Kalki’s Great Escape, behind the scene: the motorcycles

(Originally written for RoyalEnfield.Com official website)

As of now, we are already 3 episodes deep into the TV show which is being aired not only on Fox Life, but also on National Geographic channel, and I have been pondering for a while: what about slightly shifting our perspective, from the people to the motorcycles? And here we go, just a little more “motorcyclic”!

I am used to riding a 1000 cc Honda Goldwing. Yes, I know, this may sound a bit pretentious but, be reassured, mine is a 37 years old vintage bike, and trust me, quite a handful to maintain in proper touring condition, particularly when she has to take me and my wife to such remote places as the Nubra Valley, Ladakh.

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my Honda GL-1000 model 1979

Anyhow, when I was approached by Fox Life to ride a 410 cc Royal Enfield Himalayan for our “Great Escape” in the North-East of India, I was a bit dismayed at first — not by any prejudice, I have been riding Enfield Bullets before and after, but simply because I had not anticipated this option — till I had a look on the web at the specs and pictures of this new RE Himalayan, which had not yet reached the showrooms at the time.
And that’s when I got interested: at last, a domestic motorbike manufacturer willing to dare and produce an indigenous multi-terrain tourer, and that too at an affordable price!

A couple of weeks later, our 2 Himalayans were waiting for us at Guwahati for this long awaited reunion of my daughter and me, and a great adventure ahead. At the start of our expedition, the first 250 km to Bhalukpong (Arunachal Pradesh’s border), most of it on a beautiful 4-lanes highway, were relatively unchallenging — except for the usual traffic of trucks, animals and humans, most of them at the wrong place — and it was a good opportunity for me and even more for Kalki to get acquainted with the motorbike’s behaviour. To my relief, Kalki was immediately at ease, thanks to the light and precise handling of the bike on the highway, and the efficient brakes.

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my 410 cc Himalayan in Sangti (Arunachal Pradesh), and…

Things turned out more serious on the next stretch, from Bhalukpong to Dirang. Here one has to cope with a typical Himalayan road of the worst kind: narrow, winding, broken down and frequently punctuated with freshly bulldozed landslides and deep mud. On the other hand, the scenery around us was magnificent — thick jungle reminiscent of the movie “Romancing the Stone” shot in Columbia, later changing into pine forest at higher altitude. Besides the difficulties of the terrain, it seems that this mountain range is an immense rain collecting funnel: I have, then and later, ridden this road 4 times now and for some mysterious reason always under pouring rain! So, my biker friend, be prepared and make sure that you carry the proper gear if you venture in this region…
The continuation of this road to Tawang, via Sela Pass (4170 m) is similar in texture, but less exposed to weather by the fact that it is located deeper in the Himalayas. The downside however, is that any precipitation hitting this sector will be in the form of snow or hail, as a result of the high elevation. And since an adverse fate seems to always make me attract the worse of the weather, we were given the opportunity to ride the bikes in thick hail blankets and deep slush, where I was happily impressed with the exemplary and forgiving behaviour of the bike in this kind of terrain: the ground clearance is brilliant and the tires well adapted to slush.

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… in the Sela Pass’ weather (13,700 ft)

The second part of our journey, quite different in its essence, took us to Assam and the extraordinary Island of Majuli, a long stretch of low land in the middle of the Brahmaputra, permanently threatened by floods and erosion. One of the major crafts that can be found in every part of Majuli is pottery: this alone should be a clear indication as to what the nature of the soil may be, that is.. clay! Now, considering that most of the island roads and accesses are not tarred and that the timing of our visit coincided with an early monsoon, it goes without saying that most of our riding across Majuli island was performed in treacherous, slippery, soaked clay. From puddle to puddle, we kept gliding around, in control most of the time, having great fun splashing thick mud around. As for Kalki’s looks at the end of the day, don’t ask, but it sure was not the look of the stereotypical Bollywood diva! Actually, whatever bike we ride in India, I have always advocated deeply treaded tires when it comes to exploring places, to the extent that I am possibly the only owner of a Goldwing fitted with dual-sport tires! This is a simple way to greatly extend the range of terrain for any motorcycle, and never be caught helpless in snow or deep slush. I would recommend this alteration to any motorbike owner if he wants to travel anywhere, but of course the Royal Enfield Himalayan comes with such tires, as a much appreciated standard feature.

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a typical Majuli road: slippery clay

The last region explored in this first instalment of our “Great Escape” has been Meghalaya, that is, mostly the region located around Shillong. Rain, rain, and more rain! Consider: Cheerapunjee, located about 60 km south-east of Shillong is known as the place with the highest precipitation on planet earth. I thought it was somewhere in Amazonia, but apparently I was wrong… On the other hand, the State can boast of excellent roads in most places, so we were rarely confronted by the previous challenges. But beware, O intrepid rider patrolling Shillong’s mountains during the monsoon, your feet will never dry and may eventually develop a profitable crop of mushrooms within your eternally sloshy boots! The same boots that were sold to you as absolutely rainproof, dustproof and everythingproof by the vendor, may even turn into a comfortable housing complex for families of leeches, complete with their young and aunties.

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we join force with the “Free Riders” of Shillong

But again the reward of the resolute is waiting: you may ultimately find yourself parking your bike near Dawki, right on the edge of the world, a stunning location featuring an endless cliff  from horizon to horizon, dropping something like a 1000 meters, straight onto the infinite, desperately flat, flooded plain of Bangladesh: a rare sight to behold. And if you are there at sunset, and if the rain has stopped, then you have been blessed by the gods…

Throughout these 2 weeks and 3000 odd km of riding the Royal Enfield Himalayan, both Kalki and I have tremendously enjoyed our biking time. Of course we had our ups and downs, we were baked, soaked and frozen alternately, badly sleep deprived on some days, we complained about sore buts and broken backs, had a couple of punctures and broken spokes, but we have also seen extraordinary vistas and met many wonderful people. And we feel that we have been blessed with a unique experience. Fox Life and National Geographic have given us the opportunity to share this experience with the world.

My special wish would be that Royal Enfield proceeds further on this commendable path of indigenous development, churning out a similar motorcycle frame, but housing a larger engine with a smooth 6 gears box. For I cruelly miss my beloved 1000 cc mount, while cruising long distances on a modern highway: exotic places are wonderful to visit, but in a country vast like India, they are sometimes a long, long way to reach.

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The joy of riding

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