This was my nth stop since we started riding from Tingri to the border town of Zhangmu. The sun was out and yet, the air was chilly. Mid October and an average elevation of over 13,000 feet meant the air temperature was roughly around 5 degrees. However, when you are doing over 80km/h and trying to dodge long trailers doing over a ton, the “wind chill” factor makes the wind more like -10 degrees by the time it hits your body. No amount of layers in this case can protect you from the goosebumps, shivers and that ‘going numb’ feeling.After every time I stopped to warm myself up, within minutes, the painful tingling sensation hit the fingers – this inspite of wearing what the shop owner at Delhi cantonment’s famous Gopinath Bazaar termed as extreme snow gloves. The Quechua boots that I bought specially for this ride also gave in next, forcing me to stop every 15 minutes and follow the same exercise of warming up the gloves and shoes in the warm exhaust note of the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500. Welcome to the extreme roof of the world, Tibet!
A fortnight earlier, I had a mission. The task of putting forward the idea of this ride, which would keep me away from home for 17 days, in front of my better half seemed, well, impossible. Visa formalities had been done secretly and my air-tickets (to Lucknow, back from Kathmandu) were booked as well. This would perhaps be the biggest and the most important ride of my life – it’s not every day that you get an invitation to ride across to Tibet from India on two-wheels. I have done everything from Ladakh to the Austrian Alps on a motorcycle but this one was special and epic. And hence after what felt like a possible divorce situation, I was finally given the green signal. See, love marriages do work in the long run!
The Tour of Tibet is the first of its kind initiative by a motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Further, the amount of paper work and formalities involved on this route make it nearly impossible for an individual to simply pick up his motorcycle and ride out into Tibet. Royal Enfield already runs it annual “Himalayan Odyssey” and this is clearly a level up. As part of the media invitations, we were invited to come, ride, experience and feel the thump at what better place but Tibet itself!Day 1: 11th October 2013 - New Delhi to Lucknow via Air India Rains lashing IGI T3 as we prepared to take off for Lucknow
Lucknow is the biggest town closest to the India-Nepal border. Logistically, it made sense and the reason why the ride was flagged off from this city on the 12th October 2013. I had not ridden for ages with my last motorcycle trip being in Feb 2011 and clearly, I had a lot of homework to do. Thankfully, my helmet, riding jacket, riding pants and other stuff was still not lost and on the morning of 11th, I was in an Air India flight to the city of Kunde Kababs. A quick taxi ride to hotel Tulip Inn and I was glad to see a dozen thumpers standing in the parking lot. An hour later, I was given my official “Tour of Tibet” t-shirt and a few stickers. Keys to the media bike I would be riding were still nowhere to be seen. The line up of Thunderbirds at the parking lot in Lucknow
The evening saw the entire group (minus a few who would join us at Kathmandu) come together for an informal session that was led by the official guys from RE. Dos and don’ts were discussed a generic idea for the days to come was told about. By 7, I was finally given the keys to the bike that would be my companion for the next 16 days. It would take me across to the secret and (to an extent) forbidden lands of Tibet and little did I know, this particular bike would turn out to be one of the most reliable machines in the group too.
It had been ages since I tanked up a motorcycle. I sold my CBR250R an year back and since then fuel prices have risen as well. The Thundebird 500 has a massive fuel tank and hence it took a good amount of fuel and money before I saw the precious liquid at the brim – 1,200 read the dispenser meter and it did leave a surprise look on my face. Reality check, Mr Punia!
