Archive for the ‘Motorcycling’ Category

Tara and a Crash.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I had crashed. A village man and his wife were lying on the road next to me, their bike as smashed up as mine. I lay there for a second breathing heavily, my heart pounding. I pulled myself to my feet. The adrenaline dulled the pain, so I had to visually analyze myself for injury.

About two months ago I named my bike. It’s actually quite a good story. Sorry for waiting this long to tell it.

Ever since I saw the Indian army guys riding their Enfields, I’ve wanted to paint my bike green. I loved the look of the dark, army green on the old-school, WWII style bikes. It’s remarkably cheap to have it painted, and it personalizes the bike. But, first, I needed a name.

In Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, I took a ten day Buddhist philosophy and meditation course. We learned all about different Buddhist deities and some mantras (repetitive prayers) you could do to them. Some of the more religious aspects of the course were difficult to swallow, but many lessons were more practical and applicable to everyday life.

After the ten days had finished, I returned to town and found a hotel. Trying to have a shower, I realized I didn’t have my towel. I had left it back up at the monastery where we’d taken the course. No problem, I thought, this is why we travel by bike. So I rode up the hill out of town.

Arriving at the monastery, I said hello to the monks and volunteers and grabbed my towel. I hopped back on the bike and headed out. As I rolled through the little village nearby, I saw the nun who had been our main teacher at a chai shop. I pulled over to thank her again for all the lectures. She gave me a hug and wished me well. Noticing the idling bike outside, she asked if it was mine. Yes, I said, it was.

“This is very dangerous, you realize?”

“Yes, it is, but so far so good,” I said happily. Knock wood.

“You know what you must do? You must do your mantras to Tara. Especially Green Tara, she is the protector. Ask her for protection on your bike.”

Tara, eh? Green, you say? Well, my Buddhist nun teacher, you’ve just named my bike.

Tara

So, now on Tara, I began the customization process. I bought a two piece brown leather seat. I rode to Rishikesh and, through my Scottish friend Ross, was introduced to a trustworthy mechanic. I left my bike with him when I went trekking to a glacier, with instructions to paint it. Now she’s a matte green, with black trim and chrome piping. I also had a sticker guy outfit the front license plate with her name in an appropriately esoteric font: TARA.

She’s a beaut, an absolute stunner. Her vintage styling, as the pre-1990s (she’s from 1980) bikes were still built to WWII design, along with the new colour scheme… I get lots of compliments. She probably gets more attention than I do (deservedly).

Tara 2

So Tara and I were south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, on the road the Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2600 years ago. The afternoon was getting on so I was in a hurry. Driving at night is never fun, as it’s hard to see potholes or people (both are everywhere) and the bugs are out in force. I was going about as fast as the bike comfortably goes, around 65km/h, when rounding a bend I saw a motorbike parked on my side (the left) of the road. It was beneath a tunnel of tree tops, which shaded the road attractively. Without thinking, I moved out into the center of the road to pass by.

I saw the second bike come out from behind the parked one at the last second. A villager and his wife were on their little 100cc bike, and clearly didn’t see me coming as they pulled out. I slammed on my brakes, locking my rear wheel into a skid as I tried to steer to the right, the far side of the road, to avoid him. But, instead of stopping, he accelerated in an attempt to cross the road in front of me. This moved him, of course, to the same side I was now leaning toward.

I was probably doing at least forty five or fifty when I smashed, head on, into him. They say it all moves in slow motion when things like this happen and such was the case for me. I remember twice yelling paisahb, which means ’sir’, as I saw him pulling out. At first it was a short, desperate, (hilariously) shrill, PAISAHB!! I remember a sinking feeling in my chest as I realized that we were going to crash, that there was nothing I could do to avoid it. Oh shit, I thought, here it is. I remember bracing myself, flexing my muscles and clenching my jaw. This, along with the fact that I was on the heavier and faster vehicle, is probably what led to me escaping relatively unscathed.

