Archive for the ‘Himalaya’ Category

Ganga.

Monday, October 19th, 2009

You’d be hard pressed to find a river more revered than Holy Ganga, known abroad as The Ganges. While not as long as the Nile or as mighty as the Amazon, Ganga possesses a spirituality and character unmatched by the other great rivers of the world. Honestly. Name another river that is actually a goddess descended to earth to cleanse humanity of its sins and illnesses. See?

River worship is quite a practical phenomenon. Rivers are life givers, supporting permanent communities through droughts and dry seasons. A standard monsoon in northeast India lasts only four months, so the river is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation for eight months a year. In such a climate, it’s only natural that the biggest river around would develop into something worthy of  religious devotion (there are many holy rivers in Hinduism, Ganga being the most important).

It begins on the roof of the world, under a glacier high on the India-Tibet border. Sapphire blue and ice cold at first, it mixes with white foam as it crashes over rocks and boulders. Picking up green as it descends, it becomes a brilliant turquoise, slowing as the valleys widen and the altitude softens (hydro dams do their part, as well). Soon it finds the frying pan mud of the Indian plains, turning a warm soupy brown and, having lost its urgency, slowly wanders its way east. Eventually it forms the massive delta in Bangladesh – where it floods often as it meets the rising sea.

Ganga is central to the life of Hindus. Bathing in the river cleanses sins, and many families return home from pilgrimages to her banks with vials and bottles of the holy water. Perhaps more famously, however, Ganga is central to Hindus at the time of death. The greatest pilgrimage in the life of a devout Hindu is to make it to the shores of the holy river in time to die and be cremated on the banks. The body, once burned to cinders, is dumped into the river to be carried away. This is extremely beneficial for future lives, helping to cleanse the soul of sins and aid in its quest for reincarnation on a higher level. Varanasi is perhaps the holiest city in Hinduism, and has developed into the premiere death tourism centre. I’ll be there in a few weeks.

But for now, I’m still in the mountains. The holy city of Rishikesh, where the Beatles lived and got high and wrote the White Album, is low in the foothills. Here the river is quick and cold and wonderful. It probably isn’t as clean as we’d like to think, but compared to its condition down on the plains it is positively pure. So we swim in it. The locals bathe in the holy waters to receive the blessings of the goddess, but we swim to cool off from the heat. I’m not Hindu, but there is a sense of renewal from these waters. The undeniable spirituality of India rears its head again.

But it isn’t enough for us. With Naomi from Sydney and Alon from the Tel Aviv suburbs, I spend twelve hours on buses and jeep taxis and make my way back into the Himalaya. At over 3000m and in freezing temperatures, we spend the night in the small town of Gangotri, which owes almost all of its economic success to religious tourism. Nearly as important as the death pilgrimage to Varanasi is the personal mission to the glacier from which Ganga springs forth.

Called Gamukh, or the Head of the Cow, the mass of ice is known to Hindus as the place where Ganga first descended to earth. The blessings bestowed upon a Hindu for bathing in the river are multiplied greatly if done at the river’s birthplace. I still haven’t quite figured out what draws so many foreign, non-Hindus to the spot, but we nevertheless felt the need to go.

After a night in Gangotri, we walk fourteen slightly inclined kilometers to Bhojbasa, a mountain camp of low stone buildings with corrugated tin roofs. We spend the cold, dark night in an ashram, a combination Hindu temple/guesthouse, eating simple dhal and rice on the floor with the pilgrims. Our room, shared between the three of us, is a stone box with blankets on the floor and a single naked (energy saving) light bulb dangling on a wire. All around us are jagged snowy peaks towering over barren, rocky scrub. The chai is excellent. So are the stars.

At seven the next morning we clamber over boulders and rocky streams toward the glacier. Four kilometers later, a 15m tall jagged wall of dripping ice looms over us. From a dark cave rushes forth the holy water. I had expected, thanks in part to the Lonely Planet’s use of the word embryonic, for it to be an icy creek or brook. Not a trickle, surely, but at most a fast stream. Wrong. A full fledged river courses out of the ice with a flow of surprising intensity. It is at least five or six meters wide, not deep but moving quickly. And it is icy, icy cold.

