The editor gets to ride some of the highest roads in the world…
Words & photos: NIGEL PATERSON
I saw the big Tata truck about the same moment I saw Dean swerving to avoid the 10-ton mobile Bollywood display. A head-on collision would have been disastrous, but Dean deftly avoided tragedy with some skilful riding.
I was behind Dean at the time and I did that sharp intake of breath people do when they see disaster unfolding before them but are unable to do anything about it, yet it turned out OK. We hadn’t yet done 100km of riding in India, but I’d seen one of the closest calls in years.
We were in India to ride the roof of the world, some of the highest mountain passes which exist — a bunch of them all well over 5000m — in the Himalayas, riding Himalayans.
Moto Himalaya, which is a part of Royal Enfield, had invited three Aussie bike journos (Dean Mellor, AMCN, Stuart Woodbury, Australian Motorcyclist, and myself, Australian Road Rider) to join a tour which was otherwise filled with a group of Indonesian-paying customers.
Moto Himalaya organises the bikes (it must hire them from local operators — non-employees of Royal Enfield are not allowed to ride company-owned bikes in the region as part of a deal with local hire companies), support vehicles, accommodation, guides, a doctor and the route. All we had to do was get fit, pack wisely and follow the leader.
THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS
The Himalayan Mountains stretch much further than those in Nepal and Tibet, from Afghanistan in the north-west to China in the south-east. They form a giant arc, thousands of kilometres long, pushing up toward the sky as a pair of tectonic plates collide, driven by forces deep underground. They continue to rise, a couple of centimetres per year.
Ladakh, the part of India where we were riding, has so many mountains that I never once saw the clichéd view of the single mountain rising from the plain — because there are no plains. You start high and go higher. Try Mount Fuji in Japan, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or even Milford Sound in New Zealand if you’re after that sort of experience.
In the Himalayas, at least the north-eastern Indian section we rode, it’s endless mountains accessed through switchback-filled twisty bitumen, rocky unsealed surfaces, eroded water crossings and even some sandy sections. Around every corner is another spectacular sight. Or washed-away section of road. Or a boulder, dumped on the road by a landslide. Or a diversion because the road has slid away. Or a Tata truck, raging river, unmarked roadworks and, in one case, a hole in the road which was difficult to see and at least a metre deep (when I got there one of our guides was directing us around it).
It’s huge, remote, rugged and hard on people and machinery. And an incredible place to ride.
Royal Enfield developed its Himalayan as an adventure bike suitable for riding the Himalayas, and the city in the region, Leh Ladakh, is littered with places which will hire you one and tour companies that will take you on a guided tour aboard one.
When you look at the conditions, the cost and consider what people want to achieve during their tour of the Himalayas, the Himalayan wins hands-down — cheap, capable and available.
Yes, you can hire BMW and KTM adventure bikes if you want to, but with Indian import duties they are cripplingly expensive, whereas a Himalayan is very cheap — and fixable by the locals if something goes wrong. And while a European adventure bike is often more fun to ride, I wasn’t there to go hard, I was there for the roads, the views, the food and the experience, so I was more than happy to be riding a Himalayan.
Being on a tour meant we could pack the bike light. A change of clothes for the end of the day (in case the luggage truck is delayed). Wet weather gear, just in case. Water (they give you a water bottle, but take a hydration pack). I added a camera bag but Moto Himalaya also has its “Content Crew” along, a bunch of young guys shooting photos and video for the participants and promotion, so most people can simply take personal shots with their phone and add Moto Himalaya’s content to show off to friends when they get home.
We flew into Leh, one of the highest permanent large settlements in the world at 3500m, via New Delhi. Getting to New Delhi is a 14-hour flight out of Sydney, New Delhi to Leh just an hour or so. Leh is an army base and tourist town and it’s only really open for the warner months of the year, and you can see why looking outside your hotel room’s window: snow-capped mountains, not too far away, in mid-summer. In winter the whole area can be covered in 5m of snow.
We, however, experienced unseasonably warm weather; the 10-foot-wide room radiator wasn’t needed, but air-conditioning would have been welcomed. Unlike New Delhi though, it wasn’t humid, nor was it as insanely busy as India’s capital.
Jet lag, heat, local packs of dogs, early-morning calls to prayer and rubbish trucks playing music all combined to frustrate Aussies trying to sleep.
The air is thin at 3500m, so much so that Moto Himalaya doesn’t ride for the first 24 hours or so after its participants arrive, and the first day of riding is a very easy 30km ride out of town to give people a chance to get used to the bikes, for the crew to see how the customers ride… and for me to watch one of the guys look to go around the wrong side of an army truck. Not sure what possessed him to think that was a good idea…
The altitude will get to people; they will struggle to breathe and their blood oxygen levels will drop precipitously. As an asthmatic I was concerned, but wasn’t really affected more than anyone else. Some of the less fit and smokers would struggle at higher altitudes. But even if you’re healthy, you will tire fast at high altitude.
So we spend the first day looking around the town, testing out our breathing as we bought trinkets, T-shirts and pashmina for family and friends. Pashmina is the fine goat wool made at high altitudes — soft, luxurious and expensive. I gave the pashmina a miss but indulged in the wonderful Indian food — primarily vegetarian, although much of the Himalayas is close to China and the influences on the cuisine are there to be seen. Curries, tandoori, the best naan bread you’ve ever tasted… it sounds like a cliché of an Indian restaurant, but it’s lighter, tastier and probably better for you than the meat-laden dishes we buy in Australia. Chicken and mutton (aged sheep) are available sometimes.
I had to ask Aakash, our tour leader, who Bro was. Bro was encouraging me to drive safely, with numerous safety messages on signs along every road we rode, like how the three dangers were speed, alcohol and overloading. The roads are too exciting for fatigue to be as much of an issue, unlike on the long, boring, straight highways of Australia.
