Zen and the Art of Not Falling Off a Motorbike

William Mackay (Bill) Aitken

Quality is not a tiling. It is an event

- Robert Pirsig

In early and mid-life the most important part of an expedition is to achieve your goal. Later, in the fullness of age, the aim is to return in one piece - especially if you are astride a Pulsar, a peppy Indian motorbike that seems built to tame hill roads. During Diwali in 2007, a window of opportunity opened, allowing a week's respite from Delhi's tensions, for a trip into Garhwal. Though cold, the weather was agreeable and my route from Delhi to Joshimath and then back to Mussoorie via an alternative, untried, interior passage was free of the heavy rush of traffic that characterises the pilgrim season.

Most of the way I followed the waters of the Ganga. If that sounds like bad geography it means the reader is unfamiliar with the fact that from Muradnagar, 35 km east of the capital you can take a delightful narrow pucca road along the bank of the upper Ganga canal all the way to Khatauli that misses out on all the congestion.

On this first leg of the journey it rained a little and passing car passengers look pityingly at my bedraggled state. How to tell them that I felt sorry for them, for what they were missing? By insulating themselves from the sun, stars and wind they could not hope to become - as I and the bike rapturously were - at one with the elements.

Riding a Pulsar round hill bends is a very special pleasure and gives instant access to a philosophical mood. This reminds me on my return to re-read Robert Pirsig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Aspie Moddie's article 'Zen and Mountain Reflections' in the Himalayan Journal (Vol. 40) provides a good introduction. Incidentally, as an essay in self-belief, 123 publishers rejected the manuscript of Pirsig's book before it saw the light of day!

Why do people find going to the mountains so maddeningly beautiful? Most of us pose this question to the intellect but Pirsig suggests that we are looking for the answer in the wrong seat of learning. Those who approach the Himalaya on four wheels need the physical outline of the range to convince them their expedition has started whereas the rider, because of his direct access to the right seat of learning, is aware his connect with the range starts much earlier. As I discovered in Delhi many years ago, he who rides to the mountains answers the question the moment he cocks his leg over the saddle. As his backside makes contact with the motorbike the duality of bike and rider merges into a feeling akin to the maddening beauty that the physical setting foot on the Himalaya releases. Pirsig calls this experience of oneness 'quality' and it derives not from the mind but our being.

A similar instinct is to be found in Mallory's famous dictum on why climb Everest. He wasn't saying 'Everest is there' in the sense of a massif bound by physical limits. His intention is to convey that Everest like all quality experiences just is. The posturing imperial and personal over the significance of this peak derive from the duality of our minds. To pre-empt the divisive nature of the mind, we need to look not at the top but at the bottom of things.

One tongue-in-cheek definition of mountaineering to be distilled from Pirsig's two-wheel peripatetic is that climbing mountains can be viewed as a recommended form of insanity for those who wish to glimpse what Einstein calls the contours of eternity.

The second morning I have a South Indian breakfast on the ghats at Rishikesh and enjoy the expansive spread of the river. Here Ganga emerges from her long confinement and upstream in early November looks magnificent, every inch a maharani, her colour a marvellous clear jade that seems to vibrate with blessings. After Delhi's filthy air and angry mood, the river gliding serenely amidst the steep sided jungle is hugely therapeutic. The coordinates of crisp air and waltzing bike make you realise that samsara and nirvana are one and the same and the contours of the temporal not a whit less wonderful than those of eternity... until the bad road surface deflates this noble theory. I drive on until Gauchar when hunger makes me call it a day. The small and little used Garhwal Tourist bungalow is empty and I have a relaxing stay. At all the tourist bungalows I make it a point to meet the local manager and find out which village he hails from. Most of the time, they are under siege from complaining customers.

The third morning's voyage to Joshimath along hewn out canyon walls gives a roller coaster ride with spectacular open sections of the gallery covered at 70 kph. These are followed by washed out patches where freezing snow melt cascades over the road forcing me to crawl gingerly. Notices along the way caution 'This is a highway not a runway'. Obviously they have been written by someone who never rode a Pulsar!

As it is a Saturday, I immediately check with the Joshimath tourist bungalow manager if the ropeway to Auli is working. He tells me to walk to the terminal immediately as the cable car is due to leave in fifteen minutes. Though the fare seems excessive to some, for the lover of rare mountain scenery, 400 rupees comes as a fabulous bargain, especially if you are an ardent devotee of Nanda Devi. In clear weather there can be no doubt that the view rising suspended from the cableway gives the most stupendous angle on this ravishing mountain.

