After working three days on my bike, the mechanic finally declared it sound and I set out of Mandi towards the Spiti region. I had already tried this trip last November but had been forced to abandon it when the road became a river and the army ordered me to turn back. This time I was doing the journey with another biker, Ariel, a 20-year-old Israeli I’d met in my hotel.
Our partnership had an inauspicious beginning. On the first day we tried to take a shortcut through the mountains and ended up on a dead-end mud covered track. We slipped and slid on it for over two hours before realising our mistake. Ariel, who rode much faster than me, fell off three times. Or rather, three times that I could see, as I suspect from the amount of mud on his clothes, that there may have been a few more falls I didn’t see.
A few hours later, he ran out of petrol because he was only getting 10 kilometres to the litre against my 30 kilometres per litre. He attributed this to his bike being ten years older than mine although I think that is not enough to explain why his 350cc should consume so much more than my 500cc. I thought, but didn’t say, that his preference for doing almost all his riding in first and second gear and his love of revving the engine may have been contributing causes.
We siphoned some petrol out of Big Thumper’s tank and rode to the nearest station to discover it only sold diesel.
However, the attendant, seeing our faces asked if this was an emergency.
‘Yes, I only have half a litre left in my tank,’ Ariel replied.
‘Okay,’ the attendant switched on the petrol pump marked Empty. ‘I give you two litres so you can get to the next station.’
Our next misadventure occurred soon after as I exited a tight bend too quickly, almost collided with an oncoming scooter, and was rear-ended by Ariel who had been riding behind me. We all came out of it unscathed although my bike was even more beaten up now, with a broken tail light, side indicator and mirror.
The next day it rained and Ariel continued to fall at regular intervals. I tried suggesting he ride a bit more slowly, but dropped the subject when he replied testily, ‘I have been riding since I was 14 years old.’
Half an hour later, he rode into a village and straight into a shrieking pig. The pig seemed all right although Ariel went over the top of his bike and apparently cracked a rib. I was starting to wonder if travelling with Ariel was such a good idea. He seemed so accident-prone.
In fact the next miss-hap was mine. Puncture number four. Although by now I had both a spare inner tube and an air pump we decided that Ariel should bring the offending wheel to the previous village nearby where we’d seen a puncture repair shop.
It took Ariel three hours to come back with the wheel and I spent the time sitting by the roadside, surrounded by our luggage and worrying about Ariel having another accident and falling over the side of the road and into the river Sutlej, thundering 500 metres below us. How would I tell his mother?
When Ariel finally returned, the only thing he said to explain his long absence was, ‘It took me a long time to find someone.’
Ariel and I rode together for another two days during which he continued to skid and fall regularly. We reached the village of Nako, almost right on the border with Tibet, at over 4,000 metres high.
My first night at such a high altitude was rather unpleasant with severe headaches and nausea.
In the morning I decided to move on to the next village lower down, hoping that Ariel would choose to stay behind in Nako.
Although there are certainly safety advantages in travelling in a pair, I was finding it difficult to keep up with Ariel’s riding, or his conversation which seemed to revolve around all the manly things he’d learned while in the military, such as how to kill a man without making any noise or how to hot-wire a Land Rover.
Unfortunately, Ariel decided to accompany me, and it was only two days later that we split when his bike’s front suspension collapsed, no doubt helped by his kamikaze riding. Defeated, he loaded his Enfield in an empty truck to go back the way we’d come.
I set off to Kaza to wait for the Ladakh road to open up. Although it was the month of July, the winter snows were still obstructing the road. Nobody knew how long it would take for the road workers to clear the road: some villagers said two days, others said two weeks.
Kaza is a small town alongside the Spiti river, surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains. The scenery is majestic: intense blue skies, jagged snow-capped peaks over 6,000 metres high, scree covered mountains in various shades of browns, purples, oranges and metallic grey, and all under a sun that seems so much closer here. Apart from a few fields of barley and peas near the river, there is no greenery.
One of the hotels in the town housed a tour group of eleven burly German bikers on a three- week bike tour of the Indian Himalayas. I’d already met them the previous day as I waited for three hours by a broken-down truck blocking the road. Actually it wasn’t so much blocking the road as blocking the small river running across the road. While trying to cross the water, the truck had broken its axle and no amount of pushing could budge it. Furthermore the track was too narrow, and the drop off the side of the mountain too steep to attempt squeezing my bike by the side of the vehicle.
As the hours passed other vehicles including this group of German bikers joined me. While we waited for a truck from the road department to arrive, the water level steadily rose as the sun melted the snows higher up, and I worried that the water would be too deep for me to cross. Finally at 1 pm, the truck was hauled out.
