Riding the Himalayas in India has long been on my bucket list. In my mind this is a ride all about the journey so I wanted to experience the classic approach. To traverse up the Manali to Leh highway on a 1950’s British designed Royal Enfield Bullet – for better or worse. Every year I procrastinate not wanting to spend the money to join a tour and not sure about riding it solo.
I had the notion this ride might be challenging solo but was never sure since reports vary depending on the riders point of view and riding preference. I was always being told this road is dangerous by Indian people I spoke to. When the snow thaws and water washes the roads away no doubt it would be. But I’ve been to plenty of places that were deemed dangerous already so I shrugged this aspect off. My main concern I had was about the bike breaking down. The Royal Enfield is not exactly a poster boy for reliability. Durability sure, but you need to know how to keep it running and carry spare parts. It also uses tubes so punctures mean you need to do some vulcanising repairs.
The other aspect on my mind was medical. Whilst I am sure to get Delhi belly at some point I can handle that myself with Imodium tablets. Altitude sickness however might be a bigger problem, it is a total unknown for me. Neither are insurmountable but the combination of both could be debilitating. But above these aspects is the matter of near total lack of medical assistance if I was to injure myself. There is no mobile cell phone coverage and a military zone with no satellite phones permitted. So no way to call for help which is a moot point since there is no ambulance or doctor to call anyway. I back myself every time I ride like any other motorcyclist does but this situation was something I was hesitant about given the conditions.
Eventually I decided to join a group for this ride. Besides those aspects this was the year my resolution was to try be less of a hermit and meet some people – so what better opportunity. 12 months prior the British pound was at a low to the Aus$ presenting a chance to join a UK run tour at a lower price than those priced in Euro’s or US dollars so I put down the money to lock it in with Ride Expeditions. Fast forward a year to now shortly before the tour and I am pondering did I make the right choice. With all my travel experience it would not be too hard to fly into Leh and do some local rides. My hesitation is the legacy of a very bad group travel experience I had long time ago with Intrepid Travel. Truly the holiday from hell and please avoid that company at all costs. Anyway it’s all paid already and my bag is packed so lets go!India – The Himalaya’s first published on Motorcycle Paradise October 2017
I arrived about 2.00am from Doha having been upgraded to business class for free. If you have read my misadventures leaving Bangkok in my last ride report where I very nearly missed my flight you will know I already love Qatar Airways for checking me in after the cut off and giving me a express immigration pass. I’m a lucky guy in life but I rarely ‘win things’ so this upgrade really came as a surprise. I’ve flown business quite a few times previously in my corporate life on various airlines and all except China Eastern were good but a few were exceptional and Qatar joins that list.
Now that I have more time but less money I view travel differently and choose to fly short legs in economy and stay overnight in hotels. It costs a fraction and a stopover with hotel beats any long haul option in my opinion no matter what class of travel.
Delhi airport must have slowest baggage I have experienced as it was after 3.30am before my bag hit the belt so then 4.30 am by time I got to my hotel. I had a day just resting and feasting on room service since I love Indian food and the price was so low. I was going to go sightseeing but it was 38 degrees outside then a huge storm blew in and it rained well into the evening.
I was happy to kick back and do some computer shit* (*technical term)
Next and first day of the tour was just an arrival day for everyone and then an afternoon meet up with the tour leader and other riders. I took a Uber taxi from my economical but comfortable downtown hotel to the upmarket tour hotel. Shame it was going to be a brief stay in such a nice room. Quite a large group of people, nineteen, from England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. Oh and some guy who needs to find a home but hangs out in Japan … . After a briefing of what to expect going forward from Toby and Anna the owner/operators of Ride Expeditions we all went for dinner and beers at a local restaurant and then retired for the very early rise the following morning. 3.00am bus to Manali.
