Part I : Settling into the Ride
After three days of running around Dharamshala I’ve finally got all my gear. All together it weighs about 20 kilos: clothes, camera equipment, notebooks, first aid, hash, spark plugs, tools, tire tubes, clutch cables and other spare parts for the inevitable breakdowns in the middle of nowhere. I’ve fit it all into two old rucksacks and strapped them into the bars on either side of the wheel. This weight makes the bike drive wobbly as it accelerates, but once it gains speed things even out.
It took awhile to get the balance just right, but now things are set. The luggage is finally strapped to the 350cc Royal Enfield.
I go into the toilet to put on my riding gear: padded trousers, an armored jacket with burn holes in the sleeves, steel-toed boots, Gortex gloves, a keffiyeh to tie around my face for dust. Then I walk up the hill and lean on my bike waiting for M-.
After a few minutes she emerges from her dance studio, followed by friends and family.
I grow impatient as they take pictures. The monsoonal clouds above are beginning to sprinkle and we need to get going.
I put my helmet on and kick-start the engine, revving it loudly to signal my eagerness. Its roar is thunderous and clean, the result of substantial last-minute maintenance at various mechanics around Dharamshala, who banged and ratcheted it into working condition, for now.
I rev the engine as M- gives her sister one last hug goodbye. She climbs on her bike and together we ride away waving, watching our lives in Dharamshala recede in the rearview mirror.
From now on it will only be the two of us, alone for thousands of kilometers through the high-altitude deserts and mountains of Northern India.
It begins to rain as we pull into a petrol station for our first fill up.
“Rain’s not a good start,” I say, pulling on my riding poncho.
“For Tibetans it’s good luck if it rains at the beginning of a trip,” M- says.
Tibetans are like that. If something unfortunate happens, it’s good luck. If you step in dog shit: good luck. If you undergo hardships at the beginning of a journey: good luck. When bad things happen it means some of your bad karma has finally ripened and you don’t have to deal with it anymore.
With our tanks sloshing full we ride back into the downpour. The rain doesn’t last long. Soon an opaque sun appears through the overcast and the glistening highway grows steadily drier.
Indian highways are some of the world’s most unfriendly. They are narrow, lawless, absurdly crowed affairs, full of cows and suicidally impatient drivers. Wanting to avoid the busy ones as best we can, we opt for the scenic route to Dalhousie, veering off the Kangra-Jammu highway and onto a bumpy orange dirt road that we have mostly to ourselves for nearly a hundred kilometers.
From time to time, enormous, iridescently-colored Tata trucks, decorated like a mobile shrines, with deity stickers all over the windshield and tassels swinging and jangling around the giant back wheels, round the corners honking melodious horns. Sometimes they are filled with dirt and bricks, other times with families and rucksacks.
The road winds us through forests and over hills of orange clay. M- rides in front of me: back wheel wiggling, scarf ribboning behind her like a flag of rebellion.
We pass through a rhododendron forest, past ghost-faced Langur monkeys chewing on the flowers. Cows of course are all over the road, and occasionally we must pull to the side to allow a shepherd and his flocks to pass.
This is my first long motorcycle journey and many of its sensations are new to me.
It feels I’m on a chair hovering through space, the world warping around me, the faces of schoolchildren and villages blurring by.
Vehicles close you off from the world, but on a motorcycle you are within the elements, part of the mixture of humidity and sun and air. Every part of the body undergoes the changes in atmosphere. The steam and the dust penetrate my clothes and touch my skin.
As I ride, I wonder what sort of transformations will my mind undergo during these thousands of kilometers.
I left my iPod behind so that I can be alone with my thoughts most of the journey. For now, it is mostly idle, thoughtlessly aware, hovering, numb as I bump down the road and honk around sharp corners. At other times it feels like I am an alien observer in another’s body, my automatic hands clutching and braking and accelerating of their own accord.
And now I am singing Hank Williams songs and reciting poems aloud.
It is only day one.
We reach Kashmir tomorrow evening.
Part II : Kashmir
To enter the Kashmir Valley from the south you must pass through the Jawarhal Tunnel, a rugged 1.77-mile hole between Banih?l and Qazigund that looks carved out by hammers and picks.
The one-lane tunnel is damp and feebly lit and a little frightening, especially on a motorcycle with bats flying overhead and vehicles with one headlight honking past in the bleary darkness, but these hazards make the journey all the more refreshing when the Kashmir Valley washes over you on the other side, with its cool air, valleys full of gleaming rice paddies and snow-capped mountains.
The ascent into the valley is gorgeous and relaxing, and as we pass through the first small town the initial signs of Kashmiri culture begin to appear.
The first thing I notice are the beards, the long, straight, black beards that announce an Islamosphere, accompanied by a sudden scarcity of women and large wooden houses full of broken windows and rain-warped planks, whose balconies are draped with drying burqas and kurtas and Angry Birds t-shirts.
The aroma of mutton and burning plastic assails us as we ride through the bazaar.
