Motorcycling India, Leh deep in the Himalayas Spring 2013

Jammu and Kashmir is the northern most state in India. The state spans from the smoldering lowland city of Jammu, bordering Pakistan and ripe with political conflict, to the isolated Himalayan outpost of Leh. Leh is only accessible by road from Srinagar, situated on the infamous Dal Lake, for three months of the year and from Manali to the south one month. This rugged road with hundreds of hair pin turns raises the hair of hundreds of daring cyclists each season.  The Jammu-Srinagar-Leh-Manali Loop is over 2,000 km. For me it was 4,000 wandering all the back roads.

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Last post I bought Rah, a 2003 Bajaj Eliminator in Dharamsala and took it for a test tour around Rewalsar Lake. Going to the lake I took the well paved Mandi road, heading back north I decided to take back roads, which turned out to be unpaved 75% of the time. A route on Google maps said this road to Nurpur (gateway to Chamba) takes 3.5 hours. After 8 hours of riding and still hours away a tire popped. Luckily right when it popped, in the middle of nowhere, there just happened to be a repair shop. The mechanic dropped the bike, breaking the brake handle and the foot rest, otherwise after two hours I was on the road again. Feeling exhausted deep in the Kangra valley, the temperature was 35C (95F). I was sweating and freezing. Luckily the loop was closing in and rather than continuing onward to Nurpur I crash landed back in Dharamsala with a group of Yoga teachers I knew would still be there. I laid shaking sick on an extra floor mat for 3 days, nurtured by the Kundalini Mothers Lauren and Liya. Sat Nam.

 Excited by a revelation in my sick hallucinatory state that reassured me in my path towards truth I was ready to go. The 6 hour rugged detour to Chamba was a welcome challenge. The little hill station of Dalhousie appeared two hours short of Chamba, allowing much needed rest. 

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Only two hours to Chamba, the next day I spent an afternoon in the Mini Switzerland of India. Khajjiar, a plateau meadow, 2,000m above sea leavel, surrounded by snow caped Himalayas, cradling a tiny stream fed lake, is a favorite for Bollywood films. Also a popular destination for zorbing, the extreme sport of gentle hill orb rolling.

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Chamba is so so beautiful. The town surrounds a huge park filled with smiling people day and night.  The market is always bustling, different than any other city in India. The population is diverse between Hindus, Muslims and Tibetans, especially seen in the delicious selections of food. I was embraced by everyone as family + guest (which also means god).

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The owner of a restaurant took me down to his favorite fishing spot. Once a week  he has special fish fry night. Using only a net, he can catch huge trout as long as your arm in this rapid river.

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Plenty of Indian tourists were found everywhere around these hills. Westerners were nowhere to be seen. Rolling into Chamba on Rah created a splash which rattled the fabric holding together this quaint community. The fish guy and a nearby vegetarian restaurant owner got into a yelling match after I ate the other guy’s veggie meal the next day. A group of guys my age I had played pool with conflicted with another group I had drank whiskey with.  I found them all standing around Rah one morning waiting to see who I would spend my day with. When I didn’t want to spend it with anyone it created a commotion which drew a crowd. This drew the police chief,  who threatened to impound the motorcycle because I technically wasn’t the legal the owner nor did I have an international license. Luckily I had visited the Fire department the night before and dropped the fire chiefs name which got me off the hook. By this point there was a crowd of nearly 300 surrounding us. I left my bike there and started walking out of town. I met a guy who invited me to come eat diner at his family’s restaurant. After hours and hours of eating and several Indian men drinking way too much. I asked to be taken home. On the way back I started getting a really bad feeling as he turned onto this back road. I jumped off his moving motorcycle in motion. It turned out it was really just a back road and he took me back to my home stay. When we arrived I realized I wasn’t wrong about the bad feeling. He wouldn’t leave and started telling me he wanted to sleep with me. The noise in the street woke the family I was staying with. The drunk guy started fighting three men from the family and refused to go home. Finally he left. The next morning walking to the market for breakfast I received an unprecedented amount of attention. Good and bad. A crowd of people followed me back to the home stay where I found the father of the house holding the morning’s news paper. The front cover was a huge picture of me with the police chief  and crowd all around. Why is This Wild American Man in Chamba?  The article was full of interviews with random people who had encountered me. Most were friendly but some were saying I was making people drink and fight each other. To my own dismay I packed and left that afternoon.

