the wheel in place. It was about 800F and I was out of drinking water so pumping that tire up with a small hand pump took it out of me. I was completely cream crackered.
I’d lost another hour, but I needed to stop at Chhatru for water and the imaginary sustenance that Maggi noodles provide. As I exited the dhaba, a minibus pulled up from the direction I was heading. The people that piled out seemed overly excited as they pointed back up the valley. I followed their gaze and saw my worst fear, a black cloud completely covering the valley ahead. When I say black, I’m talking about a black that would make Anish Kapoor jealous. It was heading our way and frankly, I was more than a little nervous. I didn’t have the time to head back, I was already running late, and riding on the “pile of corpses” road in the dark isn’t the smartest decision. Maybe it was the altitude affecting my decision making or maybe Richard Branson had wormed his way into my brain, but I headed to the bike to put my wet weather gear on…except it was gone. The occy strap holding them in place was missing so I assume it fell off after I fixed the tire.
As I climb on the bike, full of adrenaline, the minibus driver rushes over and says “sir, sir, too dangerous, very big storm”. In perfect English, I say “sorry, no English” and took off. I see the locals wobbling their heads in my mirrors. I take it as a sign of respect for my bravery and not my stupidity and carry on into the valley of death. I can see a wall of rain coming at me faster than I am heading towards it and when it hits, it’s like being underneath a fire fighting aircraft when it releases its load. With the sun now blocked, the temperature dropped to below 600F and I was soaked to the core.
With about 40 miles until civilization, my adrenal gland was working overtime. The single-cylinder Royal Enfield kept thumping away and I was as focused as I’d ever been. I was only halfway up the side of the valley when the sun suddenly broke through the clouds. The storm cloud had passed over the top of the valley rather than come down the valley. Coming from the flattest continent on earth, I was used to seeing a storm for many hours, not disappear in ten minutes. It was a ferocious ten minutes but with the sun shining again, I got a second wind and was feeling great as I opened the throttle and kept it pinned across the top of the pass. I couldn’t tell if the local tourists at the top were waving at me or telling me to slow down but I definitely saw heads being wobbled.
Being “in the zone” is an overused term by people who often don’t understand what it means, let alone have experienced it. A few years previously, I was riding with my brother in the rain on the very same road. We were hyper-focused on the undulations of the road surface, the errant animals, and the oncoming vehicles. It was like a video game where everything was in slow motion and you could predict which direction the cow or the car was going to go. Nothing slowed us down as our speeds got faster and faster and all sense of time disappeared. While some people become drug addicts because they chase their first high, I have chased that first “flow” and am now totally addicted to riding in the mountains. I was “flowing” for the next 20 miles until I rode below the treeline.
The bike was purring perfectly with the torque pushing me out of tight corners and the agricultural suspension bouncing me around like an epileptic on a pogo stick. The tires squealed on down changes and when the front let go a couple of times, I had saved it before knowing it had happened. It was like an out of body experience and my brain was processing crazy amounts of stimulation with ease. With the sun bouncing off the top of the mountains and just over 10 miles to go, I slowed down and appreciated everything that had happened and how fortunate I was to be able to share these experiences with others.
One must always keep their wits about them on the Rohtang Pass but especially so in the afternoon. Groups of young men will overload an 800cc Suzuki Alto (twice as heavy as a Harley and about the same power) head up to the lookouts for a smoke of the good stuff and have one too many drinks. Sometimes they want to race you or run you off the road for kicks. As a rule, I only take riders over the pass in the morning but as I was alone, I decided to run the gauntlet.
There were several Manish Andretti’s on the road that wanted to race, high on a cocktail of altitude, Manali Cream, and testosterone. Like having a picnic on train tracks, the potential for disaster was enormous so I declined their offers and moved over to let them through. I was aware that I might have been a little fatigued after squeezing a 4 day 260-mile trip into 2 days. There were people from the USA on airplanes already heading to Delhi that were relying on me to pick them up in 42 hours. The time for unnecessary risks was over.
I was below the treeline when I rounded a lefthand switchback and noticed a few people standing on the outside of the curve overlooking a mangled guardrail to the area below. It didn’t occur to me immediately that someone or something had Evil Kneiveled off the road into the forest below. A few switchbacks later and an ambulance pulls out in front of me, siren blaring. I sit behind it as we come across hundreds of cars all stopped on the side of the road. The traffic jam snaked its way down the mountain for at least a couple of miles. No one was moving except the ambulance and I in prime position right behind it. When the road narrowed and we slowed down to a crawl, I could see the bystanders gawking into the ambulance and taking pictures. There was something fairly gruesome inside. It was then I realized it was probably the driver of the vehicle that slingshotted itself off the side of the mountain, probably one of the lunatics that I had declined to race down the mountain.
The Ambulance silently made its way down the mountain with me behind it, passing the stationary cars backed up for miles until we came to a commotion at a roadblock. The crowd descended upon the ambulance like a NASCAR pit crew and before we knew it, were waved through by a police officer. As the Ambulance pulled across to the left, a pickup truck with its tail down, pulled in behind it. The police officer tried to block the road but I grabbed my chance and skirted around him, gesturing wildly and shouting “I’m with them” pointing at the ambulance. I noticed there were two basketball-sized rocks on a sheet that was covering something in the back. As we would go around hairpin bends, the rocks would slide and whatever was under the sheet was working its way loose. The pickup hit a pothole, the rocks slid towards the cabin, taking the sheet with it, exposing a couple of lifeless feet.
I guessed that the owner of those feet had departed this world when he speared through the guardrail earlier. While he was getting colder and stiffer, his friend got the comfy seat in the ambulance. The road ahead still had plenty of twists and turns so when the pickup swung from one side to the other, so did the feet on the back of the tray. I followed the pickup for about a mile when it came across a speed bump a little too fast and the body in the back got airborne. The feet rose in the air, uncrossed, and then gracefully crossed the other way as they came back down. I didn’t want to hang around any longer in case the pickup hit another speed bump and I ended up with an unresponsive passenger draped over my handlebars. Whipping out from behind the pickup, I twisted the throttle and headed for home, my mind replaying the events of the past 48 hours. I had made it home in time for a shower and a feed before getting on the midnight bus back to Delhi.
The combination of the bus engine droning and swinging from left to right along the mountain roads meant that I promptly gave into my exhaustion. As I closed my eyes, I knew I had made the right decision in Delhi to “let’s do it”.