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Chapter 19 – Ladakh (July – August 1998)

Chapter 19 – Ladakh (July – August 1998)

The rest of the road up towards Ladakh was a doddle in comparison and I felt rather superior whenever I met other bikers who had come up from the easier road from Manali.

‘You think this is difficult? Let me tell you about difficult…’

The road up to Leh in Ladakh goes through a two-day stretch with no villages, only temporary settlements for shepherds during the summer grazing season, and tents for travellers to eat and sleep in. By September, the snows will be back and the road will close.

On the first night I slept in one of the tents in Sarchu where I was the only tourist. Apparently this year’s tourist season was turning out to be very bad, whether because of India’s recent nuclear tests or because of the increased fighting in nearby Kashmir, I didn’t know.

After dinner, I sat with the owners of the tent, a Tibetan refugee couple and their daughter Dawa. In the winter, the parents moved south to Punjab where they sold knitwear on street stalls while in the summer they ran this tent.

Although both were illiterate, they had managed to send their two children to college. Dawa was a second year business student in Shimla and her brother was an officer in the Indian army based in Leh.

I asked Dawa when she’d last seen her brother.
‘Two years ago at his wedding.’
‘Haven’t you gone to visit him in Leh? It’s only two days from here.’ ‘No, the buses are too expensive.’
‘You can come with me,’ I offered. ‘If you’re not afraid of motorcycles.’ She laughed. ‘I’ll ask my parents.’

I expected them to refuse politely, but they agreed to entrust their daughter to a complete stranger. In the morning, Dawa’s small shoulder bag was packed and we set off to the second highest pass in the world at 5,360 metres.

The journey was uneventful, apart from a bulldozer reversing into my bike and ripping apart my luggage. The scenery was as beautiful as I’d come to expect in the Himalayas, with snow-covered peaks, narrow gorges and wide-open prairies.

Dawa was so light I couldn’t feel her on the back of my bike and even checked a few times that she was still there. We spent a night in another tent settlement where, although her English was very good, the conversation was rather stilted due to her shyness.

After dropping Dawa at the house of her brother in Leh, I stopped at the only petrol station for 300 kilometres to fill up the tank. Half a dozen bikes and cars were parked around the attendant who was trying to revive the flow of petrol by shaking the nozzle, and repeatedly pulling on the lever. I decided to come back in the evening, when I found him looking even more despondent in the middle of even more vehicles. Nobody could say when there would be a delivery of petrol.

An Australian on an Enfield reported a rumour that the army had commandeered all available petrol for the war effort in nearby Kashmir.

I gave up waiting and decided to ride back to my hotel. However, as I started up my bike, the decompressor cable snapped. Fortunately, the other Enfield rider turned out to be leading a group of 15 Australian bikers on a tour of the Indian Himalayas and had his own full-time mechanic as well as all the necessary spare parts. Not a bad place for me to break a cable; certainly better than if it had happened two days before when I had been travelling through totally uninhabited terrain over 5,000 metres high.

The next day, I rode with the Australian group up to the world’s highest road at 5,660 metres. Although the way up the mountain is very scenic with numerous hair-pin bends, the point of highest elevation looks like and is, an old army depot: a handful of ramshackle hangars; some broken down jeeps; a few other vehicles that look ready for the breaking yard but will go for another few tens of thousands of kilometres; dozens of battered and rusted empty fuel barrels; and tired looking soldiers, who haven’t seen hot water for weeks, looking at the tourists with a bored look that barely changed even when the Australian bikers dropped their pants to moon for the cameras.

However, the soldiers’ blasé look suddenly disappeared, and they jumped to their feet when a smart army jeep drove up filled with equally smart looking Indian officers. An inspection? No, in fact they too were tourists who wanted a picture on the world’s highest road. With relief the soldiers returned to their seats and their bored contemplation.

I started a conversation with the visiting officers who belonged to a regiment that patrols India’s nearby borders with China and Pakistan.

I asked them about the recent fighting on the Line of Control with Pakistan where the BBC had reported over 60 deaths in the past few days.

The oldest and most decorated of the officers replied with a big reassuring smile. ‘No everything is peaceful. This is a very peaceful area.’

Another officer added laughing. ‘Yes, and our nuclear test was a peaceful test.’