My second paisahb was through gritted teeth and only halfway through when we hit (as in paisah-BAM). I was thrown to the right, Tara’s rear wheel lifting off the tarmac and twisting in midair. I rolled and lay there on my back, breathing and staring at the sky in shock. I pulled myself to my feet almost immediately. Checking myself over, I had another shock when I realized I was fine. I felt a little pain in my knees, elbows and wrists. A trickle of blood from a few tiny spots of road rash on my hands and joints. Otherwise nothing.

I looked over to where the man lay on the asphalt. He was woozy and bleeding from his nose. Locals (who, I gathered, he had been talking with on the side of the road before pulling out) ran over and carried him and his wife to the side of the road. She was wailing and clutching him, but physically unharmed as far as I could see. The man lay there, bleeding, with a faraway look in his eyes. I crumpled at his feet. Unable to communicate my sorrow verbally, I touched my forehead to his toes and said paisahb over and over again.

The other villagers, now growing in number, pulled me to my feet shaking their heads. They clearly thought that I was not in the wrong and so shouldn’t be showing such strong deference. Issues of blame hadn’t quite crossed my mind at this point. I automatically assumed responsibility mostly due to the fact that this was his country and I was the foreigner. I was, therefore, in the wrong. If I wasn’t joy riding around his country this never would have happened.

I have heard from other biking foreigners that the best thing to do when you get in an accident is flee the scene immediately. They told me horror stories about mobs of angry villagers beating foreigners and having them arrested. That no matter whose fault it was they’ll always blame you and hold you financially or criminally responsible. God forbid you ever hit a cow.

I had no such experience. The locals were very supportive and making sure I was okay. I said tikka, tikka, saab tikka (good, good, all good). I helped them pull the two crumpled bikes off the road. We put the man, who was now fully conscious and doing fine, in an ambulance and his wife followed on the back on another bike. I sat on the side of the road breathing, fighting back tears of shock and fear. I was physically fine but shaken badly. The locals, in standard form, simply stood in a circle around me and stared. A few who spoke some English showed up and were quite helpful. I asked them about getting a truck and whether I should go back to Patna or toward Bodhgaya. They told me to wait for the police.

We waited for the police for over an hour. I crossed the road away from the gathered villagers and sat alone on the dirt shoulder, staring into the rice fields. Children played with old bike tires and sticks, running down a dirt path keeping the tire rolling. Water buffalo rolled in a little pond. Some villagers squatted in rice fields, cutting the stalks at the root and flattening them down to dry in the sun. I cried quietly. I called my friend Steve from Montreal and discussed what I should do with the bike. He told me to get to the biggest city nearby, as it would have the best mechanics. He asked if I was all right. Yeah, I’m fine, I lied. For the first time in the past four months, I really, truly missed you all.

The police arrived in the form of five men in camouflage with automatic rifles and thick moustaches. The villagers told them what had happened. The story was obviously sympathetic to my cause, because their first questions for me were about how I was doing and whether I wanted to make any case against the man I had hit. I asked them if the man and his wife were okay. They assured me everyone was fine. I told them, using my best Hinglish and gesturing to myself and the people gathered around me: this is important, yes? People are important, not bike. Bike is only money. Money not important. They all nodded sagely. I wrote down my passport, visa and bike information, as well as my address in Canada and my father’s name (?). The police seemed satisfied.

Attention turned, however, to Tara. A local man with decent English had set off on his bike to find a truck because, otherwise, she was not going anywhere. The front wheel and fender were smashed and twisted. Both front forks and shock absorbers were cracked in several places, contorted wildly and oozing shocker oil all over the road. The headset, the heavy piece above the handlebars that houses the headlight as well as the speedometer, had a huge crack down the side. Both the brake and clutch levers were broken. The only things on the entire front part of the bike that survived were the handlebars themselves, the headlight (miraculously) and the small number plate with the gold and black lettering: TARA.

A small, pickup sized flatbed truck arrived. We spent some time loading Tara into the back and tying her down. It was now dark. We tried to drive back to Patna to a mechanic, but the headlights didn’t work on the truck. Much arguing between the truck driver and some locals. We drove, with the hazard lights flashing in the darkness, back over potholes to the nearest village. I sat in the cab and watched about twenty different locals take a shot at flicking the headlight knob off and on, wondering why their magic touch didn’t get it working. I even had a go.

