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Motorcycle meditations on an adventure in the Indian Himalayas

A small mishap in northern India isn't enough to ruin the magic of an epic bike ride through the mountains on the highest motorable road in the world.
A herd of goats is one of the many obstacles found on the roads in northern India.
A herd of goats is one of the many obstacles found on the roads in northern India.

As the bike tips forward seemingly in slow motion, I know I am in trouble. And as I hit the ground violently, finally sliding to a stop on the compacted dirt surface, I know for sure I'm in big trouble.

The Royal Enfield I had been riding lies beside me, its engine stalled; the silence of the road and the looming, snow-capped mountains around me are dwarfed only by a sharp pain in my right shoulder; the part that hit the ground first in my spill over the handlebars. In the few moments that I lay on my back, looking up to the blue sky through my helmet visor, my mind flashed from dealing with the pain to how I had once questioned whether this trip would be a real adventure or not.

This is an organised group tour of northern India, after all. But my injury - what would turn out to be a shattered collarbone - would simply be just another part of the adventure in a grand exploit that included some of the most challenging roads in the world, risky water crossings and oncoming trucks threatening to push you over the side of a cliff - and a trip that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Rewind a few months back; with an offer of a motorcycle experience of the Himalayas, from Chandigarh to Leh atop those iconic Royal Enfield motorcycles, I was sceptical. The route and location sounded fantastic, but a group tour? Visions of tight schedules and regimented riding groups seemed to negate the whole freedom and spirituality one would expect from riding a motorcycle through the wilds of northern India and Kashmir. And spending 10 days with total strangers added a risk of personality and attitude conflicts, threatening to steal the magic from a potentially epic experience.

But India has an indescribable and magical lure, so I found myself in the sweatbox that was New Delhi a couple of weeks ago, boarding a train to Chandigarh, where I met Nelson Suresh Kumar. He is part owner of Vista Adventures and Tourism, the organiser of the experience.

You'll be hard pressed to find a nicer tour guide than Kumar. Always patient, accommodating and friendly, Kumar often has a smile on his face and some interesting facts about any area of his homeland of India. His obvious enthusiasm and enjoyment of the tour is borne from a genuine love of long-distance motorcycling; in fact, he was previously a stockbroker, but got the idea of starting this company on a motorcycle trip from Brazil to Alaska he took - alone - a few years ago.

Kumar, who moved to Dubai from India some 20 years ago, started with quad bike tours in the UAE and then one India trip in 2009. This year, his group is organising seven rides, and they plan more next year, including a more sedate route to Goa. He is also the Middle East distributor of Royal Enfield motorcycles, with a dealership in Dubai.

I also met the seven others that will ride along on the trip, all with varied backgrounds; there are Omanis, Indians, a couple of Canadians, a Frenchman and a Kuwaiti. And following behind the group would be a mechanic and a driver in a big yellow support van, stocked with spare parts, tools, water and other necessities for the six-day ride to Leh.

It's here that we were finally introduced to our mounts: the Royal Enfield Classic 500, a simple, vintage-looking bike built in Chennai. The Enfield is almost as ubiquitous to India as curry and elephants, having been built there with few changes since the 1950s. Though the cities are full of Japanese- and Chinese- designed, smaller-displacement motorcycles - "One year of production for Royal Enfield [about 147,000 bikes] is about the same as two days for Hero Honda," says Kumar - it's out on the rougher, more desolate roads that the Enfield will show its true worth and popularity.

We start off early in the morning from Chandigarh, and as we leave the city it starts to drizzle. Our route has us climbing hills up into the Himachal Pradesh state on mainly decent paved roads, and as we climb we note the clouds are getting lower and lower; we are also slowly becoming drenched as it starts to rain more heavily. And the roads are getting worse, pockmarked with holes and dotted with cows; at one point, we stop outside a high-altitude sport training centre, about 3,657m above sea level, and John Purdy, a tough-talking Canadian who travelled out for the trip, asks: "When do we get to the main road?"

"This is the main road," laughs Kumar.

By the time we reach Narkanda, our final destination about 245km away, the group's spirits are as drenched as our riding gear. Ominously, we're all given half a sulphur pill - something to help us prepare for the high altitudes that we are headed towards.

The next two days, we make our way through the Spiti Valley, part of the legendary Silk Route. Thankfully, the rain holds off, but the roads slowly begin to get much, much worse: they turn from asphalt to dirt and back again, with potholes the size of bomb craters, some filled with water. As we move higher, the slim roads fall off to high, sheer cliffs; the threat of large, oncoming trucks is ever present, too, as they can take up almost all of the narrow road and appear suddenly from around a corner. But the riding only gets more challenging and fun, and the low Enfields prove to be nimble through the rough going. The bikes' major downfall, though, is the low suspension travel, and everybody's backs are starting to ache by the time we roll into our first stop at Kalpa and then, the next night, in Kaza, home of the highest commercial petrol station in the world.

The traffic is also beginning to get lighter, save for large trucks and the occasional motorcyclists; Kumar picked the route not only to slowly acclimatise riders to the higher altitudes, but also because of its difficulty and scenery, so it's travelled less. It's a tour he's made often, on his own and with a group. "I don't get tired of the trip at all; it's always different," he says. "The climate, the roads, the people, they change every time."

