Picture a dark February evening in North Wales; it’s freezing cold, snowing outside. Casually looking through a motorbike magazine I spotted an ad offering a two-week motorbiking holiday, on a Royal Enfield Bullet, in the Himalayas,. Hmm, could be the ideal antidote to the abovementioned temperate climate (not).
Fast forward to July 2010, to a hotel car park in Shimla. At this location in Northern India, 170 miles north of Delhi, are thirty guys and gals. And they’re requesting of Vaishno (with the help of the local holy man) safe passage over the miles ahead. Vaishno’s being the goddess of the mountains made having her blessing a good idea.
A mention of the indomitable Royal Enfield Bullet is appropriate at this point. The Bullet models have been in production, in various guises, since 1931. Their production run, the longest of any motorcycle, began in England but they’ve been built in India from 1955 to the present day. The 350cc models our intrepid troupe used each put out a less-than-stunning 22 brake horsepower (think pedal with both feet until the power band kicks in, then expect stately progress).
The right-foot gearshift has its quirks. Four gears live in the transmission but so do five neutrals, on a good day. The provision of a separate pedal for finding a genuine neutral adds insult to injury – a pedal guaranteed to find a gear would have been infinitely preferable.
But don’t be misled. The Bullet’s single cylinder, overhead valve, pre-unit four stroke engine is dependable enough. And if it goes wrong, finding a mechanic with an attitude and a big hammer generally means an instant fix. Moreover, a new Royal Enfield Bullet costs £2,000 in India. A mid-range European rival might cost three times as much, then the 100% input duty takes the cost up to £12,000. Now you know why almost all the motorbikes in India are locally-built Royal Enfields.
Though it’s no trail bike, the Bullet stands up well to the rigours of the Indian highways. Crashing over rocks or plunging through axle deep water and mud are little cause for concern. And the Bullet always starts first kick (remember kickstarts? No ‘electric foot’ here – they’re for wimps).
Suitably blessed by Vaishno (we hope) our next destination is the roads of Himalaya Pradesh. On Bullets? Among insane bus drivers and with sacred cows to avoid? On roads with potholes big enough to swallow a small child? For ten days? Hmm, could be interesting…
The trip turns out to be the sum of three parts: the team, Himalaya Pradesh (that is, the state) and the Royal Enfields. Let’s start with the team. Thirty disparate individuals blended into a coherent whole. ‘One for and all for one’ may already have been done, fictionally, by Three Musketeers author Dumas but it held true as the trip’s leitmotif. And the frequent chai (tea) stops were occasions for rich humour and good natured rivalry.
Ted, an octogenarian of great character and resilience, was our most respected rider. I remember negotiating a perilous bend to see him attempting to overtake a truck. Coming alongside the driver’s cab, he was running out of road, and there was a terrifying drop to his right. Seeing the prospect of his imminent demise, Ted practically threw his bike in front of the truck and “dismounted” in an ungainly manner, into deep mud with his bike on top of him. The truck somehow stopped before hitting our venerable hero. I rescued Ted and the bike, profusely thanking the truck driver. Of course, Ted was up and away in a few minutes. These old campaigners are tough!
And what of the Himalaya Pradesh? Landslides are a frequent occurrence, and should a landslide be a big one, it can spell ‘game over’. There were huge bulldozers dotted around; they could get to the scene surprisingly quickly, and were very effective at clearing the road. Generally, a bulldozer driver seeing 30 bikes approaching would clear a narrow path to let us pass. Nice man. Once, when a ‘dozer driver failed us, our guide ‘discussed’ his actions with him. Now, our Scottish guide was unschooled in the art of diplomacy. The irritated driver made his point by selecting reverse gear and heading straight for our man. I’d never before seen a Royal Enfield turn and exit stage left with such alacrity.
In the Himalaya Pradesh, it’s pretty easy to determine the attitude of an oncoming vehicle’s driver. Army trucks don’t alter their course and speed for anyone. Bus drivers are a little better; they at least make a token effort at avoiding you. Truck drivers are fairly considerate and will even slow down and give way. Cars are a rarity and may behave as per any of above. As applies the world over, bikers are delightful, caring human beings with a deep love of all mankind. Even the German bikers we met were like this.