But we wash in it. Alon strips down to his skivvies and goes in fully, while Naomi and I just wash our face, neck and hair. Some of the pilgrims go in all the way as well, though not all of them. The sun is bright and strong but the air is cold at almost 4000m in mid October. We drink our fill, as well. I’ve never tasted such clean, cold, delicious water. Bottle that stuff and you’d make a fortune. But the negative karma would be astronomical, I’m sure. Still, we fill a plastic water bottle so we can ship home a little glacial Ganga water. I hear drinking it can cure serious diseases. Get your own.

We watch a BBC documentary team film some footage of the glacier. They interview a local glaciologist who explains how much the wall of ice has receded even in the last six months. A very up close look at climate change. During the filming, a local guide arrives and grows angry with all the tourists standing too close. Apparently two foreigners died last year when a chunk of the wall broke free and crushed them. The BBC crew calms him enough to get their footage, but he manages to get everyone else to move a safe distance away.

We sit and enjoy the energy of the place. Alon and Naomi write in their journals. I join a few pilgrims and meditate next to the river for a few minutes. The sun is getting hotter as it climbs, the thin atmosphere doing little to calm its blaze. We walk the four kilometers back to the ashram for more dhal and rice before packing up and walking the rest of the way back to Gangotri. Early the next morning, we’re in a jeep taxi for the nine hour ride back to Rishikesh with two ladies from Pune (near Bombay) who now live in San Francisco.

Now it’s Diwali, the biggest festival in the Hindu calendar. I’m still in Rishikesh for it. Will post on it soon, in all it’s fire and noise and madness.

Bargaining with Kashmiri Boatmen

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

As much as any place I’ve experienced, Kashmir is a land of businessmen. They aren’t swindlers, however. Unlike the Vietnamese, they never give you the wrong change or alter a price once an agreement has been reached. But they speak excellent English and know exactly how to respond to every objection or excuse. Here’s a typical conversation we’d have sitting on the veranda of our houseboat. The merchant quietly paddles his shikara (similar to a broad, wood plank canoe) alongside our steps and bids us a good morning.

“Hello, my friends.”

“Salaam Alaykum,” I respond, touching my right hand to my chest.

“Walaykum salaam. You would like to see some of my beautiful things?”

“What you got with you, brother?”

“Oh, some beautiful things my friends, wonderful. All locally made, by hand. My family has a small workshop.”

Always locally made. Always by his family, which has a shop nearby. Perhaps we’d like to visit the shop? We’d have more than one shikara merchant try to sell us the same stuff, so either they are all in the same family, or they’re lying to us.

“You see my friends? Many beautiful shawls. All one hundred percent local Pashmina wool. Kashmir wool, you know? Very famous, very expensive except in Kashmir.”

“Oh, I’m not a big shawl guy, brother.”

“Yes, but your mother would like? Your girlfriend would be very happy with these yes?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, brother.”

“Perhaps if you bought some shawls, you would then, yes?”

Soon he’s climbing aboard our boat, resisting our protests and assurances that we won’t be buying anything. It’s free to look, they all say. No effort to look, my friends. Once again, the Indian disregard of personal space is demonstrated in full. I was enjoying my Haruki Murakami book, but I guess I’ll put it down.

Now there are a few dozen wood carvings or paper mache jewel boxes or shawls or carpets or necklaces or uncut stones or small blocks of Kashmiri hash arranged on a white cloth on the floor of the veranda. One boatmen only sold baked goods: chocolate covered cashews and butter cake and peanut cookies. Two different men cruise about in boats piled high with everything you find in convenience stores: Coke, Lay’s, Marlboros, toilet paper. One guy started offering us opium and heroin.

Our attendant, Golam (goh-lahm, not Gollum), would come out on the porch and watch us bargain with the guys. We quickly learned that kickbacks went to houseboat owners when their tenants bought something. Golam would quietly encourage us to speak with certain boatmen rather than others. He’d assist in the sale. Once, when considering a carved chess set, Golam was an active participant.

“Nine hundred rupees for this one? Seems expensive, my friend.”

“No sir, not expensive. Look at the board, the pieces, hand carved walnut wood. Walnut very expensive wood, you understand?”

Golam scampered into the dining room adjoining the veranda, pulling back the table cloth.

“You see? This table also walnut wood. Insects do not go inside this wood.”

