WORDS Chris Nelson IMAGES Chris Nelson & Dhruv Sethi
Prayer flags, in primary and secondary colors, trampled in the snow. Three monks chanting in harmony, and a pair of wayward lambs, crisscrossing a red dirt road at sunset. The Milky Way, thick in the foreground of the night sky. Fleas jumping between dogs as we drank tea in big, canvas roadside tents, sitting on carpeted slabs that our hosts called “beds.”
The oddest, warmest images come to mind when I think of my first visit to India last summer to participate in Royal Enfield’s first-ever Moto Himalaya. A group of 20 international media professionals would ride the new Himalayan through its namesake mountains, or at least that’s what I thought. I arrived in New Dehli and was told that we’d be riding fuel-injected Bullet 500s, not Himalayans, and I just about broke down after a sleepless, daylong flight, sat next to the shitter. My situation then became, “Enjoy two weeks of unencumbered adventure, and say ‘fuck this story’” ... I mean, does motorcycling really need another self-indulgent writer to share life-altering lessons learned whilst riding through the Himalayas, painting with every color on their palette to create some sort of Seven Years in Tibet vibe?
Still, there might be slivers of stories worth sharing. Moto Himayala manhandled my mind and body and emotions; the ride was as hard as I thought it would be, and the experience more moving. I didn’t know how I felt then, or feel now, and only know what happened, or at least what I remember, a year later, looking back on Royal Enfield’s Moto Himalaya.
“Butter chicken is life.”
Akanksha, our Royal Enfield-appointed babysitter, took us to a restaurant to try her favorite meal, murgh makhani, or butter chicken. Snowboarder Justin Reiter and I—the trip’s token white Americans—explored India’s capital city, Dehli, before flying to Leh, a high-desert city in the Himayalas. “Butter chicken is life,” Akanksha said again and again, eking out smiles with a cigarette between her lips. Men stared at her in disgust—they’d prefer she be with her husband, a doctor met through an arranged marriage—but she stared back, strong and unashamed of who she is. Besides, those assholes couldn’t have mattered less, because butter chicken was on the table.
We ate, using naan to clean our plates, then walked through narrow back streets lined with shops selling vibrant fabrics, shoes, jewelry, and other tourist bait. We visited a local Royal Enfield store, which had surprisingly tasteful branded goods and back issues of Iron & Air. We visited poorly kempt monuments, which looked like they were cared for at some point but since forgotten. We swam in a rooftop pool and sat in traffic, which is a terrifying and hilarious spectacle, unlike anything I’ve seen. We were in India for the country’s 70th independence day, a country where half of the 1.3 billion people are under the age of 25. Cities like Dehli and New Dehli want to grow and change, and in places like Leh and Ladakh you see the subsequent effects of that explosive revolution.
Morning coffee and cigarettes.
Our first morning in Leh. I walked into the courtyard of Hotel Kaal and saw one of the Moto Himayala guides, Arjay, smoking a cigarette and drinking instant coffee. He’s physically intimidating; I’d put him at six foot, six inches tall, and a lean 300 pounds. His father served in the army, stationed in Ladakh, so Arjay stood tall and broad and could look like a real dick if he tried.
He’s actually one of the sweetest, most soulful men I’ve met in this life, as I discovered that morning. A bookworm, but not nerdy, with worthwhile stories and knows a lot of cool facts about a lot of cool shit. He made a lasting impression on me, because of his admiration for others and his respect for the places he loves. Not to mention the fact he rides like a motherfucking warrior.
He rode diligently and hard, and always safe but not slow. He and Greg Smith, a foul-mouth Australian cunt from Upshift, did some seriously heroic riding during Moto Himalaya. Both savages behind the bars, and instant pals; after Arjay got himself into quite the pickle, lowsided, and badly injured his knee, Greg was first on the scene. Arjay couldn’t ride again, but he never bailed on us, because the trip meant too much to him.
Almost every morning of our eight-day ride through the Himalayas, Arjay and I talked over coffee and his cigarettes, and we discussed the region we were riding through, Ladakh.
The painful history of Ladakh.
One of the least populated regions in the northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh borders both China and Tibet, which means Ladakh exists under a dark, perilous cloud. In short, Ladakhis embrace Tibetan culture and the Chinese don’t care to recognize Tibet’s existence, which has caused centuries of tension and conflict. (There’s also the potential for attacks and invasions by Pakistani forces, who went to war with India in ’65 and are supported by the Chinese, but I remember more about the Sino-Indio relations, so...)
