Our mates at Royal Enfield invited us on a surreal eight-day trip to India riding through the Himalayas with motorcycle media members from around the world. We sent a guy armed with an Aldi helmet, waterproof pants baggier than MC Hammer’s ’90s effort, a pair of RM William boots, a drone and a hangover from hell. Remarkably, the legendary James Kerley managed to file this account…
DAY 1: 10,422KM / 216M CLIMB
We hit New Delhi. The place stinks. It’s intense. It’s a mix between the worst of Thailand and the worst of Vietnam with a sprinkling of the worst of America. It’s a quick stop. We jump on a flight to an incredible place in the mountains — the ‘roof of the world’, in fact. Ladakh, Leh. We fly into what literally looks like a military base on Mars. The cliffs are higher than we are flying on these mountains that reach into the clouds. We hit the ground and are warned to take no photos. With 19 journos and content creators from around the world- some f–kwit is always going to take a photo – here’s a few crackers I took (below). Hands are slapped, camera phones are put away and we start taking in the place tech-free.
Leh and its people around Jammu and Kashmir are on a terrible precipice; in every sense of the word. Triangulated by the Pakistan and China borders there is the threat of invasion looming over the people and their surface-deep smiles. This generation has come under fire just kilometres down the road towards Pakistan, there’s also 3,000 Chinese troops perched watching them from a few mountains over. Then there is just enough Indian Military money to keep the roads and comms open to the rest of India. But there is a resilience to their hopelessness — perhaps bred into them from the harshness of the landscape or the geo-political shit sandwich they eat every day, maybe it’s a mixed bag of both.
We land here at approximately 11,500 feet higher than the sea level we took off from and are warned for the next 20 hours to rest and do as little as possible. Your lungs feel like you’ve smashed a bucket bong on top of a heavy body and foggy mind that both feel hungover. We venture to the market place where some produce is fresh, others are rotting, some people are living, others barely surviving. There is a stage set up with some traditional music that literally sounds like a syncopated cry for help with very little melody. The people of Leh, stood entranced, not dancing or singing along, but feeling what was being said and respecting it. We did the same.
We have some cinnamon tee and noticed that about 95 percent of all transport is motorcycle and 95 percent of those were one brand — Royal Enfield. The 500cc bullet will be our tour bus, our arm chair and our freedom for the next few days. It’s single-cylinder machine-gun-like sound reassured the locals strangely in what otherwise is a highly militarised zone. You could quite easily believe you were in Afghanistan or a mountainous edge of Iraq at any stage.
Back in the hotel everyone gets their blood oxygen levels and heart rate tested by the doctor — a relaxed local man who will travel with us for the next week. Diamox was issued to a few to thin the blood and get their heart rate down. As my hangover wears off, I realise we are not f–king around and some of the motorcycle riders are not just advanced around me but professional and competitive riders. We eat paneer and dahl and call it a night because tomorrow, at 7am, we will ease into what takes us to the three highest passable roads in the world over the next few days.
DAY 2: 93.6KM RIDE / 1,491M CLIMB
We wake up to our first Indian breakfast at altitude and it’s very similar to an Indian dinner and lunch at altitude. We have a safety briefing and start rolling out. First up, we check out the confluence of two massive rivers. You can tell the weather in the mountains from the colour of the main river, which was brown so it means the snow was melting there. It’s also our first encounter with BRO — the Border Road Organisation — which distributes grants and government monies amongst ladies, men and children who work to maintain the roads – there are also some epic Propaganda style signs in ‘Inglish’ to encourage safe driving. “Driving Risky, after Whisky”, “Be gentle on my bends”, “Free way not run way” and “Safety on the road is a safe tea at home” to name a few classics.
What is amazing though is given the sheer steepness of all the geography — rock falls are not only common but inevitable. As a large rock falls, if fast and large enough, it crushes straight through the bitumen — incredibly the BRO team goes to work. A team will move by hand if possible or wait for the military to arrive if not. Then they get a hammer and chisel and as though punishing the rock, crack it into tiny pieces until it disappears into a safety extension on the low side of the road. Another team comes and lays hot tar on top and then caring older ladies sweep the smaller rubble piles away.
We then go to our first monastery, which overlooks a military and civilian airport, then drive to lunch in an oasis in a valley. Day one = riding no accidents!
DAY 3: 85.1KM / 3,020M CLIMB
Today is the day to climb the highest passable road in the world — Khardung La top. We are off to a good start with the banter and there is a Frenchman who seems a little creepy so the bestiality accusations are flying as thick and fast as a Yak’s semen in breeding season.
We are heading to another headache inducing height today, riding through many oasis’ to get to the slow desert-like climb! It’s our first day off-road and the Royal Enfield Bullet is a glutton for punishment.
We get stopped going into a stinking hot valley by our first serious avalanche/rock fall. These rocks are too big to move so we have to wait for the military to attend and take a sleep under a truck. Everyone is getting more confident and we start to see the ridiculous fun potential this trip truly has. All smiling like six-year-old boys on a BMX, we break free of the seven-plus military trucks coming to help. We roll out past rocks big enough to crush a small car and power on up the climb. Mufflers are falling off as we bash these bikes to an inch of their lives but the true spirit of Royal Enfield becomes apparent — adventure at any cost. The bikes, albeit looking like road bikes, are being taken into sand, rubble and streams now and the only issues seem to be that a couple of mufflers have fallen off.
We get to the peak, drink tea, ward off migraine-like headaches and cruise on over to the other side through intense military zones and sand walls like those you’d see in the glass jar at school growing up.