Delhi to Manali
The bus was a 40 seater for 20 people so lots of room but still it is a bus and not a Thai super sleeper type so it’s not the most comfortable thing for a long journey. I managed to get maybe an hour of broken sleep on the bus before breakfast which was at a Dosa restaurant and that was very tasty. The journey was quite scenic making it’s way into the mountains but not roads you could easy sleep on with many stop starts and tight corners and always bumpy. And then ‘for something completely different’ as John Cleese once said – we were all nearly killed at a landslide…
This is how it went down. The bus stopped at a landslide that was being cleared and the smokers hopped out so then most of the group alighted to stretch their legs. We milled about in front of the bus. Immediately to the right of where I took this photo below was a parked truck. Above in foreground Jason, Steve and behind the lens me taking a photo oblivious to what was going to happen next.Below is a ill fated truck.Moments after this photo a huge boulder the size of a Toyota came down the hill and smashed into the truck and took its occupants over the edge of the mountain to their deaths.I had just walked behind the bus to look for a tree to answer a call of nature and turned hearing something to see this totally surreal scene play out. It was like some sort of CGI in a action movie. But this was real life. The others only just escaped by the skin of their teeth having to run for it seconds before disaster. A lot of what if’s played out in my mind. Many more would have been playing out though the bus that afternoon. 20 Seconds earlier I had been standing where the boulder fell. The bus had pulled out to pass that truck but eased off a couple corners back or there might we have been parked and… well you can mull this stuff over and over but my conclusion was this. Our number wasn’t up.
After this the mood was somber for the rest of the journey to Manali. It took an excruciatingly long 18 hours, the bus journey was like a long haul flight. Dinner was waiting for us when we got there at 9.00pm but everyone was exhausted, I raised a toast to us still being alive but most people were not in the mood. It was a quiet dinner and everyone promptly retired. I went to the bar and paid far too much for a tall bottle of beer (as happens in fancy hotels). Whilst I am the glass half full sort of person I felt like having a drink after the ‘rock show’ today. The bus journey was simply too long. I think everyone would have been better if we had a short day in the bus to mid point then hotel overnight and ride the bikes the next day into Manali but these things have to fit into holiday slots for most people so maybe the extra day would not work.
Today I ride a Royal Enfield for first time.
The route is just a small local loop to get feel for the bikes and have lunch. The model is the Classic which appears to be same as the Bullet with the exception the seat is two piece. The fleet is new and I quite like the colour scheme. Easy enough to ride, the brakes are wooden but that is not a bad thing given the roads are very dirty/dusty so any hard braking would be unwise as found by one of the group in a very slow low slide locking the brakes. Not so much rider error as everyone was riding far too close together. The Enfield feels very light and easy to corner. The single cylinder is low power but has loads of torque able to pull away from almost idle in 2nd or 3rd gear. The bike vibrates considerably – ‘shake down ride’ is an apt name. The bars could perhaps benefit from rubber mounts. The bikes suit a lazy slow pace which is a match for the roads where you need to expect a car, cow, rock or hole in your lane around every bend.
Manali to Keylong
The journey begins. Weather was fine and everyone was keen to embark on the adventure!It’s certainly a well equipped setup. There are support trucks to carry luggage, fuel, spare parts, mechanics, food, water and of course lots of beer. Additionally there is a doctor in four wheel drive with oxygen for altitude sickness and various medical equipment and supplies. If you are ill then you can sit it out in the doctors car and one of the mechanics will ride your bike until ready to remount. The flip side to having this superb backup is some of the sense of adventure may end up being diluted but I shall revisit that thought later after seeing what the ride turns out to be like.The climb from Manali was quite spectacular but I initially fell into the group ride trap of not stopping much to take photos. When riding in a group it is easy to get caught up with the flow and think you best keep up with everyone but this morning many were riding like it was a local sprint down to the pub for lunch with nobody stopping to take any photos. So after the actual lunch today I hit my reset button.
My riding now days is focused on mastering the slow ride, to stop for every photo spot and not focus on getting to the destination. I spent the afternoon trying to find a way to stop more in this group situation but not hold up the tour chase rider and support trucks too much as they catch and wait for me whenever I pull over. Felt bad about that initially but then I have travelled a very long way to see the scenery not chase the rear wheel of someone else and miss everything. Leaving Manali the Rohtang pass (3978m) is a superb mountain climb with waterfalls at every turn that I failed to photograph very well, then up high into the mountains.The road was mostly sealed today with some broken tar and some gravel sections that were dusty but not that hard to ride. The afternoon continued this theme, riding with nice views before the road got a little more broken up with longer patches of gravel road prior to the town of Kelong. One of the group had a small off on the sand but fortunately not injured badly. I grabbed a few quick photos but did not stop and linger as I would have if solo. Today my bike already needed attention along the way as it started to surge and sputter then stall. I was thankful to have the mechanics come and get it running again each time.
