As motivational speeches go, it was awful. “Just ahead is the Rohtang Pass. It translates as ‘road of corpses’. It is lethal: thick mud, sheer drops, landslides, truck drivers crazy through lack of sleep … ”
The man speaking, Zander Combe, our guide, wore a T-shirt saying “Extreme Bike Tours”. We couldn’t say we weren’t warned.
“That”, he continued, pointing upwards at a series of switchbacks disappearing into swirling eddies of clouds, “is the second most dangerous road in the world.” There was little comfort in knowing that somewhere, somebody might be listening to a more terrifying speech. “Every man for himself,” continued Combe. “See you at the top. Don’t panic.”
I released the clutch, twisted the throttle and nearly got wiped out by a speeding bus. Emblazoned on its back, “Panicker’s Travels”. I laughed. I’d been on these roads for just 24 hours, but had already seen enough to know that laughter was the only way to survive.
The day before, in Manali, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, we’d been introduced to our motorcycles for the week-long ride along the Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti valleys, which would take us through the Himalayas, across high-altitude deserts and right up to the Tibetan border.
The bikes were 500cc Royal Enfield Bullets, like those imported from Britain in the late 1940s for the Indian army. They were later adopted as the transport of choice by the hippies who flocked, and still flock, here, seduced by the dream of riding a classic bike across the Himalayas (and, perhaps, by the head-high marijuana bushes that grow along the valley).
Our bikes, although built in India in the early 1990s, with high handlebars, low-slung seat and chrome crash bars, were little changed from the original model. When Combe kickstarted one, a throaty percussive thud, like a volley from a Maxim gun, filled the still Kullu valley air. It was easy to understand Enfield’s early slogan: “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet”.
Our group – bikers from Britain, Sweden, Germany and South Africa – was given a tour of the bikes. Everything was as you’d expect, apart from the worrying fact that the foot levers operating the gears and back brake were on the “wrong” sides.
“And this”, Combe said, pointing to a tiny button, “is the most important thing: the horn. On Indian roads, people don’t see you, they hear you. Use it all the time.”
We were sent off on a training ride, the road greasy from the end-of-monsoon rain, the cacophony of the bikes joined by a constant “beep, beep”.
Within the space of 10 minutes, I’d been attacked by a dog, narrowly avoided being decapitated by a man carrying a ladder (I forgot to beep), nearly shot off the road several times trying to slow down by pressing the gear lever, and skidded down the road trying to miss a troop of large langur monkeys, which are as common as squirrels and entirely indifferent to the highway code.
We set off early the next morning, heading towards the high mountains, along the Kullu, a lush valley of pines, apple orchards and meadows, where the sweet pollen of marijuana hung in the air. Above us, the 70m-high Rahalla falls, crashing down to join the glacial fury of the Beas river below. We climbed, cliffs now flecked with mica, the poplars giving way to banks of wildflowers. The post-monsoon road was missing whole chunks from its edge, as if some giant hand had gone crazy with a pastry-cutter.
We stopped at a dhaba, or truckstop, for some chai and momos, little fried dumplings filled with vegetable curry. I spoke with Combe, 37, who explained that after leaving Exeter University, he’d begun to tread a familiar path – City, settling down – but then struggled. On a trip to India in 2007, he’d bought a Bullet and ridden over the Himalayas. On top of the Khardunga La, the highest road in the world, he’d had his epiphany, and Extreme Bike Tours was born. Now, five years later, he runs guided trips throughout India and Bhutan, but it is the Himalayas, and Enfields, where his heart lies. “In the mountains, it’s man and machine against the elements,” he said. “And these are proper machines. You hear every moan and groan; they have mood swings. Unless you ride them perfectly, you ain’t gonna make it.”
We started up the 12km Rohtang climb. Within minutes we had to stop to clear a path through a fall of rocks the size of beachballs. Soon after, we were riding through knee-deep mud, cheek by jowl with rickety, overloaded Tata trucks that slid through the slurry and passed inches from us, forcing us to the edge, with sheer, unguarded drops of hundreds of metres beyond. For the Rohtang is more blancmange than mountain: constantly collapsing, and constantly being shored up by the bulldozers and road gangs breaking rocks with hammers in their battle to keep the pass open for just three months per year.
As we neared 4,000m, the Enfields began to splutter, the altitude playing havoc with the carburetors. And with our lungs too. Every time I stalled, there was a grim battle with the mud, the kickstart and finding enough puff to fire the bike back into life. But the sight of a truck careering towards you focuses the mind.
