Chronicles of a 67-year-old solo rider

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Madhusoodanan at 67, undertook a solo bike ride from Thiruvananthapuram to Ladakh and back, covering an astounding 8951 km. He started from Thiruvananthapuram in August and reached Manali on the 5th day via Tirunelveli, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Jhansi, Delhi, Sonipat, Panipat, and Chandigarh. From there, he took a permit to travel till Rohtang Pass. He had already obtained the permit online for travel and wildlife photography in Ladakh.

While trekking in the Hemis National Park in eastern Ladakh, he got news of the changing weather in Himachal Pradesh. During the preparation of the journey, Madhusoodanan had collected detailed information on the places to visit and the weather patterns there. Considering the likelihood of snowfall, he had chosen a Karizma bike instead of the usual Enfield Bullet.

Generally, August is the season bikers choose to tour Ladakh. The snow melts in July and the rivers and streams swell. By August, the snow melting ceases and the rains take over. This year, the weather was quite bad and there were serious flooding and mudslides which spoiled the plans of many travellers. Madhusoodanan had to eventually abandon journey to Pangong Lake owing to incessant rain and mudslides. He returned to Manali.

On the way, to avoid a roadblock, he rerouted himself via the small village of Gushal which at that time was full of a fine fragrance from a flower growing on the waysides. The same snow which excites the travellers to these places cause these flowers and other vegetation to die and decay. Now free of the snow, these plants were in full bloom.

The happy and prosperous Gushal welcomes the visitors in a traditional way by offering a platter of 5 apples of different taste. Madhusoodanan found it interesting to note that the farmers there had a good knowledge of South India and Kerala, even though on the other extremity of the country.

Further on the way to Manali, he encountered numerous obstructions. On the National Highway, the roads had been washed away at many places by the overflowing Beas.

Mudslide is a regular occurrence in these regions. But this year, it was more severe. The Indian Army was in action to make the way motorable. At places, the ride was through knee-deep slush. There was a long line of vehicles at Rohtang Pass as the road was blocked by mudslide. Hundreds of bikers were stuck there. There was a group of four Keralites including a girl among the stranded bikers. When Madhusoodanan removed his helmet, the young bikers and motorists were amazed to see a grey-haired veteran among them on such a challenging adventure. Many came to him to chat up.

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By evening, a temporary road was opened to bypass the blocked stretch of the main road. This temporary road was made by laying rocks on the riverbed at a shallow stretch. The first biker, a foreigner, lost balance half way and fell into the river. When Madhusoodanan successfully crossed the river negotiating the rocky path and the loose gravel and stones falling from up the hills, everyone from the other side broke into a spontaneous applause.

At a time when the governments are extending freebies, discounts, and special considerations for senior citizens, Madhusoodanan at 67 is embarking on these high-adrenaline expeditions. He has countless bike journeys under his belt, criss-crossing India and has visited innumerable destinations over the past four and half decades. He is still reinventing himself through the newer journeys he is undertaking.

He started these fantasy-like expeditions way back in 1974. After learning to ride a bike in 1970, he first travelled from Thiruvananthapuram with his elder brother to the intended destination of Idukki Dam on a Jawa bike, going through many unintentional detours. The Idukki dam, construction of which started in 1969 was then a work in progress. There were no motorable roads. Madhusoodanan reached there somehow through the forest paths and off-road tracks.

Madhusoodanan remembers that he and his brother were stopped by the police somewhere near the dam. They would not let the duo through without the permission from the District Collector. Madhusoodanan went straight to the District Collector' office, submitting himself as a student of Electrical Engineering which he actually was at that time. Armed with the permit from the District Collector, he was freely allowed in the premises of the dam and was even admitted into the galleries and near the hydro-electric turbine.

Madhusoodanan was driven by the passion for wildlife photography. Taking up such photography assignments and also on own persuasion, he travelled extensively in to the deeper reaches of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. Wherever he went, he tried to mingle with the villagers, learning their lifestyles. Madhusoodanan has many such rustic experiences ranging from the forests of Kerala to the farmers of Ladakh. These sojourns make up the bulk of his travel experiences.

Though Madhusoodanan had travelled far and wide in the Indian villages, the Karnataka village of Mundukodu had stayed with him and he had visited the place more than once. The speciality of this village is that despite continuously learning and upgrading themselves, the villagers here never abandon farming. Most of them still travel in bullock-carts. A husband-wife pair in a family earns something like Rs 475, toiling during the day. Their expenditure is around Rs 200-250 per day and they save the balance amount. They have very little requirements outside the resources they farm in their lands.

idukki-dam
Idukki Dam

Since they all live close to the nature, hardly anyone falls sick and there are no large medical expenses. Madhusoodanan met a family at Mundukodu whose ancestors had migrated from Pandalam in Kerala. As he was from Kerala, they were keen to host him. They cultivate cotton, chillies, rice, and mangoes for their livelihood.

Another interesting place Madhusoodanan visited was the Koonthankulam bird sanctuary which is a haven for over one lakh migratory birds. The villagers here protect these birds and facilitate their stay. These birds form a part of their culture.

It was in 2012 that Madhusoodanan undertook a solo journey on an Enfield Bullet from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Following the national highways till Nagpur, he went off-road thereafter covering Katni, Panna, and Khajuraho. He has no words to describe his admiration for the lively sculptures and carvings the temples there are justly famous for.

The Pangong Lake which he visited during this trip is among the highest lakes in the world. The calm water of the lake reflects rocks and mountains around, giving it myriad hues.

In sharp contrast was Rajasthan with its arid landscape and different lifestyle. There are many itinerant families here who keep moving from one place to another bundling up their belongings on camelback. Such nomadic families can be encountered in many other northern states including Kashmir.

The tribal life in Kerala had often piqued Madhusoodanan's curiosity. During one of his off-road ventures to a tribal colony in Pathanamthitta, he met a 105-year-old woman. A little boy of five was also there. Upon asking what food he had had, the boy said his last meal of salted rice was on the previous day. Feeling pity, Madhusoodanan fetched some food from the nearest shop. On his way back, he conveyed the details of this incident to K B Ganesh Kumar, the then minister of forest affairs. The minister immediately appointed an additional private secretary to look after affairs of those tribal folks. He ensured they were taken care of till the end of his term. These days, whenever he travels to forest areas, he carries some food like boiled tapioca etc with him.

Many people have asked him to take a passport and travel abroad. Madhusoodanan frankly replies that he had not yet finished touring India. He has not even covered the whole of Kerala.

For Madhusoodanan, every journey is an education, making him more and more confident of overcoming the obstacles of life. He advises everyone to embark on newer and newer journeys and to keep expanding their horizons. At the same time, he realizes that he still has numerous journeys to undertake and countless destinations to visit.

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