LOOK BACK: ISSUE 27, INDIA — ROAD TO NOWHERE

Photos: Simon Cudby - Words: Chris Modell

Photos: Simon Cudby - Words: Chris Modell

India has been on my personal bucket list for a long time, and lifelong friend Simon Cudby and I have talked about riding up into the Himalayas for the last couple of years since the release of Royal Enfield’s Himalayan. To be honest, I didn’t really think it would happen.

Everything then started moving pretty quickly with Upshift, Royal Enfield, Fly Racing and Mosko Moto all on-board. With the arrangements being coordinated by Dale Stucker and Upshift in the US, and Bilal Gassi, Dale’s son-in-law and our guide for the trip in Srinagar, www.backpackerskashmir.com, all I had to do was book flights.

This was a busy time for me at work and I really didn’t have time to give the trip much thought until a couple of weeks before take-off. It was at this point that I started to get middle-aged man-jitters, with pictures of Slumdog Millionaire in my head and concerns about Delhi belly! We were also going to ride Cliffhanger Road between Killar and Kishtwar, also referred to as “the most dangerous road in the world,” and after watching clips on YouTube my fear level had gone up to critical. 

What did I get myself into? 

As it turned out, the timing of this trip was perfect for me as I had just finished a project at the Monaco yacht show so I would be flying directly from Nice via London and Delhi to Srinagar. The contrast could not be more evident: Monaco, one of the world’s wealthiest tax-free havens with its multi-million Euro super yachts littering the harbor, and India being a country with a well-documented amount of poverty.

After a 12-hour flight, I meet Simon at New Delhi airport as we are flying together to Srinagar. It’s great to catch up with him at the airport and I’m looking forward to our flight together. However, when we actually get on the plane he turns left and I turn right. How did that happen?

It’s a short flight, 1.5 hours. Looking out the window I’m awestruck by the size of the Himalayas. Flying at 36,000 ft it feels like I could easily reach out and touch them. On arrival at Srinagar I’m shocked by the number of armed military at the airport who all look pretty serious. After completing more passport controls we are finally allowed into Kashmir.

Bilal and Dale are both there to meet us. Bilal’s father drives us to the Houseboat Everest on Dal Lake, our accommodation for the next couple of days while we sort out the bikes.  

The traffic is something else with drivers having little respect for any rules, and it seems as long as you use your horn you have right of way. Even though they officially drive on the left side of the road, it appears driving the wrong way down the road is just as acceptable.

During our journey, Dale spills the beans that he had been involved in a pretty serious accident the previous week on one of the Enfield’s and it’s still in for repair. More concerning, he is pretty badly bruised and has a bad road rash on his right knee, so the trip is looking in jeopardy before it’s even started.

We arrive at Dal Lake and take a small wooden boat with all our gear precariously balanced out to our houseboat.  It’s an amazing place to stay with its opulent interior and great views. Twenty or so small boats are paddling up and down selling their wares; it’s quite a contrast to what I had expected, and all my initial fears have subsided. This is all very tranquil; I now feel that we are properly in Kashmir and it’s quite beautiful.

Bilal and Dale work their asses off trying to get everything together, including getting the bikes back from the shop so they can wire them up for power to enable us to charge our phones, camera batteries and Sena headsets as the power supply on our trip is likely to be sporadic. They originally planned a week for these modifications to the bikes but because of the accident and subsequent doctor’s appointments, bed rest and recuperation, this now has to be done in one day. The bashed bike is apparently fixed (let me just add that in India nothing seems to happen quickly) so we all go to the Royal Enfield shop to collect the bikes and take some promo shots. When they eventually release the bikes it is already dark. So my first ride is to be a night ride in a town with drivers who seem to care little for basic road-craft and where traffic rules do not seem to exist. To top it off, there are regular armed checkpoints.

After a long night of preparation for Bilal and Dale, we pack the bikes with our gear the following morning and we’re ready to hit the road by about 11am. Before we leave, Balal’s father lights charcoal in a wicker basket and blesses all the bikes. The family has been so hospitable to us and this is a special moment.

