Motorcycling in the Himalayas

Ride across the Land of Lamas: The Himalayan Mountains

By L.V. Srinidhi Raghavendra

The Himalayas form a perfect background for this intrepid Indian biker. photos by the Srinidhi Raghavendra.
The Himalayas form a perfect background for this intrepid Indian biker. photos by the Srinidhi Raghavendra.

One word makes every adventurer hold his breath in anticipation… one word makes every naturalist think of the ideal place to be with nature… one word makes every traveler think of an exotic destination… one word makes a pilgrim think of salvation… “Himalayas.” Yes, the Himalayas with its rugged mountain peaks, evergreen forests, bone chilling regions, important temples, makes it an ideal destination for everyone, a traveler, a pilgrim or a hardcore adventurer.

For a Biker, visiting Himalayas is one thing and riding on the motorcycle across the lofty mountains is totally another thing –the supreme challenge to any true bike enthusiast.

That is what we decided… to ride across the Himalayan terrain of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Our team comprised: Gaurav Jani, Kyle Pereira and Hanif Sama from Mumbai; Khushwanth Rai from Delhi; Col. S.S. Rajan, Rangavittal, Satish Rao and myself from Bangalore. Perfect strangers that we were till one day when the force behind the tour – our passion for traveling on motorcycles – united us into an e-group 60KPH. It was decided that Col. Rajan and myself would form the backup team in the Maruti van while the others rode motorcycles.

Grand Trunk Road

We met at Delhi and started our sojourn on the Grand Trunk Road towards Simla via Chandigarh. After Simla the road weaved and wound through a beautiful countryside flanked by fruit laden apple orchards on the way to Narkanda and descended downhill to Luhri. The enchanting views of the green mountains with snow capped peaks, the cool breeze blowing through the valleys carried the sweet fragrance of the innumerable varieties of flowers accompanied us to Anni along the banks of the river Sutlej.

From Anni a steep climb of 27 kms took us to Jalori pass situated at a height of 10,280 ft asl – the first high altitude pass in our journey which would take across nine similar passes of varying heights.

It was 6pm by the time all of us assembled at Jalori pass and mist had already begun to set in. We quickly took photographs and proceeded ahead to Shoja village where we spent the night in a small one room with thatched roof and cooked some noodles. The next day saw us ride towards Manali. But calamity struck at Odi village, Ranga’s bike had a flat and as if to add insult to injury a HP State transport bus hit the parked bike damaging the headlight and silencer halting our progress for almost half a day for repairs.

Trekking in the Himalayas.
Trekking in the Himalayas.

Despite the inconveniences we forged ahead with a firm resolve to reach Manali before night and reach we did but only at 11pm. The only saving grace that day was the courteous staff at 38 Border Roads Task Force Mess who were waiting for us with piping hot roti, alu sabzi and dal. We ate the first and last meal of the day like hungry wolves and retired for the day.

Tough Manali-Leh Road

The next two days we stayed at Manali servicing our bikes to prepare them for the tough Manali-Leh road and also took in the local sights like the Hidimba Temple, Manu Temple, Yak rides and some spectacular views of the Beas as it surged down the hills. Having rested and feeling rejuvenated we wheeled ahead and hit the Leh road – the most challenging stretch of our journey which comprised 475 kms of pure adventure, with five high altitude passes, ranging from 13,000 ft asl to 17600 ft asl.

Sections of this road are crisscrossed by glacial streams, broken and unpaved, absolutely no civilization for hundreds of miles, with a sole petrol bunk in the entire stretch. But the spectacular scenery and panoramic views of the Himalayas make all the risk and trouble worth its while. The sharp hairpin bends and very narrow sections are part of the road.

We reached Rohtang pass (13,050ft asl) after a uphill ride of 51 km from Manali. Here the tall snow capped peaks presented the beautiful face of the Himalayas and seemed as though standing to welcome us into their territory. From Rohtang we descended 22 km to Khoksar village and drove on via Keylong to halt at Stingri – the last major town on this road. We refueled our vehicles and bought enough fuel to take us through the rest of the journey, for the next petrol bunk was 370 kms away at Leh.

Dirt Tracks

After Stingri we moved ahead through roads which appeared more like dirt tracks covered by flowing streams; across rickety Bailey bridges which seemed as though they would collapse any moment and reached Baralacha La the coldest pass on the road sited at an awe inspiring height of 16,047 ft asl. Our next stop was at Sarchu the border of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Here since there is no habitation other than one tented hotel and a transit camp we spent the night in tents experiencing the cool climate of the Himalayan plains.

Landslide on the road near Ladakh.
Landslide on the road near Ladakh.

Mountain sickness claimed its first toll here. We were at 13,000 ft asl plus and Hanif started vomiting and said he was feeling giddy and feverish. It alarmed us no end but Ranga came to the rescue with the first aid kit and pumped Hanif with medicines and cajoled him to have some soup and noodles. All of us took turns in taking care of Hanif throughout the night.

We were quite scared because we were in the middle of nowhere the nearest hospital was 250 km away at Manali and Leh was still 170 km ahead. Luckily by morning Hanif was feeling better and it was decided that he would travel in the car while I rode his bike till Pang our next halt.

