2008 Contest Shortlist

Motorbiking in Ladakh

Any road journey in India needs faith.

My left leg is hanging over a 3000-metre drop into a certain death. My right shoulder is touching a truck that we are trying to pass. I am sitting on the back of a Royal Enfield motorbike, perched on the edge of a narrow mountain road in India’s Kashmir. The truck on my right side has stopped and I’m praying it will not move. Driving the bike is my boyfriend, and in front of our bike is another biker who, while trying to pass the truck, has gotten stuck between the vehicle and a very large rock that stands on the side of the road. Behind us is another truck. It is raining, and the road has turned into mud. Above us the rocky mountain looks like it could send down a landslide at any moment.

Zoji La, at 3529 metres from sea level, is the last mountain pass on the road from Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas to India’s infamous north-western part, Kashmir. My motorbike-fanatic boyfriend and I had been travelling through Ladakh on his 500 CC Enfield for almost two months now and, not taking into account a broken engine, a friend’s bike that was lost for a week by Indian railway staff, splitting up with the friends we were travelling with half-way through the trip, and being violently ill with all possible symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness as well as parasites, the trip had gone pretty smoothly so far.

On the previous day we had driven from Ladakh’s capital Leh to Kargil, a depressing town in the middle of the mountains (but conveniently half-way between Leh and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar). That morning we had left Kargil early, planning to drive the 200-odd kilometres to Srinagar in one day and arrive on a cosy houseboat that same night. After leaving Kargil the road had followed closely to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and frequent signs had informed us that we were “under enemy observation”. The “enemy” used to shell roads from the mountains on Pakistan’s side of the border, and the Indian Army still maintained a very visible presence on the route.

As we drove through a beautiful green valley and stopped at a tea stall that was run by an older Muslim man who spoke excellent English, the sky seemed to be turning darker over the road ahead. While we finished the cardamom-flavoured strong, sweet black tea that was served in small glasses, we hoped we would make it to Srinagar that night. “Inshallah”, said my boyfriend: God willing. “Are you Muslim?” asked the old man, surprised. No, we said, we were not Muslims, but we figured we would need all the heavenly support we could get.

As we approached Zoji La, the sky opened and it started to rain. Soon the rain turned into snow. We pulled on our waterproofs and gloves.

The narrow road towards the pass quickly turned into a mudslide in the freezing rain. The potholes filled with rainwater and it became impossible to see the road ahead. We were stuck between two trucks, the one in front of us splashing mud on our helmets, the one behind us forcing us onward. In front of the first truck was another biker, who was driving the same way to Srinagar on his Enfield that was slowly falling to pieces.

Our chance to overtake the first truck came when, despite the fact that traffic to the pass should have been moving one way only at this time of the day, an oncoming truck appeared in the fog. All trucks stopped in order to figure out how to pass each other on a road that was just about wide enough for one. The biker in front of us saw his chance and, despite the mud and the lack of visibility, tried to pass the oncoming truck. We successfully overtook the truck in front of us and followed him half-way past the oncoming truck, until he got stuck between the rear wheel of the truck and a large rock.

And so we have suddenly found ourselves balancing on the edge of the road, leaning onto the truck, looking down into emptiness.

Our friend is desperately trying to get out from between the rock and the truck, but his bike is stuck. I look up to the truck driver, a bearded, gentle-looking man dressed in a turban, and he looks down at me through his window encouragingly. “Slowly, slowly”, he says, but we both know that if he moves his truck even an inch, we’re going to fall down the mountain.

Our friend finally manages to get out, but in the process kicks the large rock, which then falls down hundreds of metres, dropping down onto the road somewhere far below. Fortunately there is no traffic on that road. I close my eyes and I do something I have been doing increasingly often on this trip: I pray. Inshallah.

When I open my eyes, my boyfriend has managed to move the bike and overtake the truck. We have made it, and we are looking at mountains covered with pine and fir forests, rivers and waterfalls, green valleys and little houses surrounded by gardens and apple orchards. We are alive, and even in the freezing rain Kashmir is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

Satu Rommi