After the obligatory group-leaving photo we are finally on the road. It’s less than an hour before we are stopped at our first military checkpoint. I jump off my bike and head up to the guard to say “Hi”, but these guys are not here as a tourist attraction and I soon realize that this is serious: Passport number, Visa number, father’s name, bike registration, reason for travel, where are we heading and why, with everything written in triplicate. This is followed by a series of photographs of us, plus us by our bikes and I’m thinking this could seriously impede our schedule. As it turns out this is just the first of five checkpoints we are to travel through before leaving Kashmir, so once again we end up riding in the dark trying to find a hotel. We eventually arrive at a compound-style guest house and spend the first 45 minutes being interviewed by the proprietor; he is just trying to be friendly but all I really want is food and sleep. The latter does not always come easily, especially when you are in a predominantly Muslim part of the country where the ‘call to prayer’ is the soundtrack to the region and is communicated through loudspeakers everywhere. I had found this quite soothing on previous days, but on this morning, we are treated to the usual 5am ‘call to prayer’, but let’s just say the guy singing the prayer is tone deaf and I’m now fully awake. The sun is up and opposite is a school or orphanage, I’m not sure which, but young kids are out sweeping litter and moving rocks and stones from the front of the building. As you can imagine we are a bit of a curiosity with our four matching bikes and all our gear, but they do not appear to be sure if they are allowed to talk with us. After a little while they come down to the gate to meet us and as we take a few pictures, an older boy shows up and they all scuttle off as if they might get in trouble.

Today is to be our first high pass crossing, and the plan is to go up and down quickly to avoid altitude sickness. We are shooting a video and I can’t get any of the detail right while on camera, and everyone finds it amusing that I’m so clueless; I put it down to the altitude!

After another long day of riding, we arrive in Killar predictably after dark at about 7:30pm. With the sun down and the high altitude, the temperature has plummeted and the air has the feeling of a ski resort, although the town appears to have one dusty street with various businesses lining the road. On first sight our hotel doesn’t even look occupied, let alone open, but Bilal finds the proprietor and we are given a warm welcome; the rooms are nice and at about $15 represent excellent value.

Killar is another Muslim town, so although they sell alcohol, you cannot drink in public. Therefore, we walk to the liquor store which sells only beer and about 30 different varieties of whiskey. We purchase four bottles of Godfather beer and head back to the hotel to sit on the balcony and discuss the day’s events. I’m not sure if it’s the altitude or the adrenalin from the night ride, but after just one beer we are feeling pretty good and we head out to the one restaurant in town. Now, this is not a fancy joint. Let’s just say it’s rustic. It has an open kitchen as you walk in which has several burners on the go with big steel pots and a young guy at the front making chapattis. He is a master at his craft. The food is all vegetarian and we order lentil dahl, rice, bajis, and alo gobi all washed down with delicious Kashmir tea and bottled water. Food never tasted so good.

The next morning we meet for breakfast before we ride that road in the YouTube videos from Killar to Kishtwar. My anxiety level is high and I just want to get going, as it is about 140km and I do not want to do any of this in the dark. The road out of Killar is mostly dirt with a smattering of pavement which is broken up. After riding for a few hours, we hit the side of the mountain and before us lay the most beautiful asphalt surface snaking its long black tongue around the cliff. I could sense Simon’s tension and knew what he was thinking: had we flown halfway around the world to photograph this road only to find out it had been re-surfaced the previous week?

This disappointment doesn’t last long as the newly laid surface leads us to the giant asphalt paving machines that make their way slowly around the mountain. Then the surface entirely runs out and we are riding on a rocky base with boulders, periodic sticky mud, and pebbles with waterfalls cascading above them. 

This is what we had come all this way for. If I were to say this road is scary it would be a massive understatement, as this ride could humble the most experienced off-road rider. The vista is huge with a vertical drop-off that goes down forever. When I can eventually take my eyes off the path and look up, the cliff face doesn’t seem to stop. It is truly awe-inspiring and to my great relief my fear and vertigo seem to be under control and we progress at a good pace, stopping frequently for pictures. 

The Royal Enfield is so well matched for this terrain and we ride in first and second gear, utilizing all the engine braking this bike has to offer. The day is amazing and the sun is out. We appear to be making good progress despite the stops we are making for photography. At 4pm the sun is starting to settle on the mountain-top and as we round another spine-chilling hairpin, we find three trucks parked up and a huge pile of rubble in front of us.

“Landslide” comes over my headset and we all pull up. Bilal, Simon and Dale walk around the path to check for a way through while I just find a rock to sit on and wait. The reality of the situation hits me as the inevitable of no way through dawns on me. If the path is blocked we will have to turn back and retrace our journey over the past two days. It is going to be dark in two hours and it is at least five hours back to Killar along the most dangerous road in the world.

