Shahwar and Ian battle rain, mist, snow and frostbite, as they explore the North-East in less than ideal conditions. The Himalayans make it through just fine, but what about our riders – do both get to keep all ten fingers?
The Met guys are the only ones who can keep their jobs even when they’re wrong – which is, at least, half the time. Don’t get me wrong, I have great regard for them, but their best predictions – which are presumably based on a whole lot of studies, calculations, permutations and combinations – go wrong about as often as they go right. I guess, at times, someone up there doesn’t agree with their predictions. And Ian Neubauer and I were caught in the crossfire between the weather Gods and the Met guys.
Ian is a motorcycle travel writer from Australia, and he’s been trying to ride with me through the North East of India for the last five years. The motorcycling Gods finally answered his prayers, and he didn’t waste any time in booking his tickets to Guwahati, in Assam – lest the Gods change their minds! I chalked out a route that would take us through the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.
Ian, being a person who meticulously plans his trips, scanned the weather reports – which strongly predicted that the skies over Tawang and adjoining areas would be clear, bright and sunny for the duration of our tour. Perfect!
A heart warming prediction I thought, but since I have long years of experience of riding through this region, I decided to take these predictions with a huge pinch of salt. Royal Enfield had loaned us two Himalayans, which was great because an overwhelming portion of the tour would be on bad (or no) roads. And the Himalayan seemed like the bike of choice for the terrain.
As we started out from Guwahati on a late February day, the sky was clear and bright with only a few specks of harmless white clouds floating high in the stratosphere. We started on wide roads till we crossed the never-ending Koliabhomora Bridge over the Brahmaputra river. After a very long stretch of fast blissful riding, the road narrowed drastically and we had to share road space with huge army trucks, overloaded local buses, an assorted variety of shiny new cars, bicycles, rickshaws and pedestrians. Thankfully, we soon hit another stretch of lovely wide roads that passed through a reserved forest – waiting for us were an army of monkeys that lined both sides of the road. I took a sudden diversion from the perfect highway and hit an off-road patch that snaked its way through the forest and led to the Nameri Eco Camp. The off-road section was for all of two kilometres, but it was an absolute beauty and the Himalayan got a taste of what was to come.
As the name suggests, Nameri is an eco camp with tents and huts made of bamboo and straw. With a roaring bonfire by our side, a brilliant Moon, and a million stars above, the whisky tasted way better there.
The morning didn’t start as we had expected though, as my bike had an electrical problem and the battery went flat. The Royal Enfield guys at Tezpur fixed the errant part, but it took the better part of the day and I decided it wasn’t worth riding at night in the hills. So, after an extra day at Nameri, we started out for Dirang – which is about 160 kilometres away.
The topography changed drastically as soon as we crossed the barricade that separates Assam from Arunachal Pradesh. One side of the road is flanked by steep hills, while there’s a steep drop on the other side that leads to a roaring river below. Alpine forests grace the slopes, and, as we approached Dirang, we could see that the banks of the river were being cultivated for maize, rice, passion fruit and kiwis.
Although the roads were dusty, broken, and under various stages of repair, we were blessed by clear blue skies throughout the day. There were very long stretches of loose sand and gravel, and, no sooner did Ian notice them, he stood on the saddle, bent his elbows, leaned forward and cranked the throttle wide open. And the Himalayan was in its elements as soon as we start riding like that. The suspension worked really well, and we could slide the rear at will despite our heavy saddlebags. I so wished that it had a little more juice on tap though! Nevertheless, standing up on the foot pegs made riding on the rough terrain a dream. Of course, the rear mudguard rattled and shook like crazy but I was in no mood to go easy on the throttle.
We had a good night’s sleep at the Norphel Retreat, which is run by a crazy petrolhead who goes by the name of Lakhpa Tsering. The sleep was good, but my notion of a good day’s ride went out of the window as soon as I drew back the curtains. The sky had low-lying thick grey clouds that looked ominous.
The ride we must, and so, after a quick breakfast, we started out. I let Ian ride ahead as he had to stop every few kilometres to shoot pictures for his story. I was hoping the Met department’s predictions of a clear sky would come good, but as we started climbing I realised that this wouldn’t be the case.
Thick fog started rolling in and blocking everything from view, and soon it even started snowing. Ian waved me forward, and I soon noticed that he started falling way behind until he stopped altogether. The rear view mirror showed Ian bending over on his bike. Concerned, I turned and backtracked. The mercury had fallen to 7-degrees below zero, and Ian wasn’t used to riding in that type of cold. Frostbite was starting to set in on his fingers, and I could see that he was absolutely miserable. He braved on for a few more kilometres till the top of Sela Passa, but at 13,700 feet above sea level, things didn’t get any better. Luckily, for us, the Indian Army-run cafeteria had a kerosene room heater. Ian started getting blood circulation back in his near frostbitten fingers – and that’s something which can cause excruciating pain. To make matters worse, he slipped and fell badly on the floor – which was covered in black ice.
