I’ve had my dear old Enfield for 11 years and two months and I’ve never left its side. I’ve taken it up to Ladakh for 10 straight summers; the first nice years I travelled from Manali to Ladakh but this year, due to the problems being faced in Rohtang which lies en-route to Ladakh, I decided to take the road via Kashmir instead. Now that I’m finally here in my beloved city, I intend on travelling to my usual haunts. My journey through Ladakh involves visiting Alchi and Likhir on my way to Lamayur. The last 20km stretch to Lamayur boasts of some truly spectacular views of the surreal landscape that envelopes the city. This year, I plan on visiting the Nubra Valley as well. I have been to the Nubra Valley before on three different accounts; however a new place opened up there last year called Turtuk, which lies 30km from the Pakistani border. From what I’ve heard, the journey to Turtuk is supposed to be a splendid ride due to the roads being in supreme condition. Once I’ve spent some time in Turtuk, I plan on making one final stop on the way back to Manali – on the shores of the great Lake Pang Gong Tso.
Apart from Ladakh, my travels have taken me and my Enfield around the mountains that reside in Kerala. I’ve also toured Nepal twice as well as having spent a lot of time exploring the spiritual town of Rishikesh. I’ve been visiting Rishikesh every autumn and spring for the past 30 years and consider it to be my adopted hometown. Riding my Enfield on the roads that lead up into Uttarakhand, and the magical trip that leads up to Gangotri, are voyages that I enjoy especially because I’m accompanied by my ever faithful bike. Every year, when I ride my bike to Ladakh, I start and finish my long expeditions in Rishikesh. Hence the final leg of my journey along the routes that lead to Rishikesh has made me fall in love with the roads that bring me back to the city. On my journeys, I avoid the highway to Shimla and instead, opt for the smaller roads that lead you through some exceptionally pretty locations. One such route involves going through Kufri on the way down to Tattapani where all the locals are now well acquainted with me and my bike. The ride thereafter, all the way until Rewalsar Lake is an unforgettable experience and I would describe it as a ‘Tour through Heaven.’ The beautiful high altitude roads in the area don’t attract too much traffic and are well maintained. This along with the fact that the air around there smells of pines makes the experience even more delightful. The lake itself is quite picturesque and is a very peaceful rest stop before embarking on the journey to Manali.
None of my trips would be complete without my truly remarkable bike: a Royal Enfield Bullet with a 350 CC engine. It was manufactured in 1970 but I bought it 11 years ago in July 2000. The first change I made was replacing the 14 litre fuel tank with a massive 22 litre one which was essential for long road trips. I was quite excited about all the pilgrimages that would be made by me and the bike in the future so I decided to celebrate in advance and painted the bike bright orange, hung a textile ‘phool-mala’ or flower garland on the handlebars and added a shining ‘Om’ sign which instils a sense of peacefulness every time I look at it and reminds me to relax and enjoy myself.
Today, because the bike has become such a great piece of art along with the fact that my face is perpetually lit up in utter awe of the magnificence and beauty of theHimalayas, it’s not hard to spot me when I travel through obscure little villages and towns. This is the prime reason why I have managed make friends and become a part of the folklore in the various small towns through which I frequently pass by. If I ever have any trouble with my bike the locals immediately jump up to my aid. Several locals extend an invitation to me to join them for dinner where we joke and laugh and they all seem to find me intriguing as my life seems to puzzle them. All the way to Ladakh villagers, shepherds and road-workers all smile and wave at me and make me feel like a celebrity in those areas!