Another hour sitting in a chai shop on the side of the road with the police. A second truck finally arrived, again with the same enterprising local man leading it in. It was actually more of a auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle crossed with a pickup truck. But it did have a decent flatbed in the back, just big enough to shift Tara out of first truck and tie her down, again. I thanked the man who had found both trucks profusely, but he refused my offer of money. A saint, he was.

We rattled back up the highway and into the teeming city. Patna was still busy in the darkness. We checked hotel after hotel but all of them were full. Just outside of town a massive livestock fair was underway. It took another hour to find a hotel with any vacancy, and it was the worst place I’ve stayed in the country. For a ridiculous 600 rupees, about 14 dollars, I had a grubby room with a leaky bathroom. The windows were busted – one of them was lazily covered by a piece of styrofoam – so mosquitos flooded into the room all night. I slept terribly there.

The next day I took a bicycle rickshaw to a street lined with auto mechanics. I found one guy who said he knew Enfields, but I doubted the sincerity of this. The damage was extensive enough that I wanted a serious mechanic with lots of experience on Bullets, rather than just some 100cc scooter guy who would fiddle around. We found a bicycle-flatbed guy to bring the bike from the hotel, and during this process I noticed an official Royal Enfield showroom and shop.

It was probably a little more expensive, but the uniformed mechanics were so confident and smooth during the day that I felt great watching her get stripped down and rebuilt. Tara was whole again, to the tune of about $300.

I’m also doing much better. I’ve spent some time chilling out under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. I’ve since made it to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism, where I’ve met a great international crew of travelers. I’ve spent evenings watching football (soccer) and playing poker. We even played some football on the bank of the Ganges here. It’s been a nice recovery.

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Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s difficult to know where to begin. I wrote a piece about my drive into Nepal, I thought it appropriate to pen something on my drive out. As you may or may not be aware, the model of motorcycle I’m driving is a Royal Enfield Bullet. And one thing about bullets, for all you CSI fans out there: the exit is always messier than the entrance.

After my trek and some time living it up in the supremely touristy Pokhara, I slipped off to the small hilltop village of Bandipur. I’d had it recommended to me by a few locals along the way (as well as a few tourists, and the Lonely Planet) so I checked it out. It was nice, a quiet place with nothing to do but walk in the fields and hills around town or sit at a table on the flagstones and drink tea. A little too popular with the domestic tourists, however, who fill the village square and play ringtones on their mobiles well after the power is shut off and everyone is sitting around by candlelight. Such is travel in Asia.

From there I zoomed south and east, making for the border. A few hours out from Birganj, the border town, I heard a noise. Ignoring it (optimistically), I continued until I was sputtering to a stop on the side of the road with nothing in sight but rice fields and water buffalo and a single lonely farmhouse. Standing in front of this farmhouse was a young man, in his late teens perhaps, staring at me. I began checking the few things I know to check when the engine stops – spark plug, petrol line, air filter, carburator. Everything seemed in order. The young man sauntered over and asked if there was a problem. Assuming the worst (correctly), I asked after a mechanic. A few kilometers further down the road, he said, in the next little town.

Walking down the road slowly while trying to stay upbeat, I realized a few km is quite a ways in the midday heat. A farmer on a tractor came up behind me with another villager perched on the back. I flagged him down hopefully and, without much hesitation, he pulled over so I could hop on. I smiled and mimed motorcycle mechanic to them (to do this, stick out your hands like you are holding handle bars, then twist your right hand as if revving a throttle, then mime a wrenching motion). They nodded and on we went.

There was no mechanic in the next town. I asked two different men who both spoke some English and they were both quite confident I was out of luck. Both said the same thing: only in Parsa, 7 km back the other way. Sighing, I flagged down a local bus and hopped aboard. We puttered down the highway, passing the farmhouse with my bike sitting lonely out front. Seven klicks and five rupees (about seven cents) later, I was in Parsa at a mechanic.

