The Motorcycle Diaries of Kathmandu

A writer joins a gang of bikers on Royal Enfields as they zoom through Kathmandu on the road to Mount Everest | By Ashish Jha  
Motorcycle Diaries of Kathmandu
The ride to Mt. Everest is challenging, picturesque and a complete thrill for adventure junkies. Photo Courtesy: Royal Enfield

“Because it’s there.” Those became the most famous and forever echoing words in the mountaineering universe. That was George Mallory’s response upon being asked why did he want to climb Mount Everest. What a kickass reply! What a rockstar dude!

Mallory’s mortal remains were discovered seventy-five years—in May 1999—after he passed away in June of 1924. He was last seen only about 245 metres shy of the summit before the inevitable reality consumed him. That tells a lot about the savagery and unpredictability of the tallest mountain in the world.

Shinji Kazama—his is perhaps not as recognisable a name as George Mallory’s, but he is no less a rockstar himself. Kazama is a devotee of motorcycling from Japan who is the only one ever to have attempted to go up Mount Everest on a motorcycle. Yes—on a motorcycle. Blimey!

He set a record in 1986 for reaching an elevation of 6,005 metres on Mount Everest. For the ease of understanding, it’s a 8,848 metre tall mountain, so going up two-third the elevation is simply ridiculous—in a good way.

Mallory and Kazama are both legends. They are inspirational. With their stories in my head, I landed in Kathmandu. This is where my story begins.

The world has over 7 billion of us. Many have scaled Mount Everest before, many will do it in the future. I won’t, ever—I know it because I don’t have any intention to. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had the dream of being as close to the mighty mountain as possible. I’ve made plenty ‘editorial’ plans to pass this off as work, but luck never favoured me, until recently.

An invitation from Royal Enfield popped up in my email inbox and after a few to-and-fro on calls and digital letters, it was all done. The last time I’d undertaken a long, arduous, yet intoxicatingly wonderful ride was almost six years ago. That was to Ladakh—one of my many trips there, but the only one I’d done on a motorcycle.

Time has a weird way of tossing things around in your head and messing it up. So much time had passed between my last big ride and the one I was preparing to undertake that I was trying to talk myself out of it. The last time I tried talking myself out of something, I ended up in an engineering college.

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Greasy hands, lines of worry on the forehead, loud laughs and animated expressions were a big part of the ride from Kathmandu to the villages near the mighty mountain. Photo Courtesy: Royal Enfield

 

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Kathmandu is a bustling city—chaotic and lovely. It suffers the worst traffic one could imagine, and it also has the most disarming people. It’s a city you’d be desperate to escape, and yet you’ll find yourself coming back to it.

So, the expedition, then—it’s always said that a trip is made either insufferable or inspiring by the people that constitute it. I had 13 absolutely fantastic folks who rode along, and I made some great new friends.

We started the ride in a convoy formation. The sight of eleven motorcycles—their riders kitted out in great purpose-made riding gears—is one to behold. The traffic stops, people turn their heads in admiration, children wave and the sheer authority on the road swells up the chest with pride. If you’ve ridden like this, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, do it. The feeling is unparalleled. It’s addictive!

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Deep water crossings and rocky terrain did little to dampen the spirit of the riders. Photo Courtesy: Royal Enfield

Much of Nepal is still quite rural and the roads—rather lack of them—show it. A large part of our ride from Kathmandu to a sleepy village called Trishuli and then to the border village of Timure was bedecked with slush and rocks. It’s quite like the texture you get when beating coffee and water into a sticky paste. Just, it doesn’t taste as great—I discovered that thanks to a little tumble I had. There were numerous deep water crossings which would soak the feet to being wrinkled wrecks and the surface was so broken that my knees still squeak and the neck has still not stopped bobbling.

The bike—Himalayan (which I’ve always thought is a fantastic name for a machine)—is one seriously tough thing. The robustness was clearly evident in the way the Himalayan dealt with non-existent roads we were belting it on. The suspension had adequate travel to soak things up, the rear went dancing to just the right degree to bring it back in shape with throttle. It’s a fun set of wheels when going off-road.