I found myself at the front of the convoy, just behind a large truck painfully inching itself up this narrow road towards the water crossing. Suddenly it stalled and a man rushed out of the passenger seat, picked up the nearest large rock and lodged it behind the back wheel to prevent it reversing down the mountain and into me. The man gestured to me to get out of the way. I swerved around his truck and continued up to the stream where I pulled over to wait for the other bikes. I wanted to see how the others managed the crossing before attempting it.
However, after a few minutes it became apparent that nothing was going to come up the road until the truck driver had restarted his vehicle. In the meanwhile, two road workers, standing knee high in the river, were urging me to cross. ‘Go, go! Before water gets too high.’
‘No, I’ll wait. I want to see other people cross it first.’
‘No, you must go now.’
Nervously, I revved up and slowly entered the fast moving water. Half way through, my front wheel hit a rock; I wobbled, stalled and dropped the bike onto its left side, thankfully a couple metres from the 50 metres drop on the left. The two workers rushed up to me, helped me right the bike and pushed it across the river bed and onto the other side. I was soaked, trembling and just a little bit exhilarated. I’d been the first to cross.
Big Thumper was unfazed by the whole experience and despite its fall in the water, it started at the first kick-start. I rode up till I could see the German bikers still stuck behind the stalled truck and waved at them. They waved back shouting cries of congratulations. Fortunately none of them had been able to see my fall. I stayed to watch them cross. None of them fell.
Kibber, a few hours ride from Kaza, is one of the highest villages in the area, at 4,200 metres high. The fifty or so two storey houses are built of mud bricks, with flat roofs covered with twigs for burning. Every family has a small stone enclosure built against a wall of the house for their livestock.
In the mornings, the villagers open up the enclosures and chase out the animals with small stones, wooden sticks and whistles. The animals make their way to the village square from which they are herded out to the pastures. Actually to call them pastures is a bit generous: they graze on steep rocky slopes where only a few stunted plants manage to survive in the incessant wind and blinding sun.
One morning I went to see them set off. One of the shepherds, a small child of nine or ten, banged on a tambourine and a few minutes later, the animals started to descend upon the village square. First a cow came trotting down but upon finding the square deserted turned back in disgust; one of the children told me she’s the first one every morning and doesn’t like it. Soon after two adult donkeys and a baby one ran down braying at full volume.
More than the tambourine, this seemed the real signal for the beginning of the gathering. The goats came down hesitantly from different side roads and grouped themselves amongst a pile of rocks on one side of the square. Now and then a few young goats made quick forays into the herd of sheep on the other side, irritating them with mock charges.
In the middle, the donkeys were taking their morning dust baths, throwing up big clouds of dirt and braying with pleasure, while the yaks and the cows stood there among the bustle, almost still, facing the morning sun like late night revellers the morning-after.
By now, the square held more than two hundred animals, and the four shepherds – three children and one adult – herded them out of the village, across a small stream and up a dust path to their grazing area in the mountains. Two women with straw baskets on their backs followed the animals out of the village to collect their droppings for fuel.
As I walked back through the village, a child ran up to show me a handful of fossils of snail-like shells. It’s hard to imagine that 500 million years ago, this whole area was under the sea.
After waiting two weeks in Kaza for the mountain road 70 kilometres ahead to open up, and getting all sorts of information, or misinformation, about how long it would take for the repairs to be completed, I decided to ride on ahead as far as I could and gage the situation for myself.
After two hours on a very bumpy track, I passed a Western hiker who told me he’d heard the road had just opened today for light traffic including jeeps and motorcycles. Great. I could be in Ladakh in two days. An hour later I rode up to Kunzum Passat 4,500 metres high where I had a good view of the glaciers oozing down the narrow valleys. There I met a group of seven Indian university students on a cycling holiday. At this point we were only 15 kilometres from the supposed blockage. They had heard it would take another three to four days to clear. Not as good as the previous news but still not too bad. I could occupy myself trekking in the area until then.
I continued for another ten kilometres to the settlement of Batal. On the way there my bike suffered its fifth puncture of the trip. There was no question of waiting for help on this dead end mountain track. It was finally time for me to deal with this problem on my own. Fortunately the puncture was on the front wheel, which is much easier to take off than the back wheel, and in the space of an hour, I managed to take off the wheel, extract the punctured inner tube, replace it with my new one, replace the wheel, reconnect the front brake and pump up the tyre.
I was very proud of myself.
However, now of course, I no longer had another spare tube. I worried about that, but laughed when I remembered that for the first few months of my journey I neither had a spare inner tube, nor thought anything of it. Ignorance is bliss.
