Full throttle in the Himalaya

What better way to celebrate World Motorcycle Day than be in the company of riders at 13000 feet on the Rohtang-Leh highway...
Full throttle in the Himalaya

Manali, summer solstice, World Music Day, World Cup on the big screen &ndash the setting couldn&rsquot have been more perfect. And to top it all, it was the World Motorcycle Day. And if you know about Manali, you can&rsquot 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 &ndash an individual riding community &ndash 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, &ldquoWhat&rsquos the big deal about some Indian motorcycles in the Himalayas&rdquo here&rsquos the deal &ndash &lsquoIndian&rsquo 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 &ndash the Chieftain and Chief Vintage &ndash were in Manali for the Riderthon half-summit.

Personally, the Anthony Hopkins movie The World&rsquos 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 &lsquopush&rsquo 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 &ndash the very icon of Brazilian football &ndash missed seeing a match at the stadium the other day due to the country&rsquos notorious traffic jams. And if there&rsquos one country that can match Brazil in this, it&rsquos India. The road to Rohtang Pass is a classic example of how you&rsquoll not be spared a fender-to-fender traffic jam in this country &ndash even at a frozen 13,000 feet

It&rsquos 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&rsquot 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 &lsquoselfie-d&rsquo 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&rsquot 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 &ndash 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 &ndash 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 &lsquoexclusive&rsquo 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 &ndash 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 &ndash so what if the Indian couldn&rsquot 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 &ndash as per the organisers&rsquo invitation &ndash 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&rsquos a helmet &ndash the most prized possession a rider has after the bike itself. &ldquoNever ignore your protective gear and always respect your (Enfield) Bullet,&rdquo 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 &lsquoguy thing&rsquo zone. An MNC executive, Shreedevi Thakur had been &lsquoforced&rsquo into this ride by her husband Neelesh, but she soon became a convert to biking. &ldquoNow I&rsquom happy that he did so,&rdquo she says, looking around to admire the beauty of the place.    

I didn&rsquot have my wheels, but the sight of every passing biker strengthened my resolve to do this trip. &ldquoThis road leads to Ladakh,&rdquo I muttered to myself, quite a few times, vowing to return one day on a Bullet.

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