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Travels of a Meandering Biker

by Kevin Staddon

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Kunzum La

Two planes, a taxi, two trains and 9 days of hard riding over landslides, melt water rivers, scorching heat and mountain terrain and here I sit, stupid o'clock in the morning, even the mountains aren't awake yet. A fitful nights sleep due to the altitude. It's a very strange experience, basically you nod off and your breathing pattern shallows as normal then the thin air of altitude kicks in and every now and then your body says I'm not getting enough oxygen and wakes you up. This increases your breathing rate and everything settles down and you go back to sleep and so it goes on all night.

The worst part, is that you always seem to drop into a deep sleep about 30 minutes before you have to get up, so when you do wake up you feel like crap. Your eyes have an overwhelming desire to close and go back to sleep which would be a waste of time anyway for the reasons already mentioned.

So there I sit on the side of whatever it was that passed for a bed looking like a sleep deprived prisoner on his third day of interrogation, ready to face the world. I think not, but face it I must and to be honest as I pack and climb back into my sweat stained clothes, pull on my heavy riding gear, tie up my face mask, ignore cleaning the visor it would only last ½ mile anyway, I stand in a relative silence born of expectation for the day ahead. Today I do the highest, Kunzum La and Rotang passes Today it gets serious, above the snow line the third highest pass in the world and I intend to do it on a motorbike, An Enfield which I have used and abused over past days through a combination of rough terrain and my own inabilities. Biking skills which I have spent years honing mean nothing on a run like this, getting your knee down here means you have fallen off, for the motocross aficionados amongst us a rear wheel drift means you've read it wrong and the cliff edge awaits.

The Himalayas levels us all. It rearranges your abilities into a riding style that is practical, physical and adventurous. It forces you to dismiss things that at home would have you pushing the bike back into the garage. There is a brutality about your riding mixed with a devil may care attitude or perhaps its a higher level of faith. You get to the difficult bits which are unimaginable in Europe, say to yourself that's where I want to be, point the bike and open the throttle. No finesse, no technique just point and gas it and see what happens.

Off you go bouncing and shuddering across whatever the current obstacle to progress is. The violence of the ride is substantial you can feel it pummelling you through the seat jarring your spine, shaking internal organs and blurring your vision, which with anything up to 1500m straight down just inches from your foot peg it's probably better your vision is blurred.

This is not a holiday, if you want that go to Spain. This is for the rest of us who have a craving for life's experiences. Stay on the beach drink your drink with its umbrella and roast quietly in the sun. Do not come here and sully my experience. Do not bring your trappings of hair dryers, swim suits and sarongs, your requests for loungers will go unheard this is a holiday for your soul, this is raw, inspiring, overwhelming, hard and uncaring of your feeble efforts. This is the Himalaya!

So with these thoughts I climb aboard the bike and fit my bum to the saddle making sure the sore spots and creases in clothing are correctly matched to the undulations in the seat. The habitual routine of fiddling with decompression and TDC, swing the kick start and listen as the now familiar and welcome deep throated rumble shatters the thin tranquillity of a Himalayan dawn. A last jiggle of the helmet to settle it firmly on your head and a glance up the valley still shrouded in its pre dawn colours. Dark purples and greys with mist like a veil waiting to be lifted by the sun. The scene tempting you to ask the question will you be kind today? Will you let me pass untroubled or will you give me a glimpse of you strength, the mountains stand like sentinels uncommitted in their silence.

Thoughts are broken as you hear the snick of gearboxes being pushed into first. I follow suit, clutch, first, throttle, ease the clutch and role forward settling into line with the rest. We're off - what will be will be.

Two hours of punishing surfaces, cold fast flowing melt water and ever increasing height sees us cresting a rise and there it is - Kunzum La. Marked by a small set of shrines to Gods unknown by us, it sits drab, unexceptional in its ordinariness made magnificent by its location and name. Kunzum La, say it in your head or out loud and tell me it's mere pronunciation doesn't have force, doesn't conjure up images of adventure. Tell me it doesn't inspire. Here it sits 2 ¾ miles straight up, a scrub covered plateau surrounded by the sentinels. Snow capped and towering over you, ranged around like broken teeth, voices whisper in the thin air "today we grant you passage".

Side stands go down ignitions switched off and the surroundings are shattered by silence. People pause before removing their helmets, perhaps not wanting the intrusion of others on this moment. Eventually the helmets are removed and the chatter begins, talk of slips, slides and near misses. Most of us remove boots and socks, empty out the water and wring them out. The coldness of the melt water forgotten in the concentration of the ride. Cameras come out, photos taken, a record of the event. Your own personal trophy, this is me, I made it, here I stand at Kunzum La.

We ring the shrines prayer bell and gaze at its colours, stark in contrast to the surroundings. We throw coins in the shrine paying homage to unknown and frozen Gods, partially in thanks for the experience partly as a request for continued assistance with our journey. This is only part of today; we have but scratched the surface. With a grumble of exhausts and a backward glance we retreat inside our helmets. Personal thoughts, personal space, the experience wanders through each individuals own path until the terrain and the journey force thoughts of anything but the route, the surface and the bike from your mind.

We descend down to the valley floor encased by sheer rock on either side. Snaking downward on rough terrain which now has a familiarity about it, almost comforting in its ruggedness and then a bridge, a Bailey bridge like so many found in India. We cross over worn, loose and dried out planking which clatter and move around as tyres roll over them. We find ourselves faced with a welcome sight, a dry stone hut, corrugated metal and blue plastic tarpaulin covering the roof. "Chi shop", breakfast. It's 8 o'clock - so much experience and the rest of the world is only just waking up.

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