It was less than a year ago that my dad called me with a plan: Kashmir. India. Motorcycles. Mountains. Going to the other side of the world to cut loose in a self-funded motorcycle trek. Neither of us had hardly left our country before, let alone our hemisphere, so the prospect was not in the least casual. What could have driven him to this idea? Was this the stereotypical yearnings of a man whose children are no longer children, at various stages of leaving or having left the nest? One would be forgiven for thinking so, but no. Or if so, my father graciously shared the burden of a mid-life crisis to my younger sister, as it was her life choices ultimately, that ended up forever shrinking our world.
Back in September of 2015, my sister Christina got married in India. It was a beautiful wedding with food and people, ceremony and tradition… or so I hear. None of us from my sister’s side were able to attend or even meet the groom. The time between the announcement and the actual event, left us inadequate time to react, let alone organize the time and finances for an impromptu trip to northern India.
Communication with my little sister over the previous four months was intermittent, to say the least. She had gone on a post-college graduation trip to India, and through a story worth its own article, fell in love and married. No sooner was she able to say “I do,” she was whisked home on the non-magical wings of a time-limited visa. With how fast her life had changed in such a short time, my father suddenly found himself with an open invitation to go across the world and visit family. My sister wasted no time in making plans to return, and between the two of them, thought that a motorcycle trek was the best way to break the ice.
Fast-forward to August 22nd, 2016, and after months of planning and organizing, my father and I found ourselves in New Delhi. Over the months we had planned, prepped, researched, and packed in our suitcases all the things we thought we would need. But despite all our preparation, no amount of checked baggage could have helped prepare for the next month as we rode across roads and cultures with our new family.
The following 18-hour layover was a most interesting orientation to India. As we spent too much time getting to know the airport, we were surprised at some of the more noticeable changes. The presence of Indian soldiers at every entrance to the airport, and at any major checkpoint was something we had never experienced. My father couldn’t help but notice small building details that would not fit US building code, and we learned that no, our drone was not allowed in the country (despite our research, and making sure we collected every “no” we could).
We were crammed onto a bus. We accidentally tipped eight bucks to a guy over enthusiastically offering to help with our bags. We then realized in a second baggage check that my dad had inadvertently packed a knife in his carry-on all the way from Boise, Idaho; leaving me standing alone in an airport, wondering in the back of my mind if I’d ever see him again. Despite all that and our jet-lagged addled brains, we overcame the initial intoxication of culture shock, and found ourselves on the plane to Srinagar, our eyes glued either to the back of our eyelids or out the window at the beautiful scenery.
In the last month leading up to the trip, the city of Srinagar had gone into a period of intermittent curfew due to political tensions and radical militants, a detail that we never fully appreciated until touching down in the city. The airport was as empty as the one in Delhi was full, and we were rushed along the empty hallways with our baggage, hurried through customs by men eager to get home. Outside we were greeted by my sister (who had been there since June), her husband Bilal, and his step-father, a taxi driver, and we piled into their vehicle.
If you have never driven in India, let me take this time to say that is for the best. It is completely unlike driving in the States. Cars, people, and dogs effortlessly get out of your way as the driver slows down for nobody, simply translating his intentions into the language of horn. This purposeful pattern of honks is not rude, but simply etiquette, lest you find yourself in the unimaginable scenario or being behind someone, or stopped altogether.
Two-lane roads are really three-lane roads if you want them to be, and driving in the opposing lane is perfectly reasonable, especially around blind turns. At least twice, while driving in the mountains of Ladakh, did we come upon an opposing army convoy, only to come head to head with an oncoming supply truck trying to weasel their way past. The utilization of vehicles, from motorcycles to trucks, really has no limit except the imagination. How many people or things you can carry is only a test of will, more than anything.
We stayed in Srinagar for the next two weeks, and I was glad to take the time to meet my new brother-in-law. The cultural differences melted away as we spent much of the trip listening to Bob Marley and the Eagles. When we weren’t out seeing the sights, we enjoyed the excellent hospitality of “Houseboat Mt Everest,” owned by Bilal’s Uncle, docked right along the edge of the Jehlum River. Every night we were lulled to sleep by the loudspeakers of a hundred mosques, echoing back and forth in a discordant droll. Despite the city being shut down, devoid of tourists and an overall sense of normalcy, with soldiers seen on every road, we did not feel unsafe or unwelcome. Christina and I even ventured into the heart of the old city and met some of the people while they weren’t protesting. Everybody there was for the most part glad to see us, and I think they thought I was a reporter, eager to get their story out. Amidst the quiet, it was a surprisingly relaxing time to prepare for the trek.
The motorcycles purchased were 3 Royal Enfield motorcycles, essentially the Harleys of India: 2 Classic 350’s for Christina and Bilal, and a new Himalayan for my dad. Luggage racks were added and additional repairs needed to be made on my sister’s bike, due to an accident on the way up from purchasing them in New Delhi. Even with the shop technically closed due to the curfew, we were able to sneak the bike in the morning and make all necessary repairs. In addition to the bikes was the necessity for a chase vehicle for myself and Bilal’s brother, Owais, who joined us on the trek.
