Story: Tim Stolz
Photos: everyone.
He who has not traveled the world has no eyes. Anon
Thirty six years ago I went to India for a couple of weeks holiday. I hated it. The scarifying poverty raked my soul. Hands of maimed beggars constantly clutching at you, mothers with suckling babies, holding them out to you in supplication, the notional intention being that the child would die without help from you. Each evening allowed you to escape to your hotel, a cocoon away from the madness of life in the streets not 20 metres away. In a day walking the streets in Delhi in those times, you saw more of the heaving mass of humanity in that Third World crucible than in a lifetime back home in the orderly neighborhood you grew up in.
Men defecating in the street, their dhotis gathered around their skinny legs and their bums peeping out; a grieving couple carrying the swaddled body of their dead child to a final resting place. It was overwhelming. Every day I filled my pockets with small denominations, and had run out of handouts by mid morning. My heart only hardened when I handed a child the only remaining change I had left. He looked at it disdainfully, as if to say ‘what a cheapskate’. I snatched it back off him and from that point on, I was not so vulnerable.
The merchants however, raised selling to another level. Not being used to bartering, or having any knowledge about authenticity, I foolishly spent far too much money on carpets that, when the said items arrived back in Aus, were valued at a fraction of the amount I had paid. I should have given the money away, such was the disgust I felt at my stupidity.
But lurking beneath all this was a desire to return. At that time, I had not ridden a motorbike since I was 19 years old, and then only a small commuter, a wee 125cc Suzuki. Fancifully, I imagined that the best way to see India would be on a motorbike, totally immersed in the culture, eating roadside food, avoiding sacred cows, being careful of the water, staying in the villages, and playing Russian Roulette amongst the chaotic traffic that to the casual observer, is insanity.
This spark of an idea was fanned into a glowing ember last year, when Rosie, one of the members of our Madcat Motorcycle Club which I had joined a couple of years previously, announced that he wanted to do a trip to the Himalayas for his fiftieth birthday. A half-hearted response from most club members, but he managed to convince three of us, without any planning at that stage, to tag along. So our crew consisted of the following.
Wayne (Rosie)who struck the match and watched it catch fire, a one-time Pom, with all the physical credentials of a member of the infamous Bandidos, ie, beard, no tats, (but he should have),mouth like a bullock driver (says he doesn’t swear at home), and an uncommon love of beer, but with an angelic smile and a shit-eating grin that would exclude him from the brotherhood. Plenty of history dirt-biking. Switchboard builder in real life. First-time, wide-eyed overseas traveler. Became famous on the trip for greeting everyone at breakfast with the words ‘Namaste Muthafucka’. Age 50.
Coops, CEO of an electrical manufacturing company. As knockabout as a CEO can be, world traveler, Vespa tragic, and a bloke with a penchant for things that go fast. Think rally cars and adventure bikes. Many European trips on the wee scooter with his wife on the back. A man who modestly claims he can go anywhere on the Vespa that we go on the adventure bikes. While humility is not his strong suit, his redeeming grace is a quick wit. Age 58.
Simon, like me, a man from the leafy greens of inner Melb, a self-proclaimed retiree from the family newsagency, but who appears to work six days a week managing property, and doing trampoline installations for his brother’s burgeoning business. An incurable firebug as I discovered on motorbike trips through the Outback. Nothing inflammable is sacred when it’s stands-down at the end of a day, and a fire that can be seen in outer space is his first priority. Very handy, and a can-do sort of bloke. An incurable India-phile. Good traveling companion. Age 61. ,
Myself, a wizened specimen whose body has been enfeebled by the passage of time, and a mind pickled by alcohol and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but still afflicted by a spirit of adventure. A culture-curious, recently retired, and running out of time old man….or Gramps as the others rudely addressed me as.
Organization was a breeze, with Simon’s nephew, a travel agent, putting together an outstanding itinerary which included five days of sightseeing and all accommodation and transfers before we joined the other 17 riders in Delhi.