I rush over to book my ticket and pray that the light clouds do not thicken to deprive me of the Devi's darshan. As we rise smoothly over the roofs of the small houses, I am told the first snows of winter had fallen on the buggiyals the day before. Everything seems to be going in my favour. The ropeway is over four kilometres long and rises four thousand feet. The ride is sedate and eerily noiseless and takes about half an hour. Reassuringly it is serviced regularly by a partner from the Alps. At the Auli terminal you are actually inside the Nanda Devi National Park, a UNESCO recognised Biosphere Reserve and therefore predictably blizzarded with official notice boards giving dire warnings not to set a foot further without official sanction. Needless to say no one takes the slightest notice.

To make perfect my day Nanda Devi appears in full majesty, an extraordinary sweep of mountain glory the like of which has to be seen to be believed. The massif from the detached confines of the cable car seems to float dreamlike, so ethereal you feel it cannot possibly have roots in the earth. No other peak comes anywhere near this rearing wonder, a work of mineral art sublime in its crafting.

The steep trail up to the ridge of Gorson buggiyal passes though a swathe of full grown shaggy conifer where the snow lies three inches deep, enough to prove tricky since I am wearing ordinary shoes. I know my resolve to reach the top will be severely tested because, over the years I have learned the hard way that ridges on these upland pastures are what mirages are to the desert. The sensible thing is to give yourself a turn around time, and that is already decided for me by my return ticket.

Nanda and her courtiers are playing hide and seek with the scudding clouds but because of her towering height the summit of the Devi remains clear. I have taken good care to note landmarks for my return route since it is easy to pick up a false trail on the descent. Back at the ropeway terminal I sit drinking coffee, sketching the Devi's harmonious outline and blessing the Garhwal tourist officials who had the imagination to create what to me is the most beautiful mountain- view in the world.

The only jarring note is the presence of well-heeled tourists with their spoilt children complaining that there is nothing to see. Some of these visitors look on the local people almost patronisingly. I suspect the real prasad of visitors to devi bhoomi is not having a rugby scrum darshan of the gods at the temples but experiencing the character and kindness of the local people who, for millennia, though poor themselves are courteous and generous to strangers in their midst.

On the way back I make enquiries about my old porters and am told the best of them is somewhere in town but rather the worse for wear. Winter for these villagers, even when they move downhill to their cold weather quarters, is a hard option. No expedition work is forthcoming so they can either move further down to the plains to work as casual labour or laze around the bazaar dhup senkhna (soak up the sun), drinking and playing cards.

In the empty, echoing tourist bungalow I enjoy an overdue hot shower and just as I am coming out hear a voice call my name. To my astonishment it turns out to be the mountaineering historian Joydeep Sircar, editor of an extraordinary handbook cataloguing his researches (Himalayan Handbook, 1979). I had never met Joydeep though I had corresponded twenty years earlier before a successful career in banking apparently drew him away from our common interest. We talk solidly for five hours without pause, oblivious of food though we do get through a bottle of rum between us. I try to convince Joydeep that his vast, unique and intimate knowledge of mountaineers and their idiosyncrasies demands that he compile a book of anecdotes.

On Sunday morning, Plan A is to ride out to Lata, spend the day there and stay another night in Joshimath. But waiting for me outside the bungalow is an old, frail poorly dressed porter who addresses me by name. I can't recognise him after so many years and ask him who he is. The name he gives is that of Joshimath's most famous guide and I am dumbfounded at how time had taken its toll of this, in his day, most charismatic and well to do of expedition Sirdars. It is clear that a liquid diet has wreaked havoc on his health. At a loss on how to handle the situation, I decide to ride to Lata and hope my reunion with the porters there will be less dispiriting.

When I get there, only one person is in sight, an old man sitting mumbling to himself. He seems far gone and makes no effort to communicate. When I mention the name of the porter I am hoping to meet he stands up trembling and begins to gesticulate. To my utter amazement it turns out to be none other than my old porter, the very person I have come to see. I am shocked at his state which seems to be the result of an emotional breakdown from a family tragedy.

I decide to chicken out of any further contacts in Lata and Joshimath and invoke Plan B - to continue on down to Gopeshwar, a much warmer place to stay for the night. Pirsig's wisdom about the potential locked up in the perspective of the demented would only become available later. The peace and gentle climate helps soften the impact of the morning's harsh lessons. What a difference there is between settlements built on and away from the main highway. A walk through the straggling bazaar to the ancient temple adds to the sense of repose that one misses in Joshimath.

As I need to top up my depleted rum, I flag on. I find the Gopeshwar booze shop is situated in what seems a bottomless pothole accessible by a flight of perpendicular footholds. It seems designed to guarantee anyone not fully sober would crash to meet his maker in the time honoured custom of ritual suicide for which Gopeshwar was once famous.