I’d half been thinking of riding through Kashmir again on my way back to Delhi but the officer’s joke convinced me that this was definitely not a good idea. Especially since a lot of soldiers ride Enfield motorcycles in these mountains and local children had often given me military salutes as I rode by.

To visit Tsomoriri Lake, one day’s riding away; I teamed up with three other foreigners travelling on two motorbikes.

As we set off from Leh, I felt some wobble in my steering which I attributed to the bike being unevenly loaded with one 10 litres jerry can of petrol on one side and another of 5 litres on the other. However, two hours into the journey, my riding companions also noticed some play in my back wheel. As soon as they said that I knew why: when I had my puncture with Ariel the Israeli the previous month, we put back the back wheel in the night and I forgot to put in a small ring of metal, called a spacer. Later I asked a mechanic for a replacement but he didn’t have any. Anyway, he reassured me that it was not an important part and that I could continue riding. Since then I’d completely forgot about it.

I considered turning back but decided to push on: the play on the wheel was only a few millimetres and one of my companions seemed to know quite a bit about bikes and carried a full set of spares, although not a spacer.

The next hour’s riding was spent worrying about whether I’d made the right decision to keep going. I wasn’t enjoying the ride and kept on imagining the wobble was getting worse. Then I had this thought: if I’d been on my own I would have already turned back and it’s only because of some sense of safety in numbers that I pushed on. In other words, I was relying on my companions to sort out any future problem.

I pulled over, wished them a happy and safe journey and headed back- by then the play in the wheel had further increased. I had another three hours of riding to the nearest mechanic and although the mountain scenery was stunning, I saw very little of it since my full attention was focused on keeping the bike upright. The wobble was definitely getting worse and it felt like the back wheel would fall off at any moment. In true ostrich head-in-the-sand fashion, I refused to stop and look at the damage.

It was with great relief I got to the mechanic in Leh and although he also didn’t have a spacer, he managed to conjure one up by hammering out the inner ring of a ball bearing. He thought that would get me back to Delhi.

I took this as my cue to return to Delhi. My poor Big Thumper seemed to be falling to bits, through my own fault I knew, and I was afraid it would not be able to make it.

On the first day out of Leh, I rode out early in the morning and after a few hours, I pulled over to answer a call of nature. As I crouched down, I saw my bike slowly topple over onto the road: the sandy ground had not been hard enough to support the side-stand.

I quickly pulled my trousers up and ran up to the bike. This was the second time this has happened to me (in the same circumstances) and I knew I had to get the bike back up before too much petrol and oil leaked out.

This time however, the leaks were the least of my worries: the clutch lever was broken and I didn’t have a spare one. The scenery was desolate and I could see for miles around: not a vehicle or any sign of life in sight.

By pulling on what was left of the clutch lever I could just about manage to change gears so I decided to push on. As long as the terrain was reasonable I could manage but the problem was when I needed to release the clutch slowly while revving up to get the necessary acceleration to get over rocks, sandy patches or through streams. I was often forced to get off the bike and push it over the difficult patches.

It was an exhausting and very slow progress. Suddenly I saw another Enfield coming towards me. What luck! The rider turned out to be leading a group of American and British bikers and had a van with mechanic and spares following behind. It took their mechanic 10 minutes to repair the bike and only cost me a few hundred rupees.

At this point, probably not for the first time, I realise a lot of my readers are getting exasperated with me. ‘Good grief,’ they’re saying. ‘This woman is irresponsible: she knows nothing about looking after a bike and doesn’t even carry the necessary spares. She goes around blissfully unaware and relies on other people to sort her problems out.’

And you absolutely correct. In my defence I will just say that I am an eternal optimist who believes that a solution is usually not far away, even on the most remote roads. So even if my bike breaks down, I expect there will be a way to bring the bike, and me, back to safety. However, I also realise that neither should I do like the previous day when I was expecting my companions to sort out my problems.

There is a difference between asking for people’s help and relying on it. In other words, relying on yourself to find help is not the same as relying on others to help you. So yes, I still didn’t know even the basics of motorcycle maintenance but I was willing to spend the extra time and money to find someone else who did. The challenge for me had become not so much one of learning how to repair the bike but of learning how to get it repaired; being independent does not necessarily mean to be self-sufficient but rather it means to be able to find the appropriate help when needed.

