Driving on a gravel road with no safety barriers, a 1500 foot drop off and having to look back over your shoulder to see into the next turn is a funny feeling. Hugging a mountain on a narrow rocky road and crawling into a blind turn around a 2,000 foot sheer cliff face brings on a funny feeling. Some say exciting, some say thrilling, others say spectacularly and perhaps needlessly dangerous. I say all of the above. Doing it higher than 3,500 metres of elevation with the constant threat of Acute Mountain Sickness and rock fall or avalanche from above tests a mans courage. Then again, riding a motorbike along the 436km road from Shimla, across Kunzam La (Pass) (4,200m) and the notorious Rohtang Pass (3,600m) in the eastern Indian Himalayas isn’t everyone’s cup of chai. For me the infamous road, documented in the third series of Season 1 of History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers; Deadliest Roads was all that it was cracked up to be and more. But that’s not where this story starts.
Let’s take it back to the concrete city…
Kevin, 24 from Germany was waiting for me when I went to pick up Snow in Delhi. The guys from BMW had alerted him to my presence in the comparatively cosmopolitan city. By this stage I had had the chance to check out a bit of the ancient city including Humayun’s Tomb and a few of the other tourist hotspots. There is certainly more to like of Delhi but the wealth disparity evidently runs deep. Kevin was riding a 650GS; going the same direction as me and despite going north out of Pakistan and him being on a short time frame we coupled up and hit the road together for two days. Firstly to Rishikesh, yoga/meditation capital of the world made famous by the Beatles and then Shimla, gateway to the Spiti Valley, Indian Himalayas. The days riding into Shimla despite a flat tyre for old mate was an absolute pleasure. Patchy off road conditions gave way to a brand new road and windy mountain passes as we rose to altitude and the picturesque yet frantically busy Indian tourist destination of Shimla. Truth be told Shimla impressed me with its clean(er) streets and progressive attitude to the environment and smoking in public places etc. Whilst Kevvy headed off on the second day I fronted the District Magistrate so as to get my Inner Line Permit for travel close to China border. Usually reserved for travel agency organised groups of four or more I didn’t have too much trouble getting hold of the necessary paperwork.
Early the following day, Saturday 26 May, I headed off from Shimla bound for somewhere along the Manali Road. It was a wonderful day’s riding, again up and down through picturesque mountains, hovering around the “Pine Line” that distinctive band at about 2,500, home to the beautiful fir Pines, where apart from the horrifying road conditions it is hard to believe you are in India, of all places. Late in the day and after the road had turned to dirt I would run into Javier, 29 from Spain and riding a pushy along the same road as I. I had first run into Javier 6 weeks prior, in Raj’s café in Kolkata and now nearly 7,000km later, along a dusty road just before sunset in the Himalayas we would meet again…small world! Javier knew it was something different coming along the road because “it sounded like a clean engine”. Javier and I set up camp for the night on the banks of the valley we were travelling in, with a 200 foot high waterfall on one side and a fresh hot water spring spewing out on our side and boxed in by snow capped mountains on all sides. After a hot shower shared with some cheery Indian truckers we ate a hearty meal prepared by Javier and both regaled memories and shared experiences from the road. I left early the next morning on what would undoubtedly be the trickiest sections of the perhaps the whole trip.
I rode 178km through spectacular scenery the first day to 3,800m and back down to a beautiful camp site I picked out in a valley at around 3,200m. I had planned to stage my ascent as I knew I would be riding to above 4,000m and didn’t want to experience again the horrible headaches and nauseousness that typify the onset of AMS. What should be said of the scenery when travelling above the tree line is the likeliness to a martian landscape. You might as well be travelling on Mars (supposedly) with almost no visible life to speak of, no vegetation and a landscape that only changes between small rocks and big rocks. Some big rocks of course mean shear cliff faces soaring hundreds and hundreds of metres in the air and perched in impossible positions, often above the road itself.
The next day and setting off from camp at 6am, the Himalayas would again become a bittersweet experience for me. Although I knew an early season run at the full Shimla-Manali road would be a long-shot it took another 150 hard fought kilometres that I was able to see that for myself. I managed to drive up to and over Kunzum La (Pass), the highest point on the route at 4,550m but on the rear side (the North face) the road became impassable due to snow and ice. Where the track had been graded, the ice was double head height and deep mud or running water sloshed around underfoot. Although the view was visibly spectacular my prospects where grim, a quick look down the valley with the binos and I saw major sections of the road completely taken out by avalanches. It was less than 110km to Manali but for me a solid, metres high wall of ice stood in my way. I stayed at the top of the pass for an hour or so soaking it all in before heading back down the mountain and fortunately arriving at the town of Khaza 75 clicks back where I was able to have a decent feed and shower to sooth my bitter disappointment. I would be required over the next 2 days to backtrack almost 400km over the same terrifying roads where my most common thought on the way up was “I would rather get airlifted out than do this again”.
As it turned out the 2 days riding back out of mountains were, although long days (10+ hours) relatively enjoyable and I made the most of seeing the view from a different angle. Sometimes you don’t see a lot when your eyes are glued on the 30m in front on you, trying not to look down! I was to experience however the fright of a rock fall as it happened. It is hard to believe that part of a cliff that has stood in position for millions, perhaps billions of years would decide to give way just a the second I come meandering along the road but in any case it is not a nice feeling. A huge cracking type explosion was heard just as I was driving under an overhang. I speed up to out run, but where is it, I am looking up, looking down, and looking across. I think well at least I’ve got a helmet on. I look 100m parallel across the valley and see boulders, some 4m across tumbling or simply freefalling 400m into the river below, I thank my lucky stars.
On Wednesday 30 and well after dark I pulled into Dharamsala having head off from camp at 430am. Driving in India after dark, especially in the Himalayas is not for the faint hearted. Cars, rollercoaster tour buses and trucks drive either without headlights or if so, with them switched to high beam. Cows, goats, rickshaws, people and other miscellaneous objects don’t have lights. I have almost entirely avoided driving at night until now but my persistence carried me on and through an out of control bushfire about 30km from Dharamsala. Riding speedy Gonzalis style crouched behind the windshield, I raced through the unavoidable hazard as burning embers flew over my head and smoke made it impossible to see ahead. But I made it and drove into the district of McLeodGanj, a climb to 2,200m just after 10pm. Home to the 14th Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is perched on the side of a mountain in North East India and offers an intriguing mix of culture and style with many exiled or refugeed Tibetans also is residence. I checked out the largest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet and opposite the modest home of the Dalai Lama the following morning before driving 208km onto Amritsar near the India/Pakistan border. In fantastically ironic fashion, I drove these last kilometres on probably the best roads so far in India.
So here I am in Amritsar, which is on the boil. Yesterday’s temperature reached 48! Even the Indians can’t handle it, there are people literally dying in the street. Amritsar is my staging post for what is going to be a planned 6 or 7 day hilt through the troubled territory of Pakistan. If all goes to plan I will cross the border in about 5 hours from now, one night in Lahore will be followed by 1 day to Multan, 1 or 2 days to Quetta where I will be picked up by armed Military protection that will take me through Southern Baluchistan to the Pakistan/Iran border 650km down the road. Of course I am slightly apprehensive about the days ahead but will lay trust in the goodness of people on the ground to ensure me a safe passage through this next part of my journey.
Please stay in touch for my next update which should come through in about a week or so from Iran.