The mechanics there were busy, and none of them seemed too excited about having to go four or so kilometers to look at some stupid tourist’s Bullet. They rarely, if ever, get Bullets driving through this part of Nepal (though they’re not unheard of in richer Kathmandu) so these guys probably weren’t too comfortable working on them. I sat there watching them poke around a little scooter for twenty minutes and started getting impatient. I asked about going and checking it out and was told to ‘just wait’ a few times. Two of the mechanics were just sort of watching the main wrench doing all the work, so again I asked if we could get moving. ‘Just wait.’

Eventually I got fed up and walked off looking for another mechanic. I found one, but he wouldn’t go take a look down the road either. ‘Bring you bike here,’ he said. Yeah. I stood on the side of the road for a minute. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to the original shop and simply wait patiently for them to come with me to take a look. I had already walked off, so returning would have been admitting defeat, or something. Immature, I realize. Seeing another local bus heading back up the road, I impulsively flagged it and took it back to where my bike was waiting. Trying again to fix it myself I began getting frustrated and hot.

This is when that same young man, clearly trying to help, turned on a Nepal-Pop ringtone on his phone and held it out, about six inches from my ear, for me to listen. I asked him, with as much polite patience as I could muster, to please turn it off. He did. I struggled with various parts of the bike. I think at one point I threw my screwdriver into the dirt in disgust. He then suggested I go see the mechanics who have a shop only a few hundred meters back up the road. I suppressed the urge to ask the obvious question: WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU MENTION THEM BEFORE??. I just borrowed his bicycle and went to find them. We ended up towing my bike into their shop.

It took me a few hours, but I finally realized that these guys had never seen the inside of a Bullet before. The sun was setting, the sky darkening, and they were trying many of the same common issues I had been looking at. After ruling out electrical or petrol flow problems, it had to be something inside the engine. So they opened her up.It was at this moment, when they were pulling out pieces and looking at them like some previously undiscovered dinosaur bones, that I asked them to please stop working. I was putting the bike on a truck for India, where Enfields are common enough that mechanics don’t have to assume the role of amateur archaeologist.

That night, thanks to a helpful local man, I slept in a guest room at the local agricultural development bank. It was a training base for more than just farmers, I quickly found out, as it had walls and barbed wire and a big gate and 24 hour security. Yet I spent the evening there with the cook, her husband and their two daughters. I sat quietly at a table, watching her prepare dhal baat for me and her family. The administrator, who spoke passable English, came in with his son and we chatted briefly about my plans and Nepal in general. His son was studying at an English boarding school so he pressured the shy kid into practicing English with me. I drank tea and watched all of them pour over a local newspaper so they could order new ringtones on their phones. They were all very impressed with my terrible Nepali and the fact that I ate the rice and soupy dhal with my fingers, as they do.

The next morning I was standing on the side of the road with a half dozen local men flagging down trucks. It was tough to find a driver willing to load my bike in the back who was also heading to Birganj. Eventually the locals started trying to flag buses. I questioned the logic of loading my bike onto the roof of a bus, rather than the back of a truck. There is the obvious difficulty of loading (bus roofs are higher than truck beds) and the fact that the bike would have to lie on her side, rather than stand up straight. Oil leakage would be inevitable. Eventually they got a bus to stop and the driver seemed eager to get me on board, but luckily another local had flagged a big Tata and for 700 rupees (ten dollars) they would drive me and the bike three hours to the border town (but not the border).

There I was, for the second time, riding up in the cab of a truck with my bike riding in the back. The wingman, Raz, was twenty-one and spoke a little English so we hit it off. They had picked up a few other locals who use trucks like buses, and I bought forty rupees worth of peanuts and bananas and shared them with everyone. The driver, a gruff older guy with a terrible sounding cough, wasn’t too excited to have me around and didn’t partake in the mini picnic.

