Motorcycle Masala

Riding Enfields in the Indian Himalaya
Published in The Listener

On the backseat of the night bus from Delhi, a pair of nervous newlyweds sit beside me.  As the bus lurches through the night to the accompaniment of a noisy symphony of horn and Hindi music the lovebirds tentatively hold hands testing the parameters of their recently arranged union.  Their destination?  Manali, the Honeymoon Capital of India.

Outside in the gloomy morning light a plethora of road-side signs jostle for attention.  There are the idiosyncratic road signs unique to India (“Be gentle on me – my curves are dangerous”).  There are also the hoardings attempting to woo the arriving honeymooners with the attractions of Manali’s hotels.  From the imaginative copywriting it is clear these establishments cater for a full variety of potential honeymoon activities.  “Snowview Palace – Quality Please; Service First”.  “Holiday Inn – Disco Ping Pong”.  And the one that needs no byline – quite simply the “Ram Regency Deep Inn”.

The bus has travelled some 400 kms northwest of Delhi to Manali, near the head of the Kullu Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The large army presence in the Valley is a reminder of unrest on the border with Pakistan and further west in Afghanistan, but Manali is still far enough away to be a safe destination in these troubled times.  Often called ‘the Chamonix of India’ the physical similarities between Manali and the French alpine town that lies in the shadow of  Mont Blanc are striking.  Like Chamonix, Manali is surrounded by fragrant green fir forests and ringed by towering peaks.  And like Chamonix, famous as the home of alpinism, Manali is a natural playground where skiing, climbing, trekking, mountain biking and honeymooning offer opportunity aplenty for those seeking adventure.  But I had come seeking adventure of a different and potentially more life-threatening kind.  Motorcycling.

India is home to many things.  People, religions, mysteries and histories.  It is also home to the Enfield motorcycle.  Since 1955 Royal Enfield  Motors has been making the legendary Enfield Bullet motorcycles in its Madras and Jaipur factories and since that time the Bullet has changed little.  Known to it’s Indian fans as the “Rajagadi’ or royal vehicle, it has become a modern classic and motorcycling icon.  It is the Easy Rider of the Sub-Continent, instantly recognisable with its deep and throaty two-stroke engine.  Riding a Bullet through the Himalayas seemed to be the ideal adventure.  There was just one problem.  I had never ridden a motorcycle before.  But India is a land that operates on another level.  Chaos reigns yet humanity rules.  Spirituality exists on the street, not tucked away in a church.  Surely all those spirits on the streets would keep me safe.

With that in mind I head undeterred into Manalis Nirvana Internet Café and Tourist Center to rent my Enfield.  The helmet I am given has a large spongy indentation that doesn’t bode well for whoever was wearing it at the time of impact.  I leave it behind.  Not wearing a helmet is hardly sensible but then neither is learning to ride in India.  All I can hope is that my choice of rental establishment does not turn out to be my ultimate destination.  A quick lesson on the gears and I am off – albeit briefly.  I immediately stall the cycle, nearly dropping it in the process, much to the amusement of the gang of urchins that quickly materialise for the free entertainment.  One of them emerges from the throng and shows me the trick of clicking the gears through neutral and I am away again.

My first sortie on the bike is towards the Rohtang Pass, a 5000 meter bulwark at the end of the Valley over which a road open only for a few short summer months leads to the Indo-Tibetan State of Ladakh.  The trip does not start auspiciously when I read in my guidebook that Rohtang means ‘pile of corpses’ in Tibetan.  Unflappable I press on heading for Solang, half way up the Pass and according to the book, India’s premier ski resort.  On arrival it would be fair to say that the use of the term ‘resort’ is somewhat euphemistic.  Solang consists of a muddy road flanked by chai stands and shacks renting fake furs and gumboots for the throngs of Indian tourists intent on visiting the mythical ‘Snowpoint’.  This is the highlight of a trip to Manali for the many Indian tourists from the heat of the plains for whom the concept of snow is outlandish novelty.  Unfortunately after the warmest and driest winter on record ‘Snowpoint’ has retreated well up the hill, leaving the one dilapidated ski lift looking lonely and out of place amongst the early season wildflowers.

The next day I point my trusty steed down Valley to Naggar, a beautiful village set high on a hill overlooking the Valley that was the capital of the Kullu Valley for nearly 1500 years.  Naggar was also home to one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic characters. Nicholas Roerich, born in St Petersburg in 1874, was an artist, philosopher, writer, adventurer and mystic who settled in Naggar in 1924 after several long expeditions through the Himalayas and beyond; expeditions that caused him to be suspected as a spy by the Chinese and British governments.  Drawing inspiration from Pantheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Theosophy, Yoga and the Himalayas themselves he wrote and painted prodigiously in his Naggar home until his death in 1947.  He also instigated the Roerich Pact, an international treaty aiming to preserve the great artworks and monuments of the world from war time shelling that was signed at the White House in 1935.  His home is now a museum and gallery of his works and makes for a fascinating visit.

