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Curtain Call: A biker’s return to the real high

  • After brain surgery seemingly spelt the end of mountain rides, this rider found a way to get fit for high-altitude again
  • Riding through Nepal and Tibet, over a pass at 18000 ft, to the Rongbuk Monastery at the foot of Mt. Everest

Heading back to Tingri from the Cho Oyu Base Camp
Heading back to Tingri from the Cho Oyu Base Camp (Photo courtesy: Royal Enfield)

NO! I don’t want to sell it!"I yelled at the scrap merchant, before telling him to go and do some rather rude things to himself. I am not normally ill-mannered, but this person had been persistently trying to get me to sell my Royal Enfield Bullet. He had seen my trusty 1998 Machismo parked, unused, for close to two years.

In September 2017, I was diagnosed with a subdural haematoma and I thought the curtain had fallen on my motorcycling days. The same month, a brain surgeon operated on me, drilling two holes to drain the blood clot between my brain and skull. The surgery went off well and I came out of it good as new, but another knock on the head would definitely be a bad idea. In addition, the debilitating headache that had resulted in me going to the doctors and a long round of tests before being diagnosed had started at Sach Pass in Himachal Pradesh, at an altitude of 14,500ft. It left me with a fear of high altitudes as the place that spelt the start of my troubles. Grudgingly accepting that my riding days were probably done, I tried to convince myself that “road trips are more fun in a car" and did several around the world over the next two years, travelling to Turkey, the US, Australia and even Serbia.

Meanwhile, spiders, dust and falling leaves made the recesses of my motorcycle their home. Often, while getting into my car, I would give it a sideways glance, almost as though ashamed to look it in the eye, to confront the decay of this antique machine that had been my steadfast companion over four of the world’s highest passes, on broken roads and at freezing temperatures. “It’s not worth the risk," I would tell myself, not very convincingly, as my fingers subconsciously ran though my hair, feeling the two holes in my head.

Mount Everest from the room at Rongbuk Monastery
Mount Everest from the room at Rongbuk Monastery (Photo courtesy: Royal Enfield)

But old John Muir penned profound prose when he wrote “the mountains are calling and I must go". For me, that call, the one I couldn’t resist, was an invitation to go riding to the mother of all peaks, Mount Everest itself. It was a group ride in October to the Rongbuk Monastery at the base of Mount Everest in Tibet, organized by Royal Enfield. It was a destination too tempting to refuse, and within 10 minutes of getting the call, I had confirmed my participation and sent off all the necessary travel documents and photographs.

One needs to consult a map since Google Maps doesn’t work in Tibet
One needs to consult a map since Google Maps doesn’t work in Tibet (Photo courtesy: Royal Enfield)

When I look back now, I realize how that one call changed my life. I had settled into a rhythm of good food and Netflix. My road trips in fancy cars were comfortable affairs. My surgeon had advised me to go easy on exercise for eight months—which I had stretched to a sedentary two years—making my muscles soft as fresh bread and my gut generous.

When I tried on my riding clothes, I was dismayed to find that the pants wouldn’t button up and the jacket stretched over my midriff like a taut drum. I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle for two years and within two months I would need to ride over demanding terrain at high altitudes, in freezing temperatures, through air with 40% less oxygen.

Those two months leading to the trip became my boot camp. I got my old Machismo restored. I culled the carbs from my diet, packed in protein, and got on to a strenuous workout regimen. I invested in a new helmet that cost as much as a motorcycle and swung my leg over the saddle for the first time in two years. I can still remember the joy I felt when I kick-started my old Royal Enfield and it roared to life, launching the crows from the neighbouring trees.

Rishad Saam Mehta with fellow motorcyclists at the end of the ride in Kathmandu
Rishad Saam Mehta with fellow motorcyclists at the end of the ride in Kathmandu (Photo courtesy: Royal Enfield)

By the time I boarded my flight to Kathmandu, I was 7kg lighter, my riding clothes looked tailor-made for me, and I had clocked 600km on my beautiful blue Bullet.

Even before the ride had started, it had taken me off the sedate path and on to a new and more exciting one.

Riding through a stream in Nepal’s Terai landscape.
Riding through a stream in Nepal’s Terai landscape. (Photo courtesy: Royal Enfield)

When I arrived in Kathmandu and met the rest of the group, I realized that at 47 years, I was older than anyone else by a whole decade. Over the next two days, as we rode from Kathmandu to the border of Nepal and Tibet, I got to know the group as well as my ride for the 1,200km, the Royal Enfield Himalayan. Most of the roads we rode over were broken, often filled with mud the consistency of thick porridge. There were streams to be crossed and gravel to be ridden over, but the motorcycle took it all with aplomb. I had expected the rigours of the road would result in a painful back and tormented thighs but my two months of effort working out and riding my bike paid off.