Thanks, Golam. As if my big worry with my little chess set was a termite infestation. I ended up buying it anyway, damn it. I bought a few things, in fact. I got a jeweler to make me a necklace with piece of Kashmiri jade the size of a quarter.

“Kashmiri jade? It is from Kashmir?”

“Yes, my young friend. It is local jade.”

Sure. I read an article in the Economist about how wines from Ontario and BC are allowed to claim they are a product of Canada even if the grapes were imported from Chile or Australia. So long as they are ‘cellared’ in Canada they can be sold on shelves alongside wines made from homegrown grapes. I  get the feeling that Kashmiri jade is a similar situation.

But, all the visits from paddling merchants aside, it was a peaceful place. A small, quiet lake full of birds. Kingfishers splashing into the water next to you, smacking the wriggling minnow against the porch railing before swallowing. Our houseboat owners provided us with a small shikara of our own, so I would paddle out beyond the weeds to the middle of the lake for my daily swim. At around 1000m, Srinigar is pleasantly warm and sunny. I read my Murakami, did some writing, took a shikara ride through lotus gardens. Calls to prayer echoed across the lake from mosques on the far shore. Chanting and singing in the pre-dawn and post sunset hours marked the feasting that is necessary during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting.

After six days on the boat, however, we moved on. Ross and I rolled off to Dharamsala for a date with the Dalai Lama. From Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and, now, back to Buddhist. Indeed, one of the spiritual hearts of Buddhism. Also, back to the monsoon rains of the Himalaya foothills.

Life in Leh

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

After much adventuring, which I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading about (right?), we were in Leh, the capital of the region of Ladakh. It sits at 3300 meters, or about 10,800 feet, above sea level.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom. It was expanded by Buddhist kings, who by the 9th century had extended their realm from Kashmir in the west all the way to the Tibetan border to the north and east. The kingdom is protected from invasion by what I personally regard as the harshest terrain in the world – the highest mountain passes on the planet within a desert as dry as the Sahara. The Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to prominence in the 14th century, and battles with Muslims from Kashmir lasted a few hundred years. Leh was established in the 16th century.

Modern Leh is a traveler mecca. Locals from Delhi and Bangalore and Mumbai eat Tibetan momos (fried or steamed dumplings) or thukpa (noodle soup) on rooftop terraced restaurants. Foreign backpackers from Israel and New Zealand and South Africa smoke charas and laze on cushions drinking lassis and eating chocolate banana pancakes. People go trekking for days to incredible snowy peaks. You can visit isolated mountain villages where locals irrigate tiny meltwater streams to sustain their agriculture. Huge Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are built like forts up the cliff faces. Some are hundreds of years old, but are still home to resident monks.

We visited one such site, Thiksey Gompa, built in the 15th century. It was an impressive series of whitewashed buildings climbing up a steep hill. With the altitude, it was a daunting task to ascend, but the magnificent Buddha statues and vistas over the Indus valley were well worth it. The stark desert contrasted with the green fields of irrigated land. The masonry was smoothed by hand, which results in ascetically pleasing finger grooves all along the white walls. The rich, saturated saffron of the monk robes soaks up the sunlight. Beautiful stuff.

The next day, we drove up the Khardung La. At 5602m (18,379 ft), it’s the highest motorable road in the world. At this point we were Ross, Steve, Leon from Ireland and Ruth from Brighton, England. Ruth took some incredible video of us racing up cliff edge roads overlooking ridiculous views. At the top, we took some well-posed photos with the signage and caught a glimpse of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, off in the distance. Up there everyone is a tourist, so even the army trucks would stop so the soldiers could get a photo taken with the sign. You see we drove the road, but they built it. A few fifty-something cyclists pedaling to the top stopped us from celebrating our accomplishment too seriously, as our bikes had motors.

The rest of the time in Leh was very relaxed, the aforementioned cushion and charas scene was well enjoyed. I had some of the best western food I’ve tried in India. The heavily Buddhist atmosphere of the place lends well to it’s chilled out atmosphere, and it was easy to meet plenty of interesting travelers with unique stories and perspectives.

But, eventually, we were off to Kashmir.

To Leh

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m getting somewhat bored of telling you about my ride to Leh. This doesn’t bode well for my book writing prospects (were there any?), but regardless I’m going to briefly summarize the last couple of days of big trip up into the mountains. It was much more epic than it’s about to sound, but I’m lazy.

