Nothing can make a biker bitter faster than being jammed into a seven-seater on one of the most stunning roads known to man.
I tried to feel blessed for even being in such a place when my crash could’ve easily put me 100ft down the bottom of an Indian ravine instead, but it was difficult. The cheerful roadside advice, painted haphazardly across white boulders and rattly tin sheets, did go some way to lifting my spirits:
“Be gentle on my curves.”
“Drinking whiskey, driving risky.”
“Don’t gossip, let him drive.”
“Don’t worry be happy”
“Know Aids, No Aids” (Yep – what?)
“Chance takers are accident makers”
I pinched together my thumb and ring finger, both still dead to sensation following my surgery, and stared at the bright new bandage holding a flimsy plaster backslab to my left arm. It sat happy and oblivious in my lap as the road ribboned and undulated through miles of valleys and mountain passes around us. I missed the wind, the tastes and smells that rumbling about on the Enfield give you, but still got to choke on the dust kicked up by lorries and circulated through the AC. Black, white and peach stained cliffs eroded into glitter glass that made everything it touched sparkle, including your airways.
The Leh – Manali route was one of the few objectives of the trip I’d actually been excited about, an opportunity to make some sublime motorcycling shots – but all these aspirations fuzzed away uselessly as I sat like a big greasy turd while Bryan Adams and other 90s heroes sung their hearts out in the background.
After two days of driving we finally descended the southern side of Rhotang pass and followed the Beas river through the first woodlands we’d all seen for weeks, down into the touristic, Israeli hub of Old Manali where we took off on foot down weaving, labyrinthine hillside paths, looking for a guesthouse someone had recommended Yoav.
The group remained together for a few days, then began to organically dissolve away around Chris and I, neither of whom were in a rush to commit to a specific plan. Instead, on the day I cut my cast off and reclaimed the stunted use of my arm, we crossed the river and moved into a cheap hostel hidden away amongst rampant apple orchards as time tumbled away in medicinal procrastination. Chris discovered rapture in how cheap and easy it was to purchase ingredients and cook a decent meal and ambled around playing cards and guitar. We both got pretty comfortable.
Any long-sought tranquility was shattered in the heat and bustle of Mundi as I embarked on an eight-hour day on cramped, manic public busses to check on the work completed by the garage. I knew it was going to be expensive, thirty-eight thousand rupees all in all, but there was a lot that needed repairing or replacing – including the tank, forks and frame. What I should have been more prepared for was the jugaad approach to restoration – bits missing, mis-matching bolts and the hand stamped frame number that had one number wrong. Due diligence wasn’t a term in these guys vocabulary. Since that day I’ve carried around five kilograms of steering stem with the chassis number, gas torched from my old frame, in my rucksack to back up my story that it’s not a stolen bike. I also found out they’d stolen my toolkit. Welcome to India.
Just as I was leaving the garage another bright red pick-up arrived, similar to the one my Bullet had been carried on just after the crash. Out of the cab jumped an Israeli guy, out of the back fell an Enfield with the front end caved in. He’d been coming from Dharamshala too, but slipped somewhere and totalled the bike into a cliff wall. It seemed the garage was perfectly poised near an accident hotspot, chains of unfortunate riders ensuring their books are fat and bloated with expensive repair jobs. The proverbial spider in the web, closing the circle of life.
I resisted riding it back to Manali, but once it was delivered it taunted me from the drive until, only a few hours later I’m gingerly riding into town with Sai, a Tamil Nadu guy who was working at the hostel, to pick up supplies for dinner. I too had started volunteering in exchange for free board and lodging, but after only four days of gardening, cooking and making beds, I decided I’d probably just pay the three hundred rupees a night – a small price to lose all the hassle of cooking for twenty plus hungry people.
Gosha had tucked himself neatly away in the hot spring hamlet of Vashisht, across the river from Manali itself and home to a few scalding hotsprings. I’d been a couple of times to visit and he’d been gently stirring the appetite for a road trip within me. Despite initial reluctance I had to admit it made sense. I needed to properly test my recovery at some point soon and if anything went badly I could swap with Gosha and ride pillion on the way back. So I was sat, nodding along to his plan, trying to forget that it’d be silly to ride only five weeks after major surgery.
But it was a good decision. Passing quickly through Kasol, a strange coffee and charras town and key destination on the ‘hummus trail’, Gosha and I are weaving through crowds of buffallo in tiny hamlet villages with gently billowing tin can chimenys. The mountain shadows fold and fade endlessly in perfect ‘V’ shapes into the horizon, all different shades of far away.
The houses in Tosh, where the road runs out and the hiking trails begin, are seemingly scatter-gunned across the flanks of the mountain. We explored more winding concrete paths in the calm of early night, only to top out into a restaurant filled with industrial music and chillum smoking Israelis. The next day, following a minor disaster with out of service ATMs and changing eight dollars into rupees so we could eat some breakfast, we rode back to Kasol and, in the flattening heat of the mid-day sun, decided to hike up to Rashol in jeans, carrying all our gear with us. Dashing from cover to cover, rationing water and using stubborn, standstill pack mules as an excuse to steal a few minutes more rest our initial blistering pace slowed to a near stall in the final climb past the first few outlying wooden houses. Metal cages whirred above on cables, carrying provisions up to and down from the village.
The three-day man-date with Gosha had been a good break from the comfortable monotony of Manali, and a chance to chill out and drink beer in some isolated little corners of the Himalayas. It was also a fitting send off for Gosha, who’d be moving on to embark on Tushita, a 10 day silent meditation in Dharamsala.
Better still the wrist had behaved itself for most of the riding and, while there were a few niggling pains in the screws for a couple of days following my return, it was a promising sign that I could be on the road again soon.
As they say in Zombieland, it was time to nut up or shut up. Spiti valley had every indication it wouldn’t roll over easily.