Soon we are back in the countryside, with the delicious air washing over me as I ride, air far cooler and fresher and sweeter than the dusty Punjabi heat we’d been experiencing the past two days.
This appreciation of the climate does not last long – my attention must return to the highway and the endless task of overtaking giant trucks around hairpin curves.
Cars and motorcycles will sometimes line up behind these giant trucks for half a kilometer, right wheels in the opposing lane as they peek around the side, choking in their clouds of black smoke. Then, the moment the road straightens enough to see a long stretch of empty highway, the drivers will all accelerate wildly, expanding across the highway and racing forward, overtaking one another until a car appears in the distance, at which point the line recedes back into its lane to await the next opportunity.
And then there are the traffic jams, sometimes hours-long, which we always manage to squeeze past, bumping through ditches over stones and sliding between stalled cars to the front of the jam, where often the cause will be a dozing cow or some man banging on his truck with a wrench.
Shortly before Srinagar it begins to rain, a light drizzle that escorts us into the city. At the first intersection a man rolls up beside us on a scooter and suggests that we follow him to his hotel.
We ignore him, but quickly realize we know nothing of Srinagar and have no idea where to go or stay. I turn to the man, who has been repeating the line “Nice room. Good price. Come.” for minutes now, and negotiate a room for 400 rupees.
“Follow me,” he shouts as he takes off across the intersection.
When the light turns green we follow him along a channel towards Dal Lake, where he leads us to a shoreline neighborhood across the street from a row of dilapidated houseboats.
The promised room is, of course, non-existent – but he does offer an overpriced room on one of the houseboats.
We put our helmets back on and kickstart the engines, only to realize we haven’t the slightest clue of where to go.
We remove our helmets and threaten to leave. The man begins discounting the price, cringing each time we demand something more economical. When the price is finally agreed he leads M- off to have a look at the room while I wait by the bikes.
I light a cigarette and watch the houseboats sway and creak against their moorings. They are far larger than I imagined. Some are over 40 meters, but many of those in my line of vision are so old and busted up that they’ve already half-sunk into the water. Some consist only of a wooden roof sticking out of the water.
I wait, leaning against my motorcycle, smoking.
A few old men in white skullcaps amble by, staring at me like those paintings with eyes that follow you around a room.
The call to prayer suddenly fills the air, scaring bats into the sky and inspiring every dog in Srinagar to begin howling.
As I light another cigarette the power suddenly returns and the lake bursts into light; radios that had been left running hours ago suddenly join the maddening symphony of dogs and muezzins.
M- appears on the dock, waving for me to come down.
I hop over the missing dock planks and onto deck to find that the dilapidated exterior was highly misleading: within is an impressive display of ostentatious luxury, with ornately-woven pashmina carpets, creamy silk curtains that sway over the doorways and a grand dining room filled with chairs upholstered in velvet.
It is an environment that makes me feel suddenly filthy and impoverished. I drop my luggage in the room, remove my wet, stinky motorcycle clothes and blacken the sink washing the oil and road grime from my hands.
I turn on the shower spout. It coughs out cold dirty water. I decide to delay my shower yet another day.
Instead I put on some okay-smelling clothes and stroll out onto the balcony at the back of the boat, where cushions have been laid out for lakeside idleness. The balustrades overlooking the lake have flowers, leaping fish and storks carved into them, and the water, now still as a mirror, reflects the night sky and the thousand little lights that twinkle from the other houseboats.
We order cinnamon and cardamom tea.
Two ducks race across the lake and take flight into the darkness.
A shikari rows our way. The boatman draws up his heart-shaped oar and calls, “Chocolate? Apple juice? Orchid seeds? Saffron?” and drifts back into the darkness.
To the left and right, neighboring vessels extend out alongside ours, with balconies like ours that reach out over the dark water like ramparts over an abyss. They are full of large Indian families, all sprawled out over the cushions in their pajamas, miniature battery-powered disco lights twirling above them as they snap flash-blinding photographs of themselves with smartphones.
A crane swoops down and lands on the black sky, wavering it into ripples.
I sip my tea.
It is the perfect conclusion to a long day of riding.
Part III: Ladakhi Cham
As we climb the steep hill leading up to Lama Yuru monastery, music begins to fill the air.
It’s mostly drums: methodical, meditative drumbeats that steadily increase their tempo as we climb, a beat that vibrates the rib cage and seems to slow the pulse. It becomes louder and louder and above, and the gleaming white monastery grows larger and larger.
Then little monks begin to appear. With their shaved heads, maroon robes and tanned Himalayan faces, they seem almost indistinguishable from one another, like the shattered pieces of a single idea. They hurry around the hill in groups, none of them taller than four feet.
Climbing higher, the barren peaks of Ladakh begin to rise behind the monastery and the source of the music and frantic activity finally appears.
At the center of the monastery courtyard stands a monk in robes so thick and enormous that he looks like a giant. He wears a mask the size of a leatherback sea turtle, depicting a screaming red-faced deity with a goatee of fire and a crown of laughing human skulls. In one hand he grips a giant hooked sword; in the other, a skull fragment of a dead Lama. He is standing over a miniature red corpse on what looks like a sacrificial pillar.
