I left the 5* Himalayan camp-site, with a full belly of hot, warm food from the a-la-carte menu from the night before (sic.). Never before had i seen a campsite in Asia, with white sheets, running water and king size beds, it was like an oasis in the depravity of the mountain wilderness, glowing at me on the dark road, soon after the electrical fault on the bike had been solved. Being a tight fisted (as well as ham fisted) sod, i had pitched my little tent a short distance from the circus of the German tour group, only stopping to enjoy a cold kingfisher, a few Nazi jokes and a good meal.
Setting off down the road to Manali, the world was again a wonderful place, my bike was running smoothly and despite the pity patter of the rain, the freezing temperatures and a spot of fog, i was a happy bunny in my gore tex. Yet fifty kilometres later i again find myself cursing and swearing, the road has turned from at best awful, to abomnible. Approaching Manali it becomes a quagmire of mud, akin only to a two foot deep muddy stream in which a number of considerate truck drivers have ploughed a considerable number of large ditches, ruts and divets to catch the unsuspecting motorist. I find myself dragging along at a leisurely ten miles an hour in the pouring rain, slowly writing my letters of mental apology to the various backpackers, back in Leh, who in enormous detail had described the appauling conditions of the road; which both me and my partner had scoffed at dismissively. ‘Haven’t you heard the news? I rode from England; amateurs!’ Our arrogant attitude had not been without logic. All over Leh, travel agents advertise ‘Jeep travel to Srinigar, Minibus to Manali’, and surely the road must be in a poorer state to require a jeep than a minibus. But obvisouly neither of the two valient bikers had been in India for long enough. In India everything is sheer economics, you can fit fifteen people in a jeep, and 45 in a minivan. The demand to go to Kashmir was lower than that to Manali. In this great sub-continent, if a route ran to hell itself, and only two people a week wanted to go there, they would run a small cycle rickshaw for the journey, powered by a one legged dwarf. My logic has no place here.
Yet even with trail tires, long suspension, a plethora of fancy equipment, I’m still at times a little bit terrified on the muddy mountain pistes, with hairpins and a constant mini bus army driving as if the road was a race track. So what to make of the constant stream of Israeli’s riding ancient Enfields, up and down the pass is beyond me. They even have bald tyres, and girlfriends tied haphazardly to the back for extra comedy value. On every plateau, at every small Enfield garage, a long queue of Israeli’s assemble, to re-assemble their ageing bikes, as they splutter and struggle up the road to Leh; they almost become part of the scenary, wheels spinning, or more often wishing their wheels could spin.
The road conditions are compounded by the fact the weather conditions are terrible, with visibility down to around ten meters at the best of times. Yet still i hear ‘Light is on!’ being screamed at me from the thick pea-soupy fog. In India, dawn, day or dusk(or sometimes night) people feel the need to constantly remind you that your light is on. It’s as if you have insulted their mother or defecated on their family cow, they seem at times very angry and aggressive that you are driving with your lights on. A typical conversation occurs when you pull up to ask direction:
‘Light is on’
‘Yes i know thank you. I wonder if you know the way to somewhere there are less Indians to bother me’
‘Light is on’
‘Yes i know. The directions’
‘Light is on. Light is on!’
‘I know. In my country motorbikes have them on all the time’
‘Light, light *open and closes hand* Light is on!’
‘Light it on!’
They seem equally puzzled at the voice coming from the fog on the Rohtang Pass approaching Manali, when a broad English accent (although i now refer to it as ‘BBC’ if anyone asks) emerges from the darkness ‘Turn your darling lights on you unpleasant imbercile’. Towards the end of the journey, a select few drivers have turned their hazard warning lights on for visibility, yet still reserve their headlights, saving precious electricity for signalling ‘get out of my way’.
I reach Manali wet, tired and extremely muddy , change my oil, snap my sump plug and then my clutch fails. With my worldly woes all fixed up in a jiffy, its all tarred, and 700km to Delhi, only God himself can stop me. I musn’t be late to pick up my blonde package.