For Pranjit Talukdar, his road to working in international development and eventually Heifer India began on a motorcycle, riding the highest road in the world. Talukdar told us in his own words about the nine stops he made on his route to Khardung La Pass and back again, his misadventures along the way, and how that road led him to change his life’s path as well.
“I was in the banking and financial sector,” Talukdar said. “I did my MBA like everybody else, and I joined the bank and started doing portfolio management, financial management and so on. So, I was doing pretty good. My dad’s a doctor and my wife’s a lawyer so I know how rich I could have become!” he laughed.
“Then I took a trip,” he said. “What inspired me actually was that I watched The Motorcycle Diaries with Che Guevara, who did a trip across South America when he was turning 30. To find himself. He was a doctor, and when he came back, he became Che Guevara. I thought, I was turning 30 and that was a good idea. I was doing fine, but my boss’s boss was doing exactly the same thing, and there was nothing new.”
Talukdar decided to take off on his own extreme motorcycle trip: riding Khardung La Pass, the highest motorable road in the world at 18,380 feet above sea level. He was used to riding a smaller motorcycle, but for this trip he needed a bigger one. He showed up at a friend’s house two days before his trip with no supplies and no bike. His friend saw that Talukdar was bound and determined to make the trip, so he was willing to lend his Royal Enfield Bullet and give Talukdar some guidance for the trip.
“He said, ‘So what do you have?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I have nothing. But I am going to go. I will go.’” He said ‘I know, I can see that.’
“Because we were all from the army school, he knew how much I’d follow. So he drew the map of which places I must stay at night. He said to use as much of the daylight as you can. Start early in the morning, and halt before the sun sets. Do not, do not, ride at night. Because there’s no road. No one will be able to find you if you get lost. He said to take enough petrol to fill your tank and an extra gallon. There’s a place called Tandi, and that’s the last petrol pump. There, you refill. Til then, there’s nothing. After Tandi there is nothing. Again, refill your extra tank, and then go. Take your tent, extra tires, learn how to fix your bike. So I said okay.”
Takular and the friend he took with him would end up breaking almost all the rules on their devil-may-care journey.
“I practiced one day, it went fine. I road back to the office on his big bike. Bullet. I was so thrilled. That was the night my sister in law threw a party. I didn’t realize I was partying til 3 a.m.!,” he laughed. “So I said, oh damn, I was going to leave at 6. So we went to sleep. At 6:37 a.m., we left.”
“I went with my brother’s friend. I should not have been travelling with a pillion, because the roads are really steep. But I did not have an option. He said, ‘I can go with you, but I do not know how to ride a bike. I can only hang on to you. If we go down, we go down together. Let’s go!’”
They started on their carefree way out from New Delhi on a hot July day. After the first leg of the trip, they were already sunburned. “So, we tried to cover ourselves because after that first part it was getting colder,” Talukdar said.
“When we reached Manali, we were very happy. We had covered halfway. We were so thrilled we stayed overnight. And the next morning we shopped. Because apparently my brother’s friend was not carrying warm clothes. He was not prepared! He was playing video games when I pulled him out!” Talukdar laughed. “So we shopped for warm clothes. While we were doing that, we started eating. We’re both foodies, so we got some good food.”
Talukdar had planned to leave early in the morning, but at 2 p.m. he and his friend were still enjoying the food scene in Manali. But they learned that major construction was scheduled to start that very day on the road they needed to take.
“And I said, ‘No! we cannot stay! We have to go!’ So we went. In the rush we forgot to fill our petrol tank. And we went up.”
“When we climbed up the mountain, we realized our petrol had gone into reserve. There was no petrol and we were in reserve already. So we [found a shop] and we figured out that we could buy petrol on the black market. Which is in those bottles you can get which are not very good petrol but at least it will last. We bought about four bottles which could take us to Tandi. So we got happy again!”
“After that we crossed Rohtang Pass, which is where the most tourists go. After that there is nothing. The moment we crossed Rohtang Pass, the snow started. It was freezing cold. It was bone-chilling. We put on everything we were carrying. I put on I think three jackets, and [my friend] also started putting on jackets.”
“Then, we wanted to have a cigarette. The zippo would not light because our hands were frozen. The cigarette was in my mouth, [my friend] was trying to light and I was trying to pour the gas from the top. The gas fell on my hand and lit a fire there! He said, ‘It lit your hand!’ I said, ‘I cannot feel it!’ It was so cold!”
“I lit my cigarette, and we filled our zippo. So we went.”
“Then we got very hungry. We stopped in one small bar and asked for some food. Chapati roti and mutton. It was so… it was the tastiest mutton I ever had in my life. Man, we ate. You’re told not to each so much because it will not digest because the air is going to be thin, but we were starving and got such good food! We ate. We did not realize by the time we finished it was about 7:30 in the evening, and it was dark. So, we thought, can we stay here? They said, ‘No no no, you have to go.’”