In Batal, a one stone-hut settlement, I met an Italian trekker who had just walked over from the other side.
‘Is the road open for motorcycles?’ I asked.
‘You must be joking,’ he laughed. ‘It won’t be opened for at least another two weeks.’ ‘Are you sure?’
There are fields of snow and ice over five metres high and at least one landslide that’s more than 100 metres wide. I met a road worker who told me one of the bulldozers is broken and that the other one is not working very well.
He said it would take at least two more weeks.’
The owner of the small guesthouse, if one can call these four walls made of stacked stones and covered with plastic sheeting, a guesthouse, nodded in agreement with the Italian.
Shit. For the sake of thirty kilometres of bad roads, I’d have to do a detour of 600 kilometres. I hate backtracking.
I slept inside the hut, on the floor with four others, and in the morning, not yet willing to admit defeat, I rode up the five kilometres on the rocky path to the first roadblock. I wanted to see the situation for myself. The road, squeezed between the Chandra river on its left and a steep mountain on its right, suddenly disappeared into a wall of snow. Although all the snow had already melted on the mountain itself, it had accumulated on the road to form a snowfield the exact width of the road, fifty metres long and over four metres high.
To clear it, the Indian roadwork’s department had at its disposal the one surviving bulldozer, half a dozen road workers and some dynamite. I watched two of the workers climb onto the snowfield where they buried four sticks of dynamite. They lit the fuses and jumped off the snow to safety. A few seconds later I heard muffled explosions and the bulldozer advanced into the snow. With the ice and snow now loosened, the bulldozer was able to heave the heavy blocks into the fast moving river below the road.
‘How long do you think it’ll take to open the road?’ I asked one of the dynamiters.
‘We’re almost finished. Today we are finishing the snow and tomorrow the other bulldozer will work on the landslide. Two, three days and you get to Chattral.’
‘Chattral? That’s on the other side, no?’ ‘Yes’
I could feel my spirit lift again.
Later that day, two Swiss cyclists came through from Chattral and stated categorically that passage on a motorbike was impossible due to big fields of boulders and snow; even they had to unload their bikes and carry them on their shoulders.
Should I turn back? Go back to Delhi? Attempt another route to Ladakh? I was changing my mind every half hour.
I really wanted to reach Ladakh because I’d heard it was a magical place: more Tibetan than even Chinese-occupied Tibet is today, with a moonlike landscape over 4,000 metres high inhabited by Buddhists.
Finally I decided to stay in Spiti till the road opened up. I knew the crossing would be difficult but after nine months of riding I felt I should have the courage to attempt it. In the meanwhile, I’d ride back to Kaza to get the damaged inner tube repaired.
The manager of my hotel in Kaza was a 25-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk named Samdup who’d taken leave of absence from his monastery to live in town for the summer tourist season and help his sister run this hotel. His Head Lama, however, insisted that during the day, when Samdup was not busy, he fulfill his duties as a monk and perform prayer ceremonies for the people of the village.
One day, however, Samdup asked another monk to take his place and he came for a day trip on the back on my bike. We rode to a village two hours away to visit Samdup’s monastery, which he joined at the age of six and will return to when the tourist season is over.
For the journey, Samdup changed out of his civilian clothes into his monk’s garb: a long maroon skirt and sleeveless top over which he put a bright yellow fleece jacket. He then completed the outfit with the all-essential baseball cap no self-respecting monk can be seen without – and justifiably given the fierceness of the sun at this altitude.
The monastery consisted of a square-shaped mud brick building constructed around a courtyard; the temple, at one end of the courtyard, contained many tapestries, golden statues of the Buddha and other significant deities, and cases of books containing holy scriptures smuggled out of Tibet.
Samdup introduced me to the monks and I joined them for salted butter tea. They spoke among themselves and the discussion, in the local language, became increasingly vigorous. I saw this as an opportunity to excuse myself, thus avoiding another cup of that tea, and took a walk into the apparently deserted village. Samdup later explained that everybody was either working the fields of barley or herding the animals.
I walked along the narrow alleyways until I came upon a tiny baby yak that couldn’t have been more than one or two months old. It trotted up to me and rubbed itself against my legs. I crouched to pet it and the smell of my leather jacket seemed to send it into a frenzy of affection as it tried to suckle the leather cuffs and even climb into my jacket. It followed me up the hill back to the monastery and tried to go through the entry gate. It was still there when Samdup and I left an hour later.