Behind him, monks in tall red hats shaped like mohawks are blowing flatulent groans out of a seven-foot horn. Beyond them, the crowd: hundreds of Ladakhis looking down from the rooftops or sitting on the ground in their dusty chupas. Some swing mani wheels, some finger wooden malas and pray with their eyes closed, others watch, engrossed.
There are also about a dozen tourists in North Face jackets and sunglasses on the other side of the courtyard, their faces pale with sunscreen, each with an expensive new camera hanging from around their necks.
In a riot of cymbals and gong clangs the giant suddenly resumes his dance, twirling and stumbling to a choreographed rhythm, his meter-long sword gripped tightly in his hand as he dances around the alter.
More deities spin out from the curtains that hang over the monastery’s entrance, each with its own fierce individual expression.
Every minute or so the doors give birth to another, who spins into the courtyard and stumbles beautifully into rhythm with the drums, which tame and guide him around the yard until a circle is formed around the central, towering deity.
The drums continue with urgency and doom as we make our way through the crowd, looking for an empty spot. We sit in the gray dirt at the edge of the courtyard, a few feet away from a monk wearing what looks like a black sombrero with white pentacles on the bill.
The monks dance by, covering us with their kicked-up dust. Some of them are now wearing horns or antlers, dancing as though drunk and about to fall, spinning one way and then the other, sometimes skipping forward with twisted, kick-out feet.
Behind us, a group of Ladakhi women are mumbling om mani padme hum, rocking back and forth with their eyes closed.
Lost in the dance, an hour or so goes by before I wake again to my surroundings.
Immediately I notice the foreigners on the other side of the courtyard. They are a different sort than the rugged travelers I usually encounter on the road in India. They are package tourists, uniformly isolated themselves from the crowd.
I watch one of them very closely. With his back to the dance, he crouches down feet away from a group of praying Ladakhis, scoots back and forth and left and right for composition, snaps a photo, scrutinizes it in the viewfinder and stands up to search for another subject.
The Ladakhis do their best to disregard the intrusion.
I wonder, however, if the man understands what he is doing.
He edges along the crowd until he spots a monk banging on a drum.
Immediately his camera lifts to his face. He approaches, snapping the shutter. The monk gives him a sidelong glance, seemingly annoyed, but continues drumming.
When the man is done checking the image he turns around to find me crouched a few feet away. I lift my camera, zoom in on his startled face and begin snapping. Bewildered, he assumes he’s in my way and looks around behind him only to realize that he is the subject. He tries to relax, to ignore me, but his discomfort is obvious. I move closer, my lens aimed at him like a spotlight, isolating him in the camera’s gaze.
He pretends to watch the dance, continually glancing my way to see if I’m still there.
Eventually I cap the lens and return to my seat beside M-, who now has a baby in her lap, a little Ladakhi infant with mascara on its eyes and a black tikka on its forehead.
The Cham dance, which began at sunrise, lasts until sunset, at which point the giant chops apart the body on the alter and tosses its mangled red clumps to the outstretched hands of the eager crowd.
After a circumambulation around the gompa, spinning prayer wheels along the way, we walk down the hill in the twilight to the highway where our motorcycles are parked and throw black tarps over them.
Tomorrow, we ride east again.
Part IV: Moonland
11:07 p.m. — Walking in a flashlight beam along the mani wall outside Lamayuru.
The mani wall is about four feet high, four feet wide, made of stacked stones and covered with flat slates on which ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is carved in Tibetan script over and over again.
The wall seems endless.
We’ve already been walking for twenty minutes and there’s no end in sight. Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, over and over again to eternity.
It must have taken lifetimes to build such a wall…
As we walk, the darkness around us is absolute.
There are no lights in the faraway village, no cars on the road, no rivers nearby, no streams, no wind, no plants, no insects, no moon, no life. The surrounding mountains are black and dead, indistinguishable from the black space above them except that they hide the stars.
Everything is silent.
M- and I walk through this darkness for almost an hour, sometimes switching off the flashlight to fully soak it in. We walk until it seems we’ve gone too far, that no matter how far we walk the mani wall will never end.
We decide to turn back.
Somewhere along the way I say, You go ahead, and step aside to urinate.
“Be careful,” M- says. “They believe deities live in the ground near a mani wall and that if you pee on their homes they’ll curse you.”
I step a little more to the side of the road and continue to pee.
The following morning we strap our gear to the bikes and resume the ride. Soon we enter an area that looks like the surface of a yellow moon.
The shapes of the rocks, formed from eons of almost no rain and endless wind, are impossible not to stare at as I ride, not easy to do on such winding, bumpy roads. So I ride very slowly, trying to take it in.
Around two mountains, down dozens of switchbacks to the clean, white-blue Indus, we ride from one strange uninhabited expanse to another. We pass through stark and steep mountains, through narrow gorges and wide canyons, through wastelands of sculpted stone.