We stopped every so often for no obvious reason. To a puncture wallah to top up the tire pressure. At the side of the road to talk to a few other truck drivers for a few minutes. Less than 10km from our destination we stopped for lunch. I remained patient and paid for all three dhal baats. On we went. We stopped for diesel and something I didn’t catch happened, but it ended with Raz grabbing a hose from under the seat and leaping out the door. We sat on the side of the road waiting. I got out to look for him, but the driver honked and waved me back in and we drove off without him. I never got to say goodbye to ol’ Razzy.

In Birganj, finally, the driver was eager to be rid of me. He tried several times to boot me out on the outskirts of town, but I knew the words for ‘let’s go!’ (jam jam!) and kept waving toward the center of town. He would grunt and grumble something and drive on. One time he tried flagging down a bicycle rickshaw, as if we were going to balance my 200kg bike on his little cushioned rickshaw seat. Eventually, as the traffic got thicker and we were clearly close to the core of the city, I allowed myself to be hustled out. We got a couple passersby to help unload my bike and there I was, back on the side of the road in the afternoon heat. I stood there helplessly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to get this bike the final 5km to the border.

A teenager on a bicycle saw me standing there and came over to speak with me. He was studying engineering and so spoke good English. He went off to see if there were any small trucks or auto-rickshaws to take me to border. I noticed a mechanic working on a couple of 100cc bikes so went to inquire. No, he didn’t know anything about Bullets, but there was another mechanic just down the road…

And so this, miracle of miracles, was how I ended up being unceremoniously dumped out of a truck on the side of the road in a Nepali border town within 100 meters of an amazing Bullet mechanic who, thanks to three years of working in a Malaysian factory, spoke decent English. I would spend about seven hours sitting in the dirt in front of his shop as we took my bike apart, replacing rocker pins and both valves. The mechanic and his father were both jovial bike lovers and I had a great time joking and wrenching with them.

The next morning I roared out of Nepal and, some unplanned days and rupees later, into India.

Ahh, India. It was good to be back. I won’t go into detail just yet but there is something intangible about India and her people. I flew south, along a bumpy, potholed highway past more rice fields and water buffalo and smoky bamboo hut villages. I wandered through one of these villages in search of bananas, getting some pretty surprised stares from everyone. I eventually found the market and got a dozen little bananas for 10 roops (about 22 cents). I triumphantly showed them off to all the perplexed villagers as I strolled back to my bike.

I was now in Bihar, India’s poorest state. It is beset not only by poverty but also a Maoist political rebellion and a corresponding campaign of violence. Indian newspapers contain stories of bombed schools or government buildings almost daily. I wasn’t too worried. Cruising through the wonderfully named Muzaffarpur, choking on dust and truck exhaust in the intense traffic, I asked directions. More than a few locals told me I was on the right road. I wasn’t. I wanted to get to Patna, the state capital, but they had sent me down the indirect road that would take me to Patna eventually, rather than the direct but smaller highway. I managed, thanks to my road map and my willingness to ask everyone for directions, to find a little back country road that connected my wrong way highway with the right way highway. The road was, for the most part, smoothly paved and weaved it’s way pleasantly through fields and villages. I got plenty of stares and smiles as I went. Mostly stares. I’m not claiming that these locals have never seen foreigners before, but I guarantee it’s been a while since one went chugging past on an Enfield.

Patna is a small Indian city of to million people, bustling with the urgency and endless horn honks that are ubiquitous in any settlement of decent size. Struggling in the traffic, I wove through town asking endless directions from police and older gentlemen who looked likely to speak English. My system is simple: I roll alongside a man on a bike or bicycle or perhaps standing roadside, and offer a polite paisahb, which means ’sir.’ I then name the town I’m looking for with a questioning tone. They usually indicate a direction with hand motions and some broken English. Eventually finding the road south, I ripped toward Bodhgaya.

I was about 35 kilometers out of Patna when I crashed. More on this soon.

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Sikhism and local conversation.

Friday, October 9th, 2009

I know I’ve spent the last two posts bigging up Buddhism, but I now feel the need to give a shout out to my other crew, the righteous Sikh massive. I defy you to name another religion that encourages its followers to change their names to Lion, will feed anyone and everyone for free, and blasts musical prayer from its temples for fourteen hours a day. Please wash your feet and slip on an orange bandana before entering.

