02-Sep-2006 -- Chasing India, the group of Delhi-based American Embassy School motorcycle degenerates, descended upon—or rose to—the stunning foothills of Uttaranchal in Eastern India on 31 August 2006. As with past rides, we decided to use our “hub and spoke” approach to motorcycle travel in India. This entails loading our bikes onto a truck in Delhi, meeting them at a railhead far out of the sprawling metropolis’s traffic ugliness, and then enjoying day rides from a home base—usually a beautiful old palace or mansion that has been converted into a hotel. Bedding down on the Ranikhet Express Thursday night, we pulled into Kathgodam Station at about 6:00 AM on the morning of Friday, 1 September. From there, we hired two Toyota Qualises to transport us about an hour north to the tiny hill town of Bhimtal. Worried about driving the narrow, often-steep switchbacks, our truck driver had stopped next to a petrol pump—still an hour’s journey from our final destination—and slept in the truck. When we arrived at the gas station, the unloading went quickly and without incident. Some of the bikes suffered a few dings and scratches but nothing that wouldn’t be repaired for a couple of hundred rupees. Starting up the bikes also went perfectly…well, almost perfectly. Which vehicle did not start immediately? Take a stab: A) Harrell, Lemkuhl, Kemper, and Mabie’s sprightly and zippy Bajaj Pulsars, B) the road-weary, cycle-schlepping Tata lorry, C) Lemley’s low-ridin’, lady-killin’ Kawasaki Eliminator, D) Kemper’s flatulence, E) Dow’s 1950’s-era, tea-guzzling, “would-someone-give-me-a-push-so-I-can-pop-the-clutch-and-cajole-some-life-into-this-beast?” Enfield Bullet. Good Guess, 100%. So, after Scott spent a half hour with the local mechanic to get his green pig kicking and to repair a broken clutch clasp, we were on our way. A bit slick from monsoon rains but still crisp and clean, the winding way to the Ramgarh Bungalows reacquainted us with the road. These Bungalows are rustic, antique hill station cottages that were formerly used by British administrators to escape the summer heat of Delhi. As they have done with many other Raj-era properties, Neemrana Corporation has bought up the bungalows, renovated them and transformed them into classy, weekend getaway destinations. The combination of pretty orchards, lush valleys and jaw-dropping views makes this area a favorite holiday retreat for both Indians and expatriates.
After a late morning breakfast, we all decided to enjoy a short ride. Scott and I headed off with the intention of doing the fairly short Bhowali-Jeolikote-Nanital-Bhowali loop and then heading back for cocktails, cigars and dinner. We also wanted to find each other’s groove again. Scott and I knew we’d be embarking on a fairly extensive confluence point mission the next day. The preliminary ride was meant to calibrate speeds on wet mountain roads, open up the bikes a bit and check out the pavement even more than it was about taking in the quaint lake town of Nanital. This ride proved wise. About five kilometers outside of Bhowali, Scott’s new clutch clasp—the small metal vice-thingy that holds his clutch handle onto his handlebars—broke again. The snapping of this tiny and inexpensive piece stopped us cold. If the clutch cable cannot be retracted, gear shifting is impossible. So, one half day into this bike trip, Scott and I found ourselves stuck on a beautiful, conifer-covered hillside. Unable to find a way to rig the cable, Scott hopped on the back of my Pulsar, and we descended to Bhowali, a congested little Indian village that happened to be celebrating a Nanda Devi festival. Imagine people and animals thronging roads, the local temple spilling out its pilgrims onto mainstreet, and gawking Indians taking in two freakish, huge white dudes sharing a tiny bike. With Scott riding pillion, I felt like a Shriner in a Fourth of July parade.
As the least mechanically capable person ever placed on this planet, I am continually awe-struck by Scott’s capacity to problem-solve and fix the seemingly unfixable. When Scott’s bike broke, I was inwardly crestfallen, for I thought that there was no way we would be able to make a go for 29, 80. If Scott was worried, he never showed it. For him, it was just another problem to solve. How were we to find Enfield Bullet parts in this little village? I thought. Older Enfields have become fashionable, romanticized leftovers of the British Raj—collector’s items; newer Enfields are used by the cops and everyday Indians. While Bullets, old and new, litter the Indian roads, Japanese models—particularly Bajaj Pulsars and Hero Hondas—are more ubiquitous. Anyway, the Bullet is a big, heavy, unreliable slob of a bike. Loading a Bullet onto a lorry is a hernia-ripping, vein-popping experience. On a cold morning, starting a Bullet is like waking my wife: she needs to be caressed, spoken to gently and allowed time to hack out the morning gunk before she will hum. Scott’s green monster had clearly needed a day or two to stretch, and we had not been accommodating. The present task—finding a small, specific part for Scott’s vintage boulder—was sure to be a task. Where to start?
