The advertising blurb says "Incredible India!", and theyre not far from the truth. India is many things - but it takes some getting use it. You cant really fight India, you need to let it flow over you like a wave - the mayhem, the traffic, the wave of humanity and the myriad of lunacy will drive you up the wall if you dont take India with a zen-like acceptance.
The ride from Delhi to Manali through Shimla then onwards through the high passes into Leh was something I had been looking forward to for quite a while. All those postcard-perfect pictures of the Himalayas with their snow peaked mountains and a tiny ant-like trail that is the Manali-Leh, wait, the legendary Manali-Leh road with all its high passes - that can get any rider started.
With a Enfield Thunderbird (with a name like that you expect a fire-breathing monster ... not), we somehow made it out of Delhi intact and found our way into Shimla. Somewhere along the way the already grey skies decided to pour. The moonsoon was at its highest point and the Thunderbird, er, Enfield made it way through villages and small town and up winding roads while the scenery was veiled by a blanket of rain.
From Shimla it seemed Manali was just a short hop - however nature had other plans. Though the clouds lifted and we were bathed in some watery sunshine but there had been too much rain - a hill, too saturated with water had comoe down along two sections on a narrow mountain road.
Traffic was at a standstill and people were standing around waiting for a digger or some heavy machinery to come to their rescue. Of course the Indian way is to fill in all available road space with cars, buses, vans and what not - making it almost impossible for a digger to get through. It also meant that once the landslide has been cleared there will be two lanes of opposing traffic staring at each other. That should make things ... interesting.
But bikes are different - a landslide was just a blip on the radar. The locals were having a go, and some were getting stuck - but the lighter bikes were having some success. The method of getting it on was to whack the throttle as much as you could and feed the clutch. Hopefully there was enough forward momentum to get you through the muddy section.
When in Rome and so on - well, I tried and promptly got stuck. Perhaps it would have helped to get the luggage off and have the bike slightly lighter but the point was moot. Fortunately the Enfield isnt that heavy and with a couple of passerby we managed to haul the bike out. I was thinking I was out of the woods but I had just cleared the first section - there was another landlside a kilometre down.
Amazingly they had a digger on the other side but it was slow going. The bikes were skirting most of the landslide by going a small gulley right on the precipice of the mountain. And even there eventually we ran out of space. The digger had laid a slope with some fresh earth - soft sinking earth from the gulley back up to the road. Get a good running start in 1st and gun that throttle - the Enfield went up halfway before the front dug in and the rear started spinning. There was a crowd at the top of the slope helping the bikes out and maybe a dozen hands grabbed the handlebar, the panniers and the tank, and before I could slide back I was on beautiful solid ground.
Beyond that there a long snarling snake of a traffic jam and the only way out and onwards was along the road shoulder - a sheer drop on the left and traffic to the right. I even had to stop halfway to allow an elephant to pass. But after what seemed like hours we were finally out on smooth tarmac but utterly exhausted.
Too tired to carry on we found a hotel in Mandi - the nearest town and bedded for the evening. The next day the road took us through the amazing Kulu Valley. The road hugged the bottom of valley, flowing next to a somewhat swollen river. We made it to Manali with plenty of time to spare and found a quaint hotel with an apple orchard.
The next day we started early to avoid the crowds - a quick breakfast and then it was up the mountain on extremely slippery and rocky roads as the mist slowly lifted and the sun came out to warm us up.
The Rohtang pass was beginning to fill up, but we didnt hang about - we had some roads to tackle! Beyond the pass the road made its way down the other side and we were truly in the Himalayas. I wasnt sure where to keep my eyes - on the road or the mountains.
The road down till the turn-off to the Spiti/Zanskar valley was pretty miserable. Narrow and rocky the bike was pitching left and right, compounded by trying to dodge trucks and buses coming up the other way.
The Himalayas were strung out before us, a long line of snow covered peaks like a long row of teeth - perhaps we were entering the dragons mouth!
We had left the rain behind us and it was blue skies ahead of us. Leh was ahead of us - about 400ish kilometres. We had a stop in Jispa (we stayed at the Ibex, a small hotel huddled at the foot of some mountains) and another in a tent in Sarchu (going to the toilet in a tent in the tearing wind at 3.5km altitude with the freezing cold can be life altering) to acclimatise to the high altitudes.
The road was a long thread that unravelled slowly across the humps and dips of the mountains along the Himalayan range, often disappearing over tall clifs and behind blind curves. More mountains sprang up alongside the road - at times a bit further when in the valleys and sometimes hulking forebodingly over the road in tight gorges. The Enfield clattered and skated and chugged its merry way across those amazing and desolate kilometres, at times labouring woefully as we started another vein-bursting climb, at times gleefully clanging metalically as the engine revved happily on its way down the other side of the mountain.
In this manner we made it across of the peaks - peaks with exotic names like Lachung La and Tanglang La. We made it across the Moreh Plains intact even though we were bogged down in the deep sand several times - we should have followed the trucks who had the inside track and followed close to the border of the plains on more solid ground while in the shadows of the mountains.
The other side of Tanglang La showed more life - green bushes sprang up and pretty soon we were passing through military camps on good solid roads. Leh was a stone throw away. The Dalai Lama was in Leh conducting a series of lectures and the roads were choked with people going to the lectures. It was surreal coming down the mountains and getting stuck in traffic.
We spent a couple of days in Leh, getting the bike sorted and wandering the back alleys. Leh is pretty spaced out with serpentine alleys that can have stumbling around for hours. We didnt have time for the permits to Khardung La - but that meant we had a good excuse to come by here again.
From Leh we meant to carry on forwards to Srinagar and that meant a night stay in Kargil - from there its a easy ride to the Zoji La pass that takes you into the Kahmir Valley. It was a bit of a shock - the Zoji La pass was a rocky and dusty pass, the Enfield more sliding across the rocks rather than finding any purchase - and then we were deposited in the green valley of Kashmir - rolling meadows and pine trees lining the roads and horses running across open fields and brooks babbbling through the forest. All we had for several days had been shades of brown and white, contrasted starkly against a blinding blue sky - Kashmir was much gentler on the eyes.
Srinagar on the other hand was overrun with police and military personnel - I dont think I have ever seen such a huge police presence as I have in Srinagar. Every streetcorner and every junction there were military personnel in bullet proof vest and semi-automatic, all giving you the eye as you pass by.
The boathouse moored in the lake were quite amazing - some of them were like palaces. In fact the lake itself was quite interesting with houses, shops and markets - the best thing you could do is hire a boat and take a slow ride through the watery lanes.
We had a couple of lazy days in Srinagar before the long ride into Amritsar. We were leaving the high plains and descending into the muggy flatlands. The hills gave way to acres and acres of wheat and sugarcanes. It was a long ride to Amritsar. It took pretty much the whole day even though we took a short cut through the hills to avoid Jammu, and by the time we rolled into Amritsar the sky was a dusky pink from the setting sun.
We found a small hotel just outside the Golden Temple - a cinderblock building, square and five storey high but low on personality. The rooms were passable, and there was air-conditioning - something we had little need for in the mountains. We spent some time walking around, did the tourist thing and visited all the local attractions.
The ride was pretty much over from Amritsar - it was 500 kilometres or so back to Delhi on major roads. A breeze once you take the choking smog and traffic out of the equation. We had done quite a lot of kilometres, been rained on, and rode on some amazing roads. The Himalayas were an extraordinary sight - they were so huge they made you as insignificant as an ant.
There is something inexplicable about the mystery of mountains, and the Himalayas are evn more unique. Their raw and stark beauty is both alluring and dangerous. I hope I dont have to wait long to come down these roads again.