The trail between Tandy and Tindi is impassable. Bilal thinks we could do it but not without danger to life and I did not come here to die. So we made a group decision to retrace our steps along the most dangerous road and regroup at Killar and go to plan B, whatever that is? By the time we arrive at our hotel it’s 9pm and has been dark since 6:30pm. We are all just about out of fuel and Killar is such a small town it does not have a gas station. Bilal goes off in search of petrol with the hotel owner. Half an hour later he is back with a 10-litre jug of petrol and a funnel made from a Gatorade bottle with a cloth filter; we fill two bikes and he goes to get more.

After some food we talk with the locals about our options. It appears that Sach Pass is open, which is good news as this is a route to Dalhousie which is in the right direction for Delhi. The bad news, Bilal has never traveled this route and it summits at over 14,500 feet. This is much higher than we had anticipated going and could cause altitude sickness, as well as the possibility of the weather turning against us at the top. However, we all decide this is our best option as the only other option is riding all the way back to Srinagar and starting over.

After a sketchy night’s sleep we head out for breakfast. To be honest I do not have much of an appetite but I manage to force down an omelet. Dale hands out anti-altitude sickness pills which he explains should help. However, they are diuretics which means we will want to pee all day. He also has silk balaclavas for the cold and a special gadget to aid breathing if we get breathless. None of this is helping with my nerves and I’m more than keen to get going, as the anticipation of the ride ahead is playing on my mind. We have 230km to ride on the edge of a cliff, and the prospect of doing any of this after dark is daunting. This is rapidly turning into slightly more of an adventure than I had bargained for.

Now, as always, Simon sees photo opportunities everywhere and within the first 1/2 mile we had stopped to shoot. He asked Bilal and Dale to ride on until they hit a patch of light we could see in the distance on the road ahead. Twenty minutes later they had still not reached it and we soon realized these mountain roads twist and turn and you have no way of judging distance. I persuade Simon we should ride on and ditch the shot.

Up, up, up we go through the pine forest until we get above the tree line revealing the most spectacular views of the snow-peaked summit. The ground is wet, rocky, narrow and steep, but the Royal Enfields are built with this terrain in mind and take it in their stride. With their low seating position and low down torque they are perfectly suited to this environment. I would not want to do this on any other bike; they are in fact a complete pleasure to ride even with my Mosko Moto 40-liter pack on the back that must weigh in at 50 lbs. 

Our progress is slow because of the terrain, and fatigue from the altitude is also a factor. But mostly it’s because we all have to stop to pee so much. The top is getting closer and the scenery more awesome by the second; the sky is blue, the snow is virgin and the views go on forever. This is turning into one of the best days of my life. We come across a Sherpa’s hut on the trail and stop for tea. Our host is Sing Sherpa from Nepal who lives at the station with his dog, helping travelers and clearing paths. He is so friendly and keen to chat, but our journey to the top must continue if we are to make it up, over and down before nightfall. So we ride on, up and up we go.  Now we are well and truly in the snow line and the temperature has dropped, but because of the strong sun and all the gear I am wearing, I am sweating buckets.

The ride is very slow because one mistake could be problematic; at this altitude rescue is not easy. As we climb higher I hear, “F**k, f**k, f**k!” through my Sena, I fear the worst. Simon has whacked his foot on a protruding rock and is in considerable pain. This is a real wake-up call. Fortunately, he is made of steel and manages to carry on and catch up. Dale administers him some serious pain relief and he is good to go to the summit.

The terrain is now wet with melting snow on the trail mixed with mud, rock and ice, not to mention the 45-degree incline and hairpin bends. It’s now first gear all the way to the top, our speed has dropped to about 5 mph. 

Reaching the summit of Sach pass at 14,760 feet is spectacular, not just because of the incredible views but also the adrenalin rush I’m feeling because I know we’ve made it. It’s a pretty special feeling. There’s a Buddhist temple at the summit and we spend some time taking photographs, take in our surroundings and pat ourselves on the back for this great achievement.

The following day will be my three children’s 21st birthday (yes triplets) so it is a pretty special day for me. Since I can’t be home, I record a special video message for them from the summit. I could not be more proud of them and it’s all a bit emotional.

