Biking with Dad: Kalki Koechlin Road Trips through Northeast India

Nostalgia, adventure, and a trip that spans 4,000 kilometres across three states. | By Kalki Koechlin  
Northeast India
Kalki and Joel stop for a short break at the picturesque riverside town of Bhalukpong at the Arunachal-Assam border. Photo courtesy Fox Life

We are a father and daughter team. A legendary biker and a Bollywood actor.

Ahead of us lies the long road through Northeast India. Behind us a collection of shared memories and nostalgia for the many road trips we’ve taken together since I was a child.

Kalki’s Great Escape, a new TV show that will air on Fox Life from mid-September, is about a grand motorbike adventure in which my father, biker and photographer Joel Koechlin, and I embark on an odyssey across the northeastern states of India. It is a journey that lasts 14 days, traversing 4,000 kilometres across three states.

Is life all about getting from one point to another or is it about what lies on those bridges of time in between? Is it in the journey? Or is it about the destination?

These are a few of the questions that arise in my mind as Dad and I undertake a road trip far away from the everyday routines we know so well. I have been riding pillion on my father’s bike since I was a little girl. Occasionally I’ve ridden a bike of my own. It’s been ten years since we took a road trip together. Yet, once we are out on the road with nothing but the sky as canopy, Dad represents all that is home. Together we traverse ever-changing terrain, encountering various challenges and making friends along the way.

Bikers Northeast India Kalki

The two bikers (left) make their way across the varied terrain of the Northeast on a pair of sturdy Enfield Himalayan motorbikes; The high-altitude Sela Pass Gate (right) provides the perfect opportunity for a quick photograph. Photos courtesy Fox Life

Once we are on our bikes, riding with the sun on our backs, time falls away. Just like that, I am a young girl again, taking my father’s lead as we travel across a never-ending highway. With two Royal Enfield Himalayans as our trusty steeds, we travel the long, hard route across the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya. We explore the land, navigating treacherous turns of weather, participating in impromptu football games, learning how to make the perfect momo, getting drunk on potent rice wine, singing, dancing, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life on the road.

The breathtaking landscape of the Northeast changes dramatically from lush villages in the plains of Assam to little hamlets in the mountains of Arunachal. Along the way, we stop by towns and villages meeting a variety of folk, from local fashion gurus to shy village girls. Sometimes we stop by an old bridge to take in a magnificent view. Hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind and a river flows swiftly below us. At other times we banter and giggle over the silliest things. Dad always grumbles about everything. Once we went caving and he kept cribbing about how he didn’t understand why anyone would want to go underground unless they were going to their grave. Then, when he really got into the spirit of caving, he ended up having the best time among all of us. This really is how my Dad is about everything. He has an infallible spirit and zest for life.

On this journey we get the great opportunity to rekindle our bond. It is a journey that harks back to simpler times when Dad and I would ride across the country, spending up to eight hours a day on the bike, stopping at nondescript dhabas, sharing tea and gossip with truckers. This was our thing. And it still is the backdrop of some of my best family memories.

Northeast India roadtrip bikers Kalki

The bikers take some time off from the road to try their hand at canoeing on the Umngot river near Shillong (left); Joel and Kalki try on colourful traditional outfits (right) at their homestay in Sangti village near Tawang. Photos courtesy Fox Life

Days segue into each other as we take on the road and all that it presents us with, good and bad. With Dad as my travel buddy things are definitely much easier and way more fun. He is the best companion one could ask for, especially on a maiden long-distance ride in which I have my own grown-up bike. He has a quick fix for everything, from teaching me how to siphon fuel from one bike to another, to fixing a major puncture with a Band-Aid. From negotiating tough potholes to avoiding puddles, his practical solutions not only keep me going, but also turn me into what he calls an “Iron Butt Lady’ in the space of two weeks.

Through this journey we’ve managed to also explore the lives of ordinary people of the villages of the Northeast and gain an insight into their world. Food for them is often foraged from the forest, homes are an extension of the Earth. Natural rhythms and an organic way of life are protected. As we ride from one place to the next, we see that the excitement of the people at meeting an actor and TV crew goes hand in hand with their genuine warmth and hospitality. The key to a life well lived is in the simple and sustainable lifestyle of those we meet. After one exceptionally tough day’s ride Dad puts it quite succinctly: “I would rather be here in bad weather, stranded without any fuel in my bike than back home comfortable in my sofa, for here I am active and alert and looking for a solution to the problem at hand.” It is this sensation of being alive that pervades our days even when we’ve had an incredibly rough time tackling icy or snowy conditions and high mountain passes. Frozen, with fingers like jelly and bone-tired, a simple plate of steaming momos tastes like the best thing we’ve ever eaten. It is a thing to be grateful for. And that was the essence of this road trip I undertook with Dad—the beauty of small things and a newfound appreciation for old relationships.

As told to Diya Kohli.

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Escape to a Place called Home”.

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