It was the first day of Royal Enfield’s second Tour of Tibet, and I was sure it was going to be the last day. Standing on the back of a truck, right behind the driver, watching the truck’s front right wheel teetering inches from the edge, staring down a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into a snaking river, I was readying to shuffle off the mortal coil.
There were other dangers as well. Right behind us were our motorcycles that we had loaded on the back of the 4x4 truck; three trucks for 16 bikes. They got flung from side to side as the driver manoeuvred over — and around — bits of the Himalaya obstructing the path. Initially, I was worried about the prospective damage to the vehicles, so I tried to hold on to them as they rolled around on the uphill climb, trying to stop them from injuring those standing at the rear of the truck. When the truck hit a downhill patch, the motorcycles lunged forth in the general direction of my limbs and torso.
It was getting dark and the truck’s headlights were aimed at the road ahead, not towards vicarious overhanging vegetation. The late-afternoon downpour, typical of the monsoon in these parts of Nepal, was now moisturising the inner-most reaches of my skin.
While at Kathmandu that morning, we’d heard that heavy rains, landslides and floods in the Sindhupalchowk district had washed away a section of the road from Kathmandu to the Tibet border in Kodari.
Scouts sent by the tour organisers had reported that a kuchha path, skirting over and around the hill where the landslide occurred, was good enough for motorcycles. A group of motorcyclists had taken that path two days ago and gotten across without incident. Which is why we left Kathmandu after an early breakfast. It had been a lovely ride out of Kathmandu. The road was firm, and before launching into the hill path, we had stopped before noon for refreshments. Some people had snacks, some had lunch. I passed; I prefer an empty stomach when riding over rough surfaces.
My ride was a Continental GT. Its forward-swept riding position and sticky road tyres are ideal for café racing on city streets. It is exactly what one should not ride on an unmetalled Himalayan road roughed up by the monsoon and 4x4 trucks. Off-road or dual-sports motorcycles have an upright riding position to allow the rider to stand on the footpegs through rough roads, as also knobby tyres for extra grip. My GT was skidding and struggling for a hold on the unmetalled road. I was struggling harder. The afternoon sun was hot, and our riding gear made it hotter on the inside than outside; the adrenaline rush didn’t help either. Off-roading is very demanding of the body. I had begun physical training two weeks before the tour; clearly, it was not enough.
Inside the helmet, my head was desperate for a cool-down. On straightening my arm, sweat trickled down the sleeve of my riding jacket in a steady stream. I needed to stop every 100 metres or so to regain my breath. Most others struggled, too. Then we hit a terribly slushy, vertical section. We were all stuck. So 4x4 trucks were commandeered to carry us and our motorcycles, for it was familiar territory for them. They went very slowly, using a spotter to guide them through really rough patches. When I was alert to what our driver was doing, I felt safe. I could have learnt a few off-road driving tips if I hadn’t been so paranoid.
By about 7pm we got stuck in a traffic jam. A truck had broken down on the single-lane kuchha road, and it was going to take a few hours to fix it. Now, the thing to do was to walk down the hill for about four kilometres to the road, where a bus was waiting. Before we set off, Lucose, a rider from Singapore, brought out chocolate and energy bars for everybody. That fuel was critical, because the trek down took nearly four hours of blood, sweat and tears — most of us were wearing riding shoes designed to grip tarmac. Going downhill on the mud and water of a hill path, they felt like skis.
It was only around 2 in the morning that we reached the Last Resort near Kodari, where food and comfort awaited. The bike-laden trucks arrived a few hours later. The bikes looked badly damaged, and our Tour of Tibet seemed doomed. Some of the riders were quite upset with the organisers for putting them through this dangerous ordeal. The organisers said they had never faced anything like this, so there was no way to prepare for it.
We spent the next day recuperating, getting massages at the spa, and intermittently watching the mechanics restore our bikes to working order; the support truck trailing us was carrying spare parts. On the third morning, 14 riders and a support truck took off for the Sino-Nepalese Friendship Bridge, which has to be crossed on foot, dragging the bike along, switching from the left side of the road to the right side.
Border formalities took half a day. We met our guide Tenzin, who kept warning us not to take any pictures in that area — this was our first brush with the Chinese authorities, and we would later become accustomed to a check-post every 30-50km; if not the army, then the customs or the local police.
From Kathmandu (1,200 metres) to Kodari, we had gained 1,300 metres in altitude over 115km. From Zhangmu to the town of Nyalam, we gained another 1,450m — in merely 33 kilometres. But what a stretch that was! The road was smooth, the scenery uplifting. Feeling liberated after the lack of mobility over the past two days, I charged ahead. Before I could realise it, we had crossed the treeline.