I left Mcleod Ganj, finally, the other day. I’d spent almost a month there, which is a long time considering I’ve been in India for two months all in. Granted, the month includes my ten days at the meditation centre, but still it was a long time to spend in a single town even if the Dalai Lama is a host who boasts a mean (mostly vegetarian) roast.

I headed south and east, down into the plains of north central India. The heat rose as I descended, and soon I was back in a state of perma-sweat. It’s like when Homer shaves on The Simpson’s: as soon as he walks out of the bathroom his five o’clock shadow pops back onto his face. In India, you can shower all you like, but as soon as you’ve dried off you’re instantly covered in a sheen of grease that will last until the next bath. Indian air is saturated with dust and dirt and soot, and the perma-sweat is like fly paper. You don’t really notice how dirty you’re getting until you see the colour of the water when you take that next shower. Ewww.

At any rate, I had a long road ahead of me. As my bike’s engine had recently been repaired (new piston, new valves, new carb, new head, etc etc) I had some breaking in to do. I could only run her at around 40 or 50 km/h, and would need to take breaks every couple of hours to let her cool. So I planned on three days to Rishikesh, instead of the standard two. I just needed to figure out where to stop for my two nights.

After consulting maps and the Lonely Planet, I decided on Anandpur Sahib, a Sikh holy town. It’s the second holiest place for Sikhs in India, so it’s well on the domestic tourist map. But, like many domestic tourism hotspots, it’s an unknown for foreign tourists (unless they’re Sikh). I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the whole town. I didn’t mind.

I rolled in and headed straight for the massive, gleaming white gurdwara (Sikh temple) that dominated the town. The sound of tabla, some sort of organ and Punjabi singing emanated from huge loudspeakers mounted on the walls of the complex. Old men with huge turbans and ancient beards strode about, and hundreds of Dalit beggars (the lowest caste, the untouchables) and their kids milled about aimlessly.

You see, Sikhs are incredibly inclusive and generous. Even if you are not Sikh, there are pilgrim’s rooms and free meals available at nearly every gurdwara. They had non-a/c rooms for 50 rupees (a buck) and a/c rooms for 200 (four bucks). I considered going cheap, but it was hot and I figured most real pilgrims will probably appreciate the cheaper rooms being available, so I took a beautiful room with vaulted ceilings and an air conditioner. In a temple. For four dollars.

I went across the courtyard to a huge building devoted entirely to the feeding of anyone who wishes to eat. Beggars, holy men, even politicians and businessmen sit cross legged on mats and get a simple meal of dhal and chapati. As the building is holy, you have to remove your shoes and don one of the communal orange head scarves. I ate in silence. I got a lot of looks as I walked in, grabbed a metal tray and spoon, and sat down. I told myself they weren’t looking because I shouldn’t be there, but because they never see foreigners. The looks stopped, however, when I started eating Indian style. Tearing the chapati into smaller chunks, I folded it over into a cone and pinched one end to stop the soupy dhal from spilling out the back. Then I scooped it into my mouth. Once they saw me eating this way, I belonged.

After dinner, I washed the dhal from my hands (I’m still learning) and went up and into the gurdwara. Before entering, you step down into a pool with water running through it to wash your feet. Again, on went an orange head scarf. I followed some older men up and into the central chamber, where the musicians were playing and praying. The music never stops all day, beginning around 8 am and running until 10 pm. At the very heart of the temple was a table with some of Sikhism’s holiest objects placed upon it. I watched the men prostrate themselves before the items. I peered over their shoulders for a glance at the relics. Weapons. All weapons.