On one isolated stretch we come upon a crew of dusty Ladakhis hunched over with handbrooms, sweeping dirt off the highway.
As I ride on, I watch M- in my rearview mirror. She stops to talk with them. I pull over and wait for her to ride up.
“Why are they sweeping the highway?”
“The Dalai Lama is visiting a village near here in a few days.”
“So they sweep the highway?”
“Yes, they sweep it because he is coming.”
“But as soon they sweep it it gets covered in dust again.”
“All the same, they sweep.”
We ride on. We ride on and on, hour after hour, lost in the landscape.
All of it together is almost enough to make me forget my ongoing motorcycle problem, but as soon as we begin climbing to altitudes over 4,000 meters, the problem reasserts itself. My motor begins powering down until little gas can get to the engine, at which point it can’t accelerate out of first gear and goes no faster than 6 miles an hour, a leisurely bicycling speed. I have no idea how to fix it and the nearest mechanic is more than 160 kilometers away.
This is only one of the many problems we’ve encountered over the last few days: flat tires, broken spokes, scorched spark plugs, a broken headlight, a broken taillight, continuous internal electrical problems. The shoddy welding on the luggage racks is also beginning to come apart.
Still, nothing deters us. Nothing can darken our mood. Whatever happens, all we need do is look around at the land and we are refreshed.
We ride on under the clear sky through air as dry as chalk, making the lips crack and the hands become reptilian. At times we pull to the side of the road and cut the engines, just to hear the silence, a silence so deep and vast it swallows the mind. Sometimes we scream out over the canyons, listening to our voices echo back from many directions.
Then we continue the ride.
As my sun- and wind-burned hands grip the handlebars, I try to imagine what this alien land must have looked like to those who first wandered here millennia ago. What restlessness could have driven them to such an empty, celestial place?
Back in Mulbeck, a monk told us that during winter the temperature can drop to -60? Celsius. What do you do in such weather? M- asked him. I stay in my room day and night, he said. In bed, under blankets, with no electricity and no stove for heating.
For those seeking to withdraw from the world, there are few more isolated places.
Daydreaming, I notice too late the loose gravel on the road as I round a steep switchback and my bike slips out from under me, catching my foot in the luggage rack. I land on my stomach, my helmet smacks the gravel and with the bike on top of me I slide to a stop.
The first thing I realize is the gasoline spilling out. I cut the engine and try to crawl out from under the bike, but it’s impossible. The enormous weight is entirely on my ankle and the bike won’t budge. I can’t even to lift my head to see if any cars are coming. On the ground where I am, pinned like an insect, gasoline leaking all over me, it would be easy for a car to round the curve and run me over. I groan and strain with all my strength, but the bike is too heavy.
Suddenly, I hear M-‘s frightened voice shout Joshua! and a car door open and shut. The bike lifts off me and I roll over to find M- above me and a stranger walking the bike to the side of the road.
M- helps me up and I limp over to my motorcycle to check my leg. My ankle is bruised and some of my toes are bleeding, but I can still operate the footbrake without too much pain.
Ten minutes later we’re back on the road, my ankle throbbing as we drive the few miles left to Basgo gompa, an ancient monastery isolated on a hill overlooking the vast and barren valley. There being no doctor until Leh, it is useless to fret over my ankle.
M- helps me limp up the hill.
Within, the complex seems abandoned – just wind passing over the stone staircases, not a soul in sight. We circle the old, deteriorated stupas and walk the empty corridors seeing no one until we enter the gompa, where we find a lone child monk banging a drum and chanting prayers loudly to himself below a 10-meter statue of Maitreya Buddha.
After about ten minutes he stops drumming, bows his head to the ground towards Maitreya and asks us to pay the gompa maintenance fee.
A few minutes later, after speaking with the groundskeeper in the larger gompa, we find out the boy lives there alone. A boy lives in each of the two gompas, the groundskeeper tells us. Together, they have two thousand-year-old monasteries, as well as the nearby fortress, all to themselves…
We crawl on our motorcycles and ride on.
Part V: The Nubra Valley
Atop the rocky outcrop above Hunder stands a temple whose heavy wooden doors have been sealed shut, with a silk ribbon run through the handles.
Below, a white river plunges out of a cliff and crashes into a sluice, which steers it alongside the mountain and pours into to the canals that feed the oasis village below. Otherwise, the surrounding valley is desolate: a sea of sand dunes enclosed by steep peaks.
After a moment’s hesitation (is it sealed for a reason?) we untie the ribbon and push open the temple’s heavy doors. Slowly, my eyes adjust to the darkness.
Enthroned before us is a giant, golden Maitreya Buddha. His face slowly becomes distinguishable in the darkness. The blissful eyes, the Mona Lisa smile.
It’s eerie to open a sealed door onto such a presence.
