Manali, summer solstice, World Music Day, World Cup on the big screen – the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. And to top it all, it was the World Motorcycle Day. And if you know about Manali, you can’t not be aware of its riding culture. Manali-Leh is one of the most sought after, and explored, riding routes in the world and this is a rather heavy season before the monsoon hits with its full vigour.
So when Riderthon – an individual riding community – announced a half-summit to the Rohtang Pass that will have the iconic Indian motorcycles, among others, for the first time in the Himalayas, it was a rollicking prospect, indeed. For those who are thinking, “What’s the big deal about some Indian motorcycles in the Himalayas?” here’s the deal – ‘Indian’ is an American brand that started rolling out their mo-bikes in 1901. The iconic cruiser brand had to stop business due to a number of reasons in the mid-1900s, but they are back again. In fact, their Gurgaon showroom is the only one in Asia. Particularly famous for setting a number of speed records in the 60s and 70s, Indian now has only three models on sale worldwide. And out of those, two – the Chieftain and Chief Vintage – were in Manali for the Riderthon half-summit.
Personally, the Anthony Hopkins movie The World’s Fastest Indian, the biopic on the Kiwi speed bike racer Burt Munro, is a favourite and I was excited to check out the cruiser myself.
If June 21 was to be the longest day of the year, I can vouch that the night before was the shortest one. The Italy-Costa Rica match ended on time, but the mourning lingered on till late outside our tents, pitched in the middle of an apple orchard. So when the wake-up ‘push’ came at 3am, it seemed like it was only a couple of minutes ago that I had dropped down on the sleeping bag. But there were good reasons for such an early start. The legendary Pele – the very icon of Brazilian football – missed seeing a match at the stadium the other day due to the country’s notorious traffic jams. And if there’s one country that can match Brazil in this, it’s India. The road to Rohtang Pass is a classic example of how you’ll not be spared a fender-to-fender traffic jam in this country – even at a frozen 13,000 feet!
It’s a 53-odd kilometres distance that needs to be covered for this just-over 4,000ft climb from Manali to Rohtang. But it can take up the entire day for the to-and-fro journey due to the traffic snarls. So by 4am, we were out. One was supposed to go riding, but it had started to drizzle and a Bolero pickup truck seemed the better option. Also, I had to handle my camera. It was a wise decision, as the drizzle turned into a downpour within minutes of us leaving the town. Among other things that the rain washed away was my jealousy against Mohit, the lucky chap riding an Indian.
By the time we reached above 12,000ft and a few kilometres away from Rohtang, beyond which the Chieftain cruiser just couldn’t go due to the heavily broken and muddy roads, Mohit was drenched to the bone and shivering. But even as he dried his clothes next to a kerosene oven at a tea stall, the parked Indian was the biggest celebrity in the mountains and perhaps the most ‘selfie-d’ beauty that morning.
We left the celeb behind and moved on to Rohtang Pass. Trust me, there was no serenity. At least, my eyes couldn’t spot any. Blackened snow due to the hundreds of vehicles that come here every day, food stalls, equipment stalls for skiing, ice-scooters zooming past – it was a fair ground on the ice! Thank heavens that our destination was further up, at a rather secluded turn on the highway.
I was disappointed at leaving the Indian behind – it would have been straight out the magazine covers to have some pictures of the shiny maroon beauty against the lofty Pir Panjal range. In fact, given the occasion, it would have been a rather ‘exclusive’ photo shoot. But my sadness was immediately replaced by awe. Gushing winds, a highway cutting through walls of ice, a stupa in the middle of nowhere – this is the landscape that makes riders vow to undertake this journey at least once in their lifetime.
Energy drinks were placed in the ice, brand new helmets were lined up – so what if the Indian couldn’t come here, so what if many other riders failed to turn up due to the weather, Riderthon got busy. There were plenty of bikers zooming down the route with whom to salute World Motorcycle Day. A pre-scheduled convoy of super-bike riders – as per the organisers’ invitation – was missing, but the spirit of riding was being celebrated alright.
At first, when the bikers were being stopped, most thought that we required some help in the middle of nowhere. It was a pleasant surprise for them when they were gifted with brand new helmets and drinks. An extra helmet may take up a little more space, but then it’s a helmet – the most prized possession a rider has after the bike itself. “Never ignore your protective gear and always respect your (Enfield) Bullet,” rider Shikhar Bappi told me, sipping his energy drink. An engineer by profession, Bappi was returning to Delhi after his eight-day ride to Ladakh.
Riding at this altitude is never easy, and it was good to see a lady, too. Even though she was a pillion rider, it still felt nice that a girl had bravely ventured into the ‘guy thing’ zone. An MNC executive, Shreedevi Thakur had been ‘forced’ into this ride by her husband Neelesh, but she soon became a convert to biking. “Now I’m happy that he did so,” she says, looking around to admire the beauty of the place.
I didn’t have my wheels, but the sight of every passing biker strengthened my resolve to do this trip. “This road leads to Ladakh,” I muttered to myself, quite a few times, vowing to return one day on a Bullet.