The Himalayas have been calling me since I was a young woman. Having visited there half a dozen times, I cannot begin to explain why in a page of words. A page is flat and the words are black and white. The Himalayan Mountains surround you with 360 degrees of visual splendor that can never be captured fully by the lens of a camera. It is more than a visual masterpiece, it is a journey of the spirit that cannot be described with words; it can only be felt.
Much like the magnificent mountains that surround your physical being, the spirituality of the people and their connection to their higher power is what makes these hills feel alive. The hills are alive, but not with sound; they’re alive with emotion. I traveled to the Himalayas this past summer to meet the co-owner of Motorcycle Expeditions, the pre-eminent provider of motorcycle tours of the Himalayan region. Buddhi Singh Chand and I met on Facebook earlier this year and conversed back and forth about having me help him attract people to his tours. I told him I could do that, but I first must experience the tours on my own.
Stepping off the plane brought back memories of the first time I landed in Tibet. The nomads on the plane began to weep as the plane touched the ground, which made all of us weep, and we weren’t even sure why. They were happy to return to that emotion, to that spiritual place and connection. But now the nomads have been driven from Tibet, which is the very place that grounds and connects them. The northern Himalayas of India, where I would be exploring, is where many of the Tibetan refugees have fled seeking a new place to call home and the freedom to keep the beliefs that are the very essence of their existence.
The nomads who live in these mountains are pure in heart. Their lives exemplify the pleasure of simplicity. Their smiles are genuine, and their curiosity is inviting. As I look around my living room at the mementos I’ve collected through my trades with the nomads there, I remember each person and the story that goes along with it. The interactions were priceless. There is no other place on earth that calls me back, time and time again, like these magical mountains, and these spiritual people.
Riding through this virtually untouched landscape, the roads are in constant need of clearing and repair. This work is done mostly by the hard-working nomads of the land. As we came across a group of women sweeping and doing road maintenance, I offered to take over their jobs to free them up to indulge in a motorcycle ride with Buddhi. At first they seemed reluctant, but they gave in to the fun of the moment. Click images to view larger.
Having traveled through the various countries of the Himalayas mostly by foot, I wondered how it would feel to travel through a place—that virtually stands still in time—on a motorcycle. Motorcycles have been my main source of transportation in the U.S, and have taken me on nearly every back road between the West Coast and the Mississippi. But part of what I love about traveling through third world countries is doing it at their pace, and blending into the fiber of life, which allows for a natural interaction with the surroundings. I worried that traveling at warp speed would mean passing by the very things I’ve come there to experience. So along the road, whenever I caught someone looking at the motorcycle or smiling and waving in my direction, I took the opportunity for an exchange.
There is an art to stopping to interact with locals, and Buddhi has an easy and inviting nature. It is polite to ask before you point your camera at someone, especially older native people who have long feared that a camera can take away from their spirit. Respecting the beliefs and ways of the country I’m visiting is very important to me, even for a liberal thinker who may or may not agree with those ways. I always ask before taking out my camera, and I have learned it helps to have chocolate or cookies to share. Just about every being I encountered enjoyed sharing my sugarcoated crackers, so I made sure I always had a bag-full!
The animals in third world countries struggle for survival. Money and food are scarce, and dogs are at the bottom of the chain of who gets food. Even when they are treated poorly and never shown compassion, man’s best friend still sticks around hoping for scraps and leftovers. Most have never been shown compassion, and are afraid to even take the food, or let you touch them. Their faces are scarred from fighting. Their legs are broken or missing from fighting with the older, stronger dogs, or being hit by people or vehicles. If I was Noah, I would have filled the entire ark with every dog and brought it home. There are conditions in this world that break your heart, and leave you wondering, what can I do? The problem is so overwhelmingly out of control, what kind of solution could there ever be?
The sad characteristics of a place never prevent me from wanting to visit there. There is no place on earth without sadness. It is present in different forms. “Break my heart for what breaks yours…” is a phrase that touches me and comes to mind when I visit such places. Meaning, if it breaks my heart, then it must be breaking God’s heart too. I don’t ever want to become desensitized to the things that break my heart. I want it to break my heart. It should.