A year and three planning meetings later, all which required alcohol, an itinerary was assembled which included a few days in Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra, before returning to Delhi to join the motorbike tour. A few hours practice on a Rubics Cube was mandatory to get all the gear into one bag. Boots stuffed with socks and jocks, helmet filled with everything but a head. Tank bag, hydration sack, riding suit, and clothes that will accommodate a temperature range from -2C to 30C. Add the electronics and camera gear, and there is no longer room for a toothbrush. Trying to get everything into one bag and keep it under 30kg is about as much fun as passing a kidney stone. I like the advice of Susan Heller who says “When traveling, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half your clothes and twice the money”.
Departure day arrives. Early morning at Melbourne airport and Stephen’s membership to the Chairman’s Lounge is a handsome start. We smash down a champagne breakfast, which includes a glass of bubbles, Eggs Benedict, coffee as good as you’ll get anywhere, and a Bloody Mary that is red-lining on so much Tabasco it makes your eyes water. A comfortable 13 hour flight later (except for Wayne the Whinger), we land in Delhi, and spend an hour rubbernecking as we trawl through the traffic snarl to arrive at our hotel in time for a late dinner, our first Indian beer (underwhelming), and a good night’s sleep.
The next day an expansive breakfast preceded a gruelling day of touring Delhi with a guide. Old Delhi by rickshaw, where one skinny rickshaw wallah, with only one gear on his bike, tries to pull two fat Aussies around the potholed and cobbled streets. Needless to say, with Wayno the White Sahib on board, one rat power wouldn’t cut it, and a push was occasionally required.
The Spice market was the highlight with the air redolent with the heaped piles of spices, dried fruit and nuts of the Orient.
A too-long afternoon in the tourist bus after a sumptuous lunch at a place where there must surely be money changing hands between the tour operator and the restaurant. Cost, about 35 dollars each, and we left feeling like an anaconda that had just devoured its kill.
Finally back at the hotel, we’d hit the wall. A beer, and sleep crooked it’s finger at us, with an early up for a flight to Varanasi the next morning.
Driving to the airport, I reflected on how quickly you get used to the spectacle of people living and sleeping their whole life on the street, with almost no prospect of circumstances changing. Every freeway flyover, footpath, roadside, in some areas of the city, is a potential home. Now though, Very few people smoke compared to thirty years ago, where a bidi hung from the corner of most men’s mouths in the mid 80s. Traditional dress is vanishing also, with millennials exchanging saris and dhotis for t-shirts, polos and jeans. In addition, the city is definitely looking cleaner and greener and a real effort is being made to clean it up as the country emerges as a developing economy. Now the fifth largest, it will be second only to China by 2030.
Varanasi, famous for three things, the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, the location of the Burning Ghats on the banks of the river Ganges, and the Blue Lassi Shop, (a tiny Hole in the Wall in a dark lane, and made famous for its lassi, when it hit the pages of the Lonely Planet Guide). The Ghats are a series of steps leading down to the Ganges, and it is on these steps that the bodies of the Hindu dead are burned, and the remains floated down the river.
Walking thru the laneways which, at a stretch, are no more than two metres wide, there is a miasma of exhaust fumes, decaying rubbish, cowshit, goat shit, rotting fruit and vegetable, cooking oils, a thousand oriental spices, and the press of thousands of bodies weaving their way thru these tiny capillaries of the city. The laneways are lined by tiny, barely-a-shop shops, littered with parked motorbikes, trolley carts, bicycles, dogs, sacred cows that are so passive they almost look like statues, a sea of people, and absurdly, these are thoroughfares for motorbikes and scooters as well. Needless to say, progress is slow….and chaotic
The Blue Lassi is an unremarkable hole-in-the-wall place in one of the maze of laneways leading down to the Burning ghats. Lassi is an Indian drink consisting of yoghurt, water, spices and fruit, and when made well, is a knockout. We squat on low stools in a space about three metres deep and 4 metres long. Our company is several other Indians, all strangers to each other, sitting shoulder to shoulder on a bench, and an unconcerned rat that scurries across the floor picking up scraps. We wait while our Lassi are made from a dizzying number of options, and from a rickety table that projects out into the already-crowded laneway. The lassi are delicious, and because they’ve had the crap boiled out of them, we feel safe from the chance of a nasty bug.
