It’s that time of the year when my soul starts becoming fat and jolly like an Ahmad Jamal piano riff. Ladakh is beckoning and there is no place else on earth where the texture of the landscape can make my heart race and the sound of a name send a delicious frisson of anticipation down my spine.
Of course, it would have been even better without the butt rash on my ride there last year, but that’s life. I’m talking about riding there on a motorcycle, where you are infinitely more connected to your surroundings. This is where deserts, mountains and rivers collide with a jagged scream under skies so high it’s disorientating—18,380ft up at Khardung La, the journey’s end, where the sun burns, the wind chills and the colours glow, strangely enough, on bare-naked mountains, where below, the road falls away like a coiled rope.There’s no ignoring the smells, the temperatures, the 360-degree panoramas and the children’s hands outstretched in greeting, their cheeks stained salty with last night’s tears, top lips crusty with this morning’s snot.
This year, once again, I’ll be part of the annual Royal Enfield-organized Himalayan Odyssey (http://www.royalenfield.com/app/IN/odyssey.asp) from New Delhi to Leh and back, which will take a pioneering return route through the Pangi Valley and exit via Chamba in Himachal rather than the traditional Manali gateway. And there’s no more powerful pull than the lure of a new road and uncharted territory on two wheels, especially when you know that there is a jeep-load of spares and mechanics at the end of the convoy and a hot brew at the end of the day’s ride to thaw you out.
The bike is being prepped and the gear inventoried, and I thought it would be fun to list a few things, old and new, that I plan to take on the trip.
Royal Enfield motorcycles are the mode du journey on almost all Ladakh rides, and this year, I have a factory ride astride the new 500cc Machismo Bullet (due out soon and likely to be priced at around Rs1.10 lakh) that I took on a 600km test ride from Goa to Mumbai last month. Featuring their ‘lean burn’ engine, with a redesigned combustion chamber and lubrication system, this baby is faster, more responsive, lighter, sweeter-handling and more enjoyable to ride than the 500cc model it replaces—a truly confidence- inspiring motorcycle, and a powerfully emotional one as well, with its classic Brit-bike styling and heritage. This bike isn’t about horsepower numbers or outright performance—it’s about the quality of the riding experience, how it responds, how it feels, and yes, how it looks, too. I think she’ll do well and get me over the beckoning horizon.
Black beauty: It’s not about the horsepower
Pack light, pack smart, is the mantra. The heaviest items will be on my person—the painstakingly acquired Tourmaster riding jacket ($60, or about Rs2,450), Set Up waterproof boots ($100), Joe Rocket gloves ($20), and Alpinestar knee guards ($30) from www.newenough.com, which accepts Indian credit cards through a Paypal account. I got a good deal on a pair of BMW Gore-Tex riding pants, Rs2,500, from Bharat Car (Call 011-2575 7646) in the amazing Karol Bagh automotive market in New Delhi. Capacious 45-litre saddlebags from Cramster (www.cramster.in, about Rs2,500) to hold an insulated jacket, rainsuit, tools, air pump, a set of spare clothing, food and energy bars (good old 5-Star for us desis!), all packed in a waterproof dry sack, Rs900, from Adventure 18. Being properly hydrated is a major concern, whether you are riding in the searing hot plains or in the rarefied high altitude of Ladakh, so I will be carrying a 2-litre Camelbak hydration pack, Rs2,400, again from the excellent Adventure 18 store (Call Amar on 98192 93020 in Mumbai, or 011-3297 0400 in Delhi,www.adventure18.com).
While a few of the gadgets that I plan to take along may not be new or cutting edge, they have been faithful and trusty companions on previous road trips. My Nikon D70s D-SLR camera (Rs37,900, www.interfoto.in) has proved to be quite rugged and reliable and despite its 6-megapixel sensor, produces some outstanding pictures. The camera has a solid, weighty feel to it that I prefer to some of the cheaper-feeling D-SLRs in the market. I’m also going to pack a fistful of 2GB CF Type II cards with 80X write speeds since I shoot mainly in RAW format. One thing to remember about digital SLRs: Due to their smaller sensor size (versus 35mm film) and, therefore, narrower angle-of-view, the effective focal range of the lens is 1.5 times what it says on the lens. This is great if you like telephoto shots, but for wide-angle, you may have to invest some money in wider lenses.
Therefore, also in the bag will be my venerable Widelux F7 panoramic camera loaded with Fuji Velvia transparency film. Technically, this camera is very limited. It’s cumbersome to carry, slow to load, and requires a great deal of care in framing and composition. But with its super-wide 24x59mm frame and swivelling turret lens, it certainly puts you in the picture. The Nikon 28Ti Quartz Date model, with a Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 lens, is a classic compact film camera that I like to use for quick shooting, loaded with Fuji Reala print film. Crafted with a tough titanium body chassis, a built-in lens shutter delivers sharpness, clarity and colour performance. Further, the camera is equipped with a 6-segment 3D Matrix meter, multiple exposure modes, built-in flash,data imprinting and a truly unique analogue display system. Not bad for a camera built in 1994, eh? I have lusted after one of these ever since I saw it being used by Mary Ellen Mark when I was a lowly assistant to her on an India assignment, and now thanks to my ever-generous wife, I have this elite camera, which more often than not, can be found in my pocket rather than on the mantel.
I will use Garmin eTrex Vista (www.gpsindia.net), a 12 parallel channel GPS receiver that continuously tracks and uses up to 12 satellites to compute and update my position. The automatic track log will help map the route with waypoints; the trip computer will show current speed, average speed, time of sunrise/sunset, maximum speed, trip timer and trip distance; and the Elevation computer will give current elevation, minimum and maximum elevation, ascent/descent rate, total ascent/descent, average and maximum ascent/descent rate. Hopefully, I should be able to post a KML file mapping the route on Google Earth in a future column.
My indestructible Casio G-Shock watch has never let me down and you can find different models from Rs3,000 upwards on www.ebay.in. Fumbling in a dark tent to find your socks in below freezing temps is no joke and the flashlight/lantern combo, Rs1,150 from Adventure 18, is a good investment. So is the Victorinox Swiss Army knife and multi-tool, which are not only cool, but also invariably useful.
I have Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ downloaded on my flash-based iPod 8GB Nano (Rs18,000) hooked up to Bose In-Ear headphones (Rs5,000) for far superior audio delivery. Hopefully in Delhi, I’ll be able to pick up an el-cheapo short wave pocket radio like the 9-Band Kchibo (Rs300) and tune in to faraway lands sitting around a bonfire under the mantle of a million stars.
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