Updated: Feb 15, 2021
Part One – Lets Do It
The next riders arrived in five days, so I had to decide to either 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.
I waved 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 and headed straight to the bus depot for 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 8-mile traffic jam. Fortunately, the bus had a TV and DVD player so we were entertained by watching a Bollywood movie…..4 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 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.
Pic: Route Day 1
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 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.
Pic: 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 just over 13,000ft 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 50ft, the road was wet, mounds of mud hugged the corners and in one spot, the water cascading down the mountain covered 90ft of road and was 2ft 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 20mph high fives 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. 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 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 an Indian gentleman who looked as if he was dressed for church, I watched as a class of early secondary school children get off a bus. The children milled around in an odd way which caught 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 six thousand meters (20,000 feet) 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 50 miles to go, I got back on the bike, crossed the river, and climbed up and over Kunzum Pass (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 had stayed in town 9 miles South East, I would have been woken by barking dogs and the call to prayer at the 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 makes listening to Cardi B an appealing alternative. I joined the monks for breakfast and as I dipped my khambir bread into my butter tea, I thought I was thinking 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.