It’s also very mechanical, doesn’t have great many electronic nannies to go wrong and can be fixed with the most basic tools. In fact, it brought out the joy in me of being part of fixing stuff on a motorcycle after many years. We had a faulty fuel pump and choked fuel line to thank. Greasy hands, lines of worry on the forehead, loud laughs, animated expressions—it was all very consuming. The men bonded even more strongly over such things.

Anyway, on with the ride—at the border of Nepal and Tibet is a great daunting structure made by the Chinese which serves as an immigration centre. Few guards were on alert, while a few others were testing the perpendicular flexibility of their necks by working their fingers and gluing their eyes on their mobile phones.

We cleared the immigration swiftly and prepped ourselves to start riding on the other side now. The infrastructure left me gobsmacked. Every inch of the road was engineered and structured perfectly. The surface was smooth, the banking just right. There wasn’t even a blemish that could be felt. The adventure of Nepal’s annihilated tracks had led us to the serenity of gorgeous tarmac in Tibet. The influence and relentless work of the Chinese is clearly evident.

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This ride was all about Mount Everest—or Qomolangma as it is called in local speak—and the restlessness was getting the better of the riders. Photo Courtesy: Royal Enfield

I’m a sucker for food. I like trying new things and I’d been told that the food would be a bother—bland and lacking in richness. It couldn’t be more removed from reality. The food—no matter what we tried—was sumptuous and brilliant in every way. For me, food is a very crucial measure of culture of any place. The vibrance, the colours, the textures, the flavours—Tibetan food had all of us slobbering. I was enchanted, really. The food had a lot to do with it, but also the hospitality and warmth of Tibetan people.

I was enchanted by something else too—the Peiku Tso. Like it’s a shame if you travel up to Ladakh and don’t go to the famous Pangong Tso, it’s blasphemous to ride all the way to Everest base camp in Tibet and not pay a visit to the breathtaking Peiku Tso. Just sit by this massive water body and admire the natural brilliance of it. You don’t need words in this setting. The huge mountains lingering in the background, the sound of the waves crashing right at your feet—it’s surreal.

This ride was all about Mount Everest—or Qomolangma as it is called in local speak—and the restlessness was getting the better of us. Everyone in the group had ridden in the high lands of India, so we thought we’d be able to hold our own despite the altitude. But when it wants, nature can get quite ruthless. And it did.

From our time at the border town of Gyirong to Tingri, we had been going steadily and steadfastly. At Tingri, things started to get a bit tough. Two amongst us suffered AMS and had to be left behind as the rest of the group rode on to spend the night in the lap of the Everest.

The road to Mount Everest from Tingri is—no other way of saying it—spectacular. There’s a section of spellbinding hairpin bends that make the Gawu La mountain-pass. Legend has it that it is made of 108 turns—a sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Gawu La is about 5,200 metres above sea level and is wrapped in the embrace of towering mountains like Mount Shishapama, Mount Lotse, Mount Makalu, Mount Cho Oyu, and of course Mount Qomolangma.

Rongbuk—that’s the base where we’d settled ourselves for the night in a fairly basic lodge. The Rongbuk monastery is claimed to be the highest one in the world in terms of elevation. It doesn’t have the grandeur of Diskit Monastery or the mystique of Alchi, but it’s endearing and cozy. It’s from where the prayers flow.

 

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Riding in convoy, the sight of 11 motorcycles—their riders kitted out in great purpose-made riding gears, turned quite a few heads on their drive through Kathmandu. Photo Courtesy: Royal Enfield

 

By now, AMS had fully set in. The head was feeling like a massive rock on my shoulders and the world around was spinning. The lunch was emptied from my guts on to the nearest land I could find the energy to walk out to. Everyone was pretty knackered; done-in in a bad way. And then the moon lit up on the Everest. The layered beauty, the shimmer of the white, the crisp silhouette—all we could do was stare. That was the Mount Everest in front of us. So near, yet so far.

I settled down in my room. The window allowed an unhindered view of the Everest. It was freezing cold and I was drained of all the energy. Yet I sat—sat and stared at that massive formation of nature. Sat in awe. I’m not George Mallory. I won’t attempt to scale up the Everest and get lost in its arms forever. I’m not Shinji Kazama. I won’t ride up that mountain on the motorcycle that got me this far. Yet this feels significant—standing in front of the Mount Everest and realising the beauty of your insignificance.

 

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