In many ways it was difficult to believe that today marked the beginning of the end of our truly epic quest into the mountains, a journey that each of us undertook into the unknown – both geographically and spiritually. Of course we did have a few more days before we actually reached Manali but for the first time we would be returning to and through areas that we had crossed on the first half of our trip. It also served as a reminder that despite being away from the rest of the world for what seemed like an eternity, we didn’t have a choice but to return to the boardroom battles and crazy weekends that scripted most of our ingloriously mundane lives.
Over breakfast we were told the story of how this really crazy guy wanted to check how fast a crocodile could move and decided to jump into the enclosure of the biggest croc in the reptile park, assuming that since it was the biggest one it would also be the slowest one. Now the reptile in question was named Fatso and when you have seen how big crocodiles can really get, you can only imagine how big this fella must’ve been to be christened so. Anyways our nutjob approached Fatso (reminds me of Prop Joe from The Wire) who turned around, gave chase and even managed to get his jaws onto him while our guy shouted out “Release me moonshine!”.
The crazy guy then walked into a nearby bar and asked for assistance explaining that he had been bitten by a croc in the park, which is how the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises got involved in the story (seeing as he is an Australian police officer and all). Sure enough nobody believed the guy at first and he took them to the park and showed them his special torch that he had dropped in the enclosure while fleeing.
He was then admitted to a local hospital for treatment but soon he walked out of the hospital undetected by the staff to a nearby shop to buy himself a pack of ciggies. All this while he was in a hospital gown! After multiple such incidents he was taken to the local judge who had had enough of all the nonsense and even went to the extent of laying down an ultimatum by saying “This town aint big enough for the two of us son and I’m not planning on leaving”. And I thought we Indians were crazy!
There was a change in the riding as well with the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet joining me as a pillion and I know while all the other names have been self-explanatory, this is the one that has had you wondering on how she got her moniker. All will be explained, ladies and gentlemen. The first section was the same horrendous route that we had taken to ride into Tso Moriri the previous evening and despite knowing what we were in for, we still had a tough time riding through it and the accompanying pain as well. Whatever butt blisters we had hoped were gone ended up making their presence felt in the worst possible way.
Having a pillion meant riding slower through these sections and once again the concentration levels had to shoot up by more than a few levels. If you’ve got someone else’s well being in your hands, you cannot afford to be careless even for a split second especially when there are multiple short cuts that guys in front of you take which you realize are not worth it before taking the long and safe route around.
Soon we were on the less back breaking smoother paths that would have the rear fishtailing merrily when I braked, even with a bantamweight pillion (who punched like a light heavyweight but that’s another story) in place. With all the dust that was being thrown up by the riders in front, I pulled to the back of the pack and we had a nice time riding with our jeep (the van had to head back from Leh) that contained the mechanic and driver who preferred to drive just behind us though offroad while we stuck to the beaten path. The four of us had huge grins as the jeep would take shortcuts that I refused to and then they would wait patiently for us to catch up before tailing us again. The group stopped for a quick break to get the bikes checked and tried out the dried out salt that was present on the side of the route. I still wont call it a road. Just look at it!
Soon after our break, we heard a rattling noise from the silencer and I confidently explained to my pillion that it was a stone that had worked itself into the end of the silencer. She was sure I was wrong and wanted us to pull over and check before proceeding. It’s a good thing I listened as it turned out that she was right (well there always is a first time for everything) and we found that the the screw that held the silencer and the frame of the bike together had fallen off leaving the former swinging up and down and banging into the footpegs. Our mechanic suggested that we take it off to avoid any further mechanical damage while conveniently forgetting to mention the massive loss of hearing that we would end up suffering over the next few days.
Now all boy racers love a car / bike which has the sound to match the go and for the first few miles I quite enjoyed the heady drone that unfortunately drowned out whatever little scintillating conversation we had. Eventually it started getting to me despite the excellent noise insulation that my helmet provided. The group pulled over at the solitary restaurant at Tsokar (boy were we relived to give our ear drums a break or what?) and had a round of very expensive tea before leaving for lunch. When they say location is everything to succeed, they really were talking about this restaurant, weren’t they?
The More plains was some way away but we weren’t prepared for the unannounced offroad session that was to precede it. Before we knew it the group had ridden off the road and was cutting a straight path to the mountains instead of following the long and winding road. We ended up crossing several horses on this impromptu bit of riding and the smooth offroading gave way to completely sandy terrain that was a lot trickier to navigate through. Deceptively hidden bumps and low visibility (being at the back of the pack once again) posed quite the challenge and it was a mixed bag overall with your skills being challenged to the limits while the sand didn’t do your lungs any favours. Memorable though it certainly was.