M- begins to prostrate while I make my way along the muraled walls, whose images tell a story I don’t fully understand. Some I recognize as tantric deities, their faces dark with age, blackened by the butter candles kept burning at the feet of nearby Maitreya. I edge along the paintings in the dim light, along the artists’ strange vision, full of wrathful deities in a wrathful land.
Exiting the temple, the sky blinds me.
I crouch outside sweating among the rocks while M- has finishes her circumambulations, then together we ride back down to the meadow where we pitched our tent two days ago.
M- crawls inside for a nap while I traipse off barefoot through the forest looking for a place to use the toilet. I end up just squatting in the open air beneath a tree, using my hand and some water from a nearby stream.
Back at the tent I lie in the grass and begin writing.
Soon I notice two little girls have crawled over the nearby fence: our regular afternoon visitors, the two Muslim sisters – one dark, one albino – who come to eavesdrop on us a few times a day. They approach carefully, secretly, giggling and hiding in the wildflowers whenever we wave to them.
M- finally lures them over with candy (they know she has it; that’s why they’ve come) but when they get close to us all they do is stand and grin.
The Buddhist family who owns this meadow told us a little about community in this half-Muslim, half-Buddhist village.
We asked if there were ever any tensions. No, they said, never. In a few days when all the Buddhist families leave for Leh to attend the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra initiation, the Muslims will tend to their fields, feed their animals and guard their homes from thieves.
The ezan sounds from the nearby mosque. The little girls hurry away.
Three days later we are marooned in Khardung under grey clouds, waiting for another biker to pass by with an extra spark plug. The high altitude riding over the past few days has charred all five of our spares.
The road is empty.
Nobody is coming.
Nobody is going.
It is the only road out of this valley and it is dead because of a landslide yesterday about 20 kilometers up road near Khardung La.
To make things worse, M- is feeling ill. Plus she is mad at me.
So I drink chai while she lies in bed.
I smoke and watch women out in the fields tending their crops. I watch old men circumambulate the deteriorated stupas topped with yak skulls. I smoke a joint, and wander down to have a closer look. I go until I reach the edge of the gorge beyond the village. There, I simply stare at the mountains.
They are surreal. Each exudes a different persona. The closest, just beyond the gorge separating us, is ill-formed, like an evolving, fetal creature, or like a mountain in the process of devolving into a puddle. To its left are red and orange mountains, and beyond them, a yellow and kingly one, the largest in the view. Beyond that is a range of black, snow-capped peaks.
I light another joint and continue to stare.
Meanwhile, my ears notice the nearby streams, the little foot-wide arteries that direct snow melt through the fields to every corner of the col. They flow by every home and in between every crop. Without them, nothing here would be alive.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Never in my life have I seen so clearly the importance of water.
I blink my eyes again at the mountains.
We wake the next morning to find a dozen Royal Enfields parked outside the homestay next to ours. Finally, bikers. And finally, a spare spark plug, which they let us have.
I plug it in while M- scratches at the charred ones with her nailfile, washing them with gasoline. We are about to go up and over Khardung La pass, the world’s highest motorable pass, and we might need them. I kickstart the engine and rev it; it flutters and gives a clean roar. Then we are off.
Things go wonderfully, but not for long. Slowly, my bike begins powering down until it barely goes at all, with no chance it will make it to the top.
We manage to reach the first military checkpoint, which guards the beginning of the pass road. Luckily, it has been closed off due to another landslide and there are plenty of idle truck drivers around to ask for assistance. None of them speak English, so M- does the inquiring.
Within twenty minutes she’s found an empty load truck willing to take both of our bikes to the top for 500 rupees.
We drive the bikes over and wait for the truck to back onto an incline, then ramp them up and onto its metal bed.
The men get to work entangling the bikes in a web of yellow straps. I watch them, knowing that there’s no way this is going to work. The road over the pass is one of the worst I’ve ever been on, full of potholes and avalanched stones and rushing streams, with loose scree above and paths chopped through perpetually expanding and melting glaciers. We already came over that road on the way into Nubra and I know that the bikes will bang around so violently that they will be damaged.
“Should we ride in the back with them?” I ask M-.
“I’m up for it,” she says, ignoring the obvious danger of such an endeavor and instead being quite enthusiastic about riding in an open truck bed because of the possibility that she’ll be out in the open snow.
An hour later, word spreads that the pass will soon open.
We crawl into the truck and stand near our bikes, but a military officer orders us to get down. It’s too dangerous, he says. Not long ago some people riding in the back of a truck were killed by falling rocks and now it is forbidden.
M- rides with the truck carrying our bikes. I ride in the truck behind it. It doesn’t take long before the bikes have jerked and jumped out of their original positions. I watch them, knowing soon something terrible will happen. I am so worried that I barely notice the two men I am riding with. M-’s bike begins sliding down onto its side, then a big bump sends mine leaping against the wall, bending the right handlebar back onto itself.
“Stop!” I shout.
I leap down from the truck and run up to M-’s window.
“The bikes are being thrown everywhere. They can’t make it like this. We have to ride back there with them.”