Scott’s solution was beautifully tailored to the developing world: “Let’s drive around, look for Enfields parked on the roadsides and ask the owners where they get their bikes fixed,” he offered. He proposed this as we were weaving our way into Bhowali. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. First, Scott doesn’t speak Hindi. Second, the answers we’ll receive are sure to be mildly convoluted, at best; village Indians hate to disappoint you with a direct, “I have no idea how to help you” response. Scott’s logic, however, held that if a bloke owns an Enfield, his bike undoubtedly breaks down as much as Scott’s; consequently, he’s getting it fixed somewhere. Unable to proffer a better solution, I followed his lead. After three encounters in the bustling streets of Bhowali, we found our way to a parts shack. The friendly owner could only offer us Pulsar parts, however. We purchased a clasp and screws costing the equivalent of about one dollar and headed back to the stranded bike as quickly as possible; we were losing light. We were happy to find that the bike was there when we got back.
Scott pulled out his tools. I dug out Fig Newtons and beef jerky—survival food. Once installed, the clasp did not work. The piece was too long to allow the clutch cable to click properly into place on the handle. With the use of a disturbingly large Swiss Army Knife, given to me by my dad years ago, Scott used the saw appendage to hack off a portion of the piece. Within minutes we were cruising back to the bungalows. Once again, Scott’s cool-headed, MacGyver-esque way saved the cp hunt. Watching Scott’s adept fingers twist, tighten and torque bike parts both greens me with envy and reassures me as we travel the Indian hinterlands. In fact, one day I truly hope to be stuck in a situation in which the A-Team always “coincidentally” finds itself, you know…during the last fifteen minutes of every show. The sleazy oil town villain has locked the crew in a storage shack that just happens to house an old pick up truck, an oxy-acetylene torch, and a full set of tools. Within five minutes (including commercial breaks), B.A. Baracus, Face, Murdock, and Hannibal are able to fashion an ass-kicking juggernaut, the likes of which they never saw in the Nam. I’m telling you, Scott’s all about this. And, I’d be right there with my Fig Newtons, beef jerky and Swiss Army Knife.
After an evening of strumming the guitar, quaffing Castle Lager and watching the cold rains fall, we enjoyed a beautiful Indian feast. Scott and I rose early the next morning to hunt 29, 80.
According to my two road maps and Google Earth, 29, 80 sat about a mile away from Bambassa, a town directly on the India-Nepal border. As the crow flew, my Garmin E-Trex GPS indicated that the cp was only forty miles away. I knew that we would have to do some mountain riding, but after reaching Kathgodam (a couple of hours south), speedy flatlands awaited. With a straight road guiding us most of the way, I thought, how long could forty miles be? Silly me. I was about to find out how misguided my calculations were. We quickly descended south to Jeolikote, where we stopped for chai (tea), parathas (greasy Indian potato pancakes) and dahi (yogurt). We chatted up the owner/cook of the tiny roadside Himalaya Restaurant and devoured the tasty victuals. Though windy and plagued by the occasional bus, the way down to Kathgodam, still due south, was reasonably quick and predictably picturesque, painted with cliff-teetering temples, stunning pine-covered hillsides and waterfall-spanning stone bridges.
In Kathgodam, the congested, crowded railhead, we came to a traffic circle, which spilled us out heading southeast. We bypassed the bustling town of Haldwani to hit the Haldwani-Chorgallia road. The land here was fascinating; I can only compare it to the drive from Denver that heads into eastern Colorado. As you look into the rearview mirror, you see flat foreground, with mountains suddenly jutting out from the behind. Similarly, Kathgodam-as-railhead clearly was built where it is because of its proximity to the mountains; it’s as close as one can get to the beginnings of the Himalayas without having to build tracks into them. The temperature was noticeably warmer, the air slightly steamy, the leaves larger.
Before long, Scott and I came to the first river over which there was no bridge. Clearly, the rivers here are seasonal phenomena. During the monsoons, rainwater spills out of the mountains and fills channels that sit dry during the hot seasons. The communities in this area, rather than build bridges, construct cement roadways over the riverbeds. So, a motorist will find him/herself cruising along and then come to a dip in the road. This dip changes from black asphalt to concrete. Then he/she must decide whether the channel is navigable, i.e., whether or not the vehicle can muscle through the flowing water. The first small tributary contained only a couple of inches of briskly moving water. We eyeballed it and throttled through the wash. Fun and shoe-drenching. The next two fords gave pause. From flash flood-prone Arizona, Scott is well aware of the power of a small mass of water. I am simply a pansy-ass and scared of everything, so it doesn’t matter that I’m not from Arizona. We took in the next two rivers flowing over the road and decided to try fording them, realizing that this could, very easily, be the end of our trip. Though I felt a bit of slippage under my small back tire, both bikes sailed swimmingly across. Then, the rains began.
