“Weren’t you afraid of getting back on the bike?”
It was a question that followed me around, through Spiti, Sangla, Shimla and beyond when people learned the fun facts behind my fleshy pink scar. But how could I be afraid? Are birds afraid of flying?
Before my accident I’d been lost amongst the swathes of travellers arming themselves with bullets and touring around India. There might’ve been a diminishing return on my fickle sense of adventure for every new rider I encountered. Me, who’s identity is so inextricably linked to dossing around on motorbikes, just one amongst many others.
But having no bike at all had been something worse entirely…
As I reached Nako, having cooked the front brake lever into a useless jellied eel, the golden afternoon foaming its way across the sky birthed a sense of acceptance.
I wasn’t just someone riding a bike. I was a rider.
I delighted in surfing along tarmac with black wash bubbling past my black visor and the foot-pegs grinding hot from leaning low into every corner, singing often obscene imaginary songs into my helmet.
Singing shows me where my zone is, and that was churning through miles of stunning gorges and valleys at a reckless clip, even when spiralling down the mountain in neutral on the morning I left Nako with a starting problem.
The riding was good enough to forget the brutal, perenium punching off road Enfielding we’d needed to get there from Manali. Gravel sections still mesmerised, holding your glare a steady ten feet ahead and causing the same trippy visuals you might get when getting off a treadmill, any static surface seemingly sucking away like quicksand.
For a time I was time-less. Charging through the mountains.
The road, etched out of vertical and narrowing gorge walls, began to cluster with cars, busses and army trucks and I began to suspect everyone hadn’t just stopped for photos. Threading left and right passed the parked, I made my way to the front to inspect the damage.
A boulder, roughly the same size as a three-bedroom family house, had rolled on smaller stone bearings and beached it’s mass firmly in the centre of the narrow pass. Six men worked on it, hammering away the rock they were standing on, while a few others stood idly by – no apparent system for who got a helmet or hiviz vests and who didn’t.
It was a mammoth undertaking at the rate they were hacking it apart. I gave it a good four hours until the first cars could pass. With the valley breath misting me and the advanced traffic with dust and detritus it would be four hours I’d be spending somewhere else, spinning the bike around and heading back to a village chai walla, with an old Gandhi-esque man hoisted onto my bike for company.
When he didn’t get off for tea, it transpired that he’d changed his mind about getting to the nearest bus stop, instead he was after a lift to Pooh, 30kms back the way I’d already ridden. I managed to deposit him at a police checkpoint, ambling off through muttered curses. Not very Ghandi-esque after all.
As it turns out, four hours is too long to waste sitting in the sun, drinking tea and draining my 4g allowance and I headed back early, now through throngs of popcorn, water and jellybean sellers to check on the roadblock.
Through bullied, squinting eyes and under the sand blast of two working diggers and the howl of wind through the valley, things looked better, but there was still a long hour to wait in that desert storm, buff pulled up high against the choking air.
After a long battle with a sizeable rock, the diggers eventually dipped it over the edge and into the canyon below. A heart stopping shockwave reverberated through each chest in the valley and I winced as I looked at the chossy, often overhanging rock still clinging above the road. Some smaller rocks dented their way past cars and into the river. I wasn’t keen to hang around to see whether it was the warm up act of another landslide..
When the trail eventually broke, tens of shouting, dirty roadside vendors flooded through the gap towards us like a zombie hoard, followed by women and children. Me and the other bikers had to wait for more of the surface to be flattened, but that only took a few more minutes of digging. With some creative and worrying uses of the precipitous, loose verges we managed to disgorge ourselves from the tide of cars that also sought priority, but in actuality just caused a traffic jam within 2 minutes.
As lead biker in the convoy, I was caught out when a truck wheeled across the entire road. I elected for floor and gorge wall rather than two hundred foot fall, pushing the bike into its side and rolling away.