It takes awhile for the driver to strap them down again. He doesn’t look very happy about it. We wedge ourselves between the bikes, wearing our helmets to protect us from falling rocks, and get going.
It is a lot rougher than I had imagined. Entwined in the web of straps, we must use every ounce of our altitude-enfeebled strength to keep the bikes from jumping around and being damaged. And then there’s our own bodies to worry about. And our brains, which begin to throb as we climb higher into the atmosphere, up over the snow line, where tiny snowflakes begin to swirl in the air.
“Snow!” M- shouts, opening her mouth to the sky to catch some on her tongue.
I’m too busy to watch her for long.
I can barely breathe. Each time I must strain to hold the bike up I start heaving, unable to catch my breath. As my clarity begins to deteriorate, my head starts womping and my vision darkens. My ears began to ring. It feels I could white out at any moment, but we still have a long way to go.
The road only grows worse. It is narrow, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and has no guardrails. Some stretches are no more than a hacked-open path through a glacier, with a steep plummeting drop-off to the left. I keep my eyes on the rocks above, overloaded with ice and fresh snowfall.
It feels there could be another landslide at any moment.
I am beginning to plan accordingly, thinking of how best M- and I can leap out of the truck should we begin sliding over the edge.
To make things worse, there is traffic.
In theory, the pass is only supposed to be open to one-way at any given time, allowing vehicles to make their way over these dangerous roads without getting stuck in landslide-prone areas because of a jam. In practice, this rule isn’t well regulated, meaning at bottlenecks both lanes come to a standstill, unable to go forward or reverse.
We stop and go, stop and go, inching past other large trucks with our wheels near the ledge. As we inch along, we must often pause on some of the most dangerous stretches of narrow road.
Nearing the final stretch, we pass a broke-down SUV parked on a slope within inches of the ledge. A Ladakhi family is standing outside it, the snow swirling around them, bundled in whatever extra clothes and blankets they could find in the cab. The patriarch, wrapped in a loose-fitting blue robe, shouts up at us in Hindi as we pass: “Water! Do you have any water?”
But our water is too hard to reach and before we can even try our driver has already moved too far on, a millipede of cars following and honking behind us.
When finally we reach the pass the driver, without hesitation, backs up onto a pile of stones and snow, then, without a word, jumps up and begins unstrapping the bikes. There is a one-foot drop between the truck bed and the snowy boulders we’d backed onto, but somehow we wrestle the bikes down and guide them over to the road.
The damage, at first glance, seems bad. One of my handle bars is bent around into the other, and M-‘s clutch handle has broken off. But soon she figures out how to make the broken clutch work, and I bend my handlebar back into a workable position and we’re off again on our way down the pass to Leh.
Part VI: Kalachakra
I bump around the tent with my hands trying to find my phone when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. I shut it off, remove my sleep mask and earplugs, and unzip the tent flap to find two monks crouched outside beside our motorcycles eating breakfast.
At the makeshift tent restaurant we’re camped a few feet away from, a dozen or so Ladakhis are quietly eating fried bread and chickpeas. Behind them, along the gravel road beyond a stone wall, a crowd of tens of thousands is making their way towards the field where the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra initiation is about to begin. The field is almost a mile way, but I can still hear the guttural prayers of thousands of monks over its loudspeakers.
M- is still asleep.
I crawl out of the tent, look at the people on the wood and brick stools of the restaurant, then put on a shirt and sandals and go looking for a place to use the toilet.
Over the past few days of camping, toilet-related searches have been constant. The closest facility requires me to walk almost a mile, wait twenty minutes in line to pass through security at the Kalachakra grounds, walk fifteen minutes through the crowd, wait in line at the toilets, then come all the way back. So I, like everyone else in this tent village, go to the fields.
But there’s a problem: we’ve been camping here for days and the fields have begun to fill up. The one nearest our tent has a constant flow of people ducking in and out. It’s usually empty this time of the morning though, so this is when I make my move.
I hop the fence and sneak carefully through the grass, avoiding the fresh dollops and wind-blown squares of used toilet paper, then climb another fence and tiptoe along the trees towards the tall grass, where I squat to do my business.
As I squat, a man rises from behind some nearby bushes, pulls up his pants and hurries off. Another man creeps along the stone wall and lowers out of sight. A woman’s head appears above the wall. She begins to climb over, but then sees me and backs away.
When I get back to the tent, M- is still sleeping. Eager to get to the Kalachakra grounds, I wolf down breakfast and return to the tent. She tells me to go along, that she might come later.
I get my radio, water and snacks together, then smoke a joint and plunge into the river of pilgrims. At the entrance to the Kalachakra grounds, the river lets off a tributary of foreigners towards our own special entrance. From there, a roped-off walkway leads us through the Ladakhi upper class VIPs, then through thousands of monks and nuns before reaching the foreigner section.