During our half an hour at the Blue Lassi, half a dozen colourfully shrouded bodies are carried past by male members of the family, on hastily constructed litters, on their way to the nearby ghats. Here they will be dipped in the river for purification and then burnt. Part of the everyday, where over 200 bodies a day are cremated at this particular site.
We leave Varanasi the following day on a sleeper class train that will deposit us in Agra, 17 hours later. Never again for Wayne who has lain awake on his wallet all night, and the rest of us vow that any future train travel in India will only be first class. The train arrives 4 hours late.
We visit the Taj. It is magical. and our guide very good, but I’ve been hit by a bout of dysentery that will last another two days, despite drugs, and don’t have much appetite for being a tourist when you may need to ‘ drop the kids off at the pool’ at any moment. Not very convenient when you’ve got a five hour bus trip to Delhi, a meet and greet thing with the other riders, and then a gruelling , sleepless, 17 hour overnight trip on rough roller coaster roads, north to Manali, from where we pick up our bikes. Once we arrive, we breakfast, grab a couple hours sleep and then select our bikes and have a one hour test ride in rain, and get a chance to acquaint ourselves with our steeds, and the insane driving technique. It’s a huge amount of fun, but suffice to say whichever side of the road you’re on, you don’t give an inch until you can pick the nose of the oncoming driver, or can read the underwear label of the guy in front of you. Somehow it all works.
The next day the real fun begins. 4 Aussies ( if you count Rosie), 4 Slovenians ( who have already shown a love of beer that is going to be hard to match), 4 Canadians ( a good-humoured lot who know how to do some serious shit-talking), A couple of well mannered Californians, a giant from Lebanon called George ( all 130 kegs of him, around 6’4”, and soon to be called King George), 4 Welshmen who were also distinguished by their size ( ‘Legs’ who stands at 6’6”, and the rest are challenged vertically, but expansive horizontally), A lone ‘Seth Efriken ( who had booked three years ago but had been stymied by Covid cancellations), Oh, and an expat Indian linguist from north Sweden, (socially awkward and soon to be nicknamed ‘Puddles’ for his excursion into a long stretch of water where, after he upended himself and his bike, he needed a snorkel to reach dry land. Of all the riders, he was the only one foolish enough to not ride around it.) A lead rider, three other scout riders from the ‘ Ride the Himalayas’ organizing group, a swag of support people and vehicles, and that’s our lot.
We leave under lowering skies, light rain, and a surge of testosterone. There is a frantic jockeying for position up the front. The roads as we travel through the Green Zone, that part of the Himalayas that is well-vegetated and, as a consequence, heavily populated, means lots of traffic, and if you are not close to the front, it is easy to lose contact with the lead rider. It was not until about Day 3 that a semblance of courtesy was established and the madness left us.
We ride south-East from Manali to Ani on the first day on mostly sealed roads, in broken rain showers, and camped in small tents on the roadside on a night where the rain gods persisted with their patter, and dampened our spirits somewhat as we huddled in the dining tent. We drank a few beers in a desultory fashion as we peered out into the descending gloom.
Day Two, and we break camp in the rain, which continues for most of the day, and we live inside the small world of our helmets.
The lunch stop is at a wet, cold, bleak, high pass, about 13,000 feet, where a couple of ramshackle buildings house a family that is ekeing out a living from the occasional traveler, serving rice and dal that is as thin as the air we are breathing. We huddle outside under the overhanging roof, gulp our gruel, and hit the road.
Our overnight destination, Kalpa, where we will stay in cottages that are well appointed, but without heating. Altitude around 10.000 feet, and it’s 4C degrees. We arrive cold and wet after 10 hours on the bikes. Still in the Green Zone, Kalpa is an area famous for its apple orchards, which we’ve barely noticed as we snaked our way there over wet roads populated in some places with the whole gamut of traffic; trucks, buses, army convoys, cars, tuk tuks, scooters , bikes, people, and animals. The roads are mostly narrow, often broken up, potholed, and sprinkled with rockfall, from pebble sized to a couple of feet in size, and not to be messed with.
