Friday, September 13, 2013

An octogenarian Motorcycle Expedition to Ladakh over high passes.
Simon Gandolfi (The Travel writer)
Tourism in Manali is for bikers. The road north to Leh is the challenge: the road crosses four passes, including the 5,328m Taglang La, which is the second-highest motorable pass in India. Three of the passes are in the desert lands of Ladakh, where the road is rough but dry. Not so the Rohtang Pass: it's the closest to Manali, and monsoon rains are thrashing its south flank, triggering landslides and churning the upper sections of the road into deep mud.
I am tempted into making the climb by two local bikers, Buddhi Singh Chand and Rahul Bhod. Buddhi is co-founder of Motorcycle Expeditions, which has been organising motorbike tours in India since 2005. He and Rahul both have more powerful bikes than mine. Rahul is a Buddhist and makes videos; Buddhi wears dreadlocks halfway down his back. Buddhi's mother detests the locks; Buddhi argues that the locks project a positive image to foreign bikers (tough, beer-swilling, would-be He-men).
Rain has freshened Manali most days over the past fortnight, which is good for the valley's apple orchards, but bad for road conditions. The day starts with broad tarmac following the Beas river. The road swings right through a half-horse village, immediately narrows and climbs through deciduous woodland.
A breeze stirs patches of sunlight on the dark tar. Wild flowers, mostly in blues and pinks, dust the grass. The cliffs are bright with sunlight and with crystal cascades of snow-melt. Massive pines lay claim to crevices and stand sentry along the crest. And this picture-postcard beauty is just the hors d'oeuvre.
Crossing the treeline we face the main course: no peaks, but a great wall of dull green, across which shiny bugs crawl … and what I had hoped was the crest is merely a small plateau before the next, steeper wall. Cars and trucks and buses inch through stretches of deep, wet, slippery mud. Feet down, I follow close behind a small white Suzuki car. The driver stops every few metres – it's impossible to see ahead and plot the best track.
My legs tire. I am out of breath and scared of not being able to make it; of giving up; of failing as one of Buddhi's beer-swilling He-men. The traffic ahead is halted while a massive yellow machine plucks boulders down on to the road, shatters them with a pneumatic spike and hammers them into the mud. To be first in line, Buddhi and Rahul creep along the precipice edge. I follow. This is not fun.
At last, the summit. Buddhi and Rahul are ecstatic. They have helped set a record: I have become the oldest man to ride the pass. Now, surrendering to physical and emotional fatigue, I sprawl at the foot of a mound decorated with prayer flags ...

Backpackers' diaries: a ride over the roof of India, Simon crosses the towering mountain passes of Ladakh, taking in landslides, breathtaking views, and his own piece of history.