At various stops along the entire route, usually in the middle of nowhere, are small collections of makeshift tent-buildings that house a small kitchen and a place to rest your head at night. Built of piled stones and tarp roofs, these "dhabas" are like truck-stop havens set among the mountains. At one of these dhabas, our photographer Pawan Singh talks with one of the proprietors, a lively, smiling old man with a weathered face and worn clothes who beckons us into his tent for a chai. He talks in Hindi about his Buddhist background, and plays for us a traditional Buddhist song on his mobile phone. As he translates the lyrics, he has a far-off look and a smile, seeming to sing them in his head.

"If you want to do good, do it in this world.

"And if you are happy, then you are at peace."

This place is truly magical, I can't help but think.

What also adds to the surreal magic are the various, imaginative road signs dotting the route. "Darling, I like you, but not so fast!", "Better to be Mr Late than a late Mr", and one of my favourites, "Don't gossip, let him drive".

Day 4 is by far the most interesting, challenging and rewarding, and it begins with a mistake. A group breaks off and takes a wrong turn, climbing up into the mountains and eventually reaching the village of Kibber, perched like a city in the clouds at 4,328m. I wonder what these people do up here, so far away from anything, but as I putter through the village, I'm sure they are thinking the same thing of me.

I'm also noticing a change; Tibetan prayer flags dot the landscape, I'm finding it harder to breathe and the people look different - more Chinese than Indian. The journey is really beginning to take shape; no longer is it just riding a motorcycle, but we feel we are now experiencing a change in cultures and people.

And the difficulty and danger of the roads serve only to sharpen our focus, bringing us into a more Zen-like concentration of simply riding the bikes. There was no thinking of work or other trivial thoughts; not when you have a 60m drop on one side and a full-sized lorry bearing down on you over slippery, potholed roads. It clears your mind, and what better place to have that happen than in the surreal mountains and among the many Tibetan prayer flags and monasteries along the way? This is real meditation, and we are modern-day, mechanised monks.

Kumar and Martin Alva, the other guide, do a good job of letting the riders experience the trip at their own pace; the group spreads out with Kumar following as a sweeper. It makes for a more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere for everyone.

"A couple times I felt like I was alone in a group of people," says George Marshall, another Canadian, who lives in Al Ain. "Sometimes I'd go ahead of slower riders or hang back at my own pace; I really felt that this was my trip. I'd talk with people at all the stops; I didn't feel like it was directed by Nelson or anything."

The day presents a challenging set of water crossings; the group is tentative at first, but with each success comes more confidence. Indeed, each rider has noticeably improved his skills and mettle during the entire trip.

We also notice many more Royal Enfield bikes along the way; most are ridden by people taking the trip on their own, with their own schedules and directions. But the reality is that not everyone has the time or the will to deal with the accommodation plans or the many permits needed for the trip. "I want to go for the ride," says Purdy. "I want to see the country, I want to talk with people that live here; I don't want to talk to the bureaucrats or the cops or deal with all that aggravation; I'd gladly pay someone to make the aggravation go away."

The next day finds us in a strange, boulder-filled landscape, with huge rocks resting on the side of the Manali-Sarchu road we're travelling on. More water crossings and other hardships until we get to our camp site, a series of large tents. Unfortunately, at more than 4,572m, two of our group fall to altitude sickness, punctuated by headaches, nausea and severe breathing difficulties, and they have to spend time in a portable hyperbaric chamber that Kumar carries with the support truck. For one rider, his trip on the bike is over, and he has to spend the rest of it riding in the van.

Day 6 starts off all right - it is the last leg towards our final destination of Leh in Kashmir. Perhaps I am getting complacent; perhaps it is unavoidable. But I hit a depression in the road the wrong way coming over a hill and it bounces the bike up and sends me over the handlebars, landing hard and breaking my right clavicle, or collarbone. I know my ride is over, too; the bike will be sent to Chandigarh in a truck, and I catch a lift with a passing tourist car to an army field hospital just up the road, where I am given a rudimentary sling by the doctors there and then catch a ride in the waiting support van for a bouncy and very uncomfortable eight-hour trip to Leh.

Doctors at the small hospital there do what they can with a better sling and I spend the next few days in the small, smog-choked tourist town with the group, even following them up (in the van) to the highest motorable pass in the world, Kardung La, rising up to 5,602m. But I can't help but think it's all a bit anticlimactic after the tremendous hardships and rugged terrain the group went through over the past six days, which was more satisfying in the accomplishment than actually arriving at our destination. In fact, I even consider my injury as just part of the adventure, something that simply added to the obstacles that had to be overcome.

There are mixed feelings at the end, as we board a flight from Leh to New Delhi; it's good to be going home, but the experience has been monumental for us all. Despite the fact that the hotels were booked, the route was mapped, a support truck followed and experienced guides led the way, there is still a real danger, a real challenge and a real charm to the whole experience. This is no Disney ride; you are subject to the same tough roads, unpredictable conditions and inherent risk that anyone experiences here, and there is a real and deserved feeling of accomplishment at the end.

If you're looking for a leisurely motorcycle sightseeing trip, this is not for you. But if you are looking to push your biking skills and find some inner peace with hard work and extreme conditions, you'll find it on the back of a Royal Enfield in the Himalayas.

As Marshall puts it: "It was a once in a lifetime trip; we should be thankful for it."

Vista Adventures and Tourism offers the 11-day Himalayan adventures for Dh9,600 all-inclusive, apart from international flights. Contact 04 340 1855 or 050 568 8400 for more details.

     

Updated: July 16, 2011 04:00 AM

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