The roads were better after Sarchu and soon we hit the Gatta Loops – a stretch of 13 kms with 21 sharp hairpin bends – it was an unforgettable experience riding up the loops and experiencing the height gain from 13,776 ft to 15302ft asl. A few kilometers ahead we reached Nakii La at 16,416 ft asl and more was to come another 19 km and we arrived at Lachlung La 16,616 ft asl – the fifth pass on our journey and we had the toughest and second highest to deal with the next day.

Mind-blowing Terrain

The next morning saw us riding through a mind-blowing terrain of wind-eroded mountains where the strong gusts of winds have carved tunnels and crevices on the mountain slopes. Here the winds blow a speeds of more than 80 km per hour making it very difficult for bikes to move smoothly, presenting the real challenge to a biker, the endurance of the bike and the rider is tested to the limit on these roads. A steep downhill road flanked by tall sandstone cliffs on one side and a valley 1000s of feet on the other took us to Pang.

The demon called Mountain sickness again reared its ugly head and this time the victim was Satish. The altitude doesn’t give one enough oxygen to breathe; the strong winds threaten to blow you off the mountain side; the sun beats down mercilessly almost burning you with its ultraviolet rays, lastly the potholed roads makes you wonder when the bike will teeter off the road. Satish was feeling breathlessness and nausea, we couldn’t take chances so we immediately took him to the doctor at the Army transit camp at Pang.

The doctor opined that Satish was suffering from high BP and should not be moving around in oxygen-poor high altitude regions and advised to desist from riding his bike. Again I took over and rode Satish’s bike till Rumtse while he traveled in the van with colonel Rajan.

The next stretch was the most testing. A stretch of 96 km via Tanglang La (17,852 ft asl), there is nothing in-between except the rolling mountains. A steep ascent from Pang led us to the More Plains, a vast plateau flanked by the high and mighty Himalayas on both sides and a road which snakes through the plain for 33 km.

Nobody in Sight

There is not a soul in sight and no sign of civilization at all, absolutely no water bodies. The road across More plains seemed to stretch endlessly into the land of Lamas. At last we reached the point where the More plains ended and the ascent towards the pass began. A few km towards the pass and a snowstorm started billowing. It seemed as though we were hit by a blizzard. Our visors were getting fogged making our visibility almost nil and if we opened our visors snowflakes hit us like shards of glass. It was a real scary till we reached Tanglang La, where we stopped briefly to click photographs and quickly descended to Rumtse.

Bikers queue up to head up the mountainside.
Bikers queue up to head up the mountainside.

After Rumtse we moved ahead to reach Leh while visiting Buddhist Gonpas at Hemis, Thikse and Spituk. Hemis Monastery is the oldest in the Ladakh region and is a seat of Buddhist culture and religion. We wondered at the beautiful murals and the enormous statues of Buddha/ Maitreya/ Chamba and Taradevi. Thikse Gonpa is the largest in the region and is built covering a huge hillock. Spituk monastery is situated very near to Leh city and dates back to 14th Century AD.

Ladakh is a unique region with diverse landscapes, where one can see lush green Summers and snow white winters, brown sandy deserts amidst snow clad mountains, milky white snow everywhere in winter. And the people who are always willing to help travelers with a smile that seems to be permanently imprinted on their faces, though they themselves lead a hard life.

Our onward journey was to the unexplored regions of Nubra Valley via Khardung La (18380 ft asl) the world’s highest motorable road. The road took us through the most exotic regions where we were beset with surprises throughout our odyssey. The first a stretch of sand dunes in the middle of snow clad mountains. We had to rub our eyes and pinch ourselves to believe that there does exist a desert among snow clad mountains.

A Boiling Spring

The next surprise was waiting for us at Panamik – a small village where there are hot springs. Here we had a rejuvenating hot bath amidst the snow clad mountains. Imagine a stream of boiling hot water emerging from the middle of a snow capped mountain. All around the whether is cold and freezing but the water in this spring is boiling hot.

We returned to Leh and started our journey towards the Kashmir Valley. Our first stop from Leh was at Mulbek. We had to cross two high altitude passes before we reached Mulbek; viz., Fotu La and Namika La. Fotu La @ 13,479ft asl is the highest point on the Srinagar – Leh road. Between Leh and Mulbek there are 3 important sights which we visited, Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill and the Lamayuru Gonpa.

Gurudwara Pathar Sahib is built in the memory of Guru Nanak’s visit to Ladakh.

  • Magnetic hill is a place where one can witness a natural phenomenon which defies gravity, any vehicle would move uphill by itself due to the natural magnetic field acting on it in this region.
  • Lamayuru Gonpa is a historical site in the region, it houses one of the ancient Buddhist monastery’s which exist in Ladakh.

Mulbek is a historical site which houses one of the five Bamiyan Style of Buddhas located in Ladakh. The Buddha statue about 30 ft in height is an imposing statue which is carved across a vertical rock-face standing independently amidst towering Himalayan peaks. From Mulbek we proceeded on towards Kargil the place where the historic Kargil war took place and halted at Drass for the night. Drass is also the hot bed of infiltration and also the second coldest permanently inhabited place on earth with temperatures reaching to as low as -65 0 C in winters.

Srinagar was hot and that was the first time we realized that we are heading back into the big, bad, polluted civilization. At Srinagar we spent couple of days and proceeded towards Jammu via the famous 3.5 kms long Jawahar Tunnel at Banihal, Batote, Kud, Patni top and other tourist places on the way to Delhi where the tour reached its finale.

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