I won’t attempt an independent review of the Enfield motorcycle. I’m no automotive journalist. Besides, I sold out to Enfield five years ago when I dumped my Yamaha at a discount, bought a 1995 Enfield Bullet at a premium, and settled into respectability—I had had my fill of zipping around. There is this entire body of mythology about the Enfield that makes you believe owning one is like a marriage, a long-term commitment, in which the pleasure can never be severed from the pain. The intensity of the relationship, though, is unmatched. Five years of Enfield ownership have proved this to me.
My enthusiasm for two-wheeled locomotion began on a neighbour’s bicycle. Cycle remains my transport of choice; motorcycle is a close second, third and fourth. Car is a distant seventeenth. With due apologies to car lovers, I feel disconnected inside a car, as if I’m inside a bubble. Riders are vulnerable to the elements, riding the edge. The connection with the world is far more immediate and acute than what the cosy environs of a car allow. Riders have to plan for many things, dress in accordance, and be aware of several limitations. Riding a motorcycle is an altogether different way of connecting with the machine, the road, and the idea of travel. That’s my defence, at least.
For a self-respecting motorcyclist, especially the Enfield-owning variety, a trip from Delhi to Leh is the rite of passage. I’d heard friends describe this journey as a life-changing experience. There are clubs of Enfield owners that regularly make such trips. But what has always kept me away from them is this macho thing about motorcycle clubs—male bonding isn’t my idea of travel. Doing it alone requires time and planning, which I haven’t been able to summon. So when the offer came from Royal Enfield (RE, from here on) to ride from Delhi to Leh, the temptation was too strong. The company was going to have a truck, two jeeps and mechanics with spares travelling along for safety. For the first time in my employment record, I went AWOL. Confirming late meant there was little time to get my bike into shape. RE gave me one of theirs, a Bullet Electra.
A motley crew of 43 euphoric bikers assembled from all parts of the country for the flag-off at Delhi’s National Stadium. Leading the group on his 500CC export model Enfield were Sachin Chavan, a mechanical engineer-turned-automotive journalist-turned-test rider for RE, and Matt Barette, a rally rider who organises cycle and motorcycle trips in Ladakh. Delhi to Chandigarh is one of the smoothest stretches of tarmac in India. The weather was great for riding—an overcast sky with no rain. We did a steady 80kmph. Lunch was at RE’s new dealership in Karnal. On the way out, we rode around town in a line, led by a policeman on an Enfield. As soon as we hit the highway, the policeman pulled over and everybody went for the throttle. The roar was like nothing I’ve heard. If adrenaline has a sound, it can’t be reproduced with any more fidelity. The roar swept me and I started riding as fast as the bike would go.
The first incident occurred within the next 40km. Tanveer from Agra had smoke coming out of the side of his bike. The canvas bag fastened to the side had sagged, coming in contact with the (hot) exhaust pipe. When he opened the bag, out came a pair of smouldering sneakers. And then Nelson from Dubai crashed into a Tempo, when he went for the gears instead of brakes in a tight spot. His instincts, trained on bikes with gears on the left foot, had taken over. But the damage was restricted to the mudguard. The ride to Chandigarh was largely uneventful after this. In Chandigarh, we all got to know each other. I listened in on a heated debate between two automotive journalists on what it means to own an Enfield; one was defending the unique character and history of the bike, while the other argued that it was too troublesome and outdated. People were sharing notes on the modifications carried out on their bike and previous riding experiences. There were stock-brokers, garage-owners, computer professionals, consultants, students, doctors... I shared a room with Hemant and Dev, an engineer and bike developer, respectively, at RE, Chennai.
The next day, we started at 6am to make quick time of the 300-odd km to Manali. About 70km were through plains, and just as we hit the hills, it started to rain, in sheets. Although everybody was equipped for the rain, most people waited for it to stop. In half an hour, the clouds obliged. As we started climbing, I started having trouble cornering the bends. The road was quite good, but there was a lot of gravel.
In my 20 years of riding motorcycles, I’ve fallen off a bike only once: I was 16, riding a friend’s bike, and there was gravel. Since then, the moment I see gravel on the road, my powers of concentration go up and the speed comes down, thereby ensuring 15 years of largely unscathed motorcycling.
En route to Manali, I was trying to keep pace with other riders. But thrice, I lost control over bends and had to brake precipitously close to an involuntary dive into the churning waters of the Sutlej. My fear of gravel was holding me down. I just watched the others. Most were really leaning into the bends with little thought to gravel. I started following one rider bend for bend, and that saw me through half the distance. I took out my sunglasses, started hugging the corners and riding hard, but was still cutting down speed on gravel. On the smooth tarmac alongside the reservoir of the Pandoh dam, I was doing a steady 60kmph when the road suddenly disappeared into an unlit tunnel. Sunglasses limited visibility to the headlights of vehicles approaching from the other side. I didn’t stop to take off my shades due to fear that a following vehicle might hit me. Only after emerging from the tunnel did I breathe easy. The sunglasses weren’t used again.
By the time I reached our night halt at Raisen, 20km before Manali, I was completely exhausted and a chronic neck injury had begun to smart—the Electra I was riding had a standard handle, while I’m used to a higher handle and an upright riding position. After dinner and some Malana ‘cream’, I consulted Sachin about my gravel fear, hoping for some useful tips. “Throttle,” he said with marked nonchalance, “because you will be most comfortable accelerating.” Matt made it sound more interesting: “Get used to a wobbly rear wheel. Just focus on the front wheel and the handle, and the bike will follow you.” I decided to sleep on it.