The only way change can occur is when we are moved to change. I want to see everything, and feel everything, and then come home and share it. Answers are only followed by questions, and questions evolve from the heartbreak of wondering, “How can we change what needs changing in our world?”
I love to travel, and I love to ride. I love taking pictures, and I love writing stories. I wanted to experience combining the things I love most. That’s why I agreed to accompany Buddhi on an extended tour of areas that might be of interest to people I know back home. Buddhi’s company, Motorcycle Expeditions, offers motorcycle tours throughout India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. What I specifically set out to discover on this trip was if we could generate interest and organize small group expeditions to amazingly untouched roads in faraway places.
Being the “backroads” rider and traveler that I am, I most enjoy the peace and solitude that comes in traveling alone. I seek out the path less traveled, and I like to go in the opposite direction of the crowds. I had never been on an organized motorcycle tour, and didn’t know if it would feel right to me. That’s another reason I felt it was important to travel to India to check out this company and all it has to offer.
Buddhi and I planned a trip to ride the highest motorable passes in the world, and we scheduled it slightly before the season kicks off, when roads get crowded with tourists from all over the world. Because it was still early in the season, we encountered snow and colder than normal conditions on some of the highest passes. Click images to make larger.
The price of such an expedition is not cheap, and the truth of the matter is, you could probably do it yourself for less money. But I can tell you, I have traveled that way most of my life. I tried to pay attention to all of the pros and cons of going on an organized guided tour as opposed to winging it yourself. From the moment you land in a foreign country, if you do not speak the language, you are in for some difficulties.
By age 28, Buddhi spoke 10 languages and dialects, and never once did we encounter someone with whom he could not communicate. This is an incredible asset! Not to mention that he grew up in this region, and went off to Paris to study tourism in college. Because Buddhi is a native, he knew most everyone everywhere we went, so we were always welcomed warmly. This is especially helpful when crossing into areas where special permits are required just to be there. The official boarder people can be problematic and hold you up or turn you away for no reason. Luckily we sailed past checkpoints, and moved to the front of lines without questions.
Getting around the dirt roads of the Himalayas can be challenging on so many levels. The roads are poorly marked or not marked at all. Finding your way is beyond challenging, not to mention, driving here is done on the opposite side of the road, at least for those of us in the States. Drivers pass in the middle so it feels like a constant game of chicken, and at a pretty rapid pace. The roads are cluttered with trucks, cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, people on foot, wild donkeys, mountain dogs, goats, chickens, and holy cows that can walk, stand or lay in the roads if they please. Buddhi just said, “Follow me,” and I did.
I followed Buddhi through puddles the size of lakes, through rain and snow, mud and ice, cold and wind, hot and dry, and potholes upon potholes upon potholes—every condition possible in our month of travel. We stayed in local guesthouses, and with families of friends, but most of the time we stayed with Buddhi’s good friend named Tupstan, a Buddhist monk, who lives alone in a small house on the grounds of a monastery on the outskirts of Leh Ladakh in the Himalayas of northern India.
The experiences I had with Buddhi are not necessarily what one would expect on a normal expedition that typically lasts 11 days and includes staying in a guesthouse and camping along the way. I appreciated the extended time I had with Buddhi, which allowed me unique experiences like getting to meet, stay and spend quality time with some of the locals. Mingling with the locals is the one part of the journey I seek the most, and the part I will never forget.
When you are staying at such high altitudes like we were—between 11,500 to 17,500 feet—there are a multitude of problems to overcome including headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, and general fatigue. It’s important not to overdo it. A knowledgeable guide will help you to acclimatize at the correct pace. Once you get altitude sickness sometimes the only cure is to descend to a lower altitude, which can interrupt your whole journey.
Life in the Himalayas is harsh, and if you are not prepared for the elements, it can really beat you up. Externally, the extreme sun, wind, and reflection from the snow can take a toll on your body. Internally, the rule of thumb for food you eat is to boil it, peel it, or leave it. Rule of thumb for water: boil it, bring a filtering bottle, or drink bottled water with a good seal. I share these details because doing it right can make the difference between having an uncomfortable trip or a spectacular adventure.