The silky smooth More plains were a sight for sore eyes (don’t forget the even more sore bottoms) and it was time for a rider switch as we swapped positions and I perched myself on the pillion seat for the first time in a very long time. After making sure she was comfortable with the gearbox pattern I just sat back and enjoyed watching us rumble through the majestic plains. Confession time – most Indian guys would just be happy if they were able to sit as a pillion behind a lady who didn’t have them frightened out of their wits each time she gave the throttle of a bike a twist. Most Indian guys would be happy just to bike in the Himalayas. Most Indian guys would hence be insanely jealous of me if I told them that I got to sit pillion behind a lady who rode through the Himalayas better than most people I know. Biking nirvana of a different kind!
Our fantastic ride though was interrupted when our support jeep honked a couple of times to let us know that we had a flat. First the silencer that had to be taken off, something that has never happened to me in over a decade of riding. Then the flat. I should’ve been smart enough to sense a pattern. What happened as we stopped though was a simple but effective reminder of what true biking was all about. The Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet got off the bike and actually jumped up and down a couple of times, barely able to contain her excitement after having ridden extremely well over the last 15 kms or so. You don’t really have to ride a gazillion miles a day nor do you need to have the fastest bike in town to be a biker. Sometimes you just have to be excited by a bike ride to be a true biker at heart.
Unfortunately the More plains didn’t last forever and it was back to riding duties for me as we caught up with the group who had stopped for lunch while we were getting the flat fixed. The roads after lunch were in pretty bad shape (this was the section that made me feel as though my neck was about to break off) and hence we again were left with the tailing responsibilities on account of our slow speed. The 21 hairpin bends did claim one victim as the others pulled over to the side and one of the bikers said that he couldn’t hop off the bike to help because the side stand of his bike had fallen off and hence all he could do was stand there perched on his bike and offer moral support! True story.
Once again there was a strange rattling from the engine (which we could hear over the ear drum splitting rumble so you knew it was loud) and we had to stop for the backup van to pull over (the jeep driver had bid farewell to us at lunch as he had to head back and our suitcases were transferred back to the van, confusing I know). The mechanic had a big smile on his face by now as he tightened all the nuts and bolts to get rid of the noise. We didn’t get very far before the sound returned but by then the van had taken a scary shortcut down the mountain slope and was way ahead of us and so we had to take the long route around to reach him. Another check and this time as he removed the heat guard from whatever remained of the silencer he whispered to me “All these days the bike was doing fine, I know why it's all falling apart” as he cast a sideways glance at my pillion. And people say subtlety is a dying art!
With the constant delays we were really trailing behind the group and as we neared Sarchu our progress was further hampered by this lorry which had parked itself across the road to load a bunch of cows into it. Now this is called travelling by cattle class!
Fortunately Vishal had sped ahead (I don’t think I ever saw him ride slowly throughout the trip which is testament to his riding prowess and rock solid rear end) and spoken to the owner of the tents at Sarchu who had been informed earlier that we were supposed to come the following day and had made arrangements for other guests accordingly. We were exhausted and it was another night of being citizens of piglet-ville as there was no running water and hence no chance of taking a shower for the second day in a row. Deodorants to the rescue once again!
After freshening up Vishal and I took a long stroll across to the mountains (remember the tiny ants picture from Day 3?) and spotted a shepherd who was having difficulty with a lame sheep. After struggling to get the sheep to walk back to the flock, the shepherd was left with no option but to wheelbarrow the animal back while Vishal walked beside him recording the whole thing on his phone. With sub titles and appropriate back ground music, we could have a Youtube sensation on our hands!
There was a small bonfire that we all huddled around in a tiny room near the kitchen but since there was no outlet, the smoke stayed in the room and after having suffered the worst of what the Himalayas had thrown at me, the last thing I wanted to do was suffocate on smoke and head to a better place. Dinner was the usual fun affair and soon it was time to call it a night. This time too I managed to get myself a hot water bottle but today my ears hurt more than anything else and no hot water bottle could help me with that. At the end of the day though I realized that I was growing quite fond of the bike and despite it being far cry from what I had come to expect of a bike (especially in terms of reliability, Ive never had so many parts fall off any of my bikes) and the arduous back breaking terrain, I would hold onto very fond memories for a very long time.
“I'm falling apart, I'm barely breathing
With a broken heart that's still beating
In the pain, there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I'm holdin' on, I'm holdin' on, I'm holdin' on
I'm barely holdin' on to you”
Broken - Lifehouse