Now what goes up must come down; that’s what you would think but Sach Pass plateaus at the summit and we ride the ridge for a few mile before we start to descend. Coming down is  a lot easier than going up, but still filled with danger as the trail is really rocky. Simon calls me over to listen to his bike as he is not happy with the steering. After inspection it transpires that his headset has come loose and the forks are rattling; this has to be fixed as we cannot afford any more incidents. Going through the toolkit we do not have a spanner big enough for the head nut, so we have to use a Leatherman to tighten it the best we can. This is a vast improvement but still a worry. 

Coming down the mountain we encounter another checkpoint. This one we don’t mind, as basically they are checking to see who goes up and who comes down which is quite reassuring, although it takes a good 45 minutes to get through.

Because of the great distance we still have to travel to Dalhousie, at 5:30pm we start looking for a hotel as I am determined not to ride at night again. Just as we appear to be getting close to civilization I hear, “F**k, f**k, f**k!” Simon runs into trouble on a bend with a rear tire blow-out. Fortunately, his speed is only 30 mph and he manages to hold it all together. We have packed a spare tube, so we quickly get the wheel off and get to work. Popping a new tube in is no problem, trying to get the wheel back on with an unfamiliar brake set-up is another matter. An hour or so later it’s dark but the bike is back together and we are on the move again. 

After a couple of wrong turns and stopping to ask for directions, we eventually come across a place to stay. Frankly I don’t care what it’s like, I just want to get off the road and off the bike. As it turns out the room is nice, although I do have to share a bed with Simon (but not in the biblical sense). The food is good and they serve beer, so all in all it’s a good night.

The next morning we assemble early, ready for a 350-mile ride on the road back to Delhi. In our heads the real adventure is over, so we film a quick round-up clip for the video; little do we know the adventure is yet to begin.

The first 60 miles is blissful with nice smooth asphalt road with bend after bend after curve as we descend the mountain. It is a tremendous feeling riding fast down these roads with such amazing views, waving and high fiving kids as we pass through village after village. We are trying to make at least 220 miles today so we can get to Delhi by midday on Friday, as Simon’s flight is at 3:30 am (don’t ask me why).

The single track road turns into a two-lane road that leads to a three-lane highway. It soon becomes apparent that the traffic is insane, so we are trying to ride in formation calling out incoming cars, trucks, cattle, pedestrians and oncoming vehicles on the wrong side of the road. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and tonight I am determined to get off this road before dark as the prospect of another night ride on this road doesn’t even bear thinking about. So at 5:30pm, we decide to look for the next hotel we can find. We’re doing about 55 mph and I hear, “F**k, f**k, f**k! I’ve got another puncture!” Simon is just in front of me and his back end starts snaking left to right and back again. Thank God he’s an experienced rider and he rides it out not touching his brakes and holds it all together. That was a close call. The consequence does not even bear thinking about. As he pulls to a stop we are at a junction with a service station. Faced with the prospect of changing another tube we push the bike in. Now you cannot make this up, the service station has a tire repair shop at the back and they sort the tire out and repair both tubes for 100 Rupees including fitting ($1.30). However, by the time they finish it is 7pm and once again we have to ride in the dark. This is more terrifying than anything I have ever done as there are three lanes of traffic. Some vehicles are on high beam, some vehicles with no lights and some with just one beam coming at you from all directions. With Simon having just had another flat, this is playing on my mind and I am concerned I might have the same fate but not come off so well. 

We find the next available hotel and get off the road. The following morning we leave at 7am with just 160 miles to go to reach the outskirts of Delhi in good time and incident free; we are on the home straight and it feels good. We stop in traffic at a junction and Bilal stalls his bike and cannot get it started again. It’s midday and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and we are wearing black riding gear. The sooner we can sort this, the better. We spend the next 1/2 hour trying to find the cause of the problem before doing the obvious and bump start the bike. All good, we are on the move again. Well, that’s what we think but the traffic in old Delhi has reached gridlock.