An experienced guide will keep you from getting lost and will do his or her best to keep you out of dangerous areas. It means having someone look out for your best interests, for your physical health and your mental well being. Being in a third world country can be dangerous, confusing, scary, frustrating, and downright uncomfortable. But having a hilarious and silly guide like Buddhi can turn even the most difficult of situations into the funniest memories you’ll take home from a trip. With the right guide, it can be the amazing journey of a lifetime.
And that’s exactly what Buddhi gave to me: an amazing journey of a lifetime in the Himalayas of northern India. He and Tupstan showed me incredible hospitality and taught me many things about the Buddhist culture and way of life.
I learned that a monk lives according to the economic ability of his family. For example, Tupstan has his own three-bedroom house on the monastery grounds. Most monks are not quite as fortunate. I learned that even though he has tremendous compassion toward people, he had little patience for the stray dogs that lived all along his road. He got irritated when I fed the dogs because then they would wait for me every day in front of his house, and would leave their messes that Tupstan did not appreciate having to clean up. When I noticed a big lizard on the wall of my bedroom and started talking to it, Tupstan came in and looked at it, squashed it with a towel, and threw it down the hole in the ground they call a toilet! Wait a second! On TV Buddist monks wouldn’t even kill a fly!
I learned to be careful brushing my hair, because it is disrespectful for a woman’s hairs to be beneath a man’s feet. What?! I learned that a Monk can have a nice house, a car, an iPhone, a nice gold watch, and a TV. He cannot, however, wear pants. What?! So even when it was freezing outside during our jaunts on my motorcycle, all he is allowed to wear is a robe that flapped away in the wind on the back of my motorcycle. I could feel him shivering as he tightly held my waist.
Tupstan is a very disciplined, orderly, and kind person, and took wonderful care of me. We enjoyed shopping for groceries, peeling, chopping and cooking dinner together. I woke up to his quiet chanting and sweeping every morning. He took meaningful care of his many house plants daily. At night we watched Bollywood videos, and Animal Planet. He spoke almost no English, but still he taught me much, and we laughed together constantly. I think mostly I learned that people are people. Buddist monks are not born with extraordinary compassion. But they devote their lives to learning, practicing, and exercising compassion. Just being in the presence and energy of this extraordinary man is something for which I will always be grateful.
If you’ve ever dreamt of this type of adventure, visit MotorcycleExpeditions.com for more upcoming trips. Buddhi and I discussed several possibilities for custom expeditions we would plan together. Check my column here on WRN and my Facebook page, and my personal website for future developments. I would love to begin putting together a small group to adventure to Bhutan. If you want to join me, email me at email@example.com. If you are not living life on the edge, you are missing the view! Let’s plan the next adventure together.
6 thoughts on Backroads With Betsy: Motorcycling Trip of a Lifetime Riding in the Himalayas
You really know how to live. It saddens me when people don’t want to move out of a neighborhood, or get on a plane, leave their town or their state. It’s really a very small world, and fear keeps people stuck in the same place. My hope is that you inspire other women and men to get out of their little box and just learn to “live free” and experience all that this one life has to offer. Thank you for sharing your incredible journeys!
This story trumps all others you have posted Betsy and you have had a lot of great ones! Your courage and “motzie” are admired by many of us. I have done a lot of crazy solo biking but NOTHING that even remotely compares to this trip. This should be in every biker mag! Thanks for sharing and inspiring many!
I wish I could take the altitude, but will have to leave the exploration through the eyes of you and others that go. What a great experience and looking forward to reading more about your future back roads.
Great article! I wish I could take all those dogs and give them a loving home.
All I can say is WOW! Of all your stories, Betsy, I think this is the most incredible trip I have read about! Your compassion for humans and animals is incredible (as I sit here crying after reading your story). Thank you so much for sharing with us! I almost feel like I was there with you!
Extraordinary article and adventure by a truly exceptional woman. Betsy, as always, manages to capture the essence of her adventures and communicate it to her readers. Her understanding that everything in the universe is alive and her innate respect for same is clearly the bedrock of her work.