September 10 – September 29Delhi – Manali – Leh – Kargil – Shrinagar – Dharamsala – Chandigar – Delhi
Bike welding part 2 – On the road: expect the unexpected – Sweeping hills and deep valleys – Hippy hang-outs – Hitting the Himalayas – 1 meter further and we are gone – Monks and military – Kashmir: a muslem enclave – Close to the Dalai Lama? – On my own, again
Please read below my story of the last three weeks. My dad has been visiting me here in India, he left two days ago. I have spent two weeks with my dad on the back of the bike for 2500 kilometers, a trip that was special for both of us; once in a lifetime? I thought he was a brave man to come along in the first place, but after many of kilometers on some of the highest roads in the world together, I think he is even braver than that. Mind you, this is the same man who did not dare to look out the Twin Towers windows in New York 7 years ago. Right now I am waiting for my Pakistan visum to be issued. If all goes well, I am up and running tomorrow morning, 5 AM, to avoid the killing New Delhi traffic. I hope to be in Amsterdam in a month. The total shortest distance to home I estimate at 12K kilometer. The only thing that is bugging me a bit is my rear drive: it is a bit loose and there is some oil leaking out. Since this is again one of those unexpected mechanical annoyances that I encounter for the first time, I have to trust my gut feel and the great Delhi mechanic that I have used for several jobs now. The next BMW garage is in Istanbul. Maybe a quick call to my local shop in Amsterdam would be not such a bad idea, I just realised.. anyway, have fun reading! You’ll here from me in some weeks.
When my dad arrived I dumped him immediately in the Delhi chaos. He had expected to chill for a day, at least, to breath in the atmosphere. None of that, we did not have much time and had to go to a garage, since the next day it would be closed. He arrived on Saturday night, had a curry at 1 AM and stood in front of a garage at 10 AM. He had brought a new rear suspension – never knew I could be so excited about a suspension – which fitted perefctly and rode like heaven. Besides some routine oil changes and checks we also had to weld again the bike. The weld was broken again in Kazakhstan. Our man in Delhi, Bawa from Gurdial motors (40 years of experience fixing overland bikes) took us to a welding shop around the corner. Very friendly Sikh people did the job, and like most shops in India were father-son. My dad had convinced me to do a strong weld and forget about cosmetics. With a little pain in my heart I saw a small plate being welded to the frame. Eventually it would hold across the Indian Himalayas with two people and full luggage, so it was the right decision.
At Gurdial we also met Amitabh. He was an Indian riding a very nice Enfield bike. The Enfield Bullet is still in production in India, based on a 50 year old British design, and very popular with tourists. He invited me and my dad for beers that same night. Amitabh was in the movie business and a part-time photographer and rode his Enfield all over India. After a few beers in a 20’s interior place at Connaught Circle my dad felt extremely comfortable. He asked for a sigaret, and no later than half an hour he lit his second. I sat perplex. He had never really smoked in his life, you see. Amitabh decided to continue a great night out and took the three of us on his Enfield across Delhi at night, riding through the nice warm wind. I remember well my dad was saying to him – I was at the back – “Not so fast, and I am the boss!”, at which the throttle was gently turned to increase our speed a bit more. We finally ended up in the bar of the hotel were Tony Blair had stayed just weeks before. Only when that bar closed and we were discussing the option of a private room my dad called the day. The next day we had to leave, together, on Indian roads, you see.
Leaving Delhi was not the smooth exit we had imagined. After half an hour we were stuck in traffic consisting of Riksjas carrying everything imaginable, trucks, crazy buses, taxis, bikes, cars and cows. About these cows: these animals have no sense of the outside world, they just move as they please, and look damn arrogant, even if you are sweeping around them at 80 km/hr on the highway, while they are strolling across. It is a conspiracy I tell you. The late mooson hit us on top of that while we were trying to find our way out of Delhi. Soaked we finally made it out. After the first 100 kilometers of our road trip we decided to stop. Tired from reading Indian traffic and getting to understand road rules we crashed (sleeped) in a hotel, a luxury by the way to find one so fast and up to some standard, after the last months. The next two days we rode to Manali, at the beginning of the Himalayan mountain range. the road had many, many bends and very steep slopes next to the asfalt. We had to find out how to ride the bike together. My dad instinctively tried to use his legs to steer the bike as well. He has no motorbike license and I had to tell him to relax. It wasn’t going to be a smooth ride – well nobody thought so anyway.