The Hindi name for the Kullu valley is Kulanthapitha, which means “the end of the habitable world”. And there can be few places on earth that mark such a dramatic change in landscape as the top of the Rohtang. From the emerald lushness of the Kullu valley, to the vista of bare, gargantuan, saw-toothed peaks of Lahaul, framed by the peaks of Tibet beyond, all hanging glaciers and snowfields shining in the piercing light.
As we headed down the mountain, it was clear that the Rohtang marked not just a topographical and climatic divide but also an ethnic and religious one. For largely gone now were the Hindu temples and classically Indian faces, replaced by stupas and prayer flags and people with Tibetan features.
We turned off the main Manali-Leh highway and headed up the Lahaul valley, the traffic largely gone now, epic views with every twist of the road. An eagle flew low overhead. The Bullet purred, grateful for the thicker air. I could relate to the mood swings Combe had talked about – and not just with the bike. I pulled ahead of the group, greedy to have this to myself. I was flying now, too fast, the back wheel sliding around the corners on the loose gravel, feeling invincible, me and the bike like old dancing partners. I patted the petrol tank, as you might a horse.
There was a rock, then a crack, and I was airborne, the Bullet corkscrewing gracefully. And time slowed, as it does, before accelerating to dizzying speed as my body and helmet smashed along the rocks, and the world was reduced to just sickening noise – breaking metal and glass – and then profound, sepulchral silence, followed by one thought: was I dead?
Unless angels rode motorbikes, then no, because I could hear the Enfields coming up the valley. I looked at the bike. Petrol was pouring out of a gash in the tank. The broken headlamp looked like an eye socket. The forks and handlebars were twisted, the crashbars crumpled. The bike had come to a halt inches from the cliff edge. My right side started to numb from a ruptured shoulder and cracked elbow. There’s a saying that driving a car is like watching a movie, while riding a bike is like being in one. As I climbed into the support van, I wasn’t sure this was a movie I wanted to be in any more.
That night, we camped high in a remote valley. Chickens were killed for supper. The inky sky filled with stars. A fire was lit, whisky poured, stories told. The laughing started. It hurt to laugh, but I don’t think I’d ever felt more alive.
By next morning, the support crew had patched up the Bullet. “Any other bike would have been a write-off,” Combe said. “But with an Enfield, all you need is a hammer.”
I was terrified but fuelled with Diclofenac and wounded pride, I rode on, tentatively, behind the group, the battered bike strange and heavy under me. We rode across narrow, rickety wooden bridges and through glacial rivers whose rocks were as slippery as ice.
For the next few days we rode over the Kunzam Pass, at 4,551m, topped with an ancient chorten (a Buddhist monument), and encircled by glaciers. Then into the remote Spiti valley – off-limits to foreigners until as recently as 1992 – a vast high-altitude canyon reminiscent of Arizona or Utah, the only signs of human life the odd, lonely monastery.
We visited the 12th-century Ki Gompa, sitting atop a conical hillock, encircled by raptors, so perfect a Tibetan monastery it was almost a cliché. As I approached, a dozen young novices in vermillion robes ran alongside the Bullet, patting me as if I was on fire. Then on to Kibber, at 4,205m, one of the highest and remotest villages on earth, where a hundred or so Spitian mud and timber houses clung to the mountainside surrounded by lush green barley terraces.
After a week’s riding, there was just one final obstacle: getting back down the Rohtang. As we approached, we could see thick angry clouds sitting on top of the pass. We were engulfed by the white, the magical, secret world of the Lahaul and Spiti valleys disappearing behind us.
If anything, the Rohtang had deteriorated in the week we’d been away. The mud was thicker, the rockfalls blocking the road more frequent, the tangle of trucks and buses even more chaotic.
My handlebars worked loose with the jolting, so now it was like riding a railway pump truck. Combe pulled alongside. “You want to get into the van?”
I looked down at the battered bike, with its dented petrol tank, bent crash bars and smashed headlamp. And I looked down at my torn riding suit. I felt my shoulder ache, and my elbow too. There’d been a price to pay but it only made the whole insane adventure seem all the more glorious.
I patted the bike on the tank again. And laughed.
“We’re fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
Mike Carter is the author of ‘Uneasy Rider’ (Ebury, 2009)
Mike Carter was a guest of Extreme Bike Tours (www.extremebiketours.com), which offers two-week Himalayan trips from $3,848 and also runs tours in southern India, Rajasthan and Bhutan and at Mount Everest. He flew from London to Delhi with Air India (www.airindia.com)