Back in the monk’s room, the discussion had calmed down and Samdup looked very pleased. He explained. ‘The day after tomorrow, the Head Lama is calling a big meeting here and he will announce the retirement of the current management. We think he will ask me and my friends to take responsibility for the running of the monastery. We are the oldest ones here so he should ask us.’
‘Would you like the job?’
‘Yes, it is very important work, usually only given to older monks. But he has no one else to ask.’
‘So you’ll you take it?’
‘We think we will say yes but we want some changes first.’
‘Now we have some employees who are not monks and who report to the Head Lama. We want to change that. We want them to obey us and not the Head Lama who is too busy anyway.’
‘How will this change the way the monastery is managed?’
‘We think that this way, decisions that would usually take weeks or months to be taken because they have to go through the Head Lama will be taken much more quickly. We are young and we want to change many things.’
‘Do you think he will agree?’
‘Yes, because if we all demand this, he will have no choice.’ Revolution in the ranks.
I spent the next week visiting more monasteries, hunting fossils and further damaging Big Thumper’s front suspensions on dirt tracks. The news about the road ahead was still not encouraging with some people saying it could take another ten days before it opened up to traffic. A policeman I met in the vegetable market, however, convinced me to wait just a little bit longer.
He explained. ‘Everybody is working very hard to clear the road before we get a visit from the state minister. He is coming in two days and we must open the road otherwise he will get angry. It is already one month late.’
Only half believing him, I set off the next day once again for the stone hut of Batal.
As I pulled up to the hut in the late afternoon, I recognised one of the road workers sitting in the sun.
‘How is the road?’ I asked as I dismounted.
With a big toothy smile, he answered. ‘It is opened. We finished today.’
I got back on my bike. I’d go across now, it was still daylight and there was only thirty kilometres to the next settlement.
He stopped me. ‘Better to cross tomorrow morning before the sun is hot. There is too much water on the road.’
I hesitated. I’d waited a whole month for the road to open up. What if there was another landslide tomorrow?
But I was tired, and the smell of cooking in the hut convinced me to wait until tomorrow.
Shoes off, a cup of tea in my hand, I watched the sun go down behind the mountains and noticed some people walking down a path towards the hut.
They were six young Indian men who’d just come from a hike up to a nearby lake. Windswept, tired and hungry they sat down for biscuits and tea and introduced themselves. They too were travelling on motorbikes, and pointed to three scooters that I had not noticed against the wall of the hut.
I was surprised. ‘You’re travelling on that?’
‘But they’re scooters and there’s just three of them, and six of you!’ I exclaimed. ‘I can’t believe this. I have enough trouble on my own on an Enfield 500 and you’re managing with two people on little Bajaj scooters?!’
I was to be even more impressed when they finished their food, picked up their backpacks and announced that they would attempt the crossing now.
‘You’re mad! It’s six o’clock in the evening, it’s starting to get dark and it’s already cold. Why don’t you wait till tomorrow morning?’
‘No, we want to get to the other side so that we can find a phone to call our families to tell them we are fine,’ the tallest of them answered.
His long haired friend added, ‘I promised my mother I would call every evening and it’s been two days now. She will be very worried.’
If I were her, I thought, I’d be a lot more anxious knowing the risks you’re taking to call her this evening.
The next morning, I set off for my own attempt. The first ten kilometres were hard but similar to other tracks I’d been on, but the next twenty were the toughest I’d ever encountered. I promised myself that if I came across anything as difficult as this on the rest of this trip, I’d turn back. When it wasn’t big rocks on the track, it’d be sand, or mud, or snow, or a deep and fast moving river to cross. Around every bend there was an obstacle of some sort.
Early on in the journey I passed a Dutch hiker sitting by the road treating his blisters. ‘Can I ride on the back of your bike?’ he asked.
I hesitated. ‘I don’t mind trying but I may have to ask you to get off if it’s too difficult.’
He was over 6 feet tall and broad. But at least he was travelling very light with only a small backpack.
Despite my initial misgivings, I turned out to be very grateful for his presence.
Five times he helped me push my bike out of trouble – three times in rivers where I stalled, once in mud and once in snow. I was using my clutch so much that eventually it gave up on me. However, after letting the bike cool down and tightening the clutch cable, it came back to life.
The feeling of achievement when I reached the other side was almost as great as that first day on the bike back in October.
To the amusement of a group of Indian road workers, I got off the bike, did a little victory dance around it, kissed Big Thumper’s tank and hugged my Dutch hitchhiker.
A few days later I met the six Indians on their scooters. Their bikes were still working and they seemed in good form. How they managed this road in the dark, I’ll never understand.
At least they had the decency to agree that it had been a difficult crossing.
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