Central to Sikhism is the idea of Khalsa, a belief in a race of soldier saints who abide by certain moral codes. While they believe in equality for all beings (hence the free meals for everyone) like Buddhists, they do not so strongly believe in non-violence. Just as the uncut hair and beard are important symbols for a devout Sikh man, holy swords or sabres are also essential. The name Singh, taken by many Sikhs, translates literally to “Lion.” The weapons in the temple were indeed holy, as they were used by one or more of the gurus who founded Sikhism and defended its existence from Islam and Hinduism in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The next morning I continued on. After a great day on mostly smooth roads I stopped in a mountain town called Nahan. Here I was again out of place, as this town is infrequently visited by your average backpacker. I was mobbed by cricket playing kids in a park, kicked a soccer ball around with some youngsters near an artificial pond, and generally attracted lots of looks and smiles no matter where I went.

The conversation, when a local worked up the guts to approach me, generally went something like this:

“Hello sir.”

“Hello, brother, how are you?”

“Yes, fine. How do you do?”

I love the bookish, British English that most of the older men here use. The proper, old school vocabulary mixed with the poor grammar and syntax make for some excellent menus, signage and general conversation.

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Which country is your origin?” This is a standard question, sometimes the only one I’m asked. It comes in many forms. Sometimes simply “Where are you from?” or “Which country?” but many men like tossing in words such as “origin” or “nationality” or “citizen.” Younger guys tend to use more American, Hollywood-ized language, but it’s no less entertaining.

“I’m from Canada.”

“Ah, yes. Which region?”

“Toronto.”

“Indeed. Many Indian people living in Toronto, isn’t it?”

Ahh, the infamous Indian “isn’t it?” It’s used much in the same way we Canadians use “eh.” Essentially, it turns a statement into a question. It’s quite genius. In fact, I’m a big defender of the use of “eh” by Canadians, because it’s way easier to say “Cold out eh?” than something like “Don’t you think it’s cold out?”

“Yes, many Indians.”

“And you are enjoying your stay in India?” This is the next most popular question.

“Of course, brother, India is beautiful.”

“Excellent. I hope you enjoy your holiday.”

“Thank you, my friend, good luck to you.”

“And to you.”

I always end my conversations with that line: “good luck to you.” I’m not sure why, but there it is.

At any rate, part of the genius of the bike is stopping in these smaller towns where foreigners are a rarity. I end up meeting tons of people who have absolutely no interest in my money, but lots and lots of interest in me. They like to briefly practice their English and learn a few things about the kinds of people who visit India. Questions about my marriage status, schooling, and job back home are not taboo. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask after how much I made at my job, how much I paid for my motorbike, and other things that one would approach gingerly in the West.

But now I am in another tourist stalwart in Rishikesh. This is where the Beatles came and got high and wrote the White Album. It’s on the banks of the Ganges in the lower foothills of the Himalaya, so the river is reasonably clean (for India). I’m looking into some eight dollar white water rafting trips and I’ll probably spend a day just lying on some riverside beaches and swimming in the holy river. Any blessings will be purely accidental.

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The Road to Kashmir

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

I’m sitting on my houseboat veranda enjoying the sun and the birdsong. The lake is small but clean, and there are kingfishers and hawks and ducks and herons all around me. I’m also surrounded by four souvenir boats. I don’t speak Kashmiri, but I believe they are discussing the order in which they will climb aboard our boat to push their goods. A jeweler is already inside with Ross. It’s a scene, man.

Ross and I left Leh after a breakfast of half-decent cappuccinos, eggs and homefries. Steve had ripped back south to his farmhouse south of Manali through sleet and snow, and Matt had just gotten over a bout of the flu so was spending a few more days in town. I had done some research on the road conditions and the book gave some ominous warnings: the road to Kashmir passes alongside the UN mandated Line of Control (LOC), which separates Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) from India Occupied Kashmir (IOK). (Off to the northeast, there’s also Chinese Occupied Kashmir [COK] which I mention only for the acronym). All three governments dispute the others’ claims to the area, and so skirmishes along the borders are actually quite common. Every so often the road is shelled to disrupt military operations, trade, and tourists riding motorbikes. Great.

About an hour out of Leh, driving through a rocky desert with snowy peaks in the distance, a local stood in the road flagging us down. A few vans and jeeps were already pulled over, so I wondered if there was a breakdown – any self-respecting Enfield driver carries tools, so maybe they needed a wrench. The local apologized for stopping us.