The gray skies began to weep on us, almost sad, it seemed, that we were heading east. With the road flat, straight and well-paved, we opened up the bikes. Soon, we found ourselves slicing through beautiful teak wood forests. We found ourselves weaving through machinery and lories used to harvest the expensive timber. Soon, we came to the small hamlet of Chorgallia, the sky fully opening on us. At this point I thought that we would continue to head due east and then eventually cut almost directly south at Tanakpur, skirting the Nepali border into Bambassa. When I asked a local for the road to Bambassa, he pointed that-a-way. So we continued on. I did not realize that we were already heading south on this new road. As it happened, it didn’t matter. We would eventually meet up with a road that ran parallel to the Haldwani-Chorgallia-Tanakpur road. Soon, we soon turned east again and kept moving through the pouring rain to Bambassa. Along the way, we rode alongside a huge dam and irrigation project: on one side, kilometers of canals; on the other, a massive man-made reservoir. After passing through the tiny town of Khatima, we began to move north toward Bambassa. It was at this point that I realized that we had taken a different road in Chorgallia than the one I had intended us to take.
Obviously, Bambassa was not our final destination; cp 29, 80 was. As we trundled along toward Bambassa, the GPS showed that the cp was, at it’s shortest distance from the road, 1.8 miles to the northwest. By the time we actually crossed into Bambassa, the cp was significantly farther away than 1.8 miles. So, why did we continue on to Bambassa? I figured that from Bambassa there might be a number of possible routes heading off in a variety of directions. Perhaps one would head in the general direction of the cp. This proved not to be accurate. So, Scott and I turned around and headed back the way we had come—to the point that was 1.8 miles away. We decided to look for an inroad around here. At this point, I was getting a bit nervous. The land to the right, where we were searching for a way in, looked thick and lush—a prefect home for snakes. According to the Google Earth imagery, however, this thick patch of green—
the venomous snakes’ lair—sat directly next to what was undoubtedly cultivated land; the perfect divisions of squares in the image were clearly man-made. The cp sat right at the edge of these two landmasses. In researching the point, I had figured that if there were farmland here, there must be roads, paths or trails to get back into it.
We cruised along slowly, looking for anything that would lead in. Then, suddenly, we came upon a small shop on the right side of the road, behind which seemed hidden a paved path, barely big enough to fit a small vehicle on and clearly intended for scooters, bikes and feet. We turned in. After a quick jaunt down the path, farmland opened before us. This appeared different from the many cultivated areas I’d driven through around Delhi. Those seemed more disjointed, less organized. Clearly delineated, sectioned-off plots comprised this area. I’m not certain what the crops were. Heartening was that the small, nicely kept way kept weaving back and forth almost exactly toward the cp. This made some sense. If the cp lay at the edge of this cultivated area, as the Google Earth image indicated it would, it made sense that the road would stretch back to the farthest reaches of it. The GPS reading continued to click closer to our destination as we passed by incredulous locals sitting under small overhangs which jutted out from houses and small sundry shops. The old men leaned back, drinking chai, smoking beedies and chatting. They would shake their heads and chuckle as we zoomed by, Scott in my drenched Northface Gortex and I in my lined, Kevlar riding jacket and mushroom helmet. Any water resistance that our gear offered had totally stopped functioning back in Chorgallia.
To our amazement, the small road ended only an eighth of a mile from the cp. Here it became a soupy slop of mud. We shut off the bikes, took note of the herd of cows lumbering by and nodded to a befogged farmer named Adivert. In tight English, he asked that we not shoot his photo. Worth note here is how different the Indians in this part of India appeared. We were directly on the border, so the people began to look more “Nepali,” if you will—what Westerners think of as more “East Asian”—with broader faces and epicanthic eye folds. We asked if this was his field and if we might walk in it. Not understanding or really caring why we wanted to do this, he agreed. No doubt, Adivert seemed a bit suspicious, but who wouldn’t be considering the circumstances? To our amazement, the footpath even kept heading in the direction of the cp. By this point, we were exiting farmland and entering dense, lush, flower-bedecked vegetation. This did not look like the India Scott and I had ridden in the past as much as it did a Southeast Asian jungle. As we trod along, the path became less distinct. Unsuccessful in convincing Scott to take the lead, I grabbed a long branch, stomped with every step and beat the bushes ahead as we moved along, crying, “Big scary Americans here, snakey snakes! Go away! Please don’t bite us! Pretty please!” Whether it was the noise or the deferential nature of the requests, the ploy seemed to be working. The snake thing weighed even more heavily as the GPS reported that the cp now lay .2 miles off into thick, dense, twisted, overgrown brush. We were not about to stop now, so we turned right, off the path. Using the branch as a sort of machete, pushing our arms through tangled bushes and high stepping into vegetation, we pushed on toward the cp. After a few more feet and the GPS two-step to line up the zeros, we nailed it. Bravo.