So we set out from Bharatpur riding in our newfound foursome. We began to climb a series of neverending switchbacks called the Gata Loops. We climbed and climbed. Bergen pulled away with the purpose of making it all the way to Leh in a single day. So then there were three. I was a few switchbacks behind Ross and Matty until they both crashed on the same corner. Matt went down overcompensating to avoid a massive pothole, and Ross went down out of sympathy.

Ross had his foot caught in his luggage rack, so Matt had to lift the bike off. I pulled up just in time to see them laughing about it. We stopped laughing when Ross’s bike wouldn’t start. Matt insisted we put it on a truck to Leh, but Ross persisted tinkering until he drained the flooded carb and she booted to life. Well done, mate.

Further down the road we were winding through a prehistoric canyon. It was like that canyon in the first India Jones where the Nazis had the Ark but Indy had a rocket launcher pointed at it threatening to blow it up but then the other archeologist who was working with the Nazis called his bluff cause Indy ain’t gonna blow up the freakin’ Ark, geez. This was where my wheel exploded.

It wasn’t the tire, it was the rear wheel. I was descending around a tight hairpin when my rear brake shuddered and the wheel snapped into a lock. I skidded to a stop with a FUCK. Ross and Matt had been dropping faster than me and I just had time to watch them lean around a bend and gone. Silence. The river slid under the bridge whispering to itself as if discussing my predicament.

Trucks came down the hill behind me. I flagged the first honking driver to help me move my frozen ride off the road and onto the shoulder. He slowly picked his way around me and roared off. Another two drivers saw the path of least resistance and turned the corner themselves. Alone again.

It was fifteen frustrating minutes before Matt and Ross returned. We struggled until a Belgian couple with experience helped us diagnose the problem: the wheel was done. I needed a truck. My baggage and I hitched a ride seven km to Pang, the nearest ‘town’.

The next morning I found the local welding/tire repair tent and asked after a mechanic. No luck. I discussed taking the bike to Leh with some truck drivers. A Delhi tourist staying in our yurt translated. They wanted 5000 roops ($120) for the pleasure. I offered 4000 and lunch. Still way too much, but I was stuck.

Swaying up in the cab as if riding an elephant, it was a twelve hour trip to Leh. I watched friends blow by on bikes. I saw some of the most incredible scenery this planet has to offer. I spent twelve hours with Indian truck drivers in the Himalaya.

As ridiculous an experience as it was, you should understand it was beyond disappointing. I was devastated I didn’t make it to Leh. This was a mission we were undertaking and I didn’t get there. I didn’t ride over the Taglang La, the second highest road in the world. Still, what a day. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

I pulled into town after 10 that night. In the dark I had to convince the driver to leave me at a hotel instead of the airport. I had some chicken byriani and went to sleep. I was in Leh, five days and a lot of rupees later.

So there you have it. I’ve just spent the last week in Leh eating pizza and drinking proper cappuccinos and meeting people. It’s a real scene up here. I’m on to Kashmir now, more soon.

My 27th Birthday.

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

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.

Drinking with Mechanics in Keylong

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

It was around 10 pm when the mechanic started drinking. With a sheepish, sideways glance as if asking my permission, he cracked a bottle of Kingfisher Strong. He still hadn’t figured out why my bike wouldn’t idle, and was clearly getting frustrated. Watching the booze flow didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

We spent a day in Keylong getting our shit together and resting after the mentally exhausting climb over the Rohtang Pass. A mechanic fixed my broken throttle cable where I’d left her along the main bazaar, but then we drove her over to the shop for more work. This was before eleven. I met a wrench named Papu, who was calm and confident and started taking apart the engine to see why she was lacking power. He seemed to diagnose the problem and assured me the work could be finished by day’s end, so I went to get a quick bite for breakfast.

When I returned, Papu was gone. A younger wrench who I hadn’t seen before was busily fastening on my carb – upside down. Ross and I looked at each other wondering if we were crazy. We weren’t. He really was putting the thing on the wrong way. There were a number of other locals milling about, and luckily one of them spoke fluent English. I’ve quickly gotten the impression that bike shops are public hangouts here. Friends and relatives come and hang out for a few hours, even though they aren’t mechanics and don’t have their own bikes.  Through the translator, the young wrench told me that Papu had left for the day, off to another town.