The presence of the Indian army here, on the border of Pakistan and China, is large, with about one million of the total of a million and a half troops garrisoned in these areas. Where the army is, the roads are in excellent condition to allow the speedy movement of supply convoys, and the army often employs villagers, armed with little else but their brush brooms, to sweep and clear the rockfall off the roads. Even in the Dry Zones, which we are yet to encounter, and where few people exist, it is not unusual to see a roadside group of women, out in the middle of the barren, mountainous terrain, clearing rocks or filling in potholes with roadside dirt, tamping them down, only to see them reappear after another week or two. The roads are a lifeline in this barren and brutal landscape
The latter part of Day 2 has significant dramas. One of the Canadians, has fallen off his bike on a particularly muddy section and suffered a deep gash under his right eye, but his woes are slight compared to his mate. Shrek, used to riding on the right, loses concentration toward the end of the day, and drifts onto the wrong side of the road. Despite the oncoming 4WD taking evasive action, a head-on collision was the outcome, with a broken arm, a compound fracture of the little finger which was crushed in the collision (PICTURE), broken ribs, and a smashed kneecap. A long uncomfortable trip in the back of a support vehicle to a hospital in Simla, and the damaged finger is amputated. He is accompanied by his wounded countryman who generously offered to arrange travel home etc for the broken Shrek. He is then transported to Delhi, where he is refused admission to five hospitals, despite having double health cover. No cash, no care. Eventually he is admitted to one, but only for treatment that will allow him to travel home.
For him, the adventure is over.
The following day we are promised dry weather by lunch time as we depart in the rain yet again, and true to Vidit, our organizer’s word, we feel the sun on our backs by the middle of the day. The landscape changes from green to grey/ brown. We are in the Arid Zone where we will be for the next several days. It is barren, brutal, and beautiful. A camera seems unable to capture the scale and scope of that which surrounds us. We arrive at our campsite in Mud, with dry clothes, our spirits lifted, and the wet-dog days that preceded this one, all-but-forgotten.
From there, the Himalayas opened up to us. Scant vegetation, sheer, rocky mountainsides made of granititic rock, marbled with veins of quartz, and huge slabs of slate. All glued together with a fine soil that washes away when it rains and exposes the rock which then breaks away and results in a rockfall or land slip. This constant erosion is responsible for the milky colour of the rivers as they cascade down to form the headwaters of the Ganges.
A shroud of cloud cloaks the valleys each morning.
Day 4 and 5 and our group is in awe of the sheer majesty and scale of the mountains. At their base are valleys that meander through the lunar landscape, and braided rivers that are now a green-blue colour. No one is unaffected by their surroundings, and in a group where shit-talking has been to the fore over the previous few days, a quiet reverence has taken over. Words fail to describe a remarkable landscape, and each is lost in his own thoughts as we ride. The distances are not great, and the need for speed has been replaced by a more zen-like approach to the experience. We climb to 15,000 feet and feel acutely the lack of oxygen. Even a short stroll up a moderate incline has us panting like a dog on a summers day. We camp in a valley on Night 4, and experience overnight temp of 0 degrees, but wake to a clear blue sky that brings a warming sun once it breaks over the ridges of the surrounding mountains. We are told that within two weeks, the snow will come and most of the roads we traverse over the next few days will be closed. The villages are prepared for it. The villagers are used to being isolated for up to five months.
The next few days are a blur. Riding at high altitude, on dusty roads, for 8 – 9 hours leaves us looking forward to a welcome hot shower, before the sun vanishes and the temperature drops to below zero. Alas, hot water is a raffle in some places, and if it is available, good for two quick showers at best. Going to bed on those nights when we are in Swiss tents usually entails putting on all your warm clothes and then crawling into your heavily-blanketed cocoon. Winter is coming, and with little or no vegetation in the vastness of it all, wood for fires is at a premium. Heating is not an option. You wake to a frozen water bottle in the morning, and a dunny where often the pipes are frozen. It is the very end of September and you feel the season closing in around you quickly. In some of the semi-permanent camps the tents have already been collapsed, leaving only a steel frame and a flush toilet, covered with plastic, to survive the winter.