We were in Tibet now. Sparse, shrub-like vegetation, cold winds in the morning and evening, a heavy head due to the lower oxygen pressure, and scenery so dramatic, it dwarfed everything else. All pleasure and pain, all sense of failure and success, even the sense of self disappears. No wonder this land is constantly linked to meditation and a certain philosophical distance. The views end all conversation, breeding silences that take meaning out of meaning. The Dalai Lama’s beatific calm does not result from his exile, I promise you; it is an imprint of the Tibetan landscape.
I thought I understood the meaning of the term ‘perspective’. Every turn is a photo-op. Yet there is not an eye or a lens that can capture it. Perhaps the view meant that much more because of the difficulty of getting there. The travails of the past two days were forgotten instantly.
The next day we rode up to our first mountain pass; at 5,150m, Nyalam Tong La offers stunning views of the Himalaya, including Shishapangma, the world’s 14th highest at 8,027m — the shortest of the 14 ‘eight-thousanders’. Descending rapidly from the pass, I felt the first effect of altitude sickness. A woozy head brought along disorientation. It was my fault, for I had missed breakfast. At Old Tingri town, I tucked into a sumptuous lunch. We covered 240km to stop at New Tingri town at an altitude of 4,300m.
Having lost a day to the landslide, we did not have the time to stop anywhere for an extra day or visit famous monasteries. The following day we reached Shigatse, Tibet’s second-largest city. The 240-km ride took us across two more passes: Gyatso La (at 5,248m, Tibet’s highest pass) and Tso La (4,750m). On the last stretch to Shigatse, the highway was bustling. September is Tibet’s only harvest season, and villagers were out in full strength.
Going through one such village, I saw some of our riders had gathered to chat with villagers. Aakash of Royal Enfield was waving me on, asking me to not stop. I heard the story after getting to Shigatse. Tenzin had warned us to pass through populated areas very slowly. Arnav — at 18, our youngest rider, who had got his driving licence a few weeks ago — had collided with what had seemed like a cow at a fair speed. Later, it turned out to be a donkey. Tony, a surgeon from Perth, the oldest and fittest rider in our group, examined the donkey and declared him fit. But the villagers would have none of it. They had to be paid RMB 500. Arnav had suffered only minor bruises, thanks to the safety gear he was wearing.
The Shigatse-Lhasa road has severe speed controls, enforced rigorously by policemen. The road is quite narrow and treacherous in some patches. At one spot, the authorities have even raised a crashed car on a plinth as a warning. For extended stretches, this highway runs next to the Yarlung Tsangpo river, known as the Brahmaputra after it enters India. About 70km before reaching the capital of Tibet, we turned north, up the Lhasa river valley.
Our free day in Lhasa was a study in cultural contrast. There is the Potala Palace and the Jokhang temple, the heartbeat of old Tibet, in the city’s east. Here, you see devoted Tibetans undertaking rigorous rituals for their spiritual calling. The architecture is old, and one feels transported in time. Western Lhasa, however, is all steel-and-glass modernity, full of Han Chinese people.
Everybody had acclimatised to the altitude by now and the off-day helped us rest and recuperate. On the eighth day of our tour, we started back, via the historic trading town of Gyantse. This was the best ride of the tour for me. We climbed up to Gampa La (4,800m) and were treated to the magical sight of the blue Yamdrok Tso on the other side of the pass.
The ride down was along the lake, after which we began climbing again to Karo La (5,050m), where the highway runs right under a glacier. The road from here to the next pass, Sime La (4,300m), was the best stretch for me. Almost no traffic. Twisties followed by straights followed by twisties, smooth tarmac, all through a very wide valley with fantastic views. With few villages and no police checking, I rode at speeds I shall not reveal here. Just out of Gyantse, thunderclouds gathered, and the views became even more dramatic. This is the only stretch in Tibet where we had to face some rain. It was followed by a wonderful meal at Tashi hotel, run by some Nepalese.
The next day we rode from Gyantse to New Tingri via Shigatse, our longest stretch at 330km. This was through some well-populated regions (by Tibetan standards), so we were back to riding cautiously. The next day we set off for Zhangmu, aiming to get the border formalities rolling in the evening itself. On the ride down to Zhangmu, we stopped near Old Tingri for a view of Mount Everest, but it was covered in clouds. We did see Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain at 8,201m.
I was riding behind Hide Okamoto, who used to race superbikes before retiring to consult for tyre companies, and Sachin, who leads the Rides Team of Royal Enfield. The two of them were saddlesparring, testing each other’s skills, an enjoyable spectacle. I enjoyed the spectacle of two skilful riders competing, but also restraining themselves. I missed our transition to the treeline, again. Before we knew it, we were in thickly wooded hills and in Zhangmu.
