I knew that Ladakh — India’s dry dead empty Nevada-esque northernmost corner — was a motorcycling mecca, home to long desert roads, Earth’s highest motorable passes, and other routes most riders only dream of. I also knew I wanted a piece of it.
What I didn’t know was how to ride a motorcycle.
To be fair, I had the theory down, just not the practice. When I was a kid, the Road Rash trilogy were among my favorite SEGA games. And then when I was 19 I bought a moped. Not a Vespa; that’s a scooter. The real thing; two pedals and 50cc of pure awesome. (Coincidentally, mine was an Indian model, which I dubbed The Untouchable.) Most people, cops and the California DMV don’t really understand what a moped is, so because it has a motor and two wheels, to street legalize it they make you get a license — a motorcycle license.
Thanks to several motorcycling YouTubers, each with a camera and too much time on his hands, I learned everything I needed to know about appropriate shifting, proper leaning techniques, tackling curves and bumps safely, passing, traffic safety, keeping your eyes where you want the bike to go, and so forth. At least to pass the DMV tests, which I did, then promptly forgot it all and returned to the bike lanes single-gearing around Santa Barbara for a few slow and miserable years before getting sick of the thing and pawning it off on some nutjob called Levi Michaels.
But standing in front of one particularly enormous black classic-styled heap of metal, the legendary Royal Enfield Bullet 350, I suddenly found myself calling as much of it back as I could. “You want to test drive this bike?” A moment later I was putting up Changspa Road, nursing the clutch and brakes to avoid the stray dogs, cows and hippies moping about, envisioning me and Steve soaring down the backside of Chang La, wishing I’d thought to pack my stars-and-stripes helmet and befringed buckskin jacket.
Chugging along I remembered my Uncle Rick, himself an avid motorcyclist, strongly recommending I take the DMV-endorsed motorcycle rider safety course before I set out on my own — sound advice from an experienced rider. But hey, I justified, Steve McQueen never did no DMV safety class. Hell, Uncle Rick probably didn’t either!
A moment more and I was signing the rental form — the only legal step between me and a weeklong love affair with speed, power, Freedom and potential serious injury or death, for none of which would Soma Adventures be lawfully responsible. It was a bad, bad, bad decision, one that went against the better judgment of all mankind. But all mankind wasn’t the star of the Great Escape I was thinking of right then. So I went for it.
(Although it was neither suave-looking nor legally required, I went ahead and picked up two helmets.)
Consequently, over the next week, despite an entire life left to try and best them, I experienced undoubtedly both the most incredible and terrible rides I will ever encounter, sometimes in the same day.
Towering snowcapped mountains and interminable desert basins, asphalt ribbons winding off into oblivion. Unpaved passes swiss-cheesed with watery potholes, oversized trucks and buses two and three abreast and barreling down laneless highways the width of golf-cart paths. Ladakh had something for everybody, and heaped all of it on me.
The following posts include some images and words chronicling these rides.
A Note on the Bullet
In a sea of small, underpowered wannabe-Japanese sport bikes, the Enfield is the conspicuous Harley of India, but dressed up like an old Triumph. The British introduced it in the 1940s; Indians liked it, bought the rights to the 1955 design and name, and decided not to change anything about it ever again. A botanist we met in Shimla put it this way: “The Bullet… oh boy. Think sixty-year-old British technology… made in India.” Whether that appeals to you or scares you away, with its hulking steel frame and 350 to 500cc engine, if you’re going long, hard or high in this country, unless you bring your bike from home, the Enfield is what you’re going to need.
And if you want to look or feel like Steve McQueen, it’s gotta be the Bullet. I sure as hell did, and so it was.
Perhaps my extreme and offensive inexperience with motorcycles back home was a good thing, for I didn’t have to start by unlearning anything. With the gear on the right and the brake on the left, the same left that the cars (theoretically) drive on, I may’ve been less confused than most. It took about as long to get used to as the rest of the bike’s quirks.
“This bike is like a woman,” Norboo the rental guy had said. “It takes a special touch.” Straddling the seat and sweating profusely, I realized what he meant was it takes forever to get warmed up. What he hadn’t said was that the old thing couldn’t really idle. On my first roll through town, on about the third stall, I became aware. (I covered my tracks well, though; each time I just rolled up to a pedestrian as if I’d sought them out and asked which way to the petrol pump. And each time it was still at the south end of town.)
The Bullet had some other fun personality traits. For one, the speedometer was shot; a minor problem in a place with few posted speed limits, even fewer traffic police, and a bribe-based ticketing system. There was no gas gauge; so periodically rocking the bike and listening for a swish, and sometimes peeking in the tank was my solution. The gears, shifted by a single lever, were arranged one-up-three-down; this being a rental bike, (the kind signed away to any thrill-seeking yahoo who wanders up) first gear was as ground as Jenny-O, and took some real finesse to engage.
But luckily, the most important feature for tackling Indian roads, the horn, not only worked but sounded like a monster truck’s. So I was pretty much good to go.
Here are some quick links to the other articles, even though the saga is best read in order:
- Biting The Bullet II: Theory Into Practice
- Biting The Bullet III: Upping The Ante
- Biting The Bullet IV: A Tale of Too Shitty Days
- Biting The Bullet V: Topping It All Off
[NOTE: Ride lengths are presented in terms of hours, since the roads are so fickle that it’s impossible to get an idea of anything distance-wise.]