On the road: A school teacher's travels in the Himalayas on a scooter, amid breakdowns and bad weather
Though a scooter is not really fit for high altitudes or tough conditions, Narender Kumar Gautam chose the vehicle because of its charm and storage capacity. He has named the scooter Shaan, which means snow leopard in Ladakhi
Narender Kumar Gautam, who has earned the moniker 'Masterji' because of his day job, has been recognised by people in the strangest of places because of his scooter.
Though a scooter is not really fit for high altitudes or tough conditions, he chose the vehicle because of its charm and storage capacity.
Two memories that stand out from his journeys include encountering three Himalayan wolves in Pensi La and riding to Marsimik La after obtaining a special permit from the Indian Army.
In an age where trendy bikes and modern technology are rolled out by the dozen every few months, there’s a certain charm when it comes to vintage rides. The nostalgia, however, should matter little when it comes to extended road trips in the Himalayas, given the rugged terrain that must be negotiated. While most prefer the latest touring motorcycles to handle this mountainous terrain, 45-year-old Narender Kumar Gautam sticks with his loyal ride. He draws eyeballs wherever he goes, given that his riding companion is a Bajaj Bravo scooter, which has rarely disappointed in the 30,000 kilometres he has negotiated so far.
As a student, Gautam would spend hours browsing the newspapers, cutting out articles related to travel, especially travel in the Himalayas. His first trip to the mountains of Kumaon in 1997 left him enamoured by the charm of nature and he decided to go back whenever he had the opportunity. He kept his sister company while she prepared for her teaching entrance exam. However, while she failed to make the cut, Gautam did, and he went on to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Education. In 1999, he became a teacher. “I’m an accidental teacher. Jo kuch bhi nahin banta woh teacher ban jata hai (Those who don’t qualify for anything else go on to become teachers),” he says with a smile.
To travel to his office in South Delhi, his father agreed to buy him a vehicle. And though he had narrowed down on a motorcycle, Gautam insisted that he wanted a scooter. “It can store more luggage. Besides, it has its own charm,” he says, at the Arun Samant Memorial Lecture, organised by The Himalayan Club in Mumbai last week.
With the advent of the internet, Gautam had another opportunity to virtually explore the Himalayas. While browsing through a travel forum one day in 2011, he came across three scooterists who had made a trip to Spiti. It instantly inspired his future travel. “Few people ventured out to Spiti at that time. There were hardly any roads, and winter made going there a tricky affair, let alone riding alone. I was a little scared but decided to go with a few spare parts anyway, happy to turn around if the route turned out to be difficult or unsafe,” Gautam recalls. The week-long trip unfolded without any mishaps, save for the fact that Gautam was now hooked to these long journeys in the mountains. “That trip give me the confidence that touring was possible on a scooter,” he says.
While the idea of riding a scooter in remote regions has a certain romanticism associated with it, only Gautam knows what it takes to make the journey. “A scooter is not really fit for high altitudes or tough conditions. The wheels are smaller, the shock absorbers inadequate, and of course, there is little riding comfort. Then again, a scooter can go wherever a motorcycle can, though it is a lot more difficult. You need a strong butt and back to ride a scooter,” he says. Then there are the issues with spares and mechanics, especially with the two-stroke machines phased out to make way for the four-stroke upgrades. The five-litre fuel tank too makes life difficult in these distant parts, where at times, there are no fuel pumps for hundreds of kilometres.
“My mechanic in Delhi is often worried and asks me, 'Why are you spending so much money on a scooter?' But in the cities, the spare parts are easily available and really cheap. Hazar rupaye mein scooter puri dulhaan ki tarah taiyar ho jati hai (For just one thousand rupees, a scooter can be decked up like a bride),” he says.
The learning has been immense over the years. For instance, Gautam once loaded his scooter with camping gear while en route the Pangi Valley and was left with a broken rear wheel and no spares on hand. He had little choice but to stay put for a couple of days, until a generous soul, whom he had contacted on a travel forum, brought him another wheel. The hurdles, though, come with their rewards. Gautam has had the opportunity to ride to Marsimik La, which is 5,582 metres higher than Khardung La that is accessible for most travellers, after obtaining a special permit from the Indian Army. Then, there was another time when he was riding towards the Pensi La, where he encounter three Himalayan wolves, flourishing in the wilderness. “With a kitchen knife in my hand, I prayed that they weren’t too fond of human leg pieces and hoped for the best,” he quips.
Dealing with the mountain weather comes, at times, with its fair share of hazards that include slippery roads and sudden snowfall, though Gautam has had just one major accident of late where he found himself in a ditch at Morey Plains. It was hardly a deterrent, as he simply dusted himself and resumed the ride on Shaan — the name he has given to his scooter, which means snow leopard in Ladakhi.
His day job as a school teacher has earned him the nickname 'Masterji', and his travel on the scooter have given him a cult following of sorts, even on lonely highways. “I’ve often been flagged down in the strangest of places, by people who ask me if I am Masterji. They say, ek hi banda hai jo scooter pe ghoomta hai (there’s only one man who travels on a scooter),” he says.
Gautam's wish list keeps growing each year, as he discovers new routes to go back to the same places. For instance, he’s made six trips to Ladakh so far, each time riding through a different region. His wanderlust has also prevented him from applying for a promotion. “If I teach the higher classes, I’ll need more time to prepare, which means less time to explore,” he says. And just like his class, there’s been no change when it comes to his ride. “Akhir scooter ne hi to mujhe pehechaan di hai (After all, it is the scooter that has given me my identity),” he says.
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