DAY 4: 168.8KM / 3,506M CLIMB
On our longest day of riding yet we take on truly spectacular mountains in Tangtse and Pangong Lake. There are stream crossings that turn into river crossings and suddenly we are cruising along next to the stunning lake, riding through rivers, goat herds and yak shit — laughing and loving every second of it. Most people fall off at some stage of this ride but nobody gets hurt. We finally get to Tso Moriri Lake, our first overnight stay, and make a night of it in yurts (portable round tent). We are getting closer and closer to the Chinese border and the military tension is more and more visible and palpable.
The wildlife is so different to Australia. These yaks are big enough to crush you but the most gentle, lovely, timid creatures I’ve ever seen.
Things start to step up as we hit our first multi river and sand crossing last stretch before we reach our new camp. A few boys come off in the sand as one of the token girls on the trip comes off non-stop and then we hit a herd of goats. The goat herder is not impress with us and takes his goats elsewhere — to a place where more f–ks are given. The boys in front manage to convince everyone to cross on the impossibly deep side of the river as they come through and most people fall and stall. Have a look what happens to yours truly on maxim.com.au. Impressive.
DAY 5: 239.1KM / 3,372M CLIMB
This day is truly ridiculous and breaks a lot of us — at 200-plus km — most of which was off-road. We pass dozens of military trucks full of soldiers all heading up to the border as are we. They have their phones out taking videos and pics of us, laughing at the intensity of the road we travel to what is the most beautiful stop yet. Five days in, what looks like Mars on first experience is now opening up, perhaps my mind is too. All the hues of brown are noticeably also purple, orange, red and yellow. The rainbow starts to open up in a truly majestic way.
The last stretch is so rugged everyone is shaken to the bones — the walls between the countries of journos seem to fade this day. The changes that happen over this day sum up the beauty of Ladakh and the Himalayas — a true degustation of colour, geography and wildlife. From rolling green hills to epic gorges with purple cliffs, to dry and broken slate paths, to green growth around the bluest lake you can imagine — all framed with snow-capped mountains. We pass a few villages and the poverty is real, but their honesty and caring nature even more so. One of the Vietnamese journos mishears tea for 30 rupees and old poor lady corrects him saying, “20 only.” Ten extra rupees her family can clearly do with. As the sun sets we our passports are checked at a military base and we’re allowed a few kilometres closer to the Chinese border and Nomadic Camp.
DAY 6: 104.7KM / 1,132M CLIMB
After a few device-free days the collective anxiousness of “missing out” has dissipated and FOMO levels are at an all-time low. As they f–king should be. We get an afternoon of free time and I head off with the only other Aussie on the trip, Greg Smith. We start riding around marmot and spot an ass — these wild donkeys are more like Brumbies and can run like mother–kers. One spots me riding along a dirt road as the sun is getting really low and starts racing. I switch up through second and third and start to get in front of him in fourth. Then he hits the gas, overtakes me and heads for the mountain to our left. Greg tracks behind and starts chasing him up the hill. I do the same about one kilometre in front. The donkey seems to be amused rather than scared at our efforts to get close to it. As the hill steepens it also softens to sand and although the machine gun of our single-cylinders bang on, our speed does not and we slow to almost a halt in the soft, steep sand. The Donkey looks down across its land to us and we laugh and mack it back down the hill.
Something has changed in the group, maybe a few days of oxygen deprivation, maybe our first single beer, perhaps the lack of digital devices, but the guards are down and the boys are just opening up. One guy about his marriage issues, another about how he struggles with anxiety, one of them about his depression. I open up about how much it hurts how f–king hot the cover girls look on MAXIM covers. The bro-mantic bonding becomes real. We call it a night in cotton tents, nostalgic that tomorrow will be the last leg home.
DAY 7: 148.3KM / 1,432M CLIMB
We head back through the family long haul that’s well over 200 clicks. It’s a true marathon of riding — exhausting, beautiful, contemplative. There is a sense of comradery adventure brings that is priceless. The toughest off-road sections at around 70km sees one of the lovely leaders come unstuck, hitting a bridge and come off tearing his ACL. It’s devastating as we don’t truly get what taking months of work means in this country, but it becomes clear we care about each other as a group and are hurt that someone is injured.
DAY 8: HOME TIME
We fly to Chennai and check out the Royal Enfield factory. These guys pump out 750,000 units per year — so as you can imagine it’s a serious f–king operation. Some of the guys are hand painting fuel tanks, through to menial jobs like bolting on the suspension forks. All in all they seem pretty happy and the level of poverty in the surrounding suburbs sums up that full-time employment is a big deal. The new dirt bike offering is the 750cc Himalayan, plus the Classic and Bullet retro numbers, and a new Café racer-style are all checked out in an incredible assembly line that pumps out a bike per minute.
India is like a confident disabled child that has thrown away the crutches — sure it’s now walking and up on its own two industrialised feet, but not entirely aware of how far it still has to go. Labour and life are cheap, philosophy runs deep, they’re a caring bunch and issue zero f–ks when it comes to negotiating. They have reached the state of industrialisation in parts but a cancerous belly of third world poverty still ruptures in socio-economic wounds across their land. The divide between rich and poor is wide and unsettling in its depth.
Royal Enfield is an intriguing company. For over 50 years they have embraced the spirit of adventure, the ideal of getting away from it all. For some reason the depth that adventure has to heal the male psyche is unfathomable. The freedom of two wheels on the most open and highest roads in the world does something to you for the better. You touch a part of yourself you may have lost or not ever even found yet, but what is clear is I’d do it again and would encourage any young guy to do the same. Not for a week but for a month.
For the full article grab the November 2017 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.