When I re-read Pirsig, I understand why the architecture of the mountains appeals after living in urban centres. The Himalaya is a work of quality created by an evolutionary intelligence while most modern buildings represent (to quote Pirsig) 'technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty.'

Now on the return leg to Delhi I must decide whether to risk a more adventurous route home. From Gopeshwar to Rudraprayag by the main road is forty kilometres and by the interior route via Pokhri more than three times that distance. I take care to start after Rahu Kal (dangerous astronomical period) on this rather speculative traverse. The initial slope is too severe for human habitation and the flora has a pristine quality now lost to most of Garhwal. It takes three hours of cavorting over landslips and outwitting other sundry alarums to climb to Pokhri but the journey has been worth it for the unspoilt scenery and terrific variety of trees I have passed.

Pokhri is very much a top of the world experience but at midday the expansive snow views suffer from the glare factor. After the morning's long climb, the bike is rewarded now with a fast high ridge road for the next thirty kilometres that makes for the most magical of two wheeler rides. The way opens up deliciously to swerve through dense oak and deodar jungle and re-emerge on lonely promontories from whose exposed flanks sheer forested slopes drop away. Dark blue pheasants with cream breasts skitter away in front of my wheel. It makes for wonderful riding for the road is well maintained and the lost time in the morning can now be made up.

This is what Pirsig calls a quality situation where the harmony between man, bike and nature is manifest. He describes how trust builds up between a rider and his machine and you know that moment of magical bonding has arrived when you lean forward after a particularly challenging stretch and instinctively pat the bike with affection.

Now the occasional bus from Rudraprayag toils up from the void and the cool broad-leaved jungles begin to give way to the chiming needles of pine. The descent becomes near vertical and by four I am back in Rudraprayag's darkened valley heading out for Gulabrai the village where Jim Corbett shot the famous man eating leopard.

The writings of Corbett are amongst my favourites but according to my neighbour, the author Ruskin Bond, Corbett's style is suspiciously free of literary allusions. The inference could be that R. E. Hawkins (of Himalayan Journal fame) was rather more than just Corbett's editor!

The small Corbett Guest House, run by a former junglat officer, offers basic fare and is ideally situated for an early start the next morning for the long run to Mussoorie via the Bhilangana valley and the new dam at Tehri. On this trip I have passed the centres of all three leaders associated with the Chipko movement, Gaura Devi in Reni, Chandi Prasad Bhatt in Gopeshwar and Sunderlal Bahuguna in Silyara, a village ironically situated near the back up of the Tehri dam waters. Strangely, all are better known abroad for their pioneering environment movements than in Garhwal. Nevertheless I think they will remain in local folklore long after the Tehri dam has become a silted white elephant.

Whatever the scientific shortcomings of this dam, knowingly constructed over a geological fault, to the casual tourist unconcerned for local apprehensions, there is no denying the beauty of its languorous lake. Instead of a thing of beauty however the actual dam works are reminiscent of a nuclear holocaust. I remember with affection the zany Victorian buildings of Old Tehri deliberately drowned to supply water and electricity to faceless urban inhabitants in their characterless quarters in the plains. The re-aligned road that diverts to New Tehri is tiring, dusty and boring and the town itself hideously boxy as though designed by Corbusier (famous Swiss architect) from the confines of a padded cell wearing a strait jacket. It is a relief to leave this rootless, alien eyesore and tool down to Chamba for lunch.

On the return stretch to Mussoorie, I pass a beautifully surfaced stretch that announces Woodstock the American school that dates back more than a hundred years. The author Stephen Alter who grew up and lives on the Woodstock campus has written a wonderfully evocative autobiography of Mussoorie in the halcyon era of a generation ago (All The Way to Heaven). However as I write Steve and his wife are in hospital having been burgled at dagger point to within an inch of their lives. This confirms what many trekkers have suspected. The global drug scene has arrived in Garhwal and dev bhoomi is no longer the safe paradise it used to be.

On reaching home after a week, I am so drained I can hardly climb off the bike. Those who feel that oldies in their seventies have no business riding motorbikes may be correct but they overlook the potential locked up in such seemingly insane behaviour. The experience is a much-needed tonic and I feel elation in every pore at having completed it.

Pirsig blames much of the dissatisfaction of modern life on our wilful ignoring of nature's order where the passions and emotions play a central role. Instead, we place undue dependence on the artificial instrumentality of reason and logic. As a result we tend to play safe and copy the fashions of others rather than discover the unique quality of our own being This trip taught me to put my trust in the one seat of learning guaranteed to deliver us home in one piece. Nothing profound, just the seat of one's pants!


Travels in the Garhwal Himalaya on a motorbike.