It’s unusual to see a woman riding a motorcycle in this country, much less a heavy Royal Enfield.
During this entire trip, everywhere heads have turned to watch M- ride by. Wherever we wander, she is our ambassador, our interpreter. All I need do is stand behind her, holding my helmet, watching as her charm melts whomever we meet, inspiring them to help us in some way.
From the boys running this luxury camp resort on the shores of Pangong Lake, an eye-blue body of water that lies on the border between India and Tibet, her electricity has garnered us free food over the last two days. We’re not staying at the boys’ camp (we’re camped on the water about a half-mile away) yet seeing her and learning she speaks Hindi has inspired them to appear at our tent door around mealtimes to invite us to come eat alongside the wealthy Indian tourists who pay them $80 a night for tent and board.
So we eat these free meals and camp under the full moon on the shore of the lake for three days, and on the fourth day set out over Chang La Pass (at 17,590 feet, the third highest motorable road in the world) on our way to the Leh-Manali highway.
My luggage rack, which I’d had welded back together a week before, judders apart on the way and I have to jerry-rig it back together with some rope and scrap wood I find on the ground near Karu.
The next eight hours are spent riding as fast as our motorcycles can carry us, only occasionally pausing to urinate or admire the rock formations. We ride over Taglang pass (17,480 ft) and as far south as Pang, an encampment of parachute tents that we reach as the dusklight turns the surrounding canyonlands ochre. We pitch our camp on the plateau above the tents and set off the next morning at 5 a.m.
After climbing Lachalung Pass (16,598 ft), the cliffs grow steeper, the mountains blacker, the roads more dangerous. As we descend, weeds and shrubs begin to replace the grey scree, and trees start appearing alongside the streams.
After a month of nothing but desiccated high-altitude desert, such greenery causes a new energy to surge through me.
Then, some 20 miles from the military checkpoint guarding the Himachal Pradesh border, we run into our last major challenge. As we round the corner of a narrow switchback we find the route half-blocked by a landslide, which has loosened a waterfall over the road, flooding it three feet deep and creating a river that rushes down the road a half mile before plunging off the cliff.
Traffic is already backed up for nearly a kilometer.
When we finally squeeze through to the front we find a giant lorry stuck tire-deep in the river.
We watch as it reverses and attempts to accelerate over some sub-aquatic obstacle, but whatever is hidden beneath the water is simply impassable. The lorry reverses and rams, reverses and rams, over and over again.
As the traffic accumulates and crowds gather to watch this spectacle, my mind begins to drift towards the issue of how the hell we’re going to ride through such a river. I trudge through the water in my riding boots, feeling my way around for large boulders, holes and other potential obstacles. When I come the stuck lorry, I kneel down and reach my leg out to feel around underwater for what’s obstructing its path. My boot bumps over some jagged stones and then slides off the edge of a boulder straight down about a foot and a half. This is what the truck is trying to ramp over, and what we will have to ride off of if we go down.
The image of being pushed down by the river and trapped under the bike beneath the water comes to mind, and I begin looking around for alternative paths. But there are none. And there is no other road out of Ladakh besides the road we came in on through Kashmir, hundreds of miles in the other direction.
I walk back through the river to M- and we plot our course. If we plan on getting through before nightfall we would have to park our bikes at the front of the traffic and take off as soon as the truck clears the road. But after that? Who knew. Our only strategy was haste.
Assuming I’d get wet on the sprint through the river, I sit my camera bag and other valuables on a rock on the other side, to collect once I get across.
The lorry continues its dance with the boulder while the drivers on our side of the river – Ladakhi chauffeurs of vans and buses full of Buddhist pilgrims returning home from the Kalachakra – grow increasingly incensed. On the other side, about two-dozen husky Punjabis are standing beside their giant trucks.
Inevitably, these two groups begin shouting at each another until one of the Ladakhi drivers pulls his minibus forward and blocks the road, demanding that the lorry abandon its hopeless endeavor and back away so that smaller vehicles can try to get through. He begins directing other minibuses to pull behind him, strengthening the blockade, and in retaliation the Punjabis do the same, thus making the road completely impassable to anyone. Even if someone were to make it across the river, which for the moment still seems unlikely, it would be impossible to pass the roadblock on either side.
They keep shouting at one another, cursing, honking, shaking their fists.
I crouch on a boulder in the middle of the river, smoke a cigarette and watch the water divide and recollect around me. As I crouch, an American couple on bicycles pedals up, surveys the idiocy, lifts their bikes onto their shoulders and steps gingerly from rock to rock across to the other side.
“Looks like the tortoise will win the race,” I say.
“Great day to have a bike,” the man says. “And now the road will be empty!”
About an hour later — at a point I am no longer paying any attention, but rather just sitting there numb on my rock watching the water swirl around me — the truck, with the help of many groaning shirtless men pushing and tugging on ropes, finally climbs over the boulder.
I run across the river shouting to M- “Let’s go! We gotta go!” and hop on my bike.
Twenty or so other motorcycles kick-start their engines. Whoever gets to the river first might get through, otherwise another lorry might pull up and clog the route again.
The moment the truck clears the river I take off – the first off the line – with my boots down to kick me upright again should I begin to fall. I know if I stop the current will drag me over so I accelerate blindly through the rushing water, bouncing over boulders, the river knee-deep, my muffler gurgling, rooster tails of water flying on either side.
And I would have made it. I would have made it all the way through had not another motorcycle come racing towards me in the opposing direction, making me veer to avoid him. As I do my bike drops over the edge of the boulder that the truck had been stuck on and bottoms out, pinning me in the middle of the river as the rushing water pushes me sideways, nearly pulling me down as I strain to keep the bike upright.
I look at the expressionless men witnessing my struggle from the riverbank.
“A push! A push! I need a push!” I shout, but none of them moves. I look around to find M- a few yards behind me, a man on each side of her motorcycle, knee-deep in the stream, valiantly helping to push her through.
I accelerate, but the wheel just spins, unable to make contact with the rocks. People begin shouting at me in various languages, but nobody helps. I stand and pull up on the handlebars and rock and jump until the wheel catches and the bike rockets forward, scooping me up with it. I am bouncing around like a ragdoll across the boulders towards the shallows on the opposite bank. Once I reach ankle-deep water, I park my bike and run over to collect the things I’d left on the rock.
By the time I get back on my bike M- has already rode past. I motor up to meet her.
“We did it!” she shouts, giving me a high five. “What a rush!”
For the rest of the ride to Keylong, we have the road entirely to ourselves and I ride with a freshness that can only be brought about when you pass through such a nerve-wracking trial.
During such moments there are no distractions of the mind, no thoughts of the past, no desire for any future; the present is as sharp as a knife.