Riding through Tibet was the high point for most of us on the trip. I had wanted to go there ever since I read Peter Hopkirk’s Trespassers On The Roof Of The World over a decade ago. Tibet is not easy to travel to even today, and planning a self-drive trip requires negotiating much red tape, so an organized trip like this is one of the easiest ways to visit. In the two months that I was preparing for the ride, Sabin of Wild Adventures Nepal (Royal Enfield’s local organizer) was doggedly pushing paperwork for permits and passes so that we could ride Indian-registered motorcycles into Tibet.

He had done his job well. In just 20 minutes, all 15 of us, including a camera and video crew, crossed the border from Rasuwa Gadhi in Nepal into Tibet’s Gyirong region. But the border officials inspected every piece of luggage, checked every phone, and did X-ray and infrared scans of all of us.

Our first day of riding in Tibet made Nepal’s torturous roads seem like a cakewalk. As we rode 24km to Gyirong town, we climbed 5,000ft, and the temperature dropped by 20 degrees to hover at about 6 degrees Celsius.

After the 2015 earthquake that significantly damaged the town of Zhangmu, then the largest border crossing between Nepal and Tibet, Gyirong was developed as an alternative. After two days of riding through a rural landscape in Nepal, it was shocking to find this town at 9,000ft with glitzy neon lights, supermarkets, massage parlours and pubs with pool tables.

Our ride through Tibet began in earnest the next day, with a briefing by our guide Tenzing on how we were expected to behave in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. He warned us about the cost of colliding with livestock (4,000 yuan, or around 40,000) or, worse still, a Yak (14,000 yuan). He also briefed us about the terrain and the weather we could expect. When we set off, the cold was like a living thing that wanted to make inroads into the marrow of our bones. I realized the worth of my helmet when its snug fit didn’t let any of the cold in. I had planned my gear well but my fingers felt near frozen despite two pairs of gloves. And it kept getting colder as we ascended at a rapid rate.

In just 90km from Gyirong, we gained 8,500ft as we crested Gun Thung Pass at 17,500ft. The rapid gain in height was also due to the superb roads we were riding on. After being tossed around in Nepal, this unblemished tarmac with perfectly cambered corners and very little traffic was a delight.

The drab landscape changed as we crested the pass and rode on to the Tibetan plateau—the mystical roof of the world—and I remember the stunning deep-blue view of Paiku Tso that lay 20km away at 14,500ft. As we rode towards the lake, the first of the five Eight Thousanders (the term used for the 14 peaks above 8,000m, all of them located in the Himalaya) I would see on this trip came into view. We stopped for lunch by the shores of Paiku Tso, with the 26,332ft-high Shishapangma above.

In the heady excitement of the ride and the view, I had completely forgotten about my head. As we rode towards Tingri, a mild headache set in, and by the time we reached, I was nauseous and worried. But several others in the group were feeling the same way, and I realized mountain sickness was setting in. That’s a demon I have dealt with often and I know how to tame it. I drank enough water to put a camel to shame, consciously controlled my breathing and didn’t exert at all.

It worked, and I felt bright and chirpy the next day. Unfortunately, two others weren’t so lucky and had to stay back in Tingri, while some others who rode were nursing mild headaches. But that day’s ride made me realize why the words Zen and motorcycling are so frequently uttered together, and why I will never be done with motorcycling. What a road we rode!

We went off the Friendship Highway that runs between Tingri and Lhasa on to the road to Rongbuk, ascending the 18,000ft-high Kya Wu Lha Pass. Standing atop it, it struck me that a few years ago I had jumped out of an aeroplane to skydive. That plane had been flying at 15,000ft, and I was wearing an oxygen mask. And here I was, 3,000ft higher, my mind and body running fine on un-canned Himalayan air.

The view from the pass was fantastic: The deep-blue sky stretched across the horizon, broken only by the peaks of the Eight Thousanders standing like sentinels. There was the Everest itself—leaving no doubt that it is the grandest—flanked by the Lhotse, the Makalu, the Cho Oyu, and the Shishapangma. Below, away from the pass, the road wrapped around the landscape like a satiny ribbon of black.

We had scattered as a group and I found myself riding that road alone. By now I knew the bike well, its capability around corners, and the right time to twist my wrist to tap into its torque and traction. On that road, I knew just what to do with the bike without thinking, so I could enjoy the splendid scenery as I rode. I was so close to heaven—my head was fine and it was my second chance at life.

That evening at Rongbuk, I saw the rays of the setting sun colour the snow-clad summit of the Everest orange and gold from so close that I felt I could reach out and touch it. The next morning, I drew open the curtains to see the world’s tallest peak framed in the window. It was stunning to stand where George Mallory had stood in 1921, looking at the north face of the Everest, just as I was now.

But the moment that stays with me is from that ride on the road to Rongbuk alone, save for the exalted company of the grandest mountains of the world. It was a moment when I felt an overpowering sense of gratitude for still being able to ride, and to ride at 18,000ft and -2 degrees Celsius and feel unbridled joy while doing it. It was hard to believe I had convinced myself that my motorcycling days were over.

I hope they never are!

Rishad Saam Mehta is a Mumbai-based author, travel writer and budding travel video maker.

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