For dinner, Charles, a colleague from Bikewale.com, and I decided to ride down to the nearest KFC and grab some juicy chicken burgers before being limited to, well, limited options for the next two weeks! As luck would have had it, I also bumped into a Facebook and a motorcycle friend who recognized me near the parking lot. The world indeed is a small place. Is it?Day 2: 12th October 2013 - Lucknow to Bhairahawa (Nepal) via GorakpurDistance: 370km
By morning, we were running close to an hour late by the time we reached our flag-off point, a Royal Enfield brand store. The Lucknow chapter of Royal Enfield riders were also among the two dozen bikers waiting for us to get there. A quick half hour break and we were flagged off in style and further escorted out of the city to the lovely four lane highway to Gorakpur.At the Brand Center, from where we were finally flagged off in style (ignore the board above the Royal Enfield board)
Ten minutes later, there I was, cruising at an indicated 90km/h with mild vibrations for company. Our luggage was in the back-up vehicle and hence no worries there. A few bikers went all blast, overtaking all of us. However, some of us didn’t see the need for it. Soon, we got in a small group and rode on, enjoying the highway till it lasted. A quick break before hitting GorakpurSomewhere enroute Gorakpur
Good things never last indeed. Right at the outskirts of Gorakpur, we had to leave the 4-lane smooth highway for a single pot-holed laden road. Lunch was at a rusty old Dhaba but the quality of food was one of the best on the entire trip. Leaving Gorakpur, our aim was to take the single lane state highway to Nepal Border at Sanauli. Let me also add that this was also the toughest stretch of the ride. Senseless traffic, congested towns every few kilometers and ofcourse the humid heat, we all ended up enjoying our own steam / sauna bath in our sweat.The single lane suicidal state highway to Sanauli border
Carrying on, it took us three hours to cover the 100km ride to the border. However, as we neared the border, the road became congested with markets on both sides and no smooth tarmac visible. For heavens sake, this was an international border – it is supposed to have proper signage and markings. The immigration office for example had to found out using someone’s binoculars. That's the Immigration office on the Indian sideA shot of the border - yes, that's an international border
Post the immigration formalities and explaining why we needed the “leaving India” stamp, we then proceeded into Nepal just a few meters away. The next task was to convince the Nepali immigration guy to give us the “enter Nepal” stamp – all this was needed as we were later leaving Nepal and entering Tibet. For regular tourists, who just need to go to Nepal and come back to India, this formality isn’t required. The board says it all
Our next task was to get the paper formalities done for all the bikes as these needed to be ridden into Tibet and the guys there need proof of documentation that the bikes were indeed ridden by us into Nepal and so on. Cutting this confusion short, we must have parked our bikes in the parking next to the border by around 6pm or so. However, it took us 3 hours to move our backsides further onto the hotel. Simple reason – for the paper work, the motorcycle RCs were required but these were in the back-up vehicle which took its own sweet time coming.
So what do you do in 3 hours at an international border crossing, an area that looks like a dirty old dusty market. Well, some of us chatted, talked about ourselves and later wasted money buying local SIMS and rendering them useless by unsuccessfully cutting into the size of a micro SIM. Others exchanged money while some almost gave into the temptation of walking into the beer bar across the road.
Finally by around 9pm, we started our bikes and continued towards our destination for the night, Hotel Yeti. The hotel was a ten minute ride on an average road. The tinted visor showed its weakness and by the time we got to the hotel, my eyes were red with the dust being thrown up by the bikes ahead. The odo read 396km
Dinner was an average affair of rice and noodles as the local staff had to return home, in time for the local festival. The saving grace was the local beer “Gorkhi” that did bring along a sense of being in a different land.Day 3 ( 13th October, 2013)
From: BhairahawaTo: KathmanduDistance: approx 300km
Having ridden almost 400km yesterday across a mix of lovely and not so lovely roads, there was no way the T500 would make it to Kathmandu in one tank. The capital of Nepal was still 300km away and after breakfast, Charles and I went exploring the small town for a fuel pump. Reality check - it was a holiday today and everything seemed closed.
With no luck, we rode back to the hotel and asked the Enfield guys about the same. Well, even they had no idea and the plan was to just keep riding till the bikes run dry. Awesome!