There are a couple of marked differences in the informal road manners as compared to the UK. An oncoming bus flashing his lights doesn’t mean he is giving way, it means he’s coming through! It could be the last vestige of his braking force has finally disappeared, but in any case he’s coming at you! A bus’s flashing a right indicator light to tell you that it is safe to pass is a less worrying technique. However, ‘safe’ can be open to interpretation.
Overtaking couldn’t be simpler. There’s none of this namby-pamby looking for an opportunity to execute a well-planned manoeuvre while allowing ample space to move safely back to your side of the road. On dear me no: the technique is to check that it’s physically possible to squeeze past the truck (it’s usually a truck), start beeping on the horn like a madman and go for it. While creeping past the truck, (remember you’re piloting a Royal Enfield), the more cautious may look ahead for oncoming traffic. There isn’t much point, given there’s nowhere to go anyway. Should something appear around the corner (could be one truck overtaking another) there is cause for some concern, but only a little. Happily, everything moves quite slowly, all concerned will do the right thing and a gap will magically appear. Mind you, this is the sort of gap where your shoulders literally brush the side of one vehicle or the other.
Unsurprisingly, accidents happen. Frequently. We saw trucks and buses that had fallen 200 feet over the edge, into a river; nobody walks away from such an incident. One of our guys actually went over an edge. Fortunately for him, we were at an altitude where vegetation could grow. He grabbed a bush and fell only 20 feet or so. His Enfield was less fortunate and continued some way further down. The resourceful mechanics travelling with us managed to haul it back up and rebuild it overnight in the ‘hotel’ car park. Good chaps, to a man.
I should remark on the outstanding beauty and sheer scale of the natural environment we passed through…but I won’t. We all know the superlatives, and we know how often they’re applied inappropriately. Himalaya Pradesh deserves every last one of them. The most poignant feeling is that the trip was a life-enhancing experience that is still with me now, six months on. I suspect this feeling will remain. The places, the people and the experiences become part of you, and frequently come to the forefront of your mind. All right, I can’t resist one modern day superlative: it was awesome. My suggestion? Do it.
Trepidation about the next day’s ride could be all too real. On the preceding evening, we’d be told, for example, that we’d be riding to an altitude of more than 5,000 metres, and that the roads would be poorly surfaced and narrow with vertical drops of over 1,000 metres to the valley floor below. Can I handle this? Will I fail the test? Will I kill myself? Will I overcome and have another life-enhancing experience? Every outcome was a real possibility. For most of us, the outcome was the last. Vaishno bless us all.
I shouldn’t under represent the rigours of the trip. In the evening we’d be told when to assemble for breakfast; it was never later than 08:00. We had to be on the bikes by 08:45. Such a schedule, day after day, tends to get the attention of middle-aged gentlemen (and ladies). Finally, we had a day off in Manali, a very special town with a very nice hotel. Marijuana grows by the roadside and Manali is occupied by a significant number of European hippies, who obviously forgot to go home in the 1970’s. Our relaxing day out gave the mechanics time to check over the bikes for our onward adventure. This, in truth, was reaching its close. We were aware of the fact and experienced a genuine feeling of loss: we felt we’d peaked.
What was the scariest part? It could have been the colossal drops into the valley below. Or it could have been two buses approaching side by side, completely filling the road…but it wasn’t. The scariest part was a six kilometre-long tunnel, on the road out of Manali. Lighting was virtually non-existent, although the Royal Enfields’ headlamps tried hard, with impressions of well-fed glow worms. The road was full of trucks heading in both directions. To see anything, you had to lift your visor. The air, thick with dust and diesel particles, left your eyes reddened, with the tears streaming freely. And there was the overarching, nagging thought – stop here or fall off here and you’ll be history. The road engineers’ trump card was a significant bend, halfway though the tunnel. Everyone had a ‘moment’ on this bend but we all got through and back in daylight unscathed. Vaishno had clearly paid attention!
In the last two weeks of July, our intrepid band covered some 1,500 kilometres, a whisker over 932 miles. Our trusty Royal Enfield Bullets survived, as did we. In many ways, the trip packed a lifetime of experience into the experience of a lifetime. Still unconvinced? I need only say try it for yourself. See http://www.endurohimalaya.com