HIGH RODE TO ADVENTURE
RIDING AN INDIAN- MADE MOTORCYCLE FROM A CITY OF SWARMING CHAOS TO THE TALLEST PEAK IN THE WORLD PUSHES A LAPSED BIKER BEYOND HIS COMFORT ZONE
Biking to the foot of Mt Everest is an intrepid journey for body and soul
THE QUOTE EMBLAZONED across the website of an adventure motorbike tour company offering a 13-day endurance ride from Kathmandu to Mount Everest had me hooked from the outset and, if I’m honest, a bit jittery too. “Just you, a motorcycle, mind-silencing scenery and a bunch of other people who are curious enough to want to find out where this adventure will take them.”
I’m a motorbike man from way back but over the decades career and family have taken centre stage. By my mid-60s motor biking had dwindled to infrequent, mild-mannered outings with mates. A few years ago, I had triple-bypass heart surgery. Throw that into the mix and my credentials for extreme adventure were questionable.
I didn’t know it at the time but signing up to ride 2400 kilometres on a Royal Enfield Himalayan from chaotic Kathmandu across the Nepal/China border into Tibet, up as far as Lhasa and back down to Everest Base Camp, managing rugged roads, chill-to-the bone-weather and high-altitude air, was going to be a personal game-changer. I lost five kilos on the tour but what I gained can’t be measured: a massive sense of accomplishment and a new appreciation of the world. And so my life-enhancing adventure began. Twenty-seven fellow riders, six from my home-base of Hawke’s Bay and a collection of Aussies, Brits and Irish, assembled in Kathmandu with a day-and-a-half to spare before the action began.
My nerves jangled at the thought of riding our motorbikes out of such a crazy, messy, wonderful city where broken buildings and temples remain in a state of flux following the devastating regional earthquake of 2015, and cars, cows, trucks, taxis, mopeds and cycle rickshaws converge in four-lane road frenzy.
“Anything bigger than you has the right of way and follow the person in front,” we were advised at our first briefing at the hotel. At 1.9 metres I’m definitely taller than most Nepalese people but height was irrelevant and I was going to do exactly what I was told.
While we waited to be allocated motorbikes and for an orientation ride out of Kathmandu, we maximized our tourist time by hiring a guide and a minivan for the price of a 30-minute taxi ride in New Zealand. The whistle-stop tour took us to the ancient town of Patan listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the holy Buddhist shrine of Swayambhunath on a hillock overlooking the Kathmandu Valley before we pulled up in the vicinity of a cremation ceremony on the banks of the Bagmati River. I felt awkward observing something so deeply personal, but it appeared to be a matter-of-fact affair. With a body wrapped in orange cloth and a pyre it was so at odds with New Zealand traditions. I felt a long way from home.
The following day with our group visa into Tibet sanctioned, my own set of wheels and a dummy ride under my belt, we rode out of the hotel carpark (as saluting security staff halted the traffic) and headed up the scenic 140km Friendship Highway to the Tibetan border.
The earthquake in 2015 destroyed the Friendship Bridge between Nepal and Tibet, closing that border to foreign tourists for two years. A new crossing opened in late 2017 and our party was believed to be the first organized motorcycle tour group in the world to use it.
We were warned that traveling to the border was the toughest leg of our Himalayan escapade and no-one in our party would disagree: seven hours of high-demand riding on raw roads with hairpin bends, blind curves, potholes, slips and biting rain.
‘ You signed up for a challenge not an easy- going holiday’
My heebie-jeebies disappeared. I didn’t have time to fret since intense concentration was the name of the game. We barely got out of second gear and we always stuck with a mate – anything could happen in such hairy terrain. A buddy system was our mantra throughout the trip. “Look out for each other. First on the scene at an intersection waits for the others to catch up.”
Our digs for the first night in the village of Syabrubesi were basic but I don’t think anyone had trouble sleeping. In the morning the border access – not unlike an airport control point – was serious stuff as the Chinese authorities reviewed then rubber-stamped 27 foreign riders on 27 Indian-registered bikes.
Our own mechanical and medical team traveled with us throughout the journey but in Tibet we were joined by a local support crew who translated for us, carried our luggage, lunches, snacks of sweet biscuits and hot tea, and guided us through 10 days of lunar landscape which will never leave my mind. Think Tongariro National Park on steroids – from New Tingri, Xigaze and Lhasa to Everest Base Camp and Gyirong – with mountainous 5000-metre Himalayan hill climbs to boot (Aoraki Mt Cook is 3700 metres).
One minute you felt you were solo on the moon, the next minute smiling, waving Tibetans were herding goats alongside the wide, well-constructed sealed roads that were better than most state highways at home. It was such a juxtaposition: primitive life alongside Tibet’s modern transport infrastructure funded by China.
The days were long, strenuous and uplifting. We were now averaging 100kph. Our accommodation was first-class, Tibetanstyle hotels with a strong Western influence. With our timeframe tight and our bodies tired, we dined in-house. Nothing fancy but nourishing – stir-fried veges, rice, bok choy, broths, chilli and chicken. Coffee was all but non-existent; the staple beverage was tsampa – roasted barley flour mixed with a salty, buttery tea made with yak butter.
Midway through we had a rest day in the stunning city of Lhasa where 24 hours was never going to be enough. I climbed the 2500 steps up to the seventh-century Potala Palace, once the residence of the Dalai Lama, as if in slow motion because of the lack of oxygen in the air. None in our group suffered altitude sickness thanks to the tablets we were advised to take, and I kept dehydration at bay with a crucial three to four litres of electrolytes and fluids each day.
On day 11 there remained one highlight to tick off. That great big hunk of a rock – Everest – the whole impetus for our ride. And it didn’t disappoint. The day was clear. The beauty of the mountain took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes thinking of those who’d lost their lives up there and of Sir Edmund Hilary’s legacy. In the short time we were at Everest Base Camp, a 70-year-old man with no legs scaled the summit and one death was reported on the slopes.
The camp settlement had a commercial vibe with locals peddling handicraft at inflated prices and I was happy to pay – this, after all, is their livelihood. That night in front of the yak dung-fueled stove at our accommodation, Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world, I sipped a ginger and honey tea and watched the last light leave Everest. How lucky could we be?
On the morning of day 12, we scraped ice off our motorbike seats and tilted our minds homewards. Fighting off the cold for most of the day we rode a section of the Old Silk Road as we neared Gyirong for our last night in Tibet. Plans for a faster route back to Kathmandu were scuttled by news that Nepal had been hit by severe thunderstorms and landslides were blocking the road. I was nervous about reliving that gnarly first challenge but surprised to find a fortnight on the bike had me in the groove. It was easier.
Back at our hotel in Kathmandu I enjoyed the best cold beer of my life and toasted an extraordinary experience – nerve-wracking, inspirational, unbelievable. Would I do it again? A fellow rider said to me, “You signed up for a challenge not an easy-going holiday and you got it. Now you have stories to tell when you get home.”
The stories are still being told including one about the addictiveness of extreme adventure. Oh yes, the Roof of India ride on a Royal Enfield Himalayan motorcycle is up next.
The fleet of 27 motorcycles parks up outside the Rongbuk Monastery guesthouse – the group’s relatively luxurious accommodation for the night near Everest Base Camp.