Monday, October 15, 2012

Built Like a Gun

Just returned to Manali from a 15-day motorcycle trip through the Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu regions of northern India. Incredible.

I had read (and heard) about the landscape and cultures of Northern India and knew I wanted to explore it by motorcycle. Rather than buy and sell I rented a Royal Enfield Classic Bullet 500 -- "Built Like a Gun" according to the gas tank -- in Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. Manali itself is a weird combination of crazy bazaar, hippie Israeli hideout, and Indian honeymoon destination.

I ended up meeting four guys from Bangalore with similar intentions in the rental shop so I decided to head out with them. It was great having Hindi (and English) speaking company, but the lack of independence and self-reliance got a bit frustrating.

First, Ladakh. It's the most otherworldly place I've ever seen -- it's like Mars. It's a high-altitude cold desert, and the scale and remoteness are mind-bending. Gold sandstone mountains ribboned with deep maroon rise out of dusty plains, backed in the distance by the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas. The rivers run an electric blue, and a panorama of insanely bright stars illuminate the night sky.

It's also a highly contentious area, as it's the region where India shares a border with China/Tibet. The last official war with was in 1962 but the Indian military presence is strong and Army camps are frequent.

Many of the roads are built primarily for military purposes, which means that they're not really roads in the first place -- one lane "paths" are etched into mortally steep hillsides with no guardrails. Furthermore, the region has a ridiculous number of high mountain passes (including the world's highest, Khardung La, at 18,380 feet) which take an insane number of switchbacks to climb.

Story: In northern Ladakh, north of Leh, we attempted to shortcut the ride from Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake, only to discover that the road ended at a river about halfway there. As we were too far and it was too late in the day (temperatures drop below freezing shortly after sundown) to turn back, we stayed the night in the temporary Army encampment with the six workers stationed there to build the road. We ate dinner in a kerosene-choked tent listening to stories of the three workers they'd lost this year due to construction accidents on the section we tried to cross. The next morning one of their dogs was missing, spurring talk over breakfast of the many snow leopard sightings and the dog (and likely a second) and one goat they've lost this year to snow leopard attacks. It wasn't exactly the most hospitable area.

To the west of Ladakh lies Kashmir, which shares an even more contentious border with Pakistan. Accordingly, the military presence is even stronger. The land is greener and more wooded. The roads are wider and well paved -- it's National Highway 1 -- so the riding is much faster but just as incredible. The road winds through many tiny villages with kids that run up to the roads with oversized grins and outstretched hands hoping for a high five.

As you move from Ladakh to Kashmir -- from one border region to another -- the entire culture changes dramatically. The facial features and language change from the wide-faced and throaty Ladakhi to the narrow-faced and snappy Kashmiri. The predominant religion changes from Buddhism to Islam. The food is entirely different.

On a two-lane road winding through the hills between Srinagar and Jammu we hit what would turn out to be an epic traffic jam lasting days for those in cars and trucks. Three separate incidents within 15 miles caused a complete standstill in both directions. We spent almost eight hours inching between the trucks, through the center lane and on either shoulder.

The remainder of the trip, through southern Jammu, Punjab, and back into Himachal Pradesh, was a hurried blur of small cities and tiny villages. Due to the above traffic jam and a few untimely bike problems, we were forced to make up time with a hurried pace and night driving.

Had a minor accident in Ladakh. Though I wouldn't have sought medical help in the States for the small gash on my knee, I decided to go the hospital to get it checked out. After about 20 minutes of getting whisked from one room to another for a diagnosis, cleaning and dressing, and tetanus shot, my bill was 4 rupees -- 8¢.

I think I've inhaled enough dust and lorry-puked exhaust to last a lifetime. All in all, though, the trip was amazing.

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