The riding is unique. You are on the roof of the world. You feel like you can reach up and touch the clouds. Our highest pass is just a tick under 18,000 feet and it’s an almost out-of-body experience. It’s bloody cold. As you climb, it gets rapidly colder, until you are riding a snow-lined road. You don’t linger.
Where the Indian army want supply, the roads are paved with gold. Having said that, the bikes are flat stick at about 110kph, and it is plenty fast enough as even the best roads have a hidden pothole, dip, whoop or hazard. In many places the tar is poured directly onto the earth, resulting in bizarre undulations that don’t exist in a road where a bed is prepared first. These can make for a rollercoaster ride and you need your wits about you at all times. The added dimension to the riding is not steep hillclimbs or descents, but switchbacks. There are literally thousands of these. Perhaps because, despite the roads being narrow and often precipitous, they have to accommodate the heavy trucks. And so the roads wind up and down the rocky mountainside in a series of never ending switchbacks, some as little as a couple of hundred metres apart. If you didn’t know how to ride a hairpin turn when you arrived in the Himalayas, you sure got plenty of chance to perfect it over this journey. It’s dizzying. Some guys revert to the behavior of their childhood.
For the rest, there are sections of very rough goat tracks, hacked out of a mountain wall, with a rock wall on one side and a precipitous drop on the other. Progress is, for the most part, at 30-40 kph at best. A mistake has the potential for a ‘you-don’t-wanna-know’ outcome on these sections. Perhaps the most hazardous part is passing trucks on the mountainside with barely 30- 50 cm on either side. At least the trucks are slow moving on these ascents and descents. Another Canadian falls ( what is it about these guys) when he brushes the rear wheel of a truck he was passing without either going under the wheel or over the edge. He is unscathed. There really must be a God.
Bizarrely, amidst all these soaring peaks, mid-afternoon on Day 7, we arrive at a valley with rolling sand dunes, where sturdy camels transport even the heavyweight, King George at 130 plus kg, around a well trodden beat.
We cram two days riding into one on Day 8 because the Swiss tents at Sarchu, where we had planned to stay, have been dismantled before the snows come. Instead we head to civilized Leh, a large city embedded in the midst of all these mountains, and the promise of a much anticipated lay day. By now the 19 riders are like a single organism. Stockholm Syndrome-like bonding has occurred and there is a realization that we are all sharing a unique and unlikely-to-be-repeated experience. It has brought us together in a bond that promises to be strong.
Leh provides an opportunity to rest weary bodies, eat something a bit more sophisticated, have a shave, purchase gifts for loved ones, and take some time over a few beers in the sunshine.
By this time the back of the trip has been broken. We do two day trips to Nubra and then out to the highest salt-water lake at Pangong. It is an azure blue, and stands in stark contrast to the arid mountains surrounding it. We ride back to Leh and spend our last day traveling to and for a not-too-distant monastery on the road to Srinagar, which boasts Dal lake, one of the most exquisite places on earth and a popular tourist destination until the tension between India and Pakistan resulted in it falling from favor.
A final dinner, somewhat subdued, as we turn our attention back to our everyday lives, to which we are about to return. The reality of the last fifteen days has not sunk in yet. For the dream to end it must be set against the ordinary of our everyday lives..
One final word about the bikes. The bikes were Royal Enfield, mostly Himalayan, but a few of the Bullets as well. The bikes are a 400cc, single cylinder engine, with a ride height of 800mm, and a wet weight of 182 kg. They are underpowered, have no ABS, No traction control or electronic wizardry, are not fuel injected, have inappropriate gear ratios, and a lousy suspension. All that aside, they are the perfect bike for these conditions. They accommodated riders in our group from 5’ 8” to 6’ 6” in height, shapes from barrels to matchsticks, and weights up to King George class. Not one person said they were uncomfortable on the bike. And given some of the roads we were on, they were almost unbreakable.
Everyone developed a great respect for these hardy bikes and the organizing group, Ride the Himalayas. The support crew was heaps of fun, always helpful, and worked tirelessly to ensure a magical ‘roof of the world’ experience.
More an adventure than a holiday, to a man, every one of us rated it the trip of a lifetime. This was a trip which embodied the Oscar Wilde quote “ Live life with no excuses, travel with no regrets”.