The driver looked down apologetically, even getting down to help right my bike while I patted the patchwork brown marks from the legs of my jeans. I straightened the crash bars with a firm kick and, after a couple of coughing dummy starts, got the bike turning over.
I was pulling away when the driver tapped me and handed over the front brake lever with a shrug – I’d have a pretty uncomfortable, skidding descent down the sandy-scree road, as far as the next town with the spare parts. Exhilarating it was, but not so problematic, fixed at Reckong Peo – a hillside town en-route to Kalpa, the viewpoint village Amarinderjit and Jagjit had told me about. Past the first busy market square, peaceful woodland and orchards, narrow tracks on steep hillsides, led me to Kalpa, and it’s beautiful backdrop of the sacred Killaur Kilash mountain range.
Initial optimism faded as each and every guesthouse turned me away. No room at the inn. Festival season.
Luxury minibuses decanted bright, vibrant Indians outside pastel colored buildings as I continued my forlorn search for a bed for another hour until, exasperated, I pulled out my phone and booked something hastily on Booking.com, without checking the details properly.
It was in Sangla – another hours ride away.
Clouds began consuming the sacred mountain as they consumed my desire to remain in Kalpa. Fuck it, maybe I was destined to stay in Sangla… I strapped my helmet on and started riding.
It was long after dark when I arrived at the guesthouse in Sangla, only to find they’d given my booking away.
Following maps.me and Google maps around the small, steep and loose backstreets – requiring a couple of strong lads to help me reverse the bike away from crashing down stairs and into a temple – gradually loosing the will to live. I’d been a lost silhouette in the fading velvet light, until only the grunt of my engine and flicker of my fog lights set me apart from the black canvas.
Thankfully the owner, an American guy, offered me a tent in the back garden – a tent I hadn’t realised I could close, and a night spend grinding my teeth against the cold and in the early throes of a hacking, rolling cough born in the perfect storm of particle inhalation and mild hypothermia.
Not sleeping well, I left Sangla for Chitkul, the last Indian village nestled at the back of this tributary valley dead early in the cold of morning.
I loose perspective, having ridden so many wild and beautiful roads in the last few months already, but I remember Sangla valley having a special feeling. The gentle pines on rising slopes, the black and tan rock outcrops standing a sleepless guard over all. Long wandering crack-lines winding their way up firm faces. The peacefulness as I danced through the icy shadows and dappled woodlight to an Aloo Parantha breakfast and chai in the verdant meadows at the valley’s apex.
Sangla valley is a beautiful lost world.
Offering yet another ride to a local, I headed back to the looming, theatrically tiered concrete hydroelectric towers on the main highway – Sangla being an important electrical generator. I crossed the bridge over deep emerald green water and thundered along what became a much more reliable road (as befits access to power or military base…).
Shimla didn’t seem so far, but the day stretched to a seemingly endless cycles of riding and stopping to recover. Winding up, then down valleys. Along wooded ridges and through magical, fairy-glen boulder fields with hanging vines and verdant blankets for nesting monkeys.
It was another late arrival and the second, in so many days, time that I was stranded without accommodation in festival season. Already a few days dirty from a road without showers, and coughing up bits of lung from my exploits behind the landslide, the only option that wouldn’t require me to mortgage the bike was a campsite in the hills, 10km from Shimla itself. And being majestically hidden from the world, nestled up a tiny, steep secret path, I also needed to dial the owners to be collected.
So I lay, on thick sheets rolled out on the ground in a little hut in the hillside, drunk from good company and a night telling tales around a campfire, thinking about the adventure of the past few days and where my riding would take me next.
Irrespective of how many others had picked up a bullet in northern India, I was fairly sure I was getting a unique experience exploring the mountains myself. Adventure, adversity and incident were the currency of this road trip – but more often than not they bought me into the fold of friendship, far away from my best laid plans.
Someday soon I might make it to Nepal, I thought.
If fate allows.