“Sorry, please stop, they shooting.” My heart bounced into my throat. What?! SHOOTING!? Images of mortars and rockets and automatic gunfire swirled.

“WHO IS SHOOTING?! AT WHO? WHAT!?” Not properly registering my concern, he continued.

“Yes please, they are shooting. Only ten minutes they finish. It is for new auto.” Oh sweet lord. They are shooting a fucking commercial. Ross pulled up to see me squatting roadside laughing in relief. He had no idea what had just happened. We waited until the OK came over the local’s two-way radio, and then continued past camera trucks and a pretty mint looking Honda.

We drove through the epic scenery to Kashmir over three days. We passed through moonscape and marsscape. At one point we were climbing a long but gentle hill. Our bikes, however, were slowing to a crawl. We popped off and made adjustments to the air intake on the carb. Still no power. In first gear with barely contained panic, we inched toward the crest of the hill. When we arrived, a sign greeted us: You have just climbed Magnet Mountain! Wonderful. Not only am I dealing with ridiculous altitudes in a ridiculous desert with the Pakistani army within mortar range, I’m now dealing with magnetic mountains that want to suck my poor bike into the ground.

We struggled on. We stopped and ate lunch in a village built up a cliff face. After another frigid pass, we began seeing mosques instead of Buddhist monasteries. We spent a night in Kargil, a trading town only a few miles from the LOC. An hour out of Kargil, it started to rain. I was completely unprepared. I had brought more than enough cold weather gear – face masks and spare gloves and thick socks – but I thought this was a desert, for chrissakes.

We tried to continue on, but with soaked feet and legs and jackets we were getting cold. At a town affectionately named Drass, which proudly claims to be the second coldest inhabited place on earth (after some town in Siberia), we stopped and found a Tibetan dhaba. There we ordered noodle soups and chai and stripped out of our soaking outerwear. A lady out front sold us Nepalese wool socks for a hundred roops and I bought a counterfeit Nike touque that had NICE written above the swoosh. Love it.

After eating, we sweet talked our way back into the kitchen. There we stacked our gloves and shoes around the kerosene cooking stove, and stood huddled over it drying our jeans. For two hours we sat and watched the family prepare noodles and momos and waited for the rain to stop. We became part of the family. I overpaid the bill to recoup some of the cooking fuel we’d wasted on warming ourselves, and we were off as soon as the sky cleared.

After Drass, the landscape was still rocky and snowy, but now with a subtle dusting of green. Ross agreed it reminded him of the Scottish highlands. We stopped at a military checkpoint to write out our passport, visa and motorcycle details. It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by freshly snowed mountains and a serene river. Soon we were slipping along some incredibly muddy road precipitously edged along a steep cliff. We crossed the pass leading into the head of the Kashmir valley. Suddenly we were in interior BC, with towering pines and cedars and spruce. Even a few token birch for good measure. It smelled of Canada. The greenery was startling after weeks spent with reds, browns, greys and whites.

We descended into the ever widening Kashmir valley. Unbelievably, the military presence became even more heavy. Every ten or twenty minutes we’d pass another patrol of camouflaged men touting AK47s and M16s. Every bridge had gun-mounted bunkers on both ends. We must have passed hundreds of transport trucks brimming with troops. They waved and hollered. We waved back and shouted Hindustan! in support. Little kids came running out along the road sticking out their hands for painfully stinging drive-by high fives. I’m not sure they understand the concept of danger, because we were doing fifty clicks an hour.

Now we are living on a quaint old English houseboat on a small lake in Srinigar, Kashmir’s capital. We have a dining room, a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom with an old bathtub. The furniture is an eclectic mix of 1920’s to 1940’s Britain. It all reminds me of my grandmother’s house. We even have a daybed. I like lying on it after dinner, to defy its namesake.

The boat originally belonged to an English family. They gave the boat to their servants as a gift back in 1975. Now the owners of the boat, they rent it out to foreigners then wait on them much the same way they would have back in the forties. The old man looked perturbed I poured my own water with dinner.

More on the houseboat soon, and on the road to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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