In Manali, located in a beautiful valley, we had our first encounters with backpack/hippy long-termers, after having seen many of them in Delhi already. The smalll villages auround Manali are a place to stay for months during the (hot) Indian summer for many. I tried to imagine spending my days there, indulging myself in all kinds of things. Too boring. I didn’t not seem to be my thing. Hey, you never know, I might have liked it and decided to stick around for a while. Instead, my dad and I opted for a luxurious hotel, Himachal Heights, to recover and enjoy the low-season discounts. In Manali we had to discuss our options. Since the season to cross the Himalays was officially ended (Sep 15) because of worsening road conditions (snow), this route was a risk. Indeed, we found out that a bridge had collapsed a few days before, but it had been repaired again. We heard that a group of Enfield bikers decided to cancel their trip by bike because they didn’t trust the road, probably due to the bridge incident. Local guides however convinced us that riding was no problem (yet). We decided to do it. Giving the circumstances, there was only one thing we still needed in our lugggage: two proper rain suits. Our size we did not find but my dad suggested the tailor to lenghten the sleeves with the suits’ bags, made of the same material. Pretty clever I have to confess.
Then we took off. Early morning, fairly cold, but the sun shining bright, we left the 2000 meter high Manali village for the first pass at 3400 m. To my great surprise I met Henri on that top, in the snowy surroundings. He is a French biker that also did Central Asia, went to China, and was on its way to Cambodia. We had communicated before over the Internet. He had had to wait earlier for that bridge to be repaired and could inform us about the fair road quality up to Leh. The rest of the day comprised of a mix of off-road and asphalt, which we tackled well, especially after having had some strong and good arguments about who was actually steering the bike and what was the best strategy for overtaking. I respect my dad so tried to listen. His advice made sense and off we went again, me steering the bike, following his strategy. At night we had some more discussions which were good. I guess being together like this does not happen often. Or as the hotel hotel receptionist put it that night – who answered to our proud remark that we were father and son: “No problem, sir”. The fact that there was no electricity and hot water was also not a problem for him, by the way.
The second day between Manali and Leh was a highlight of our trip. Huge mountains and valleys all around us. No villages, just some tent camps now and then. The landscape changed from Switzerland to desert to Tajikistan and soforth, us doing ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ whenever possible. Along this road a huge number of poor black Indians is maintaning the road – a major supply route for the military in Kashmir. We estimated that there are 5000 of these workers for 500 kilometer of road, living and working in middeavel circumstances. Whenever we saw a fire burning, it was a group pouring flaming hot tar from drums in potholes. When having just crossed a 5000 m. pass it was not all sunshine at once. I had had abnormal bowel movements for over a week now and now I had a big one at a terrible moment. I had to go in the freezing wind. However, it was not over yet, that day the night was even colder. We stayed in Pang in a tent-hotel. The tent was not even close to being a Yurt of Ger and we had to sleep between layers of thick blankets, with our cloths and hats on. To make sure I would be a little numb before going to bed I joined a brandy & joints getogether in tent no. 4. We joined a a group of 4 local young guides and a couple of somewhat lost or at least searching westerners, all on Enfields. These Westerners were older guys trying to make sense of their lives and hanging between India and their home countries. A Danish 52-year old was hitchhiking on the back of the locals’ bikes and in the meantime teaching them to rolling a proper joint, while discussing the merits of being a gardener in Kopenhagen with me. The drugs did not do it for me, and after a terrible night without sleep I decided to take some antibotics the next morning, as prescribed by my friend Paul, who also is a doctor. They fully restored my body the next days.. (nice pick, man!)
