Over the Edge
Part Two – Flow.... This is where it gets Interesting
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.
Bridge at 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 front is 21 inches, and the rear is 17 inches, 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 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.
Sun on Rohtang
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.
Insert Pic: In the Zone Being “in the zone” is an overused term by people who often don’t understand what it means, let alone have experienced it.
In the Zone
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 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. There was something gruesome inside as they reeled back before whipping their phones out to take pictures. 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.
Drive Don’t Fly
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”.
Royal Enfield Jump