Now I’d like to highlight some of the most dramatic times that I’ve faced through all my journeys. One year, as I was driving up to Rohtang, I was followed by terrible black clouds and as I reached the top of the pass, a loud storm broke out behind me. It turns out that while I was in Keylong, a landslide had occurred which had taken 10 lives. Among the deceased was an Australian couple who I was intending on meeting in Keylong. The landslide destroyed a 900m stretch of road and two bridges. The weather didn’t change for the better for the next couple of days and stopped me from riding on. However due to my funds drying up quickly and the fact that the students were waiting for my arrival in Leh, I was forced to leave. The biggest problem I faced then was that due to the landslide, there was no traffic on the roads. Hence I knew that I’d get no help if my bike were to break down on the two day ride up to Leh. To make things worse, I didn’t even have a sleeping-bag to survive the night if I were to get stuck somewhere. However my faithful orange friend made it to Leh and received a well deserved kiss!
The most dangerous incident that I can recall occurred a few years back. I had arrived in Pang on my way from Tso Moriri, and stayed the night there. The next morning, the town was hit by a snow-storm. Despite the odds, I got on my bike and rode on and made it to Charsu where it was still snowing. At the foot of the last pass before Keylong, a truck was parked on the side of the road and the two Sikhs sitting in it warned me not to cross over. Stupidly, I decided to stretch my luck and went anyway. I was absolutely fine up until the top of the pass where blinding white snow covered the surroundings. The road was covered with snow as well but it was just a few inches thick so yet again I decided to tempt fate and kept riding. However just as I passed the top and had barely covered 50m on the decent down the other side, my engine ceased. I had a quick peek and saw that it was covered in ice. At this point, the road was carpeted with snow that was a foot deep. By this time I knew that it was too late to turn back and it would be impossible to push it back all the way up to the top with all that ice under my feet. So I decided to carefully keep rolling downhill. Whilst I was still near the top, I stepped on the foot-brake as I had picked up too much speed. To my dismay, the brake seemed to have no effect as the tyres continued to slide on the ice. I lost my balance and fell under the bike. However I still couldn’t come to a halt and was stuck under the bike, I kept sliding down the road. At this moment I was under the impression that either I was going to end up falling to my death into Lake Vishnu which was fast approaching further downhill or I could manage to fall in the ditch that appeared on the right side of the road. Luckily I managed to fall in the ditch with my bike half-covered in the snow. I tried my level best to move the bike but it wouldn’t budge. I knew the sun would set in a couple of hours after which the temperature would drop 30 degrees at least. In those conditions, I realised my life was at stake as I was wearing nothing but sandals on my feet and I didn’t have a sleeping bag. At this point of time, I mustered up all my 20 years of Tai Chi experience and made one last superhuman effort to move my bike and eventually I got her to tilt half way up. I took a breather for 10 minutes or so and then put all my effort into making her stand up and eventually I managed to do so. Relieved, I took some time to recuperate my strength and finally got back on my bike and continued to descend down, lightly tapping on the brakes and only when I was halfway down the icy road did I know that I’d live to yodel another day. As the snow started to thin, I’d occasionally try and start up the bike. After several failed attempts, as I passed a small Shiva temple, I put her in gear and chanted ‘Om Namah Shivai ’ at the top of my voice and lo and behold… the engine started chugging away almost instantaneously! With a big smile on my face, I reached Keylong and had a nice hot shower. Later that week, I read the local paper and was shocked to find out that over 800 tourists got stuck in Charsu for 12 days right after I had made the perilous journey down the pass. Helicopters were required to evacuate them and of the six tourists who had tried to risk it on foot, merely two days after my own escape, none had survived as they had all frozen to their deaths. Now that I’ve learnt my lesson, the next time some truck-drivers warn me about snow, I will most likely listen a little bit better!
The reason why I have spent more than 11 years non-stop, driving an old shining orange Enfield Bullet around the sub-continent is not only because I love to do so but rather because I teach Tai Chi in many different places. My inspiration behind teaching Tai Chi is an intriguing and unique story, which can be read on my web-site. If by chance, the photos on the second page of my web-site fail to make you realise the joy I receive while teaching this slow, beautiful, noble art to my students, then I hope that the little gem of a video that I uploaded on youtube last month shall be even more convincing. The video is called ‘Tai Chi in India with Tony.wmv.’