What?

So the head mechanic, Yogesh, was called. This was to be his day off, but now his main guy had fucked off and he had to show up to calm some jackass foreigner who for some reason desired a properly positioned carb. Now he had a half finished bike that wouldn’t idle and had to run through the entire diagnostics procedure all over again. Piece by piece he took the bike apart, blowing into valves and tightening nuts. By nightfall, she would still cut out as soon as the throttle was released.

The social scene evolved through the hours. Yogesh’s brother in law showed up with Yogesh’s three year old. The tiny guy’s mother had disappeared at some point so poor Yogesh had to double his shop as a daycare. I played with the kid and watched the work being done. Soon the beer was being cracked. Kingfisher Strong is infamous in the backpacker community. The label lists the range of alcohol content – EXCEEDING 5.25% BUT NOT EXCEEDING 8.25%. Hilarious. Soon another shop rat had arrived with a plastic Coke bottle full of homemade rice whiskey. I asked them what percent the whiskey was – they laughed. Between 20 and 30 percent I was told, with non-committal head wobbles all ’round.

Great. It’s now eleven pm and my bike has been in this shop for half a day and now we’re drinking two different types of booze with unknown alcohol content and my bike still won’t idle. Eventually the coil was replaced, and it seemed to have a positive effect. While things were far from perfect, I could tell they weren’t getting there in the state we were all quickly entering. At one point Yogesh was using his teeth to tear copper wire off an old turn signal light. He was feeding the wire through a hole in the carb and tying it off around a screw.

“This. This more power you bike.”

“Great,” I said.

I got the hell out of there. He asked for 700 roops and I gave him a thousand, telling him it was for his boy. He thanked me and I rode off back to the hotel exhausted. The next morning we wanted an early departure for Sarchu, a glorified tent camp perched on the side of a mountain. Again, though, we would end up waiting for Matt all morning. But Ross and Matt would end up waiting for me all afternoon.

Crossing the Plain of Corpses.

Friday, August 28th, 2009

We began with four.

We were Ross from Glasgow, Steve from Montreal, Matty from Cornwall (the English one) and myself. Ross had been waiting for Matt to get his bike ready for over two weeks, while Steve and I had only recently gotten our shit together for the Trip. Ahh, the Trip. From Manali, in the foothills, over some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscape in the world. The end point was Leh, high in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. It is often accomplished in three long, grueling days. We weren’t counting on it.

The Trip began with probably the hardest pass we would cross. While far from the highest road, we had to climb over 2000m in less than 40 km, and the pass was infamous for being broken, muddy and choked with buses and trucks. It is known as the Rohtang La, which translates to Plain of Bodies Pass. Or is it Stacks of Corpses Pass? No matter. Before the road was built it was punishing. Now, even with the road, there are a few deaths every year, thanks mostly to careless driving and awful conditions. It was intimidating, but we kept our minds focused on the idea that we’d be getting through the worst of it on the first day.

So we set off. We intended on leaving nice and early, around seven, but Matt was completely disorganized and so took a while loading his bike. We left after eight. Nine kilometers into our trip, Matt turned back. We had barely climbed a few hundred meters and his bike was already struggling. We rightly assumed it would only get worse – the pitch, the mud, the lack of oxygen starving your lungs and carburator. So Matt turned around.

Then there were three.

We pressed on.  Ross and Steve had spent months and months on their bikes, but I was a total newbie after only two weeks on my ride. And, as per usual, my ride struggled. She was overheating and losing power. We made some simple adjustments, but still I was not doing very well. At one point, stuck in the mud below a steep hairpin clogged with jeeps, I was ready to turn back. I felt defeated, and only Steve’s enthusiasm saved me.

Steve, a middle aged Anglo-Montrealer, had just rented a farmhouse back in the foothills further south. He had a well tuned bike and minimal baggage. He laughed at Ross and I with our tarpaulin wrapped packs loaded on our luggage racks. Still, he was a positive guy. I was sitting there, swearing loudly to myself, my head slowly cooking inside my helmet, up to my ankles in soft mud, ready to call it quits. I had just taken three or four runs at the corner, but the narrow lane next to the jeeps had the deepest mud and the steepest pitch. The jeeps were stuck behind a line of trucks and buses, all of us waiting for a rockslide to be cleared.