The paranoid Chinese government sees Tibet as a potential breeding ground for anti-Chinese plots, and is threatened by India’s recognition and support of Tibet. Ladakhi culture is tied to Buddhist culture and has been since the 8th century, well before Tibet even existed. When the People’s Republic of China took its “Great Leap Forward” under the leadership of Mao, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died, and many Buddhist found refuge in Ladakh. In the late ’50s, India granted asylum to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, spawning a series of fights that led to the Sino-Indio Border Conflict, when Chinese forces invaded Ladakh to seize the “line of actual control.” In one of the best-known battles at Rezang La, a thin mountain pass sitting at an elevation of 16,000 feet, 114 Indian Army soldiers lost their lives during a last stand against a much larger, better armed Chinese army. In all but one battle, the Indian army stayed on the defensive, refusing to start the fight.
This tumultuous history weighed heavily on me throughout the trip. Army convoys were everywhere, and I felt for the families in Leh who live with “go bags,” in case bombs start going off.
India and China have since made five “border cooperation agreements”, but neither country seems to care; during our time in Ladakh, the two-month Dolkam standoff was under way, in which Indian forces stopped Chinese forces from constructing a road in the disputed area of Donglang. It seems as though Ladakh will never be at rest, which is why the Indian army has such heavy military presence there, knowing the region is a gateway for conflicts with China, Pakistan, or both. Ladakh only “opened” to tourism in ’74, and the sub-district has since benefitted from visitors who want to experience its “old world” culture and lifestyle, where Buddhist monasteries (gompas) dot the mountains around the small capital town of Leh. In response to anti-Buddhist discrimination, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) came to life in 1996, with an aim to protect the longevity of one of the world’s richest, oldest religions.
This tumultuous history weighed heavily on me throughout the trip. Army convoys were everywhere, and I felt for the families in Leh who live with “go bags,” in case bombs start going off. It crushed me to see such a simple, beautiful place, where yaks and horses freely roam, under constant threat of violence.
Unleash the Yak Fucker.
Christophe Gaime of Moto Revue Classic is a beautiful tulip who bloomed, big and without warning. He kept quiet and stayed low key the first couple days of Moto Himalaya, then lost his goddamn mind during a ride to a camp on the edge of Pangong Lake, a convergence point of Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan borders. I don’t know how it started or who started it but on the ride to Pangong Tso, Arjay, Christophe, Greg, Justin, and I pulled away from the group and rode with abandon. The Bullets’ single-cylinders howled, and so did we, yelling at one another from our heavyweights on street tires. Concrete flood bypasses dug into the road didn’t slow us down; heavy rear brake on entry, a throttle blip on exit, and we jumped our Bullets every opportunity we got. Once, Greg came down so hard that his muffler slapped the road and snapped off.
On a narrow, rutted, rocky single-track, Christophe passed Justin, then me, then Greg, yelling obscenities as he went by. “Go Yak Fucker!” we yelled, a nickname he earned after an innocent run-in with a handsome yak. Christophe died that day, and the Yak Fucker took his place. A wholly different human, uninhibited and charming, with a twisted sense of humor. (Annie, a superbike rider and social media influencer from Thailand, became the unwitting apple of Yak Fucker’s eye.) The day came to a point at a four-foot-deep water crossing, just outside of our campsite. I arrived late after crashing my Bullet in a sand wash, smashing its headlight and fucking up the front-end alignment. I caught up just as the rest of the riding group did.
The slower you went through the water, the better off you were. The “Gun Wagon”—Royal Enfield’s support van driven by a local, Karma, who hustled ill-prepared, well-heeled tourists by getting their vehicles unstuck from treacherous locations—went flat out through the water. I’d already fucked up my bike and figured I’d go as fast as I could, too. The whole Bullet and the bottom half of my body sank underwater, and I came to an ignominious stop just before land, which meant I had to walk my bike the rest of the way. Slow presses on the kick-start forced water through the exhaust, and soon enough my Bullet hummed with a tinny twang. I watched Christophe, in all of his gear, jump into the cold water for no reason other than to be free.
The tone of Moto Himayala changed that evening. Everyone felt more bonded, especially the five of us who rode together and challenged ourselves and our bikes. We ate paneer, rice, and naan, smoked more cigarettes, and listened to Kendrick Lamar. Arjay and I sat in lawn chairs, stared up at the Milky Way, and considered life. We watched the Yak Fucker play some more until he’d worn himself out. A tulip, closing up for the night, to bloom again in morning as the Yak Fucker.
The wrong way on the world’s highest road.
Peaking at 18,380 feet, Khardungla is the world’s highest motorable road. The ascent is long and changing, going from thinly inhabited and well paved to rutted, rocky mountain passes that don’t have guardrails. Everyone at the peak, including me, had to get a picture with the yellow concrete marker that declared you had driven higher than all other humans below you; it felt significant and stupid at the same time. When I jumped from the monument to Khardungla, I felt a little lightheaded, very slowly choking on the noticeably thinner air. My spirits were high and not wanting to pass out, I decided to leave before the rest of the group. I rode down the other side of the mountain, which was wrong because we were supposed to go back the way we’d come.