“We were told not to drive at night. But then, we had nowhere to stay. So, we started riding at night. And there were times when we did not know which way to go, because we [couldn’t see in the] fog. So I said, ‘You know what, I think you should go and try the top [route] first.’ He got off and went to go check if there was a road there. He came running down! He said he was walking, and he could see that there was some water, there must be a water flow. He thought it was small enough to ride through. When he was about to step, he saw a big tree flowing by. He said if the current was so strong that it could take a tree, then we’ll be caught! He said, ‘Hell no! Take the other one!’ So, the other way we went and kept going."
“We kept riding at night. We had no option. If something had happened to us, no one would find us. We were so happy to reach Keylong. Not only did we reach Keylong, we found a hotel and there is a wine shop near it. Can you imagine? So I said, ‘I think we have earned ourselves a drink.’ And it was so cold. So we got rum. We had to! We lived! We thought we would not make it!”
"So, we lived, and we had our share [of rum], and we had some good food. We went to check our bike and we realized the shocker was broken. We found a guy who knew how to make bikes and he had a whole bike. We bought his shocker from his bike and changed out the old one for the new one. So we got our petrol filled, and this time we had our extra gallon filled. And we rode.”
“This ride was long. Very long. We kept going. And we reached a place called Sarchu. There you have to tent. Sarchu is like a valley. It’s surrounded by mountains. It’s…it’s very cold. It’s,” Talukar laughed, “It’s killing. It’s pretty cold. And the good part is, there is one wine shop there. They know the truckers and the army guys, they need that. So did we. We had maggi, and for the night we had some rum. And we carried those candles, so we put out those candles and we had our celebration. So we spent the night.”
“Next morning. The Bullet which I borrowed from my friend, it was an old Bullet with the old system. Since it was so cold, it wouldn’t start. I had to kick about a hundred times to start it, and finally it got warm and it started. The moment it started, I said let’s go on. We found roads…small and narrow, but roads you have to take [Gata Loops – a road famous for its 21 switchbaks] to go up. I said we’ll stop at 21 loops. The moment we started climbing, my friend had nature’s call. I said I cannot stop. He said, ‘You know I have to go.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I am not stopping this bike until 21 loops. Do you realize [how hard it is to] kick it start? You do not even know how to ride a bike!’”
“At one point [ a truck pushed them] and we skid and we fell. We fell towards the hill. But the moment we fell, as if he was waiting for this moment, he grabbed the bottle and ran into the forest!,” Talukdar laughed.
“The truck drove off and I got up and pulled up my bike. He came back and afterwards we climbed. Til then we were complaining about the gravel, and how the road’s not good. But then suddenly the bike went into sand. And I realized it was the desert. It was a river bed. It was a huge stretch of land. Then we looked for gravel, because [on gravel] we could ride the bike. We could not ride the bike anymore because there it has to be pushed through the sand.” Talukdar sighed heavily. “We thought we’d die. We pushed the bike across that part. There was no other way.”
Then, when we came to a little steady part, then we realized that my bike was actually broken [from when it fell]. I could only go in first gear. So I said, ‘We are dead. What do we do?’”
Talukdar figured out a work-around for manipulating the gears on the bike and pressed on.
“Suddenly,” said Talukdar, “The road finished. There was no road after that. After that what happened was, there was a riverbed where I got stuck. There was water which falls, and they had cut out a road there. But when [the water] keeps falling it becomes too deep. So my bike was too heavy to come out. It got stuck.”
“There were a lot of bikers during that time. They were waiting because they were also stuck one by one, and they pulled themselves out and somebody else helped them out. They saw us and they helped us out. So, we learned how to come out of a waterfall if you get stuck,” Pranjit laughed. “Next day we got stuck alone! So we had to get off the bike and put a stone underneath. We did not stop the bike. If the ignition stopped, then it would be very difficult to start again. Twice we got stuck and came out.
Tanglang La Pass: 17, 480 feet above sea level
“After that, the road suddenly finished. There was no road after that. Just trodden path, and it was climbing up. That was the toughest climb. And when we reached the top, it was Tanglang La Pass. It was the second highest motorcycle road in the world. So, we climbed it. When we reached it, we saw there were other bikers who were finding it difficult to breath because it was so high. We were so happy reaching there, we stood there, and we smoked again. We celebrated! We had to do something! We carried medicines to get us acclimated. But then our journey was so troublesome,” Talukdar laughed. “ We did not get to use them! I said forget about getting acclimated, we have to reach there somehow!
"So, we reached there, we smoked, and we were happy for some time. We helped some other people who were trying to get acclimated—helping them breath, sharing medicine and water, stuff like that. We thought that we had climbed up so high, that going down would be easier. We were on the bike but there were times you had to push, pedal through it because we were so high. So, we thought going down would be much easier. But then, it was not easy.”