We snapped the necessary shots, strolled back out to the bikes, noted the time (1:30ish) and realized that we needed to book; the weather was not breaking, and we needed to get home while it was still light out. Dark and wet Indian roads are perilous in a car, suicide on a bike. We stopped briefly near some houses as we began to head back through the farm fields that I mentioned earlier. A farmer named Isan Singh told us that this, the closest village to the cp, was called Nagwanat. He was okay with standing for a photo. Some locals gathered to take us in and all were friendly. Later, Scott would ruminate that perhaps in this area of India there were communist sympathies for the Maoists rebels operating in the nearby hills of Nepal. Small, equally-divided, well-kept farms; an educated populace; suspicions of photos: all of these could suggest a small, strongly communal village. Between the Naxalites in South India and the strength of Communism in and around Calcutta, Communism is not new to India.
Anyway, Scott and I stopped in Khatima to down a hot cup of chai and calculate our journey back. Scott aired his concerns about fording the rivers that we had crossed on our way to the cp. At that point, a couple of hours earlier, the sky had not yet opened up on us. By now, the rains had been falling steadily for a number of hours. The relatively small streams would undoubtedly be swollen with rainwater. This certainly weighed heavily on us as we rode toward the riverbeds. As is often the case in the developing world, alternate routes are either not realistic or non-existent. On the map, there appeared to be an available road into the mountains before reaching the river portion of the journey back, but the cartographer’s squiggle was not conclusive or confidence inspiring. Moreover, even if it did exist, the road did not look as if it led to the area of our bungalow. And, as Scott and I had noted traveling down from Ramgarh, forty miles on the GPS meant nothing when factoring in mountain roads. At the end of the day, we would end up having traveled 200 miles. Saddle-soar doesn’t even begin to cover it. As it happened, the rivers were not so swollen as we’d feared they might be. Indeed, they were slightly higher and swifter than when we had initially encountered them but certainly crossable. Again, I felt a bit of a shimmy on the back wheel of my Pulsar as we crossed the deepest point of the biggest river, but I hit the throttle and moved through the wash without difficulty. The more serious challenge of the return journey was still to come.
From the cp all the way back, the rain never stopped. I’ve never—even at birth— been wetter in my life. Sopping clothes clung to me from every millimeter of clammy, pruned skin. Remember, however, that the temperature in the lowlands was comfortably warm—even a bit balmy. This was to change at Kathgodam. As I mentioned earlier, Kathgodam is the beginning of the Himalayas. From Kathgodam to the Ramgarh Bungalows, Scott and I would need to ascend five thousand feet of winding roads. Tired, buttocks-blistered and already chilled from hours of saturation, Scott and I began the climb. As the increasingly cooler air began passing over our drenched frames, the shivers began to set in. Scott then began motioning to me to slow down—a gesture I could barely see through my droplet-stippled glasses. As he pulled along side me between passing busses, he indicated that at our current cruising speed of twenty-five kilometers per hour, his front break grip was fully depressed; he was driving with only his back break. Once again, Scott’s trusty Enfield was livening up the journey. By the time we reached Jeolikote, we were shaking so badly that we could not control the bikes. We couldn’t believe it, but the rain was actually falling harder. Is there a point of maximum wetness? We huddled under cover of the Himalaya Restaurant, gripping and gulping scalding hot chai. We assessed the time and the distance. Five bells. If we kept moving at the same pace, we would reach the bungalows by twilight. Pepping each other up and agreeing to move as slowly as was needed—at this elevation, it was about to get meat-locker cold—we revved up and moved on. There came a point, about twenty minutes before reaching home base, where the pain and shivering stopped: initial signs of hypothermia, I imagine. We zoomed into the Ramgarh Bungalows with our comrades applauding from the back porch of our cozy cottage. We were met with greetings of relief, hot chai and three knuckles of the brown stuff. After stripping off our super-saturated threads, wrapping up in layers of warm clothes and blankets and sipping Kentucky’s finest, the feeling started to return to our extremities. The group supped, slept and enjoyed a stunning ride to Mukteshwar (9000 feet) the next day to take in the twenty-five thousand foot peaks visible there. We returned to Delhi without incident. The cp hunt was the wettest and coldest so far, filled with new sights and good fun. Thanks, Mr. Dow, for another fine adventure.