So, by 10am or so we were on the road but not before the dreaded rain gods saw us. See, the Odissa cyclone had come to India in full glory (and fury) and this pushed the rains towards Nepal as well. It didnt rain yesterday but the moment the Bullets came to life in the small parking opp to Hotel Yeti, light drizzle appeared and little did we know, this would stay with us all the way till Kathmandu!The open pump. Meant a long line
On the plus side, around 5km into the ride, we did manage to come across a fuel pump that was not shut. Everyone lined up and then started the slow process of filling each bike, handing over money and moving on. A full tank did feel nice and from here on, we followed the relatively straight road to Butwal.
The roads were not four lane but traffic was low and tarmac pretty good. Views around were nice, the little hills wore a green carpet and soon, some of us got into our own little packs, keeping 80-85km/h on the speedometer. I was leading the pack of four (Charles, Unni, Vinay) and we were maintaining a distance of around 40mtrs from the pack in front.
We all looked "set" - set for a good non-incident ride to Kathmandu. However, no rides is complete without unwanted happenings and this is where something indeed happened. It was a straight road with tress on the right and a gentle slope of a small hill on the left. We were around 40odd km into the ride and were riding on the Butwal - Bharatpur road. There was a small passenger bus parked ahead on the right (facing us) and passengers were just about getting back into it after answering nature's call. However, one old lad was still on the left side of the road and wanted to cross it. He waited for the group in front of us to pass. I noticed him and honked non-stop. However, the moment the last bike of the group ahead crossed, he simply started walking like a child. Oopsie! Here was a 200kg bike (with fuel) and a 105kg rider hurling towards him on wet tarmac. I locked the wheels, did slow down to around 50ish when my right foot hit his right foot. In the process, he lost his balance and his "chappal" but thankfully, the bike and I remained on 2 wheels.The first set of little hills
Moving on, light drizzle was always our companion and soon we hit the Daunne hills. Flowing curves invited us but at the same time, wetness meant we all controlled the urge. A 20min chai break was what followed and we all soaked in the beautiful vistas around. An irritating parrot was the center of attraction and soon, we were back on the road and this time, it was Vinay who feel victim to a sensless pedestrain. The bike was damaged (a bit, was still able to ride it to Kathmandu though) and the whole incident ate away a good 2 hours. The parrot. And the view
Charles and I were told to carry on and from here on, it was a pack of 2. From Bharatpur, we took a left and carried on the Prithvi highway to Kathmandu. The first 15-20odd km were bad with pot holes and more but soon, the road became "normal". Time was running fast and at 3pm, we decided to have late lunch at a small restaurant overlook a very beautiful valley along with another nutty parrot. This place was around 5-10mins after the Manakamana cable car station and even though Kathmandu was still 110km away, we ate lazily. The "desi" chicken curry was too good! View from the lunch point
Back on the bike at 3:30pm, we decided to take breaks only every 45 mins. On these curvy wet roads, we could cover around 30km in the process which meant 3 breaks and voila, we would be in Kathmandu. We were to be wrong! Our breaks were every 45mins
By 5:30pm, thanks to a million clouds, it became dark. We still had a last leg of very tight curves (and uphill) to do and Kathmandu was roughly 30odd km away. It was dark, we were wet and cold was catching up soon. Road work was on and the same was being done in a very different manner. Half the road was new and about 6 inches higher than the other half which was similar to the surface of moon. Wet to the core, we finally entered the city limits and after the Nagdhunga checkpost, took a tea break at a small stall. The old lady was very kind and we all chatted in broken hindi (we knew it, she didnt). Our hotel, Hotel Harati was still around 15km away and thankfully, I had seen its location on Google maps in the morning via wi-fi. Both Charles and I didnt have network (no Nepal SIM, and didnt want to burn money using international roaming with internet) so I relied on my last memory of the hotel's location. It was still raining and I used Charles' Auqapac, put my S3 into that, put the display to permanent ON and rode on.
Technology does rock and without asking a single soul, we reached our hotel, bang in the middle of Thamel area. Bikes parked, we pulled ourselves to the room only to realise that the back-up vehicle hadn't reached which meant NO DRY CLOTHES!