We started early the next morning, refuelled, and began the climb to Rohtang, the mountain pass at 3,990m above sea level. After some terrific riding in excellent weather, we hit the traffic jam that is Snow Point. In the struggle to inch up in traffic, the clutch plates of most bikes became overheated. Most people found their clutch slipping. The engines were switched off and we cooled our heels and clutch plates for two hours, inhaling diesel fumes and watching honeymooners and picnickers living out their fantasies in snow. As soon as we got to move, we realised that the traffic snarl was a matter of half a kilometre. Beyond the pass, the crowds were all gone, the vegetation was different, and the only vehicles on the road were trucks, jeeps, and Enfields.
The wait in traffic had made me impatient. As soon as we were clear, I went for the throttle. The descent from Rohtang Pass was quite steep. There was gravel (and slush, rocks and flowing water) all along the road, but I’d made up my mind: I was going to stick it to the gravel. On a few occasions, the rear wheel lost traction. I just shifted my weight around the bike, held on to the handlebars for life, and rode steady. It felt great to treat the non-road with little care. I had my best meal of the trip at the Snow Land dhaba in Khoksar. At Keylong, we stayed in a hotel, and the hot water shower was just what I needed to complete a great day.
The next day’s ride to Sarchu turned out to be the toughest. The climb to Baralacha La (4,830m) included a half kilometre stretch of road being laid. It was all loose stone that afforded virtually no traction. But stones aren’t a problem for me. I went through without a stop, and it felt great. When I had cleared the stretch, I met Matt who was observing the riders from above. He said of all the riders he’d seen, I did the best job on that stretch because I didn’t put my foot down. Several riders fell on that stretch, primarily because they had let go of the throttle and started paddling. But only one fell while Matt was filming: Sachin. Matt had a great laugh.
On the way to Sarchu, on a rough stretch where I thought I was riding fast, I observed two dots in the right mirror, just about where it said ‘Objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than they appear’. In a trice, the dots became bikes and went past with a roar. It was Sachin and Matt racing with little respect for the laws of physics. Watching the ease with which they disappeared psyched me. The altitude was giving me a headache. The road was so rough and the body so tired that the slightest jerk off the road was heading straight to the head. I didn’t want to lose momentum, so I didn’t slow down, though I had to stop frequently to munch on a chocolate and drink water to deal with high-altitude and lack of oxygen. But the road took its toll on the bike and me. Each muscle in my arms was hurting, and the oil seals on the bike’s front left shock-absorber gave way. My feet were soaking wet. On reaching Sarchu, I realised that several people had high-altitude sickness. But several people were talking in terms philosophical. Sachin summarised it: “A ride to Leh just changes your perspective.”
The 135-km road to Debring the following day was in better condition and Lachalang La (5,065m) turned out to be quite unnoticeable. All those with altitude sickness felt comfortable riding. At Debring, our camp was some 5km off the road and we rode through loose sand that was wet in places due to snowmelt. I am absolutely comfortable in sand—though I nearly ran into Mayank from Pune at one stage—and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. After reaching the camp, I set out further to Tsokar lake. Debring was my best experience of the terrain, and I don’t know if it was the excitement of being in such a beautiful place or the cold, windy night that didn’t let me sleep. I woke up before dawn, borrowed Nelson’s tripod and took pictures for two hours.
But the morning brought bad news. A few riders were quite unwell with high-altitude sickness, and were going to ride in the jeeps, with the RE mechanics riding their bikes. The organisers had provided for oxygen cylinders that came in handy, and there was a doctor riding with us. But one rider had to be taken to the military hospital in Pang, and then Leh. The value of the arrangements made by the organisers and the back-up never seemed as crucial.
The last day’s ride took us through Tanglang La, which at 5,360m is the world’s second-highest motorable pass. The climb was the steepest we’d done, and I realised that my bike was tired. I climbed slow and steady, and enjoyed the view from the top of the pass. From there to Leh, the ride was through good roads and breathtaking territory. Sadly, Leh was the end of the ride for me. On the flight back to Delhi, I saw the rugged terrain that I had traversed. It was on such a flight two years ago that I had promised myself a ride to Leh. The Himalayan Odyssey was RE’s effort at giving leisure riding a clearer definition. I don’t know if it was leisure, but it has stretched the limits of my riding calculations for good. My relations with my motorcycle have moved to another altitude.
Planning the trip:
—Decide on how many days you can spare, and then put aside a day (or half a day) for delays. Average a max of 450km and a min of 200km per day.
—Make up a route plan with a good, reliable map. And chalk out an alternative route in case you run into bad roads or weather.
—Plan your night halts. Riding after dark should be avoided. Check to see if there is decent accommodation available where you plan to spend the night. If you plan to rough it out, then make sure you are carrying basic camping equipment, and avoid sleeping outdoors if you are riding alone.
—Get your bike serviced and checked over by a mechanic you trust at least two days before you plan to hit the road. Ride the bike in the city before you set out so if there are any problems, you’ll be able to get your mechanic to correct them well before you leave.
What to carry:
For your bike:
—Tool kit, two bungee cords (to tie your bags onto your bike), fuel can, electric tape, spare oil for bike, tank bag, cable lock for luggage and wheel, helmet, duplicate bike keys (keep separately), spare parts—condensor point, spark plug, clutch/accelerator cable, headlight bulbs.
—Bike papers: Carry these with you—Certificate of Registration, Insurance Certificate, Lifetime Tax Certificate, Emission Certificate,
Flashlight, raincoat, waist pouch (handy for change and other small items), Swiss knife, balaclava, gloves, cap, sunglasses and night riding glasses.