On the ride into Keylong for tonight’s stay I experimented with taking photos while riding with my iPhone. I had lost my action cam just prior in Croatia. I got confident I could use the phone on the move after a few tries. I needed to remove my left glove first using my teeth then whip out the phone from my left front pocket and swipe left on lock screen to activate camera then take photos was easy using volume buttons to activate shutter. While doing this the clutch cannot be used but I was shifting up and down fine without the clutch which I do on my FJR all the time anyway.
This lead to a conversation later at dinner where I was advised you cannot downshift without using the clutch unless you have a BMW with quickshifter. Uhm I do it all the time? I simply ‘unload’ the clutch, ie slightly ease off throttle for moment to upshift or slightly ease open a closed throttle momentary when engine braking to unload the clutch and initiate a clutchless downshift. With a little practice it is easy, this article from Motorcycle Online says there is no problem but opinions seem mixed. I rode a Honda around Cebu that was four speed reverse shift manual with no clutch lever. Not broken, factory made without a clutch lever, take a look. Anyway I digress, back to the ride.T he hotel tonight was basic but had some warm water in the shower and wi-fi in the restaurant.After half a beer I felt like I should lie down too, goes to your head quickly as the altitude increases. Tempting to try a few local spirits but I limited my alcohol to a couple of drinks and forced myself to drink copious amounts of bottled water in hope of this helping me ward off any altitude issues.
Keylong to Sachu
This morning the road started out good as we traversed up a pretty valley. We had a local rider now as point man leading and this allowed Toby to roam about taking some photos of us along the way. That’s me on the Royal Enfield above. All the local riders give huge wave here.After this the tar ended and the road became quite challenging. Steep downhill grades on loose sandy grit and large stones with very uneven surface. Many four wheel drivers would probably not take their expensive SUV’s down his sort of road. I got up on my feet to shift weight lower to the pegs which is easier said then done at high altitude on a 1950’s styled road bike for about 25+ km. I thought the front would wash out a few times on the very loose surface, could not touch the brakes at the corners but had to slow the bike as steep descent in places. At least one rider came off. I was exhausted by the time I got back onto tarmac and this was just ‘little bit rough’ according to Toby who I think might be the king of understatement.
Sorry no photos of the rough stuff yet. I had the prayer flags on my bike from this morning. I am not a particularly spiritual person but I’ll accept any assistance at all even imaginary when things get tough.You are up high already and then the roads just keep climbing and climbing the Baralacha pass (4890m)
The group stopped for hot chai tea/lemon ginger tea on the way up. Starting to really get a sense of remoteness and altitude here. You need to drink heaps to stay hydrated and ward off altitude illness. Guys could just walk off the road and face nearest rock for the frequently needed nature breaks but the girls on the tour had tough time as far as toilet facilities go.
This pass was excellent road surface going up but some more ‘slightly rough road’ on other side – AKA very bumpy loose rocks and dry loam surface. Not too many trucks so the dust was quite minimal where I was way off the back of the group, but those in formation like the Blue Angels must have eaten a bit of dirt today. Roads after here became a mixture of one lane sealed but with sand and silt alternating to unsealed loose gravel. The way the sun and shadows played across the land was really beautiful. It was bright and sunny yet at the same time a soft light not harsh at all. You could take a photo every corner you turn with such wonderful light. Tonight we are camping at Sarchu, 4290 metres. It is no exaggeration to say this is a remote spot.The camp was windy and cold. There are no showers but I was somewhat prepared having brought wet hand washer and a large wet microfiber cloth in zip lock plastic bags so at least could wipe the dust away from my body then change into clean clothes so I did not feel dirty. I rinsed my hair, well sort of, with some water and a bucket thus felt I had removed most of the road grime. No idea how people enjoy camping and not bathing.
There was a big bonfire built with wood the crew had brought in the truck and then the support crew broke out the beers and big meal was prepared. No wi-fi up here, no power outlets to charge devices either but I had my power bank so was self sufficient. I had a headache from the altitude so took some medicine supplied by the doctor and put my buff on my head then broke out my puffy ’down’ winter jacket that I wondered would I really need as the temperature plunged like a roller coaster soon as the sun went behind the mountains. It was not an easy night for me. Bitterly cold and the wind flapping the tent constantly. The blankets whilst warm were grubby, I never thought to bring my own sheet or sleeping bag liner as I never camp.