Back on the Bullet and I’m feeling more comfortable.  Ironically the riding is safer than one might assume.  Roads are narrow and potholed in India, keeping speeds down.  There are two rules.  The first rule is there are no rules. The second is might has right.  Rules aside things move at a karmic pace that generally allows time for avoidance and I was frequently forced off the road by the gaily painted Tata trucks that sail down the middle of the road looking like Spanish Galleons on wheels.  But the real advantage of motorcycling in India is the freedom it provides.  Freedom to pull over for a chai and a chat whenever the urge takes you.  And freedom to participate in life where it really happens in India – at street level.

Riding these roads also makes one aware of the history that has passed this way.  Himachal Pradesh, ‘the land of eternal snow’, straddles the ancient trade routes to Tibet and Central Asia.  Alexander the Great, known locally as Sikander, reached the Kullu Valley in the 4th century BC although a mutiny amongst his troops soon thwarted further conquest.  Wealthy feudal rulers ruled the region until Rajput adventurers and Bengal noblemen fleeing the Muslim armies in to the south established their own states in the region from around 1000 AD.  Reflecting this rich history the Himachal people are a mixture of Aryan and Mongol with Hinduism and Buddhism being the predominant religions.

In the early 1800’s the British discovered the Himachal region finding a cool haven from the sweltering heat of the great plains.  By 1864 Shimla, a hill station some 160 kms from Manali, had become the summer capital of India and “the first place in India that has been worth all the trouble of reaching” according to one British wag.  Bridge and ballroom dancing, cricket and cocktails, polo and promenading were elevated to arts in Shimla, “home to the cad, the card, the fortune hunter and the flirt”.

Today the region continues to attract an eclectic range of humanity and has been the Himalayan destination of choice since unrest in Kashmir has ruled that once-popular State off limits. Joining the honeymooners are legions of domestic sightseers from India’s burgeoning middle class; the Bombay and  Delhi-wallahs who come for a glimpse of the Himalayan snows and waddle around town swaddled in rented fake furs.  There are also the various tribes of Westerners.  Hash-stunned hippies, ravers on the global dance party circuit, ex-Army Israelis, platinum-card wielding heli-skiers, the ubiquitous backbackers and shaven-headed Buddhist acolytes.  It makes for a cast of characters that would seem contrived had you read them in a novel.

But the tourist boom has come at a cost.  According to the officials at the town’s tourist office there are 800 hotels and guesthouses in the Valley.  Pia Johnson, the Anglo-Indian descendent of one of the original English orchardists and mine host at the popular Johnson’s Café scoffs at this figure.  “There are at least 1200 hotels or guest houses in the Valley” she says.  “And if we are not careful we will ruin this place.”  When I ask her about the infrastructure she shrugs with the resigned acceptance common to Indians discussing the sometimes shady nexus of business and politics.  “But where does all the rubbish go?” I persist.  Rajiv, Johnson’s head waiter who has joined the conversation, laughs and says simply “Pakistan.”

Riding just 4 kms up the Valley I come to the village of Vashisht, home to many of the Valley’s long-term Western residents.  These are left-overs of a hippie population that headed to India seeking spiritual enlightenment in the wake of the Beatles in the early 70s.  Incredibly many never left; they just moved to Manali.  In the chill spring morning they arrive at the Freedom café cloaked in matted blankets and crowned with matted hair.  Barefoot kids play under the tables as their parents fire up the chillum, despite the handwritten signs imploring the customers not to smoke charis or hashish.  Indeed it is the easy availability of charis that has enabled many of them to stay here.  The Kullu and nearby Parvati Valleys are reknowned amongst the herbal cognoscenti for producing some of the best hashish in the world, and many of the hippies eke out an existence selling it to other travellers.

Jurg, a 20 year Manali veteran from Germany who apparently survives off a sickness benefit he travels back to Europe annually to collect, takes a prodigious toke on the chillum and explains;  “Once this place was about a journey.  We came here searching for spirituality.  But now many of these young people, they are just coming to dance and get messed up.”  He’s referring to the dance party scene that has hit India.  In the last few years all-night dance parties have been held near the town and even in sacred areas, seriously offending the deeply religious local population.  Designer drugs are now available and many of the local men are selling them to travellers to fund a lifestyle that seems much easier than eking out an existence working in the orchards.  One suspects that down the Valley Nicholas Roerich is spinning in his grave.

I escape on the Bullet.  It is an unseasonably early spring and the valley’s patchwork of fields is already bursting with new growth, the orchards in full flower. The great shafts of light filtering through the pre-monsoon clouds amplify the spectrum of greenery on display.  Children play cricket on the road while their parents plough the fields.  Old men gather at chai stand and old women gather at the well and as the evening light fades and the engine thumps out its throaty beat, life seems sweet in the Himalayas.

With new-found confidence I decide to embark on a more ambitious ride; four days touring to the Jalorie Pass, reputedly the area that inspired Kipling’s epic tale ‘Kim’.  Again the majesty of the landscape away from the hustle of Manali is breath taking.  Like many tourist towns all over the world, one of the real delights of Manali is getting out of Manali and the Enfield provides a mechanical key to freedom.  As I leave the villages behind the fields and orchards give way to rhododendron and chestnut forests, the snow-covered peaks look down from high above and I experience that rarest of sensations in India: solitude.

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