Riding the slick-sheen, narrow switchbacks through Dharamsala and beyond, climbing steeply into a thick mist and tickling drizzle, an ethereal impression hugged in close and cocooned Sai, Claire and I in our own spiritual ascensions into the sky. There was a sense of belonging here that only made the already stark difference between our ride south and our first day in the hills all the more expansive…
After wrestling our way into Jaipur at night, we stayed for a couple of nights in the pink city before heading back to Delhi to purchase my bullet. The Enfield Himalayan’s unique handling characteristics (I was certain the head bearings were shot, but apparently this was an intentional design feature to help steep, rocky climbing?!) had left its mark on my creased, tired shoulders after all the urban combat. I was looking forward to getting on a bike that didn’t hold you in a straight line any time you needed to turn.
True to form, buying the bike was no lesser a lesson in bureaucracy that when we’d rented bikes the week before, not tolerated patiently after a night in bars and a speakeasy. Also, predictably, when money was handed over the owner made a sharp exit and left me to notice the tank had been badly dented in the days I’d left it with them to repair the fuelling issue. Worn, I retreated back to the hostel with Sai, enjoying the smoother handling, but not the way the bullet feels like half-way to a monkey bike. The luggage rack also stick out a little further, making vying for gaps through the city traffic a little tricker – although it’s great protection for when the car you’re weaving in front of decides to ram you out of the way, just for kicks.
Heading towards Amritsar was the first time on the trip I felt like I was lapsing into visiting tourist traps and spending our days on the highway, rather than being out exploring for better, more challenging riding. The Taj Mahal, Pink City and now Golden Temple were all big on other peoples lists, and I’d stuck them on mine out of impressionability above anything else. Thankfully we’d only be in Amritsar a couple of days before heading to the hill stations.
Further North the buildings give way to rice paddies then to fluffy woodlands and valleys that beset a pockmarked serpent of tarmac, writhing into the hills following the obvious contours. Streams and shrubbery vent temperate air in soothing waves until it thickens into the comfortable norm. Cleaving through the hills in my airy motocross armour was like taking a swim in baby bear’s porridge.
The questionable driving standards eventually bore fruit as we rode through an Army complex near to Dharamsala. With unwarranted aggression the white car I’d been leap frogging for the last 30 miles burned past myself, a lorry and two other cars, despite a car in the oncoming lane waiting to cross the traffic. Captain white car skimmed to the far side to get around them, at precisely the same time two guys riding a little scooter were coming through. He blew them up, 20ft in front of us. Flying higher into the air than I would’ve ever expected, the scooter rider crashed down into the windscreen and to the ground while the pillion was sent straight to tarmac, skidding away from the accident. I pulled up to see if I can help, but soon enough a swarm of people had congregated angrily around the scene. The rider, a small, dark bleed on his forehead perhaps masking the urgency of the impact behind it, was being dragged backwards out of the road, arms wrapped around his chest. Without any Hindi, and with a growing commotion, I got back on the bike and rode away, immediately filing it away in the back of my mind so I could be relaxed and aware for the remaining distance to Dharamsala.
Riding the slick-sheen, narrow switchbacks through Dharamsala and beyond, climbing steeply into a thick mist and tickling drizzle, an ethereal impression hugged in close and cocooned Sai, Claire and I in our own spiritual ascensions into the sky. There was a sense of belonging here, where scarlet robed monks punctuate the cloudy obscurity.
Through throngs of street vendors, I wove with the front wheel bouncing along to nimble throttle blips – all the weight of the bike tugging rearward and downward. We stopped at the base of bouldery incline, concerned by the thin blue line on my google map.
Wiping what had become a thick, English rain from the screen of my phone, I decided to try to ride the slope regardless, but cut my losses after only around 30 meters and a similar number of bruises on Sai’s shins – rocks cannonading backwards as he ran to support the rear as it twisted and span. Abandoning the gear, bikes and Claire, we headed deeper into the mist up narrow, undulating staircases and hauling through narrow muddy jungle paths. After hiking up, stopping plenty of times for directions, Sai and I found the hostel, trekked back to the bikes and moved them to a more convenient, less Jungle-y route at the owner’s suggestion.
The hot shower water, the first I’d seen or needed in India, felt well deserved. Back in stormy Wolverhampton, my mom used to shout at me from the door as I ran around outside in the pouring rain. “You know what you’re like – it’ll get on your chest!”. I always ignored her, and always ended up with a bad, chesty cough, often lingering for weeks. After the last two hours in the driving rain, with clingy wet cotton shirt and sodden jeans, I knew what was coming – so took every measure to warm up quickly to minimise the damage.
Warm and sort of dry (nestled in the clouds, everything in McLeod Ganj is permanently damp – including the towels), I took the bottle of Budweiser Sai had thoughtfully picked up from town earlier and headed out into the damp night air. Finding the bottle opener on my multi-tool too small to peel off the cap, I placed the tip of the steel underneath the cap and gave it a good shunt. With a sudden burst of pressure the neck of the bottle detached, cap still fixed firmly in place, and shot somewhere out of sight. About the same time, I felt a pang in my bottle opening hand and, knowing what I was about to see, looked down to check out the damage. A wide, bright red track ran across the fleshy pad on my palm and up onto my thumb – a flap of skin hanging worm-like from the wound as blood pulsed out quickly and thickly. I clapped my other hand around my wrist firmly and marched back to the dorm to scrub with soapy water. Claire, who’d was currently in the late, violent throes of food poisoning, was helping to collect bandages from my first aid kit in between being sick in the toilet behind me. The turquoise sink filled with blood like a horror movie as I thumbed a sterile pad onto the cut and wrapped the hand tightly in bandages. Then I went to drink some rum.
After a lazy morning, I made my way down to McLeod Ganj with Sai, looking for a chemist to inspect the injury. Water, pummelling down, soaked the bandages on my hand causing wide pink streaks away from the crispy, dry bloodstain on my palm.
I decided to remove my own bandage in the chemist, while they poured neat disinfectant over the clotted rags and skin. Reaching the gash, there was no way to extricate the dressing without reopening the injury. Blood streamed from my hand into a little orange plastic bin while the chemist scrabbled around for cotton wool to stem the bleed – smiling sincerely but with a wince in his eyes as he said the words “Doctor. Stitches”.
In a nearby government clinic, two men who sat idly at their phones jumped up as I walked in holding the dripping hand out in front of me. Sai was told to wait behind as I descended further into the tiny, white-washed building until I was right at the back in a room where every surface was covered in stained newspaper. Rain thrummed heavily on the sloping corrugated steel roof as the free swinging halogen bulb threw out dismal blue light. As the one man washed my wound with all the tenderness of a cornered Rottweiler, digging deep in the cut with his fingers and intermittently pouring hydrogen peroxide over it, the other prepared the needles and injections. Four stabs of Benzocaine stung their way into my palm before, the guy with the needle physically turning my head to suggest I look away, they began to clamp me back together with thick, coarse stitches, fighting to see as blood pooled and pulsed around their work. The first five stitches went in with full sensation, the needle bluntly bashing before being forced into, then back out of my skin. The sixth and last stitch felt OK, either because the anaesthetic had taken hold or I’d lost enough blood not to care.
After a quick tetanus shot, I went to settle the bill only to discover the place was ran on donations. I slipped a thousand rupees into his jar, thankful for their help, even if their bedside manner was lacking a little.
Preparing to leave, Sai discussed the logistics of our trip with the doctor.
It was a good job I felt some belonging in Dharamsala… I was grounded – banned from riding a motorbike for another 10 to 15 days.