The last leg to Leh had another peak waiting: the second highest motorable pass in the world at 5300 m. I had always understood that it was the highest one, until the night before in Pang somebody told me it wasn’t. Bummer. The highest one was outside Leh. Thanks buddy. Reaching the peak was a strange sensation in the fact that we wanted only one thing: going down again. Cold winds and difficult breathing let us wanting to go to a warm valley again. The bike also had had problems getting the fuel mix right the last 100 meters or so, so staying around seemed not a good idea. Or as my dad put it: “why don’t they have a nice little tea house over here?”. It is not the Alps. In Leh to our surprise there was a very nice Tibetan atmosphere: Budhists, monks, tempels, very old narrow alleys, beautiful architecture, all summing up to a perfect two-night recovery. We had made it! I took the opportunity to ride by myself to the world’s highest road at 5600 the next morning, while my dad took his rest. I wonder when I will start taking naps during the day, I forgot to ask him that.
In Leh it seemed pretty normal to go to Kashmir, one of the worlds never ending battle grounds, where Indians, Pakistanis and kashmir rebels fight over control, but peace talks are currently underway. A little uncertain we decided to go for it. Besides from the overwhelming military presence along the route, at parts a soldier every 300 meters, we never felt threatened. Only the fools that rode the Tata army trucks were sometimes close to do some serious damage to the father-son team. I felt relaxed being in Kashmir since it reminded me a lot of Central Asia. I had had a taste of the great Muslem hospitality before. People were very kind along the road and Salaam Aleikum was again the word of the day. in Shrinagar, Kashmirs capital, we decided to take a houseboat. Introduced by the British – since the Kashmiris did not allow Brits to build – these gorgeous ships lie there pretty much without doing anything. Tourism is at an all time low and probably 5% of the houseboats were occupied. Kashmiris, notoriously seen as dishonest people, think its all an Indian conspiricy anyway. A meditation group from the US Westcoast revealed us Jesus’ wanderings in North India that same night in the houseboat at dinner. In this group each of the persons had heard in meditation to go to India, so there they were. They were pleasant if somewhat tyring company, and my dad and I – not religious – can be sceptical about this kind of stuff. I guess it is just not for everybody.
We loved these trucks like little boys
Chat with the locals
We had been riding two days in a row now, two days still to go after the houseboat, non-stop, dad had a flight to catch. Going back to ‘real’ India we rode full into the mooson again. In the mountains hell broke loose. Roads became rivers and stones were dropping in them from above. Here we found out that our purchases in Manali – our rain suits – were not up to the job at all. Luckily my dad said stop after some hours, and we retreated in a scrummy hotel in a small town. I am glad he did it so I could claim to be fresh enough to plough on. A little competition every now and then, you know. The next day we made it to Dharamsala, the residency of the Dalai Lama. We did not know whether he was home or not, but visiting his monastery was worth it. An atmosphere comparable to Leh, we liked the town instantly. I had little knowledge of the huge struggle of the Tibetan people since 1949, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. One million dead, almost all monasteries destroyed, their religious leader in exile, are the sad facts. A part of the world that seems like a great holiday destination, but like so many other countries in the region, is in reality in deep trouble. A nepal waiter in Leh, who told us in tears his his story about fleeing his country to avoid having to join the Maoist rebels, is another example of this. Its is really hard to comprehend these stories when you are a tourist.
Funny enough, almost in Delhi, on our way back down we met Amitabh again, while we were busy stopping for an elephant to take a picture. What are the odds? This was at one of the many, many, small roads in India. Fate? Ay least my father now was convinced that this was the guy that could help him exporting a nice Enfield to Holland.. Yes, you heard it here first, my dad is getting his license..
Looking back at the last weeks, it puts a big smile at my face. I am sure my dad has the same, especially when he thinks back of all the people that thought we were friends or brothers! After a while he had his own little pleasure in asking people how old they thought he was. Besides the roadtrip itself, all the Indians surrounding us at stops, the food, riding through endless numbers of bends controlling all that weight, it’s hard to say what I liked so much about the trip, but one thing that amazed me is that my dad trusted me at the bike, from start to finish. Next to that, being together with your dad in a completely different setting, without all the women (I mean our family..), creates a lot of room for learning from each other, ejoying differences and being amazed and annoyed sometimes by the similarities…
Funny enough, one guy asked me yesterday: “what Caste do you belong to?” I could not think of anything else but: “I don’t belong to a Caste, but I have a family”. I guess that sums it up for me. I know where I come from, and much better now.