“Border Roads Organisation”, Aakash told me. “It’s managed by the army and the reason there are any roads here at all,” he continued. “All the roads we rode are there so the army can mobilise in case of a border conflict.”
India has had border scuffles with Pakistan and China in the region and there is a huge army presence in the areas we ride. One convoy of trucks going the other way numbered 30 (I’d seen them coming up the switchbacks down the hill, so decided to do a count). Big trucks, too, not articulated semis, they won’t get through. These were probably 10-ton-capacity trucks belching heaps of black diesel smoke.
Road surfaces were a real mix: some of the roads are better than winding country roads in NSW, although there’s no shortage of unmarked broken-up sections, often caused by creeks running across the road.
Some sections are one lane, so you’ll find yourself sitting on the extreme edge of the bitumen as cars and trucks whistle by with barely inches of clearance. I went into the gravel deliberately a few times, preferring the dirt to the potential of a head-on.
It turns out white-water rafting is popular in Leh, with tourists from all over the world flying in to ride the snowmelt downstream on big inflatables. Most of the boats were on the roofs of 4WDs when we arrived at a cafe nestled in the confluence, which is a fancy word for where two rivers join.
This was our shakedown ride, a quick strop around town to see how we would all go. I was shocked at how some of our Indonesian friends would ride on the wrong side of the road and too close to each other.
Later in the day we would catch taxis to the base of Shanti Stupa (a Buddhist structure containing relics and often remains of monks and used as an area for meditation) with panoramic views of the area. It’s still a decent walk to the top at 3600m, so there was more than one very tired rider by the end of the day.
The views across Leh are spectacular, with the old palace visible and mountains in every direction.
I have the T-shirt saying I went to the highest road in the world, Khardung La. It’s not, but the myriad T-shirt sellers in Leh want you to believe it is, and joked with me about not selling me the shirt if I hadn’t been there…
Years ago it gained a reputation as the highest navigable road, but improved technology (mainly GPS) and new roads being opened up means it’s not even in the top 10 these days — but these high passes aren’t separated by much, so it’s still very, very high… nearly triple Charlotte’s Pass, officially Australia’s highest navigable road.
The air is thin up here, folks. Walking takes effort. Climbing the stairs to get a better view is exhausting. But the ride there is outstanding. Khardung La’s reputation has brought tourists in huge numbers and the challenge of reaching the top of the pass is no longer the adventure it once was, with a sealed surface all the way — but it’s a narrow sealed road, and where I thought we’d lost Dean.
Lying just 40km from Leh, the road to Khardung La is steep, winding and very narrow. We were just into the first really twisty section of the road, but it’s exciting all the way to the top. On the other side of the pass the road often turns to gravel in sections; there are thousands of sections of broken or missing bitumen and, depending on the time of year you visit, numerous creek crossings.
And tourist buses.
I can’t get my head around why you’d want to tour Ladakh by bus. Away from the better bitumen — which probably made up about 15 per cent of our riding — the buses are very slow. There are so many obstacles, other vehicles, wash-outs, potholes and other things to avoid, combined with terrible suspension and a lack of power, that it made me think that riding one would be like some sort of bizarre punishment for bad things done in a previous life. We would usually sail by, standing on footpegs and disappearing into the distance… despite the fact we might have only been doing 60 or 70km/h. In many sections I doubt if the buses were doing 30, and it looked so uncomfortable for the people inside.
Even the Indian tourists riding their own Royal Enfield Bullets — older designs primarily aimed at road usage — looked more comfortable, and that’s saying something. Seeing couples on overloaded Bullets wasn’t uncommon; they would ride along quite slowly, probably averaging half the speed we could do on the Himalayans.
TENTS, LAKES AND ECO-RESORTS
There’s more to international touring than riding, of course, and when you’re in remote areas of the world, don’t expect five-star. Expect millions of stars, only hidden by the thin fabric of your tent.
Although numerous nights of a Moto Himalayan tour are spent in a good hotel in Leh, outside of the city, accommodation is rustic, to say the least. A couple of nights are spent glamping (glamorous camping), where a large tent is erected over a concrete slab. Inside is a big bed, chairs, a toilet and some way to wash… if there’s hot water.
Sometimes there’s running hot water, sometimes there’s not, so one of the staff will drop off a big bucket of really hot water. Mix it with some cold then use the various buckets to tip it over yourself, soap up and rinse.
I love a long, hot shower after a day of adventure riding in the dust as much as anyone, but that’s not always possible in the Himalayas and you know what? Maybe that keeps out some of the tourists, and that’s a good thing.
The tents were better than the Tso Kar Eco Resort though. Sure, there were rooms, but the beds were hard, the sheets missing, the bathrooms awful and the power intermittent. “It’s the best available in town,” Aakash told me.
The lack of amenities got to our crew a few days in, with some of the Indonesians feeling homesick because they were suffering altitude sickness, couldn’t contact their families, were finding the off-road sections a bit tough and missed the food from home.
Luckily, Aakash diffused the situation with a satellite phone and some reassurance we were past the worst of the off-road conditions and how oxygen would help the altitude sickness. With the ability to let their families know they were OK, and some oxygen, the tour could continue.
While the accommodation was often rustic, the food was pretty amazing. Even in the back-blocks of nowhere, the curries, naan and rice dishes would come out, full of subtle flavours. Much of the food is based around sauces and spices and was thoroughly delightful.
The nearest I came to a stomach upset was requiring a visit to the smallest room in the house without much notice, and that was after eating a meat dish in Leh… luckily there were no further problems, and I don’t think anyone else in our group had a dose of the dreaded Delhi Belly.
Part two next issue…