“OK man, let me give you a push. One more try dude.”

“Fuck man, she’s not going to make it.”

“One more try, man. What’s one more try?”

So we tried once more. Steve and Ross grabbed a side of my luggage rack each and ran behind me as I revved her up in first gear. My rear tired fish-tailed through the mud but I got up and around the corner. I didn’t stop. For the next two or three switchbacks I just hammered it in first gear and honked furiously at the tourists and locals and army guys who were standing bored next to their idling trucks. I wasn’t about to stop, not now that I was moving.

So we made it. Slowly, painfully. We crossed the top somewhat anticlimactically. It wasn’t until we were riding downhill for the first time in two hours did we realize we had already crossed the infamous notch in the mountain. We stopped and celebrated with handshakes and awkward hugs. Some chai from the small tents serving as dhabas to truck drivers and tourists. A couple of local tourists from Delhi riding their bike to Leh sat and had tea with us. We all got terribly sunburned in the thin atmosphere. Our lungs strained for air and we were soon giddy and dizzy from oxygen deprivation.  We had to wait almost thirty minutes for a bulldozer to clear a pile of rock. Finally we were headed downhill and made it to the town of Koksar, at the bottom of the pass. Here, we ran into trouble again.

Steve’s bike wouldn’t start. It was the best of our bunch, newly rebuilt and running clean. But something was cooked in the electrics and she just wouldn’t turn over. A group of soldiers came out of the adjacent army base to check us out. The army presence is massive up here in the mountains, as the region is wedged between the Pakistani and Tibetan frontiers. India has border disputes with both countries (China, not Tibet – sorry). The soldiers called back inside the base and a couple of their mechanics came out. For two hours they tinkered. We waited. Eventually Ross and I went on, at Steve’s insistence.

Then there were two.

We flew along the valley toward Keylong, our stop for the night. Brand new tarmac for fifteen kilometers allowed us to kick it into fourth gear and really fly. The scenery was incredible and for the first time that day we were truly enjoying the drive.

We pulled into Keylong as the sun was setting. My throttle cable snapped just in town so Ross found a cheap hotel and moved our stuff into it. After showers and a smoke we wandered along the market to find a restaurant. Coming around the corner was the unmistakable ‘BOP BOP BOP’ of an Enfield.

“Is that Steve?” I said, hopefully. The bike came around the corner and we saw the blue tarps and the smiling face of Matt. Fucking Matt. He had made it. Somehow. It took me a minute to believe it, but there he was. He had seen Steve, who was back in Koksar arranging for a truck to take his ride to Keylong and a mechanic. We took him up to our hotel and, after dinner, slept like rocks.

Then there were, improbably, three.

Where to begin…?

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Sorry for disappearing there, but I’m alive. A few days ago I arrived in Leh, the capital of the Himalayan region of Ladakh. The trip here from Manali should have taken 3 days, but instead took twice as long. The thought of summarizing it all to you scares me shitless, so I’ll just cop out.

Here are a few words that might describe the mission. The first is epic. These might also work: ridiculous, agonizing, sensational, and awesome (in the old-timey, ‘it involved some feelings of awe’ sort of way, rather than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sort of way). I hope those help.

I’ll also divulge some important things I’ll learned about India

  1. The Hindi word for ‘welding’ is, thankfully, ‘welding.’
  2. There is always time for chai.
  3. While bargaining with Indian truck drivers because you want them to drive your busted-ass motorcycle 175 km over the second highest pass in the world to a town with a mechanic try offering to buy them lunch because it brings the price down.
  4. Indian roads are terrible.
  5. It’s amazing what altitudes over 15,000 feet do to the human body. It’s frustrating what they do to your motorcycle as it also needs oxygen to survive.
  6. It’s probably not a good thing when, after 8 hours of working on your motorbike, the mechanic starts drinking.
  7. Finally: Spending your 27th birthday at almost 16,000 feet in a parachute tent with yak wool blankets and cold beer and freshly made dhal and three cool friends and a Nepalese family is a special, special experience.

Love you all, thanks for the birthday wishes. More tomorrow, I hope.