Khardung La Pass
“There was no road even while going down. So now we had to hold on to our brakes very hard. The road was quite curvy, so we took many steep, blind turns. When we came down that hill, after that it was easy. There were good roads entering into Leh. So we reached Leh, where we would stay until the next morning to go to Khardung La Pass.”
“Before we could go to a hotel, we went to a garage. We said, ‘Can you fix our bike please? Because we have been pulling our bike!’ To climb up was okay – first or second gear. To climb down you have to get into neutral or do something because you cannot be in second gear to come down. And on the plain, you have to do something about it. He said that when we fell, the pedal on which the foot rests has bent, so it was stopping the gear. So he fixed it. We were all set to go for Khardung La Pass. We found a hotel, we stayed at the hotel for the night. Next morning, we went to Khardung La Pass. So there we were. We had our own time, and we celebrated there.”
“[We heard] that there was a lake. If you do not go to this lake, your trip is not complete. So the next day we went to Pangong Lake. There we met my friend Victoria from Boston and her brother Steve. They were also there, but they were in a car. So we took a dip there. We took a picture in the Chang La Pass, which is the third highest motorcycle road. We went to Pangong Lake and spent the night, we had fun.”
“The problem was when we came back, we had missed one day. We had to stay one day extra to go to Pangong Lake. Those days I was in the bank, and we could not get such easy holidays. I had just 10 days, I had to get back. So… now I had wasted one day, and I had two days left. And I said, ‘There is a problem. We’ll have to drive overnight.’ We had to drive through. We could not stop anywhere. Because what will you do? We had no other option.
I would never advise anyone to do that again. No one should ever do that. But we did. And now I find myself so foolish. I was taking a chance for what, for a day in the bank? So, we drove overnight. We drove the entire trip. And it was scary. That trip was quite scary.
When I reached Rohtang Pass, we were dog tired. We could not have driven anymore. And it started to drizzle. We parked the bike, and we slept. Right there, sitting and sleeping the way we could make ourselves comfortable. We slept for some time, got up, and we went to freshen up. We were so dirty and ugly looking! We were in bad shape.
So we came again through and stopped again in Chandigarh. When we reached Chandigarh, we stopped in the same hotel. We had some chicken soup. We felt good. I don’t know why—I should not have thought like that—but I thought ‘Why wait? Let’s save this day. Let’s reach home, and then we will rest.’
It was the wrong decision. The moment got onto the highway, we were so tired I was not able to keep my eyes open. We would ride for 10 minutes, smoke, if we could get tea we would have tea, wake up, have some water, ride another ten minutes. That’s how we came. When I finally got home it was 4 a.m. My wife opened the door and she could not recognize me for some time. When she finally recognized me, she said ‘…I think you need a shower. Let’s talk after that.’
But then, it was quite amazing. The places that you saw—it was so beautiful. There are places where you can just sit on the bike while riding and you can just open your hand and you are able to touch ice on both sides of the road. You just open your hand and you can touch ice. It’s, it’s beautiful. It’s clean, it’s so clean, it’s so fresh, it’s so beautiful. It’s worth taking a risk. But you should not do it alone. It was quite an experience. Now I know the tracks, now I know the mistakes.”
Talukdar explained to us that he felt this trip affected his life and choice of profession in a profound way.
“After I came back from that after about five or six months, I left my job and came into the development sector. I joined Save the Children.
You spend so much time with you. [When] you work in a corporate land, you do not spend time with yourself, do you realize that? You follow a timetable, you do not spend time with yourself. I spent a lot of time with myself; I did not want to give it away again. I wanted to keep that with me.
Yes, I think it did [affect his decision to leave banking]. I think it did because… I don’t know if it makes sense, but it helped me to see. My life was mostly doing excel sheets then. And numbers and portfolios and shares which will make money and investments which will make money. I do not know why, I do not know how, I do not have a specific answer. But then when you give so much time—you have nothing else to do, all you can do is just ride,” he laughed. “You spend a lot of time, you think. You think, and then… I stopped liking just doing the same thing and not finding a change. And I also… the thing is, when I moved from the banking sector from the position I was pretty good at, it was a risk. I got a little brave to take risks. I think it is worth taking a risk and I got a chance from Save the Children doing the same thing. I could use my expertise.
First thing they did, they sent us to Rajasthan to the hottest place. They work for child rights. And we were a bunch of guys who came from corporations. And we were complaining all day about the AC. How come the AC is not strong enough, the hotel is not good enough. And we went there where there was no light, no current, no system of AC. And those children were so happy! Their happiness was infectious. You cannot complain, sit there and say that it’s hot. We used to complain about everything in life. But then we see their houses, and they are so happy. And living better than us.
So, the paradigm shift happens, but it happens gradually. You see that you are making people happy. What you were doing earlier, your clients used to shout that the profit could have been more. Now these people are happy. It makes you feel good. It’s kind of addictive. So you stay. So I stay.