Riding Solo to the Top of the World

Riding Solo to the Top of the World is an extraordinary documentary film about one man’s journey into the Himalayas. Under-employed filmmaker Gaurav Jani set out to document his motorcycle adventure in the Ladakh Changthang—the highest and most remote part of his native India. What he found there went far beyond adventure.

With no money to hire a camera crew, he shot the whole film himself, mainly from a tripod. This made an already arduous undertaking far more difficult; to get a distance shot of his bike inching along a mountain track above a river gorge, he would have to set the camera up on the opposite side, start it running, ride over to provide the action, and then ride (or often run) back to collect the camera.

This odd constraint, which seems as though it would make the film static and awkward, does quite the opposite. It adds both drama (can he manage this shot?) and a meditative peacefulness. It helps that the Changthang landscape is stunning and his cinematography outstanding.

His plan was a simple adventure story; but that was not what he got. He intended to take his bike over the highest motorable passes in the world, on seasonal military tracks above 18,000 feet, where no motorcycle had ever gone before. That might have been mainly interesting for motorcycle travel geeks, like his previous effort One Crazy Ride, about hard travel across Arunachal Pradesh. As it happens, he succeeded in his plan, after overcoming dire obstacles.

When he reached the Changthang, however, his plan was nearly derailed by a radical change of intention.

It’s a cliché to say that any hard travel has an internal and an external dimension. In this case, the internal dimension might have been expected to involve heroic determination overcoming hardship and loneliness. And there is some of that—but also, again, exactly the opposite.

The Changthang is culturally Tibetan. Its few inhabitants, the Changpas, are pastoral nomads who practice the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I also belong).

Gaurav Jani fell in love with the Changpas, and spent unplanned weeks living with them. Most of the movie is about his interactions with them, and about their religious practices. He filmed both their daily life and religious festivals.

He describes his inner transformation as a result of encountering Tibetan culture. It parallels my own experience in the Himalayas. There is a peacefulness, a freedom, a rightness in the way ordinary Tibetans live that is enormously appealing. After a few weeks, it changes you permanently. You can no longer find the busy modern way of life sane.

He is currently living with the Changpas full-time for a year, and making a new movie about how they survive the -40 degree winter.

Riding Solo is sometimes shown at film festivals, where it has won a slew of awards; but if you want to see it, you’ll probably have to buy the DVD.

Try the trailer if you aren’t sure.