I waited almost an hour before someone came down to get me, call me an idiot, and make me aware that soon I would’ve ended up at the border of China with no papers.
I took off like an asshole, not easing into it whatsoever, so I couldn’t hear Arjay yell to me. I rode harder than I typically do, but it came naturally because I felt completely confident and sure of myself for the first time in years. I rode up a rock wall on the inside of a turn to get around a small traffic jam, I aired off every smooth boulder in my path, and I slipped every corner but just. That ride down from Khardungla was the best of my life, no doubt.
I didn’t see anyone behind me, or anywhere near behind me, so I found a small snow-covered pullout to wait in. From a rock overlooking a gorgeous ravine, I watched canvas-topped trucks pass through a military stop. I waited almost an hour before someone came down to get me, call me an idiot, and make me aware that soon I would’ve ended up at the border of China with no papers. I didn’t care much because not only would get to ride back up my favorite section of road in the world, I would also get to go back down the amazing, technical roads that led us up Khardungla. A mistake well worth making, although I nearly ran out of fuel and had to coast in neutral most of the way back down the mountain.
Asking others to look back.
Annie Prisana, Thailand: “What I learned about Leh is that it doesn’t have any Internet signal, which of course stresses out a social media addict, but once you get past that, you discover that is really nice to get back to basics and connect with nature. The best memory and my proudest moment was when I placed the Thai flag on the [Kardungla] mountaintop, at which point I actually shed a small tear. As is normal with motorcycle culture, no matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak, at the end of the trip you have created a bond.”
Christophe Gaime, France: “20 years ago, I visited Madras and the old Royal Enfield factory and did a trip on an old Bullet 500 in Tamil-Nadu and the land around it. This trip reminded me that humans are very small compared to this majestueux nature. This trip was not just about motorbikes; it was also about friendships between people.”
Greg Smith, Australia: “The dog-eat-dog mentality is very present when you arrive at a place like New Delhi that is overcrowded, impoverished, and has military policing roads. Moving further out to remote areas like Ladakh brings a more peaceful culture. Mind you there was military everywhere we traveled. (With two of the world’s largest populations separated by a magical line, it’s not hard to understand why.) I know that loads of people have spiritually enlightening experiences while at altitude, but I can’t say the same. I learned more about the cultures of my fellow travelers than I did myself. I think the camaraderie that came with spending so much time together was what I really enjoyed the most. Everyone from the poor support mechanic that both myself and Chris kept extremely busy to the Royal Enfield guides, Adarsh and Arjay ... it was like we were all life-long friends.”
Justin Reiter, United States: “India is a massive country with a huge amount of tangible diversity, visually and culturally. So much fun, so many laughs, so many close calls, so many ‘oh shit’ moments turned to ‘fuck yeah’ memories. I remember watching [Chris’] bike kick and throw him, seeing the speed and force, and thinking there is no way [his] leg wasn’t broken. Then watching a usually mundane French man turn into a fun-crazed kiddo lost in pure, mad bliss. Whatever inhibition we develop as we grow older was washed away in those moments. I learned some harsh things about myself that I still work on daily, but the trip opened me up to the possibility of more in life than the one-dimensional path I had been traveling. India forces a new perspective on life to those who experience her ... the trip changed my life.”
Hash, hugs, and Jenga.
We faced a lot of tough times and long days during Moto Himayala. It turned out to be a very trying experience, physically and emotionally, but well worth the discomfort. We’d accomplished something great together, and on our last night in Ladakh, back at Hotel Kaal, we celebrated, hard. Christophe and I danced barefoot in the courtyard until we were asked to stop, then got everyone together to play Jenga, which was way more fun after I met a friendly local with some hash to spare. The laughs never stopped, and we stayed up much later than we should’ve, considering we flew out of Leh at dawn. As our plane took off from the small, scrappy airport, an unexpected tear rolled down my cheek. I don’t know where it came from but immediately understood it as significant.
Moto Himalaya affected me. I nearly fought a guy from Spain, I watched a Taiwanese dude very nearly ride off a cliff to his death, and I kept up with Greg as he flat-out sprinted up, over, and down the world’s second highest road. I woke up early to drink crap coffee and eat an empty breakfast in my dirty, wet kit, then rode my bike ‘til every bone ached; at the end of eight days, my body felt like my Bullet looked. I look back now and see Arjay feeding crackers to a stray puppy and Christophe tiptoeing behind an unsuspecting yak like it was yesterday, not a year ago. I suspect it will stay that way for a while, because an experience so vast and moving has an effect deeper than you can appreciate until you go and do it yourself.
Registration for the upcoming Moto Himayala, which takes place from August 12 to 21, is now closed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start planning for next year’s. For more information on Royal Enfield’s Moto Himayala, visit