Back in the ’90s, it wasn’t common for regular city folks to take their bikes deep into the Himalayas pursuing adventure and the pleasure of riding. In 1996, when three young photographers decided to do just that, they knew nothing of what to expect.
With limited information at hand, and lack of experience, they packed up 350kg (including the riders’ weight), on a single Bullet, a machine they later discovered was stipulated for not more than 250kg. They carried spares – including 10 clutch plates, a bagful of spark plugs and sprockets – and woollens enough to keep a battalion warm. They tied plastic sheets over their luggage, and called their loaded bike a ‘mule’.
The only real biking equipment available in India at the time was the STUDDS helmet. Within a kilometre deep beyond the Rohtang Pass in the Himalayas, their mobike toppled 33 times and on the journey downslope, they had to leave behind 35kg of luggage with villagers for a more comfortable ride home.
In those days, motorbike enthusiasts, albeit few, ventured out of their comfort zone in search for adventure.
They weren’t just riding their bikes to work, but biking in the tough Himalayan terrain and repairing their bikes on their own. "We would take a map and track out our journey with a pencil. For the unknown terrain ahead, all information we had was hearsay," says Hindustan Times national photo editor Gurinder Osan, one of those three pioneering photographers.
"Today there is good-quality biking gear and carriage equipment, and the machine is much more user-friendly. If the clutch wears out, even up in the Himalayas, you just use a smartphone to know where to go to get it repaired. The number of people travelling to the Himalayas now can’t even be compared to what the scene was like 15 years ago," says Osan.
The road less taken...
Newspaper photographer Mohan Subramanium, another extensively travelled biker, has taken his 500cc Royal Enfield Classic ’91 model, to the farthest and most isolated of locations in the Himalayas – Khardung La, Nubra, Marsimik La, Pangong Tso. He is now eyeing Chushul at the India-China border.
Engines, which are much more reliable now, would earlier cry for revving up when taken up to the mountains, says Subramanium. Back then, he’d remove the air filter each time he reached Rohtang, to maintain a rich air-fuel mixture. Now one can buy specialised air filters for such terrain. Spares of tubes, puncture kits, lubes, spark plugs, clutch plates etc., were a major part of the luggage.
Now with tubeless tyres and compact puncture kits, the bike’s performance has improved tremendously. Moreover, bikes now have single box engines, so spares like spark plugs and sprockets are redundant. The remotest of areas have service centres as the motorbike companies understand the travellers’ presence.
Travellers tour the Himalayas in hordes now, but it seems impossible to pinpoint a single reason that gushed open these floodgates that have now begun to clog many Himalayan roads.
Gaurav Jani, director of the award-winning documentary Riding Solo to the Top of the World, attributes this to the corporate culture. "The call centre boom of 2003-04 resulted in widespread anxiety and stress, and breaking away became a natural thing to do. For these bikers, travelling is like a quick fix, a getaway," he says. "Ladakh, being the highest motorable road, is a hot destination. In the four summer months, more than 30,000 bikers ride to Ladakh today."
Indians today are riding motorcycles more than ever. Groups now go en masse to the Himalayas, and every other remote part of the country. Trips backed by business houses, like the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey, are steadily becoming popular.
There’s more to biking than just out of city adventure. Members of the Delhi Bikers Breakfast Run (DBBR) take their machines out on weekends and ride to a breakfast location, in a way so as to be home by noon. "Earlier, unless one was a die-hard biker, one wouldn’t spend hard earned money on fuel or dhaba food. But now it’s a lifestyle. People have high disposable incomes," says DBBR founder Joshua John.
Members of 60kph, another popular group, believe mobike riding in India can only get bigger. "Now you google and go on your own discovery. Back then, we knew very little about what to carry. There were lots of unanswered questions. How cold will it be? Where will we find petrol? Where to get repairs? Now there are clubs and information flows. Parents are also fine with their kids journeying on bikes," says Sanjay Sharma of 60kph.
Gone are the days when locating a petrol pump in the hills was tough, armed with just a map and word of mouth information. Today, there are Web forums and Facebook. Plus, dhabas, mechanics and workshops en route. Still, the avid biker isn’t happy over the riding masses’ attitude and rues the lack of seriousness in many of today’s enthusiasts. "Now people want to cover a Manali trip in one day. But what about acclimatising? They end up landing sick," says Jani. Subramanium gets nostalgic about the time when he fondly cared for his bike, something that is lost now. "Many of today’s bikers have lost the connection that one used to have with the bike. These bikes do not have breakdowns, without which it is impossible to develop that connection. You don’t even have a kick start, bikes have self-start now," he says.
The best part of the journey, says Subramanium, was servicing bikes. "Anybody can ride with the new bikes. On the Bullet, I learnt the bond one has with his bike. Many people still prefer those to the new ones… it’s made like a gun. As they say, other bikes get you there, with a Bullet, you have to get it there," he adds. Back then, the bikers devised innovative ways to tackle tricky terrain, such as carrying bathroom slippers to cross water bodies. "We’d take our boots off, wear chappals and cross the stream. We’d dry our feet and put the shoes back on. Sometimes, we’d even wrap plastic on our boots. Now, specialised motorcycle boots let the rider go wherever he wants to, sludge or stream," says Subramanium.
‘Easy riders’ has a new ring to it.
Hot biker trails
Keep in mind – mountains for the warmer months, southern states for the winters !
* Manali-Leh: Head straight to Manali to begin your true Himalayan discovery. Explore Ladakh and Zanskar.
* Lahaul-Spiti, Chamba: Don’t give Himachal a miss en route
* Head into Uttarakhand along the Rishikesh-Ranikhet-Nainital region or further up to the land of the gods.
* Right in the centre of the Himalayas lies Nepal, a recent interest with Indian motorbikers.
* Explore the Darjeeling-Gangtok route, or head for a bike ride into Bhutan, something now quite popular.
* The north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya make for many a biker’s dream tour nowadays.
* The royal sun-drenched lands of Rajasthan have culture aplenty.
* With the endless expanse of the Rann of Kutch on one side and the seas to the other, Gujarat offers much to the motorbike riders who move with the wind.
* Ride further south along the Western Ghats to reach the backwaters, jungles and hills of Kerala, crossing stop overs in Goa and Karnataka on the way. Best done in the monsoons.
* One of the longest and most enduring rides in the country, from Leh to Kanyakumari, has, over the years, also become one of the most popular.
From HT Brunch, August 19
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