Imagine for a second about the sort of vehicle you would pick to chase three motorcycles through the rough roads of the Himalayas. What features would it have? Probably some sort of all-terrain, Land Rover type vehicle, yes? With spacious cargo area, and sufficient legroom for those hours spent barreling down the bumpy roads, and air conditioning to make sure that you didn’t bake in the hot sun.
Now imagine, if you will, that instead of that, we got a 2-wheel drive Maruti-Suzuki 800. A car so small that it makes a Geo look spacious. A car much smaller than a 2-door Mazda 323 hatchback, but with the cajones to boast four whole doors. Fill its back seat and hatch with all your extra gear, stick your 6’1” photographer in the front seat, and make sure he moves his knee whenever the driver needs to shift into first. Well, no need to imagine, this was our chase vehicle; and chase it we did. Able to reach astonishing speeds of 60 mph while going downhill, we more often than not would let the motorcycles just go on ahead, only to wait for us down the road. Despite our best efforts, it made it through the entire trip, only overheating once, getting terribly bald tires due to misalignment, and needing to go up one mountain road backward.
The roads we traveled came in all shapes and sizes. While planning, I had taken the time to go with my dad over the planned route via Google Earth. We watched as the roads rose and fell, alternating between lazily surrendering to the path of least resistance, to championing the unruly stubbornness of man as switchback begat switchback. Some of the roads looked barely etched on the mountain at all, hardly a turn away from tumbling down into the valley. The roads we encountered were, fortunately, more forgiving in that larger scope, if only barely. Between some stretches hardly wide enough for two vehicles, and other stretches plagued with recent rock slides, it was surprising to see the number of trucks we did, diligently making their way, delivering their precious cargo to towns that got their supplies no other way.
Technical proficiency required ranged from perfectly paved roads to washed out roads where one wrong turn would have you on the ground. Some stretches of the road apparently detoured from the original route due to landslides or erosion, requiring no shortage of ingenuity for the Indian road repair. All the while signs sprinkled the way from the “Border Roads Organization,” or BRO as was written on the top of many. Unintentionally, this made even more hilarious the eclectic collection of fortune cookie-like sayings they had, from “BRO Be gentle on my curves” to “BRO Every day is Earth Day.”
From the rainy mountains of Kashmir to the high desert region of Ladakh, the differences between regions were striking. The predominantly Muslim Kashmir gave way to the largely Buddhist traditions of Ladakh, while Tibetan prayer flags were displayed en masse on every mountain pass. From the desert we transitioned to the heavily forested Mountains of Himachal Pradesh, returning to lush green landscapes as we visited the cities of Manali and Shimla. Leaving the mountains near the end of the trip found us in the unbearable flatness all the way to New Delhi, sweltered by the humidity and pollution.
No matter how remote we thought we were, there were two things we could never shake: the effects of the western world, and the Indian military. Even in the northernmost town in India, Turtuk, having only been open to tourists since 2010, we could not help but find the same accommodations we had found in towns all throughout the trek; with multi-ethnic cuisine and the same little shops, filled with all variety of modern goods. Kids from Srinagar to Leh all sported the latest western looks, with aspirations of being the next great athlete, instead of following in their parents’ more Agrarian backgrounds.
We stuck out no matter where we went. I believe we got more looks just walking around than we did the times that all four of us would pile on Bilal’s motorcycle to ride around Srinagar. But ultimately, due to Bilal’s help, we never felt completely like “tourists.” The benefit of having a professional travel guide as a brother-in-law came in handy more times than I could count, and with him around, we avoided the worst effects of being lost in translation. The hotel prices were always haggled, and we never paid more than 20 bucks a night for all our rooms until Delhi.
Back before we left Srinagar, one of the last things Bilal’s step-father did was give us and the vehicles a ceremonial blessing and prayer complete with incense lamp. Throughout the rest of the trip, I would often think back to that, and always wondered exactly where we’d be without it. We saw trucks either rolled halfway down a hill or with a boulder lodged right in a driver’s side of the cabin. We came upon a huge traffic stop due to the death of some foreign motorcyclist, and could never shake the reality of how dangerous these roads could be, even coming close with our own brushes with disaster.
In addition to her accident on the ride up from purchasing the motorcycles, my sister ended up being clipped by some riders making too wide a turn on a switchback and was almost driven off the road. My dad had a number of spills due to his bike’s low idle tolerance. I ended up stupidly riding one time with a loose jacket around my neck, which flew up in front of my helmet, causing me to blindly stop, fall over, and proceed to get run over by my father, who was unable to react appropriately in time. I can only wonder that if it was because of that incense that all of us made it out with no significant injury.
At the end of our trip, Christina flew out of Delhi the night before we did, leaving my dad and me to spend our final day with Bilal. A month of new experiences felt longer than a month back home, and it was hard to digest all that had happened (I’ve only scratched the surface in this article). We had crossed the world and walked into a foreign culture through the door of family and were leaving a part of us behind (though myself maybe more than the others, having lost both my wallet and phone and roughly 20lbs).
As we left the same airport that we arrived in, it looked very different through the lens of experience we had acquired. The military presence that seemed so imposing was nothing compared to Srinagar. The hustle and bustle of people had a more organized chaos to it than first encountered, especially compared to the driving and crowded streets of the cities we had visited. Bilal had, in little over one year, gone from a guy my sister married in India to being a fun-loving brother who I look forward to having come to the US, and the experiences we can share with him, preferably on two wheels.