Our little caravan starts moving at around 9 am, after having shot our video logs of the previous 2 days. After a brief stop in Dirang, at Kunu’s auntie’s shop to buy a badly needed sweater for myself, we head towards Sela Pass, one of the highest in the region. But first, as it is often the case in the Himalayas, we have to descend a fair number of hairpins to Jang, cross the river on a metallic bridge and climb again towards the pass.
At about 8000 ft, we have to stop and wear our high altitude gear to fight the biting cold. But soon things get much worse: we just had stopped for a lunch break – i.e. Maggi noodles – in a simple hut on top of the pass, when a violent hail storm starts, quickly covering the road with a half foot thick layer of ice.
Following some argument with the production about waiting here or not, and as I am anticipating a further deterioration of the weather, I decide to immediately proceed with the descent. That, is a tough job on 2 wheels and an extreme challenge for Kalki! Fortunately our “Himalayans” are fitted with knobby tyres without which we would have been in even deeper trouble.
After a couple of kilometres, Kalki – unfortunately having been unable to source waterproof riding boots at her size** – is suffering from severe frostbite on her feet and hands as well, and so, although she courageously bears the ordeal, it is decided to accommodate her in one of the crew cars for the rest of the day. As for myself I keep on going down as fast as safety can permit to escape the late afternoon cold, for very soon temperatures will drop sub-zero and the hail-slush will become transformed into hard ice. In the process, following a traffic misjudgement I skid off the road before a narrow culvert, landing the bike into a deep ditch. No damage to me or to the bike, but it takes 6 people to extract the vehicle from this muddy hole!
At last reaching an altitude blessed with moderate temperatures and riding far ahead of the pack, I decide to take shelter from the heavy rain and wait for the crew. Under This corrugated sheet shelter is a group of women working on the roads. One of the girls comes to me and welcomes me, addressing me in perfect English. She explains that she is a student, and during her holidays she works on the roads, carrying and breaking stones. I can’t see her face, for she – like all her colleagues and most women around here in general – wears a mask for dust protection, but she has beautiful almond shaped eyes and, strangely, her name is Jenny. She is dressed in thick traditional local clothes for warmth, I can see nothing of her, no body shape, no face, just these eyes burning with life, pride and aspiration, and still, she radiates a fascinating beauty. In a very genuine, admiring way, she is thrilled when I tell her in the conversation that Kalki, my daughter, is on her way down: this anonymous, poor girl, who lives in a most remote part of the Himalayas, knows everything about Kalki! I have witnessed similar scenes in other villages again and again, and then it suddenly dawns on me that Jenny represents thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of young women, who see in Kalki not only an incarnation of their dreams, but even more important, a herald of what they will themselves become one day: free, independent and powerful women in a changed society. And, as her father, I am touched to tears by this because, you see, this is the real hidden value of Kalki’s action in the world.
(to be continued: In & around Tawang)
** Would this be an indication that Indian bikers should be male exclusively?!