One week of trekking and another week motorbike riding through the Himalaya. This was to be an adventure of my dreams. It began in lockdown when I thought, now I have time and the roads are quiet… if I don’t get my motorbike licence now, well when? But what they didn’t teach me in my motorbike course was how to change a flat when you’re in remote India on a Royal Enfield with no spare or tools…
I wanted this story to be about my preparation for India in all its forms- the physical preparation for the hiking and altitude, my digestive health for the imminent change in diet and hygiene and the mental well-being through visiting monasteries and yoga. My preparation began 6 weeks out, ideally to achieve increases in muscular endurance and cardiovascular health a 3-month program would have been better. Still, I can imagine retelling tales of the highest Himalayan pass that we reach when I get home.
Then I took my dad to hospital with severe back pain. Along with working 6 days a week, I spent all my spare time visiting dad in hospital who was diagnosed with Lymphoma. My Himalayan “training” stopped before it started. My back started to hurt, my neck was stiff and sore, and I certainly didn’t have any energy to train or meditate the stress away before collapsing into bed each night. I often ask my patients to consider what they can do rather than focus on what they can’t. All I managed to do was visit pharmacist Ben at Terry White Parkdale, who gave me good quality probiotics for preventative gut health that I took daily for two weeks before leaving. Not my ideal preparation for the Himalayas.
Waking up at altitude on our first day, I expected to be “hit” with a wave of sensations, but acclimatising effects were more insidious than that. The fog descended as we stepped out to stroll around the local market alleyways. A cheerful trader lured us into his shop hoping to get a sale and happily explaining the differences between pashminas and cashmere. Sitting in that cupboard sized shop surrounded by a dazzling array of textiles, my face began to feel flushed, my head swam in a woozy soup and my chest heaved. I was on the edge of feeling quite panicked. It starkly reminded me of all the stricken faces I saw in people who were suffering acute asthmatic episodes when I was a paramedic. A much-needed chai soothed my jangled equilibrium, and we hurried back to our room to lie down. It was humbling to acknowledge that I couldn’t cheat altitude and my dreams of high mountain adventure would have to take some careful re-consideration.
For the next 3 days we staggered between bed rest and short walks around town. Whatever fitness and strength I usually relied on back home at sea level had completely deserted me here. My imagination and appreciation ran wild at all the amazing high-altitude mountaineering exploits I have read over the years. Small meals, lots of water and time to enjoy the mountainous view from afar was on the menu…
View from our room in Leh.
Waking for days on end gives you space to enjoy periods of comfortable silence. It was refreshing to feel the uncoupling of my mind from the addictive nature of my day-to-day concerns. We walked past several remote monasteries where entire lives are spent in pursuit of spiritual well-being, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the incidence of chronic pain or anxiety was less amongst Himalayan monks. But that comfortable silence was short lived as my lungs gasped for air as we slowly shuffled up the next small incline.
The beautiful beaming face of the hardworking woman appeared, she had just helped deliver a baby in a village 45 minute walk away and now carried in a bucket of freshly hand milked cow’s milk for our chai. All her children had either moved away to jobs in the city or the well-paying army. The wood oven was roaring as we sat on her kitchen floor making dumplings. The sounds of the glacial fed stream beside our homestay floated through the windows and we all delighted in each other’s clumsy attempts to chat with no common language. This household was still entirely dependent upon winter stores of its own crops and buckets of water carried up from the river. My shower could wait.
The mountainous views were amazing, no matter how high we were. It suddenly didn’t matter what high altitude pass we crossed however, people back home were eager to know, to compare. After five days of trekking and homestays, we headed back to the city at breakneck speed courtesy of a very nonchalant taxi driver. That two-hour taxi ride was simply terrifying and set the scene anew for our impending motorcycle journey. We picked up our “Himalayan” Royal Enfield and took off into the hills.
The highway was soon left behind and we tootled along local winding roads with gargantuan drops straight into the boiling river below. Unbeknownst to us the river was heaving because of glacial melt. We were struck with this reality as we rounded a corner and were faced with an unexpected scene. The road was flooding and collapsing into the valley below in front of our very eyes. There was to be no more onward progress today and we were forced to stay in a charming local village for the night.
To get around the road carnage the next morning we had to take an unexpected mountainous pass. Being on the motorbike helped us to feel even closer to the landscape. It sharpened our attention to the present and ever-changing road ahead. This is a far cry from how inattentive I can be when I am in the safety of my own car back home. We often squealed with delight as the “best-ever” detour continued to give us breath-taking views and we rode through impossibly located mountainous villages.
We ended up in a town that had once been Pakistan and is close to the current disputed line of control. Coming from a life lived in safety, my mind grappled with what it must feel like to have foreign militaries fight over your home. It’s Sunday and the streets were deserted. The town was eerily quiet. I know people here are devoted to their religion, but this is something else.
We found out the following day the whole town had shut down in protest to demand maximum punishment for someone who had been arrested on the charge of rape. Not for the last time on this trip was my mind blown.
It often seemed at every opportunity, people were willing to take advantage of us, whether it was obnoxiously pushing in front of us or clearly over charging us. Here in a place where spirituality and devotion practises are a way of life, it felt like many people would step over their dying grandmother to get ahead. Then, all of a sudden, the rear of the bike felt very, very loose and I quickly pulled over. The offending screw glared at me, sticking out from the tyre. Two hours from the city, in the glaring sun, with our flight home the next day, no water, no spare. Our adventure just changed gears.
“No, we cannot accept your money. You are a guest in our country. It is our honour to help you”. This was from the very first people who we waved down to help. They were a group of motorbike riders. Mind blown! Again! They had all the tools, know-how and a spare. Riding the motorbike had reminded us that its ok with not knowing what lay ahead. It helped us to accept the inevitable daily challenges and life’s detours. This had been a great trip.
The next-door neighbour yelled furiously at me. It was our first ever conversation. Our car had been parked in the street whilst we were away. It was covered in berries from the tree above and had a parking ticket; our “just desserts” according to him. I casually wondered what was happening in his life for him to be so angry as I happily remembered the kindness of the people who helped us with our flat tyre only two days ago.
The best detour ever!