Again I chanced a back road, directly toward Jammu. This time the road was well paved and full of stellar sights.

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The first few hours it was cold and raining. Escaping the pour, I stopped for a while at a little school where the teachers had me meet all the children. The school was on the edge of a dry river bed which seemed endless. I could hardly see the other side. The teachers said this river was full and deep in the wet season. The road continued down and down, never ceasing it’s drop. Evergreen mountains, turned to jungle then to desert. A temperature change of 10C (50F) to 40C (104F) happened in only 300km or 5 hours. Ridding shirtless, dripping sweat, the wind was a hair dryer in my face. Far down below a huge lake taunted me. Some policeman on the side of the road said it was impossible to get down there for a swim. The next dirt road I challenged that notion. Down at the bottom three women carrying baskets on their heads looked as if they had seen a ghost. They turned to run, so I yelled रुको! कृपया! बहुत गर्म, तैरना तैरना, Rukō! Krpayā! Bahuta garma, tairanā tairanā, “Wait! Please! Very hot, swim, swim!” They signaled for me to follow. Led me to their house, and made me a cup of chai. This was the first time I was alone with people who spoke no English. Putting months of Hindi practice to test I learned that the men would be home soon, I should stay for diner and that in the mean time their children would take me down to swim.

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Eventually the father came home and we played cricket. It was very difficult to understand the rules in Hindi, considering it was my first time experiencing cricket. Realizing that I was batting in the middle of the field and could hit it any direction was very difficult to grasp. Some bees had made a home in a nearby tree and to celebrate my visit the guy harvested some honey. In the process he was stung right above the eye, which you can see in the picture above (guy on the left wearing brown). He said the honey was well worth it. They invited me to spend the night, so I shared a queen size bed between six men. The story I was able to translate from Hindi was that this family was from the city Shimla. The man in brown and his wife standing next to him married because of love. This was the first and only love marriage I saw in India. She was from a high caste family and he is from a low worker caste. Since he is the oldest son and took care of his whole family, they were all exiled. They moved far from any town and built this small house. They were all very happy, but very very poor.

A chicken wandered onto their property earlier that week. None of them had ever eaten meat before, but since the exile they wanted to break old Hindu restrictions. Handing me a big knife and a live chicken, they said they had no idea what to do. I didn’t know much more, but I’ve seen enough movies to improvise. I cooked them chicken over an open fire. We stayed up half the night singing and joking, while a huge storm shook the desert. Leaving the next morning was difficult, especially navigating back up the now muddy broken road. There was a long way to go yet. Rah and I were hardly at the foothills of the Himalayas.

Skipping Jammu one hour north, the road turned toward Srinagar and started to rise again. Hair pin turn after hair pin turn, flooded with army convoys. A long army flat bed didn’t make his turn, wedged in a pin blocking all the traffic, I weaved through, leaving hours of clear road ahead of me. The lack of traffic was a gift as I entered weeping valleys, where the clouds sat on the road, blocking vision and soaking me from head to toe.

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There was a noticeable shift to a Muslim majority after passing Jammu. I learned to say As-salam alaykum (Muslim hello), Namaste elicited very negative reactions up there. Getting to Srinagar took three days, one I spent resting because of bad weather. The first hotel was strangely fancy, with 50 rooms and no guests. The second was a closet above a Muslim truck stop restaurant. I felt scared at first staying above the truck stop, especially because everyone said Muslims were taking hostages and bombing places in Srinagar.  In the end it was beyond a doubt friendlier than the fancy hotel, and an educational experience. A wonderful picture of the truck stop owners sitting on Rah was lost among a bunch of other photos in this leg of the journey.

Dal lake was majestic to say the least. Covered in house boats for rent, from a $1 a night rotten log to $500 a night mansions on the water. In the middle, a $5 stay in a family’s spare room included usage of their canoe. The only way to the house boat was by water taxi or canoe, same for the floating market.