In contrast to the chaos of the Ladaki areas, the foreigner section is almost utterly sedate. Nobody is talking. No children are being chased. There are no picnics. The space between those seated on the ground or in foldable chairs (only present in the foreign section) is about two feet, in contrast to the claustrophobic two inches of space permitted to the masses outside the roped off, heavily guarded foreigner zone. This doesn’t apply to the Koreans, however, who are all squeezed together on tiny stools at the back of the crowd, some wearing surgical masks, some holding sun umbrellas, together forming little school-like units trying their best to be not too much in anyone’s way.
Tour companies with names like Bodhi Tours and Nirvana Holidays sent scouts before dawn to lay tarps down for their clients, reserving some 20-30 square feet of unoccupied space for wealthy tourists who will never even show up. I walk up and sit on one of these tarps near the front, not far from the raised stage where dozens of geshes and reincarnate Lamas wrapped in golden robes are seated on the floor around the central throne reserved for the Dalai Lama.
As I sit and wait, I look around.
Beside me, a large group of Brazilians (they have a flag above them) are meditating. Not far away, three Africans are prostrating towards the throne. A group of Chinese wearing white gloves are sipping from little teacups. A half-dozen dreadlocked Spaniards saunter up and sit cross-legged in the nearby grass.
I close my eyes and hear English, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and French. When the Italians talk about the Buddha and the Sangha, it sounds like they are talking about the Gouda and lasagna. Behind me, an obese American women dressed in Tibetan clothes is telling uninterested strangers about her son, Tenzin.
In the background, the mass of monks continue their guttural chant. A wave suddenly sweeps through the crowd – people begin looking around, standing up; some rush towards the back fence with their cameras. The whine of pungi-like flutes, drums and gong clangs fills the air, and I stand to see at the far back of the crowd a golden-curtained umbrella held aloft on a pole above a heavily secured entourage moving through the people. It can only mean one thing: the Dalai Lama is approaching.
All around me people begin prostrating while others hold their cameras high in the air. The curtained umbrella hovers over the Dalai Lama like a ghost as he waves and blesses his way through the mass of over 150,000. He moves almost in slow motion, parting the crowd until he reaches the stage and, after ambling to each corner to wave, climbs onto his giant, raised, jeweled throne.
Moments later, a scream pierces the air – a female scream, half pained, half orgasmic – and on the giant stage television screens, a women appears, rushing towards the Dalai Lama’s throne. When the police stop her, she throws herself to the ground and begins prostrating. Over the radio, an interpreter explains: “We have a trance… The trance appears to be Palden Lhamo, ancient protector deity of Tibet, who has seized this woman to pay her respects to His Holiness at the beginning of the Kalachakra empowerment.” She prostrates until she passes out and is carried away.
Minutes later a man goes into trance and shouts his way towards the stage to begin prostrating. The interpreter explains, “This man has also gone into a trance. He says he is Nyenchen Tanglha – another protector deity of Tibet – who has come to pay his respects.”
Speakers follow: first, an emissary from the Ladakhi community, then a Kasmiri Muslim leader, then Richard Gere (?), who speaks on behalf of “all foreigners.” After that, the teachings begin.
Hours later I walk through the dusty tent city back to our camp to find M- sprawled out in the grass, listening to the teachings over the radio. After lunch, we gather our dirty clothes in a bag, strap it to the motorcycle and ride off towards the nearby river to bathe and wash our clothes.
Part VII: The Road South
It’s unusual to see a woman riding a motorcycle in this country, much less a heavy Royal Enfield.
During this entire trip, everywhere heads have turned to watch M- ride by. Wherever we wander, she is our ambassador, our interpreter. All I need do is stand behind her, holding my helmet, watching as her charm melts whomever we meet, inspiring them to help us in some way.
From the boys running this luxury camp resort on the shores of Pangong Lake, an eye-blue body of water that lies on the border between India and Tibet, her electricity has garnered us free food over the last two days. We’re not staying at the boys’ camp (we’re camped on the water about a half-mile away) yet seeing her and learning she speaks Hindi has inspired them to appear at our tent door around mealtimes to invite us to come eat alongside the wealthy Indian tourists who pay them $80 a night for tent and board.
So we eat these free meals and camp under the full moon on the shore of the lake for three days, and on the fourth day set out over Chang La Pass (at 17,590 feet, the third highest motorable road in the world) on our way to the Leh-Manali highway.
My luggage rack, which I’d had welded back together a week before, judders apart on the way and I have to jerry-rig it back together with some rope and scrap wood I find on the ground near Karu.
The next eight hours are spent riding as fast as our motorcycles can carry us, only occasionally pausing to urinate or admire the rock formations. We ride over Taglang pass (17,480 ft) and as far south as Pang, an encampment of parachute tents that we reach as the dusklight turns the surrounding canyonlands ochre. We pitch our camp on the plateau above the tents and set off the next morning at 5 a.m.
After climbing Lachalung Pass (16,598 ft), the cliffs grow steeper, the mountains blacker, the roads more dangerous. As we descend, weeds and shrubs begin to replace the grey scree, and trees start appearing alongside the streams.
After a month of nothing but desiccated high-altitude desert, such greenery causes a new energy to surge through me.
