It was a hot one o’clock on the afternoon of my 27th birthday, and I was busy looking for a welder. I had stopped at two or three villages along the road, pulling over and asking “There is welding?” to friendly locals. Thankfully, ‘welding’ is one of those words that Hindi has adopted from English – like cricket, sandwich, and handkerchief. The villagers all shook their heads – “No welding. You go Keylong.”
Damn it. We had left Keylong more than an hour ago, and were 30km or so down the road toward Sarchu, our next stop. My luggage rack had semi-disintegrated – clearly a lethal cocktail of speed, heavy bags and roads rougher than dry riverbeds had poisoned its structural integrity. So Matt and Ross were waiting at a dhaba with all my shit while I backtracked looking for a welder.
The plan had originally been to leave around eight o’clock that morning. It was the day after my night of drinking with Yogesh the mechanic. We weren’t planning on an epic day – Sarchu is four or five hours from Keylong – but when you leave early you allow extra time for breakdowns, chai stops, and unforseen obstacles. However, as you may have guessed from the first sentence in this paragraph, we didn’t leave at eight.
Matt hadn’t filled up on petrol. The station was 10km back outside of town, so Ross and I topped our tanks and plastic jerry cans on the way in. There wouldn’t be another gas station for over 300km, not until the outskirts of our final destination at Leh. So while Ross and I waited, Matt had to backtrack to the station. Ten kilometers may not sound imposing, but the road was terrible. It took him an hour just to go, fill, and return. Then he had to fix his leaking can, eat breakfast, smoke a fag, drink a chai, rearrange his bike, etc. We left after eleven.
So down the road an hour or more and I hear frantic honking behind me. We all pull over and investigate the damage. In the condition the rack was in, there was really no carrying baggage. Three welded connections on one side had all snapped, so the rack was limply hanging against the rear fender.
The rack rattled and bounced as I flew back along the road. I managed to find a staging camp for the road work crews but their welder was off for the day. Eventually I was forced all the way back to Keylong. There I found a welder and explained to him what I needed done. He set to work.
In the meantime, I tried to hitch a ride to the highway hotels so I could call Matt and let them know I’d be another hour at least. I managed to steathily haul myself up into a flatbed that had a dozen locals riding in the back. They were all off to work the roads and looked at me like I was crazy. We rattled down the highway. I saw the hotels approaching and realized that unsolicited hitchhiking meant you couldn’t ask the driver to stop. Luckily some army trucks were idling in the middle of the road so the flatbed had to slow down enough for me to leap to the ground.
The mission, however, was fruitless. Matt’s phone had no service and so I couldn’t get through to them. I bought a couple bananas from a roadside fruit stall and as I waited for my change I heard a jeep start up and start rolling toward me. I flagged the jeep down with one hand while collecting my change with the other. In India you flag rides the same way you call a waiter: palm down waving, as if you were fanning the top of a short person’s head. The lone passenger was some sort of dignitary – when the driver saw me waving he shook his head and gestured as if to say I can’t give you a ride, I’ve got THIS GUY to drive around. But luckily Mr. Important saw I was a foreigner and instructed his driver to pull over. Dropping me off back at the welder’s, they refused my offer of money.
The welding completed, I hopped back on just as another foreigner on an Enfield pulled up. From North California, Bergen was also on his way to Leh. His luggage rack had also snapped, but I told him I couldn’t wait around because I had to go find my friends and get moving. He laughed. “I’ll catch up to you,” he said.
An hour later I was strapping my baggage back on the rack and the three of us were moving. It was late now, after 3, and we weren’t sure we’d make Sarchu before nightfall. Indian roads are dangerous by daylight. At night, it gets far worse. Trucks use their high beam lights and blind you as they pass by, so that imperfections in the road are invisible for the first few seconds afterward. It’s scary.
Bergen caught us as we began to climb the Barachala La, the third highest road in the world. Then there were four. We struggled over the pass and down the othe rside, reaching the improbably named Bharatpur City at sunset. A half dozen yurt-esque tents lined the roadside, offering beds and hot food and cold beer. We picked one fairly randomly and were promptly introduced to a Nepalese family. A charcoal fire in a old petrol can was brought in for heat. Cold beer and Old Monk rum flowed freely. Hot soup, dhal, rice. Bergen brought out his banjo and played us a few tunes.
It was a unique birthday. A Scot, a Brit and an American. A Nepalese family. A tent at 16,000 feet. I slept under seven or ten yak wool blankets. We woke up and were brought chai in bed. The altitude was killer, a difficult sleep for all of us. The Nepalese mother brought us crushed garlic to rub on our temples to help with the headaches. We also took some Tylenol. After a breakfast of aloo parantha (Indian bread stuffed with spiced potato) and onion omelets, we set off again.
It was this next day of riding that would finally bring about the end of my biking the Manali-Leh road.