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Expedition Day 23: Easy Rider…Himalayan-style

In Expedition Journal - Roof of the World by Pia Saengswang3 Comments


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There’s not a whole lot of “easy” so far in my Easy Rider imitation – beginning with a false-start out of the gate leaving town.  We were told the last stop for fuel was 40 KM outside of Leh, before the passes.   We get there only to discover that actually…there’s no fuel at this stop and the next fuel stop is a full 3 days away.  So…back we go to Leh…F**K!!!  We recalibrate, regroup and restart our journey much later in the day than planned, with a lot of internal cursing on my part.

The delay also forces a change in where we overnight.  We decide to spend the night at the Thiksey Monastery – a 12-story hodge podge of buildings (not as far from Leh as I’d like, cursing again).  Well, as it turns out, it was a great night and we were able to shoot some unexpectedly rich footage at Thiksey.  I remind myself that everything happens for a reason and you can’t really plan an adventure…

Image 9Though none of us sleep long or well, we’re off again early the next morning.  We’ve got 338 miles of rough, rocky, Himalayan highway to cover before we’re safe from the dropping snow line.  I’m determined to cross Taglang La pass as soon as possible.  At 17,500+ feet in altitude, this pass poses the highest safety risk ahead of us. Weather continues to look unpredictable and we’re hearing reports of snow on top of Taglang La. I’m worried about traction for both the bike and support car – I didn’t buy chains after all, which I’m now nervous was the wrong decision.

So far, road conditions range from passable to horrendous.  We go by several trucks and crews during the day  in serious predicaments.  I’m finding that riding a heavy, fully-laden bike at altitude through these high mountain passes is tricky.  A bit like kayaking class 5 whitewater actually.  There’s a lot to negotiate…Army convoys, big red TATA trucks with crazy drivers, hair pin turns with sheer drops into the abyss.  You need to stay focused.   On top of that, the Leh-Manali Highway itself is in a state of continuous deterioration from weather and tectonic upheavals.  There’s really no point in having expectations out here – it’s one leg at a time.

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We push on, knowing we don’t have time to waste.  I pull into the village of Sarchu at 6pm, having ridden 11 spine-numbing hours straight on the bike….shagged but feeling good about the much-needed progress we’ve made.  We spend a dodgy night camped at a roadside police check-post.  It’s safe but really noisy…and it’s our second night in a row with little sleep.

Another early-start day…it’s push, push, push to the passes.  Fueling myself on road-side stops eating wei wei noodles, Kit Kats and tea.   Coming up to Taglang La, I see my fears about the conditions are unfounded – looks like high pressure on the horizon and the visibility turns crystal clear.  Suddenly, it’s the Himalayas under a blue sky as far as we can see.  What a relief.

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The top of the pass is cold with a dusting of snow….we stop for photographic evidence before motoring on.  Not wanting to trust our luck (or the mercurial weather patterns), our goal is to get over the Baralacha La and Kunzung La passes as soon as possible.   After that, we’ve decided to leave the Leh-Manali highway for the backroads of the Spiti valley.  Once in Spiti, we’ll be safe from the snow and can slow down.

ROTW: GM @ Taglangla Pass

We push on to the town of Keylong and arrive early evening into what is by most definitions a small town, but the amenities seem palatial to us at the moment.  Hotels! Restaurants! Wifi!  Hot showers!  A bed! Everyone’s beat… it’s been drive- shoot- drive – shoot on tricky road conditions for hundreds of miles.  We’ve been starting early for safety reasons and to take advantage of the amazing morning light for filming.  By mid-day, the sun overhead makes for too hot an image so we’re focusing on magic light hours to shoot most of the scenics.  Knowing we won’t be on the north side of the Himalayas again, we’re working hard to capture shots of the Plateau.

ROTW: GM Leh-Manali/filling gas

Two more days to go until we get to Spiti.  Then, we’re home free – no more mountain passes between Spiti and the Indian sub-continent.  After three weeks in Ladakh I finally feel acclimatized, but I’m really looking forward to some O2, sleep and greenery again.

I think about the challenges all independent film productions face – making magic out of dreams, a shoestring budget, the kindness of countless friends and strangers, and a lot of guts.  It’s not easy.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I’d rather be doing and nowhere I’d rather be right now.   I’ve worked on a lot of productions over the years – film, television, commercials…but this time it’s different because Roof of the World is a project we’ve developed and are producing on our own steam and Thunder Dragon is front and center for me and Pia in our Third Act.   It’s a good time to be stubborn and single-minded…you only have so many chances in life to do the things you really want.  There is a time to push and a time to be mellow.  Right now is my time to push.

We’re going to stay in a hotel and get a proper meal tonight.  I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep…my nightmares of having a bike stuck on the north side of the Himalayas for 6 months are quickly fading with the clearing skies…


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