I’ve been daydreaming of this day for several months since Lacy and I made the decision to travel to India this summer. This is the day that we set out on one of the worlds most challenging and epic motorcycle rides and are doing it the way it was done in the 1950s, 60s and still today onboard a Royal Enfield single cylinder motorcycle. The basic Royal Enfield Bullet model design hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 70 years. Their slogan is “Built like a gun” but is a more like “Built like a tank”. Ours is a 500cc version in Desert Sand with a huge headlight, oversized gas tank and big canvas soft saddle bags that looks like it drove right out of a General Patton or Desert Fox newsreel. It is loud, vibrates the mirrors off the handlebars and shakes your bones to the core. The steering is slow and heavy like driving a bus with no hint of modern geometry or balance. The riders seat is hard as a rock and still uses springs underneath to “cushion” your backside. The engine cranks out just 27 horsepower but with 41 pound feet of torque you feel like it could pull a boxcar if that was something you ever needed to do. This big thumper will be our ride for the next 30-45 or maybe 60 days to come. Our minimalist belongings just fit into the saddlebags and a small daypack that Lacy wears while navigating from the square postage stamp sized pillion seat. Today was Day 1 as we set out from Chandigarh into the foothills and toward the Himalayas of Northern India.
Our ride and route could take us up to 2 months, will cover 2 major loops through the Himalayan mountains, several one-way side trips to barely reachable alpine lakes, mountaintop temples, over several of the highest motor-able mountain passes in the world over 18,000 ft, into war-torn Kashmir and back.
Royal India Bikes has rented us our bike on a somewhat open ended calendar and Rajiv and his team have helped us plan our base route. The rest will be up to us, the wind and the weather. As of now, May 14th, most of the roads we will travel are open but several are still snowbound. Hopefully the snow and ice can be cleared and will be ready for us to cross when we reach that area of the mountains. Many of the roads we will ride are only open for a short period of time each year due to the heavy and unpredictable snow at these elevations.
It took us less than an hour to begin to gain altitude out of Chandigarh. Slowly but surely we began the climb out of the haze and into clearer cooler air. I’ve tried to get to know the balance of the bike as quick as possible to make us nimble as we can get to dodge some seriously crazy traffic and road conditions we will encounter. We sure got a preview of things to come right from the start. Riding a motorcycle in India is similar to other parts of Asia. It’s challenging, dangerous and you have to be on high alert at all times. It’s also very rewarding with sights, thrills and views unlike anything else in the world. In certain areas massive trucks rule the road, literally moving any vehicle weighing less than 47 tons out of their way. Busses packed with people, goods and animals can be exceptionally aggressive by passing on blind corners or even each other on roads not quite wide enough for 2 cars much less a bus and a truck at the same time. We weave in and around cars to either side trying to be safe but not too conservative or we risk being trampled from behind. As we reach the mountain roads, livestock of all types, monkeys, slower bikes, people and major potholes begin to be an issue in addition to everything else.
We were just settling into a rhythm of twists and turns, Lacy helping me with call outs for directions, turns, hairpins and the occasional warning for a cow when it began to rain and rain hard. We took a short break to see if it would pass but it didn’t so we geared up with rain jackets and set back out. The sudden downpour turned the road into a muddy river in places and an oily obstacle course in others. We plowed forward as fast as we dared, barely able to see through my rain covered 1/2 visor as the pelting rain stung the lower part of my face. The road was undergoing major construction so we went from well paved surface to mud, dirt and rocks every 1 or 2 klicks. Back and forth and back again and again.
Fortunately after about an hour of solid rain we passed over a ridge to much drier roads. We stopped to top off the petrol tank and inspect a horrible noise coming from below. The wet roads, big puddles and rain had stripped the chain of any and all lube so it was grinding against itself and the sprockets terribly. The gas station was no help so we drove on to find a motorcycle shop where we could buy a spray can of chain oil. We soon came across a big sign for “Rider’s Cafe”. It was just the thing we and the bike needed. Rishi (REE-She) Dhiman has set up a great little motorcycle themed cafe on the twisty roads heading into Shimla. While he lubed up the dry chain and brought it back to life, his Chef Mom, made us some rich Masala Chai (Tea). He is a former Royal Enfield employee and was eager to help us with the bike, a chat, further advice, encouragement and guidance for our trip. Every biker en route to or from the Chandigarh side of Shimla should stop in for a break and to check in with Rishi. You will be glad you did.
After experiencing the cafe, getting a bolster of excitement and leaving the hardest rain behind us, we were feeling pretty good about our last hour or so that it would take us to get to Shimla. 5 minutes later we hit what every rider fears on these roads. It wasn’t just a truck passing another on a curve right into you but worse. A big Mahindra 4×4 Jeep suddenly swerved from the other side of the road straight across into our path. As a pretty experienced rider your reaction time to avoid an incident is usually a faster and more instinctive feeling than slamming on the brakes like you would in a car. Our chance to react was less than a blink. I was somehow able to get some brakes on and manage a little jog toward the center of the road. The Jeep jogged a little further to our outside and passed us on the left as the oncoming row of traffic streamed along our right side allowing us to thread the needle in between. (You drive on the left side of the road in India) It was actually over before either one of us could breathe or say anything. A lightning chill came and went from my stomach in a flash. A few WTFs and a few more WTFs from each of us later, I shifted back into a lower gear and simply kept going.
We approached Shimla from the opposite side of the valley and could see a much bigger city than either of us had imagined clambering all across the steep mountain ridge across from us. The road became very narrow and traffic was at a crawl as we inched our way around the ridge road and pulled up a crazy steep and narrow 4 foot wide rocky path “road” to our hotel wedged on the side of the mountain with 400 others all competing for ground space and our Rupees. I guess I’ll have to explain tomorrow how I (if I) was able to get the lumbering Royal Enfield back down that embankment.
We checked in our room just in time to get a small pot of Masala Milk Tea and watch the sun set into the hills. I was still pretty wet on the inside so a long hot shower later I put on my favorite warm flannel shirt Lacy encouraged to bring along with us and sat down with my brave, beautiful and adventurous wife to some spicy Veggie Mo-Mos (dumplings) and hot Mushroom Masala with Naan.
What a day! Day 1 successfully conquered and what a hell of an introductory day it was. I can’t wait until tomorrow!