We cleared Chinese customs and immigration early the next morning. After dragging my motorcycle across the Friendship Bridge, I let out a big sigh of relief. Nepal felt like home after nine days in a police state. While the Nepalese customs processed our papers, we ate daal-chawal and played pool at a roadside joint. The Nepalese army had carved a path through the slipped hillside. It was difficult riding, quite like the initial stretch on the way up. By the time we managed to get across, it was late in the afternoon. On the ride to Kathmandu, we met with heavy rainfall. I was the second man back at the hotel.
Since my return, a lot of people ask me about the ride. They treat me like the Ancient Mariner, with a strange and fascinating account to tell. When I wear my Tour of Tibet 2014 t-shirt in a gathering of motorcyclists, I see respect in some eyes, awe in others. For there isn’t a serious motorcyclist who does not want to ride to Lhasa. Will you be one of the group in 2015?
The tour: Royal Enfield’s Tour of Tibet is open to all people who own RE motorcycles. The route is a great one for avid motorcyclists, although the ride is physically demanding and requires planning and preparation. RE is a motorcycle manufacturer, not a tour operator and its Rides and Community team is not a corporate, bottomline-driven outfit. The logistics in Nepal and Tibet are handled by RE’s Nepalese partner in Kathmandu, Sacred Summits (www.sacredsummits.com.np), a group of RE enthusiasts.
The first Tibet tour was held in October 2013. It is a very cold month in Tibet. So the second tour was held in September, which risked the monsoon. Riding to Tibet is trade-off between the cold and monsoonal caprices. Keep an eye on www.royalenfield.com for 2015 updates. The tour costs Rs 1,50,000 per person. This covers a basic hotel room on twin sharing, bed-and-breakfast basis. Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse offer three-star hotels. Other locations have hotels with more basic amenities. Once on the road, each rider is expected to pay for his/ her fuel and lunch, which averages to about RMB 200 (about Rs 2,000) per person per day.
Arrangements: Each rider is expected to ship their motorcycles to Lucknow on an appointed date in August, from where RE has them shipped to Kathmandu. Here, the motorcycle is inspected for withstanding the rigours of the tour. A support truck trails the riders and carries the luggage and spares, along with a trained mechanic, right through the tour. An SUV with the guide and organisers moves in front of the riders to smoothen the paperwork at the numerous check-posts, as also to guide the riders. After the ride, RE ships the motorcycles back to Lucknow.
The route: The road trip goes from Kathmandu to Lhasa and back via the Friendship Bridge at the border crossing at Kodari. The Tibetan plateau begins at Nyalam. Crossing the Nyalam Tong La, the road passes onto the Tingri plains, and past the Tingri (also called Shegar) fortress to Shigatse in the Tsangpo valley over Gyatso La. From here it proceeds to Lhasa. On the return journey, the route takes a detour over three passes, past Yamdrok Tso to the ancient trading town of Gyantse. From here it proceeds to Tingri and back to Nepal.
Food: It makes sense to carry some snacks and water on the motorcycle. In the smaller places, the organisers make food arrangements, which is a limited menu buffet. Larger cities and towns offer a greater food variety, so the riders are free to go to a place of their choice. It is difficult to get vegetarian food in some places, so look out for outfits run by Nepalese operators. Most towns have shops selling quality fruits from eastern China.
Physical fitness: Motorcycling to difficult locations is an adventure sport, and it makes difficult demands on a participant’s fitness. Riding for several hours requires resilience. Build your strength and stamina before setting off. Each participant is required to complete 50 pushups and run five kilometres in under one hour during the fitness check in Kathmandu.
Altitude: The average elevation in Tibet is 4,500 metres above mean sea level, so watch out for altitude sickness. The support truck carries a range of medicines and oxygen cylinders for an emergency.
Equipment: Safety equipment is critical for surviving the falls. A good, fullface helmet that fits snugly on the head with a scratch-free visor is a must. For riding gear such as gloves, jackets and shoes, leather is the best material. Gloves are best with reinforcement for knuckles and fingers. It is important to have long-sleeved gloves that protect the wrist and lower forearm. Riding jackets must have padding for the back, elbows and shoulders. Riding pants should have extra protection for the knees and thighs. Good riding shoes with reinforced outsteps are a must. Safety equipment is uncomfortable most of the time. Which is why it makes sense to bring slightly used gear, which sits a little more comfortably than crisp, new material. It’s best to carry a raincoat and waterproof pants to wear on top of your riding gear. Several companies now sell riding gear in India. Most of these companies are located in Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad, but they supply across the country. Try Zeus (www.zeusmotorcyclegear.com), Cramster (www.cramster.in), DSG (www.planetdsg.com) and Moto Adda (www.motoadda.com).
Tip: Kathmandu’s Thamel market is an adventure gear hub and is thus a great place to buy both high-quality and cheap gear for protection from wind and cold.