We manage to cover 3 miles in two hours and the traffic is still awful. We have another 10 miles to our hotel  and we are going nowhere fast. More to the point we are all being cooked from the inside out. Simon says he has to stop as he is desperate for a drink, so we manage to squeeze in and park among the many hand carts that are parked three-deep jostling for space to unload their goods. We get off the bikes and head for the first bit of available shade we can find. It’s at this point I realize I am not in good shape and ready to collapse. I sit down in what turns out to be some kind of open-fronted business; I’m not sure what, and I am at the point of delirium so I don’t care, I just need to lay down. The guy who runs the business stares at me. He can see our desperation and resigns himself to the fact that we are immovable objects for the time being and in need of help.  He brings water and in my desperation to cool down I tip half the bottle over by head before thinking about drinking it. Dale has some electrolytes that we add to the water; this is literally a life saver as we are seriously dehydrated and it takes a good hour to recover before we consider getting back on our bikes. It then takes another hour to get through traffic, by this time our condition has improved.

Bilal takes us on every short cut he knows, weaving our way through the back streets of old Delhi which is like a scene from a Bond movie. We reach our hotel and the finish line has never looked so good. However, when we attempt to check in there has been a mix up with our booking and there are no rooms available! Bilal’s bike won’t start due to a dead battery, so I end up pushing it around the corner to the next hotel. 

It’s our last evening together and we head out to a restaurant and recount our adventures over a couple of Kingfisher beers. Not only have we conquered the Himalayas, we have bonded as a group and have true friendship.

India has been an extraordinary experience, throwing curve-balls at us at every turn. But what really makes a good journey is the people with whom you travel and the people you meet along the way. India has delivered in spades.

Thanks to Upshift for inviting me once again. I have so many great memories from this ride, it’s going to be a tough one to beat. 

Bilal grew up and lives in Srinagar. His playground was the foothills of the Himalayas in Northwest India. He is a 3rd generation experienced high altitude guide. For the past 15 years he has specialized in trekking, whilst in the mountains in 2015 he met his wife Christina from the US. Together they have a shared love of riding and have now expanded their business to include custom motorcycle tours.

This trip would not have been possible without the support of the following sponsors: Western Power Sports, Fly Racing, Shinko Tires, Royal Enfield, Mosko Moto and Sena.

How to book a trip:  

Motorcycling and trekking tours with experienced high altitude guide Bilal Gassi. Packages tailored to suit individual requirements and ability, with a Fleet of four Royal Enfield + hire options available for larger groups.
BACKPACKERS Tour and Travels  
www.backpackerskashmir.com
Phone numbers: India: +919596540353   USA: +12088885024 instagram@backpackers_kashmir


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By Dale Stucker

“Made like a gun.” Although the Royal Enfield Himalayan is the company’s first foray into the Dual Sport Market, I believe the 411cc thumper truly extols a manufacturing tradition that extends all the way back to the company’s military roots in 1901. (Longer by the way, than any other motorcycle manufacture on the planet.) And that in my humble opinion, is not a bad thing.

While the little bike doesn’t have nearly the power, suspension, and clearance that virtually every other major dual sport motorcycle delivers in highly technological fashion, it nevertheless delivers in spades when it gets used in the environment for which it was designed. In short, EVERYTHING. The company’s only unwritten request for using it? Just don’t do it fast. Enjoy the ride, get to the other side, and live to tell others about it. It really is quite that simple.

Ask any one of our team who participated in this incredible ‘road’ trip: “If you had the opportunity to do another trip much like the one we just did, what motorcycle would be your first choice if you had the opportunity now to choose one?” I did that.  To a man, we’d ALL get right back on that same bike.

It is simple, sturdy, fully capable of hauling crazy loads, exceptionally fuel efficient and built to allow folks from under 5 ft to over 6 ft to comfortably ride without complaining. Frankly, that’s a hard combination to beat. How Royal Enfield did it? I don’t rightly know. The fact that the bike more resembles a classic 1980s enduro than anything on the market today just makes the Himalayan all that much more remarkable.

I bought a Himalayan in 2016, shortly after the bike was introduced that same year. I rode that bike on a Himalayan trek with my family on less crazy roads and had a great time. See Upshift Issue 7 “TREK UNDER HIMALAYAN SKIES”. My son-in-law Bilal rode that very same bike on this years trek too and it performed admirably.  For this trek Bilal purchased another brand new Himalayan which I got to ride. The other two Himalayans were supplied by Royal Enfield North America for Simon and Chris to use. All three of those were a little taller and fuel injected but otherwise very little had changed from the first bikes produced in 2016. But then, hey, come to think about it, why change a good thing when the first one already works the way you want it to?


THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN UPSHIFT ISSUE 27 NOVEMBER 2018 HERE>