That evening I slept in a small trading post in Pang that consisted of a few tents serving food and a floor for the night. Again there were no other foreigners.

Around sunset, while strolling around the camp, I looked at the sky, the stream and the mountains with a fresher eye, no doubt born out of the realisation that I’d be leaving India soon. It would be very difficult to find an ugly place in the Himalayas but neither was this small trading post the most beautiful. Nevertheless it moved me more than some of the more spectacular scenery I’d seen.

I was in a valley at an altitude of 4,600 metres, surrounded by mountains made out of ochre- coloured scree that rose another 1,000 metres. There was no permanent habitation for 100 kilometres and the stony ground only supported the odd spiny bush that grew no more than a few inches above the ground. The incessant wind carried the sounds of the bells of the few pack ponies that could survive here. The wind also carried the sand that created the convoluted and surreal sculptures rising up from the valley of rubble like arthritic fingers rising out of a palm. What a beautiful world we live in. And how lucky I am to have seen a bit of it.

The next morning I didn’t feel quite so full of wonder.

In the evening, some soldiers from the nearby camp came to my tent for an evening of distilled barley juice and merrymaking. They invited me to join then but I felt it wiser to decline. On hindsight, if I’d joined them, perhaps I wouldn’t have minded so much that they didn’t leave until one o’clock in the morning.

When they finally left, I dozed off only to be awaken soon after by a big truck pulling into the camp. It reversed up to my tent with its exhaust pipe only inches from my face. To cap it all, this morning at six o’clock, the driver warmed up the engine for half an hour before setting off.

So today, all bleary eyed and stinking of diesel, I decided it’s not such a wonderful world after all.

A strong cup of tea and an omelette for breakfast revived me somewhat and I set off for the next leg. By three o’clock in the afternoon, I reached a broken bridge over a river. I’d been told about this obstacle but the American biker assured me the river could be forded.

When I approached the broken bridge, I found a size-able river about 30 metres wide tumbling down the mountainside; it looked quite deep and fast to me. I decided to wait till another vehicle came up the road in case I needed some help. A few minutes later a truck arrived and I stopped it. I asked the driver if he could wait on the other side till I crossed.

With a big smile, he nodded. ‘Yes, no problem.’

I watched him cross the water, wave out of the window and drive on.

Although prudence told me I should wait for another vehicle, I gave up after ten minutes and decided I could manage it alone. After all, I was a proper biker now, I’d been on the road for months and I’d even managed the crossing through snowfields and landslides. I braced myself, gathered some speed, and rode into the river. Two thirds of the way across and in the deepest part of the river, I stalled.

Big Thumper’s front wheel was lodged between two boulders. I tried pushing the bike forward, I tried rocking it backwards, I tried leaning over in the water to dislodge the rocks with my hands. But nothing worked. Eventually I resigned myself to standing knee deep in freezing water, with my finger on the horn and concentrated on keeping the bike upright in the fast moving current.

Fortunately, a few minutes later, a truck pulled up and the passenger waded through the water to help me. Even at two we couldn’t push it out and the driver came to help. I was so grateful.

Wet, cold and shaken I sat on the road side, ringed my socks out and caught my breath back. Eventually, I prepared to push the bike up to a rest tent only one kilometre further on where I could stay for the night and let my bike dry out.

Just for the hell of it I tried kick-starting the bike and amazingly on the second try it fired up. Over ten minutes in the water, with the exhaust pipe completely submerged and the battery half- submerged – and still it started. Now that’s impressive. I bet the fancy Japanese bikes couldn’t do that.

In the morning, as I was fitting my luggage into the racks, a luxury Mercedes tour bus from England pulled up. We’d been passing each other on the road for the previous two days. I told them about my river adventure and showed them the state of my engine oil: more water than oil.

The tour leader, Peter, shook his head and offered to change it for me. My first reaction was not to chance it: what if he opened the engine up and for some reason failed to get it back together? I was only four hours away from the nearest mechanic. But then just as quickly I realised Peter knew what he was talking about since he was both the driver and mechanic for the tour. He seemed a better bet than chancing it on a difficult road with an engine full of water.

While his tour group waited, he changed the oil and the rest of my day’s journey was pleasantly uneventful. Quite a change from recent days of wobbly wheels, broken clutch levers and river crossings. I hoped it was the beginning of a new trend, even though I didn’t really expect it to be.

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