A few cups of coffee later, we decided to move on. On exiting the cafeteria, we found our bikes fully covered in snow but they started without any fuss whatsoever and so we scurried down towards Tawang. We stopped for a few shots at the famed Sela Lake, which was starting to freeze over. The lake was the scene of some fierce fighting between the invading Chinese army and an Indian soldier named Jaswant Singh. He was aided by two women from the region, and they sacrificed their lives for the country. Legend has it that the women jumped into the lake, taking some Chinese army men along with them.
We also stopped for a much-needed cup of hot tea at Jaswant Garh, where there’s a memorial for Jaswant Singh. A few kilometres from Jaswant Garh, we were greeted with the first view of the famed Tawang Monastery. It’s amazing how a shaft of light from the sky always shines on the monastery, even on days with the most extreme weather. It might be a freak thing, but I’ve seen it a few times myself and have reason to believe that this legend is true. And, believe me, I’ve done more road trips here than I care to remember.
The road from Sela Pass to Tawang is undergoing some major expansion, as a result it looked more like an extreme rally stage – and the black ice didn’t make matters any easier. The snow, extreme cold and bad roads made sure that the speedo needle didn’t cross the 40km/h mark.
We reached the hotel at Tawang just before sundown and found, to our dismay, that the snow had snapped the electricity lines. The generator worked sporadically, and it certainly couldn’t keep up with the heating demands of the hotel. Ian was the hardest hit. He went to bed with his riding jacket on, and he said he could see his breath condensing before him!
We wanted to go to the Bumla Pass the next day, but we met a friend from Delhi, Neha Gupta, who was staying in the same hotel – and she dissuaded us from doing any such thing. She had just returned from Bumla, and had tough tales to tell. So, I decided to give China a miss. Ian, anyway, wasn’t allowed to visit any areas that border China.
The skies remained dark and grey for another two days, and that meant that our bikes got some much-needed rest and even a small service. It snowed heavily during the nights, and we all suffered in the cold hotel rooms.
As we started out from Tawang, the sight of clear blue skies gladdened my heart. But, before we even reached Jaswant Garh, the weather started getting really ugly again – dark clouds came rolling in and the wind picked up. The road was caked in inches of thick ice and the going was tough. In fact, It was more ice skating and less riding. There was no point of even trying to ride in a normal way. We realised that it was better to just drop the clutch and let the momentum carry us forward. The temperature had dropped below -10 degrees now, and the frostbite was seriously setting in – which was excruciatingly painful. But, once we crossed the pass at 13,700 feet, things started getting better. Ian and I were the only crazy ones on bikes, and we had to thread our way through the massive line of cars that clogged the highway. The front wheel driven cars simply couldn’t make it through the ice-covered roads. Neha was stuck for a good seven hours in a Toyota Innova, and that was just to cover a mere 15 odd kilometres!
Eventually, we reached Dirang, and the hotel was gracious enough to give us two heaters per room to keep our bones from cracking. The Himalayan took the cold rather well – except for the gears, which got a little hard. One more night at the Nameri Eco Camp, and then we were on our way to the Kaziranga National Park.
Back on good roads, we made it to Kaziranga in good time. We rode about 25 kilometres in from the main entrance of the park to a place called the Dhansiri Eco Camp. The approach to the camp is an adventure in itself. We had to ride by the banks of the Dhansiri river and through the buffer area of the park to get out the camp. The camp is solar powered, and there are tents and machans built out of bamboo and straw. We took a boat safari on the river, and the sight of the animals by the river was amazing.
We were joined by Sanjeev Monga, and we decided to head from Kaziranga to Majuli Island. I was really looking forward to getting there, since Majuli Island was once the largest river island in the world – but that was before the Bhramaputra decided to erode the island bit-by-bit. The ferry ride to the island is an adventure in itself. The ferry is loaded with cars, bikes, people, commercial goods, cattle, goats and I wouldn’t be surprised if the occasional elephant decided to board the ferry.
As soon as we got off the ferry, we were greeted with the fantastic golden rays of the evening sun. The sands of Majuli got Ian and I in the mood again, and we pulled ahead of Sanjeev Monga and had some unbridled joy with the Himalayan. The sands were the perfect playground, and with the throttle wide open the bikes behaved impeccably.
Two days of fun on the sands of Majuli with the Himalayan, and then we set off for the mainland at Jorhat – which is a very old tea town in Assam. We stayed at a 100-year-old tea estate manager’s bungalow that has been turned into a heritage hotel. It’s a huge bungalow with an overwhelming influence of the Raj. After a hard ride, the tea bungalow – a Haruchorai Tea Estate – was a very civilised way for us to end this rigorous, but memorable, tour.
And, yes, the Himalayan lived up to my expectations – it could do with a bit more power though. Come to think of it, you can always do with more power. And good weather!