Then, some 20 miles from the military checkpoint guarding the Himachal Pradesh border, we run into our last major challenge. As we round the corner of a narrow switchback we find the route half-blocked by a landslide, which has loosened a waterfall over the road, flooding it three feet deep and creating a river that rushes down the road a half mile before plunging off the cliff.
Traffic is already backed up for nearly a kilometer.
When we finally squeeze through to the front we find a giant lorry stuck tire-deep in the river.
We watch as it reverses and attempts to accelerate over some sub-aquatic obstacle, but whatever is hidden beneath the water is simply impassable. The lorry reverses and rams, reverses and rams, over and over again.
As the traffic accumulates and crowds gather to watch this spectacle, my mind begins to drift towards the issue of how the hell we’re going to ride through such a river. I trudge through the water in my riding boots, feeling my way around for large boulders, holes and other potential obstacles. When I come the stuck lorry, I kneel down and reach my leg out to feel around underwater for what’s obstructing its path. My boot bumps over some jagged stones and then slides off the edge of a boulder straight down about a foot and a half. This is what the truck is trying to ramp over, and what we will have to ride off of if we go down.
The image of being pushed down by the river and trapped under the bike beneath the water comes to mind, and I begin looking around for alternative paths. But there are none. And there is no other road out of Ladakh besides the road we came in on through Kashmir, hundreds of miles in the other direction.
I walk back through the river to M- and we plot our course. If we plan on getting through before nightfall we would have to park our bikes at the front of the traffic and take off as soon as the truck clears the road. But after that? Who knew. Our only strategy was haste.
Assuming I’d get wet on the sprint through the river, I sit my camera bag and other valuables on a rock on the other side, to collect once I get across.
The lorry continues its dance with the boulder while the drivers on our side of the river – Ladakhi chauffeurs of vans and buses full of Buddhist pilgrims returning home from the Kalachakra – grow increasingly incensed. On the other side, about two-dozen husky Punjabis are standing beside their giant trucks.
Inevitably, these two groups begin shouting at each another until one of the Ladakhi drivers pulls his minibus forward and blocks the road, demanding that the lorry abandon its hopeless endeavor and back away so that smaller vehicles can try to get through. He begins directing other minibuses to pull behind him, strengthening the blockade, and in retaliation the Punjabis do the same, thus making the road completely impassable to anyone. Even if someone were to make it across the river, which for the moment still seems unlikely, it would be impossible to pass the roadblock on either side.
They keep shouting at one another, cursing, honking, shaking their fists.
I crouch on a boulder in the middle of the river, smoke a cigarette and watch the water divide and recollect around me. As I crouch, an American couple on bicycles pedals up, surveys the idiocy, lifts their bikes onto their shoulders and steps gingerly from rock to rock across to the other side.
“Looks like the tortoise will win the race,” I say.
“Great day to have a bike,” the man says. “And now the road will be empty!”
About an hour later — at a point I am no longer paying any attention, but rather just sitting there numb on my rock watching the water swirl around me — the truck, with the help of many groaning shirtless men pushing and tugging on ropes, finally climbs over the boulder.
I run across the river shouting to M- “Let’s go! We gotta go!” and hop on my bike.
Twenty or so other motorcycles kick-start their engines. Whoever gets to the river first might get through, otherwise another lorry might pull up and clog the route again.
The moment the truck clears the river I take off – the first off the line – with my boots down to kick me upright again should I begin to fall. I know if I stop the current will drag me over so I accelerate blindly through the rushing water, bouncing over boulders, the river knee-deep, my muffler gurgling, rooster tails of water flying on either side.
And I would have made it. I would have made it all the way through had not another motorcycle come racing towards me in the opposing direction, making me veer to avoid him. As I do my bike drops over the edge of the boulder that the truck had been stuck on and bottoms out, pinning me in the middle of the river as the rushing water pushes me sideways, nearly pulling me down as I strain to keep the bike upright.
I look at the expressionless men witnessing my struggle from the riverbank.
“A push! A push! I need a push!” I shout, but none of them moves. I look around to find M- a few yards behind me, a man on each side of her motorcycle, knee-deep in the stream, valiantly helping to push her through.
I accelerate, but the wheel just spins, unable to make contact with the rocks. People begin shouting at me in various languages, but nobody helps. I stand and pull up on the handlebars and rock and jump until the wheel catches and the bike rockets forward, scooping me up with it. I am bouncing around like a ragdoll across the boulders towards the shallows on the opposite bank. Once I reach ankle-deep water, I park my bike and run over to collect the things I’d left on the rock.
By the time I get back on my bike M- has already rode past. I motor up to meet her.
“We did it!” she shouts, giving me a high five. “What a rush!”
For the rest of the ride to Keylong, we have the road entirely to ourselves and I ride with a freshness that can only be brought about when you pass through such a nerve-wracking trial.
During such moments there are no distractions of the mind, no thoughts of the past, no desire for any future; the present is as sharp as a knife.