I woke up many times and flicking on my iPhone LED light about 3.00am saw a rat sitting on the other camp bed in the tent looking directly at me… I chased it away but it was somewhere in the tent and that kept me awake for some time. Eventually exhaustion took over and I maybe got an hour sleep before the dawn light flooded the tent. I tried to sleep but just got up and wandered outside. Most everyone else seemed to also be awake already. But nobody else had any rodent stories to tell. Lucky me!
Sachu to Leh
Last night was tough but it was necessary to set us up for todays ride Sarchu to Leh which many people considered to be some of the most spectacular scenery of the region. First up some military checkpoints where paperwork was checked then some water on the ‘road’ out of Sachcu (below). Felt sorry for the people not wearing proper riding boots as it was very cold this morning to have wet feet.
Then someone turned the scenery dial all the way up to eleven.No need for me to be told to slow down, the scenery stopped me in my tracks. OMG I wish you could see this for real with own eyes. I could hardly ride on as I wanted to stop and sit and stare at things. The group had raced on so eventually I had to leave.
Do click to see some of these images full screen. I cannot convey how grand the scale was but viewing as a larger image certainly helps.From this already 4000 metre high valley the road climbed the Nakee and the Lachulung passes. I know it’s an overused term, but the views were jaw dropping.And up you climb and climb. 4927m.In between those two passes the road became rough dirt again for a while. We stopped for tea at a small roadsides stall. Very isolated place.On the other side the road was dirt again, loose surface but not as rough. I found if not on the pegs my kidneys copped it too much but it was hard to be up on the pegs all the time. That might sound soft but at this altitude any activity even walking and you were breathing hard to get oxygen. At this point I notice the altitude started to hit a few people in the group really hard.
A number of riders came off the bikes today, two right in front of me with a truck bearing down made my heart skip a beat but fortunately the trucker stopped his rig while I ran to help. I then came across people stopped on side of road one after another. One of the Aussies was really ill from the altitude and throwing up on side of road, the doctor was summoned. Then the Kiwi girls on the tour were also hit by attitude illness. Not sure about everyone else but I had to reset my idea of how tough this ride might be today. I was lucky to not have any issues except shortness of breath and slight dizziness and a slow reaction time. I was aware that last item was dangerous on roads like this and at times was talking to myself saying “stay alert Warren and don’t fu*k up”. Rugged land captured nicely in this shot below from Toby.Then riding through this huge canyon.Much needed rest and lunch. 15100ft in the old measurements. I kept drinking as much water as I could every stop as I had read this was best thing to do up here. Exiting this valley there was a massive canyon off to one side (with sheer drop from road – naturally) that I wish I had placed something in foreground for a sense of scale. Click to enlarge. Then I was riding this high desert plain with good sealed road for considerable distance with a view to the mountains ahead yet to be crossed.This is one of my favourite photos, just quickly taken with the iPhone whilst riding. I drifted right back after this to have the group removed from my line of sight so it was just me, the bike and the mountains ahead. I really enjoyed that time. The climb up Taglang pass was nearly all sealed but I just took it easy and savoured every turn. It’s not every day you ride one of the highest roads in the world.The road down the Leh side is easy the best road in the entire region. It is well surfaced (as of writing) and well surveyed. This is the very lower section in the photo but it runs like this the entire way down for 20km or so and is easy as spectacular or photogenic a road as any of the famous European roads such as the Tranfagarasan road.
After so many miles of shitty gravel I was enjoying to finally ride some nice road so much I forgot to take photos. I wanted to turn around and look for the best viewpoint but the support vehicles would need to wait and the chase rider follow me so I left it at this – you will have to go and see for yourself.The road at the bottom the road in the valley also continues on nice. ‘Bottom’ being a misnomer as you are still at 4000 metres odd.The ride into Leh took a few hours but was mostly good road with just a few rough gravel sections to navigate and a few truck convoys to get past and some military checkpoints where permits were checked. There are many military bases situated in this region that has borders contested with China and Pakistan.
Today the scenery was stunning all day. The tour lead said this was his personal favorite area for dramatic landscapes and it really was something special. Very happy I chose to ride from Manali rather than just fly direct to Leh and miss this as it was some of the most incredible landscapes and riding I am likely to experience in my life. End of part one.
Thanks for coming along with me on my Himalaya adventure so far. Next up I ride to the incredibly beautiful highest salt water lake in the world that sits half in Tibet. Then I ride the highest motorable road in the world.More images will randomly appear on my Instagram, Facebook and 500px pages, links for which are in the side bar.
Part two now posted here