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That is Danielo in the canoe above. I was walking around the town when I saw this beautiful chewbacca man walking down the road trying to hitchhike out of town. He had been hitching all around the world for the past seven years. His last dream before returning home to Brazil to see his family was to get to Leh. He looked pretty worn after hitching trucks on the Jammu – Srinagar road so I told him to stay at the houseboat with me for a good night rest and a hot meal. We became great friends over night and the next morning I ask if he wanted to join Rah and I. We made sure we could fit his backpack. It was heavy and awkward but doable. We enjoyed one more day in Srinagar before continuing.

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The first day riding was the most beautiful but also the most intense. Just outside the city we passed by the famous horse nomads of the Himalayas, on their way north with the spring. Surrounded by glacial mountains we climbed Zozila Pass 11,400 feet, one of the highest road passes in the world. There we took a sled ride from friendly locals who were hoping to make tips from tourists. A snow slide blocking the road created a line up of several hundred military vehicles and a few other trucks and tourist 4x4s. We weaved right on through to the front of the line, after waiting ten minutes the road was cleared and we were flying ahead of everyone.

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Flying ahead of everyone for a little while at least. The glaciers lining the road formed puddles every 100ft. Usually at least 1ft deep, the photo above was taken at the very end. We were so freaked out we didn’t think to take photos at the biggest puddles.

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These are someone else’s photos but basically what we were going through over and over for hours. One very rapid glacier melt like the one above knocked Rah and I over into the water. Along with Danielo’s entire back pack, I was soaked head to toe and trapped underneath the bike. Danielo ran out and rescued me, I really don’t know if I would of made it without him. Freezing cold and extremely tired, I had been driving the whole way, my hands were covered in blisters. The next puddle was even bigger than the last. I just stopped the bike and sat down on the side of the road. Danielo had already waded to the other side of the puddle before he turned around and saw me sitting there. He ran back across to see if I was ok and asked if he could try crossing. He hadn’t driven a motorcycle in years but had dirt bikes through out his childhood. Before he finished asking I said, of coarse! “Really I can drive?” He hopped on the bike and flew across the puddle like he was on a boat. There were only a few more puddles to cross, but still over 100km to the next hotel where we could dry ourselves and the gear off. Riding on the back was so much warmer, Danielo was an amazing driver, he saved the day.

After sleeping in Drass, famed for a fluke day, which gave it the titled Coldest city in the world. We made a fire right in the middle of the courtyard to cook  breakfast eggs. The hotel wanted us to pay a ridiculous price to use their kitchen. Building a fire in their yard was probably rude, but they had been rude to us from the beginning and it was hilarious how many Indian tourists came and stood around our fire with us. Before we left we climbed to the top of an abandoned building to get a good view of the town.

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After Drass everything became super dry, leading into the area known as the Himalayan Desert.

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After a long day of desert mountain navigating, civilization was nowhere to be seen and soon it would be dark. We tried searching for a cave to sleep in but found nothing in the loose stone. It was about to get really really cold. There was a tiny road stop with a possible place to sleep hours behind us. Instead of turning back we chanced going forward. Only 15 more minutes up the road we spied a little stone structure. We quickly collected wood and rebuilt parts of the structure that had fallen apart. Keeping the fire going all night barely kept the cold out. The smoke definitely stayed in. It was home sweet home.

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Leh Leh the Tibetans say. Hey hey from Danielo and me. Buildings rising high on cliff edges. Happy people who survive most of the year on a single barley and apricot harvest. Less than three months of road access, nothing is shipped in by airplane. Only Thenthuk soup and butter tea to ward off the cold.

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For some reason both of us were feeling antsy still. After such a long journey to this destination, once we arrived we said “what next”. The very next day Danielo decided to start hitching back to Delhi for his flight next week, back to Brazil. I decided I didn’t want to wait around for the Manili road to clear up from the snow, which would be at least another month. The next day I met a German guy at the internet cafe, when I was printing out flyers to sell Rah. He bought it, we went to diner with his friends. The next morning I flew to Delhi, where I waited two days as they cancelled flights because of a 45C (113F) heat wave. Om Nama Shiviya, full power india, with out the sour, 24 hour.

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