"Sacred Summits" was our travel agent and their guys had reached the lobby for VISA formalities. I had to unfortunately go down with a bed sheet wrapped around me (the towels didnt fit my body) and this is also where I met an old friend Ayush. He now runs AutoLife Nepal and he brought along a life-saver : a local SIM card!
The back-up vehicle arrived soon and this meant I could dress up and head out to get some local Vodka with Ayush - in his good old Pajero. This was turning out to be fun. The rain however, remained unchanged. The days to follow would be wet, cold and worse!Day 4 - 14th October 2013(Rest Day for visa formalities)
More riders were to join us at Kathmandu and further, for the visa formalities into Tibet (China), 14th October was kept as a buffer day. We were not to get individual visas on our passports, instead, being a group visa, a lot of paper work was involved. The rains didnt give up which meant almost everyone went shopping for rain gear. As for me, I got a really good (and big!) rain coat with multiple layers, gators for the boots, hydration pack, cover for back-pack etc. We couldnt explore the city much due to rains and kept ourselves to the confinement of Thamel area itself. No riding happened this dayTrying all our best to dry the clothes - we even burnt the hotel's "hair dryer"These too gave up in the rain Experimental lunch in one of the restaurants in ThamelDay 5 - 15th October 2013From: KathmanduTo: Last ResortDistance: 100 odd kmThe parking lot of Harati hotel in the morning Another shot
The border formalities can eat up a lot of time. This is the reason why our destination for the night was "The Last Resort" , a place known for one of the highest bungee jumping in the world. Located 100odd km from Kathmandu on the Kathmandu-Kodari road (Kodari is the border town), I didnt see a point in riding to this place. Instead of leaving Kathmandu at a lazy 11am, we could have left at 7am, rode past Last Resort by 10am and hit the border town by 11am easily.
Anyways, with rains as our companion, we took the route out of town, riding in a convoy. The initial 5-10km are four lane (with divider) and later, this turns into a typical 2 lane road. Vistas were beautiful and soon we hit the twisty roads leading to Dhulikhel. Height increased, fog appeared and I started enjoying the torque of the TBird 500. I had never been an Enfield fan but this time around, the company and its products were tempting me. It doesnt take much effort to get used to the bike and leaning it into flowing corners, using the juicy mid-range and throttling out was turning out to be pure joy! And just when I had started enjoying the ride, we stopped for lunch. We had not even covered 50km from Kathmandu and hence, the stop did come as a surprise. Dhulikel hills brought in mistAnother shot
We were here for around 1.5 hrs and continued ahead. We rode in a group with Amit (from Indiancarsbikes.in) and Rahul (from Auto Bild) joining in and the convoy of 6 bikes chugged along till 3:40pm. I was looking around for a good picture spot (and a nature break) and this place seemed perfect. The river flowed next to us, a layer of mist hung over it and peaks in the backdrop made up for a perfect shot.The "Shot"Another angle - the layer of mist over the river is visible here
The road, as we neared Last Resort, started giving up and the light drizzle didnt help either. At places, pot holes were deep and trucks, headed to the border, made the progress slow. We also rode down to the river bed for more pictures and the line up of water falls on either side added to the beauty.Got this shot after riding down to the river
We finally rode into the small parking of "The Last Resort" at 5:45pm. The resort was on the other side of the river which meant walking on the narrow long suspension bridge (from where the bungee jump happens). Needless to say, the narrow bridge swung from side to side and did send shivers down my spine.
We stayed in cosy camps and dinner was a simple yet a tasty affair. Rains in the meantime had disappeared and we slept in peace with sound of gushing water (remember the river?) for company. I closed my eyes hoping the ride would start at 9am the next day, without knowing what lay in store for us.Our camp / tentViewing point : we were here the next morning for hours and hoursThe eating place
The altitude here was under 5000 feet. Our planned destination, around 50km away, was at 13000 feet. Snow? Shivers? Freezing?
To be continued !