Phil Freeman’s Road Diary from the 2014 MotoQuest India Touch the Sky Adventure
August 19th – Arrival to New Delhi
The New Delhi Taxi driver was sincere. He said, “In order to drive in India, you need three things: Good Horn, Good Brakes, and Good Luck.”
August 19th, Late Night, New Delhi
Most of the group arrived very late in the night in New Delhi from all over the world. Rummy and exhausted, we went to our hotel, which was close to the airport. We all had a long layover there, and we opted to try to get some restful sleep before our next leg of the trip to Manali the following day.
August 20th, New Delhi – Manali
The group rendezvoused at breakfast. It’s amazing what rest will do! We were all ready for the journey to Manali. We were to fly to Kullu, a city close to Manali in the northern Himalayas, but Air India, last minute, canceled our flights! This meant that we would have to fly to the next closest airport and go overland the rest of the way. So, instead of an 1.5 hour flight, we would have to take a 30 minute flight and then drive 8/9 hours! The joys of traveling!
We got off the plane and were met by Anu, our Indian MotoQuest guide, transferred to taxis and we were off: speeding towards the high country. Traffic in India is something of a marvel, with what we would consider a close call, they call par for the course. Speeding down the highway, passing anything and everything from buses to cars to horse-drawn carts – it took some time to adjust to the craziness! There seems to be an understood way of playing a mad game of Chicken. Honk, Honk! Everyone knows the unwritten rules, but for our group, it simply seemed insane. The lowlands of India are overcrowded, humid, hot and overwhelming and for these first-time visitors to India, coming to ride motorcycles, I could only imagine that they had second thoughts after the first half an hour in the taxi! Not to worry, we would be heading far into the mountains, where the traffic slowed to a trickle, the temperature fell and the beauty of our surroundings escalated.
When we pulled in to our lunch spot, I jokingly said deadpan: “Did you see that close call?” To this, there was incredulous silence. Which close call?! We drove the remainder of the day and into the night. The road climbed and climbed. The surface of the road turned from consistent pavement to a minefield of potholes. Heavy truck traffic choked the winding, serpentine “highway”. Passing, honking, slamming on breaks: I looked back and saw one of our riders sleeping in the front seat of the car behind us. How was this possible?!
We drove into the night with the speed of our driver somehow increasing. I used to joke that there was a mysterious substance in India that is viscous in quality and hangs in the air and allows that no vehicle to actually touch. So many times, we thought that our driver’s rear view mirror would be ripped off, but it never happened. Watch out for the rickshaw stopped in the middle of the busy road, mind the cow lounging in the middle of the intersection. Oh, how nothing compared to the apparent lawlessness of India!
At last, we pulled into our final detonation, a fine hotel perched high above a glacial river valley amongst the fir trees. We checked in, dropped our bags in our rooms and met for a late dinner. Incredulous laughter and stories recounting the day swirled through the group. We were all exhausted mentally and physically from the journey. It was one of those magic moments that you realized you were part of one of those amazing adventures that existed only in books. However, we were living it!
Soon after dinner, all the riders retired to their rooms to get needed rest. Our body clocks were upside down, some of us had not slept more than three hours for three days to get here. We would have two full relaxing days in Manali before our adventure begins, and we would need them. To bed and to adventures ahead!
August 21st, Manali [Free Day]
We awoke to tall, spire mountains, with wispy, white clouds, lush pine forest, and the soothing sound of a rushing river. This was not at all like the New Delhi we had left the previous day. We were somehow transported to picturesque alpine utopia. Coming in under the cover of dark, the group had no idea that they would awake to such a symphony of sites and sounds!
We ate breakfast on an outside balcony, taking in the fresh mountain air and overwhelming natural beauty. We had arrived. We ate fresh fruit, masala omelets and drank Indian tea while we recounted yesterday’s crazy ride. Monkeys, aimless cows, disassembled dump trucks, crater sized potholes, shattered guardrails, unbelievable passing, close calls, honking – the ride was full of adrenaline and wonder. All told, these adventurers all loved the ride in: it gave them perspective of what Indian traffic was like and we got to “come into the country” slowly, having the chance to take in the wild sights and sounds that only India can provide.
At times, India seems like pure chaos, that there is no way this country can go on functioning. The dirt, disorganization, pollution…it seems that it will all fall. Then, you see the interaction of its inhabitants, the casual smiles and salutations from one to another, the somehow organized way the animals eat from the dumpsters, the unassuming manner in which, in all this “mess”, life goes on. India has its own set of values, and has for a millennia, and will not change. It is a place of timelessness.
Walking the streets of Manali, you encounter Hindus, Buddists, and Muslims. This is the high crossroads of the world. Cultures have mixed here since the beginning of time. Upon arrival in Manali, the hectic hoards of the lower basin are erased. The constant eco of the glacier river is a reminder that nature reigns supreme. The call of the birds on the first cast of sunlight let you know that you are now in nature.
Manali is known as the recreational center of India, and rightly so. Skiing, rock climbing, paragliding, river rafting, hiking…these are the activities that are offered everywhere. And motorcycling. The group is so excited they can hardly stand it. We split apart for the day, just taking in the town, walking the backstreets, wandering the main thoroughfares. Some napped, some shopped and some read. Some even caught up on work. That evening, we all reunited and went into town for dinner. We sat outside in a courtyard. The temperature was perfect. We dined on trout curry and lamb. We drank Kingfisher beer. We laughed and got acquainted with each other. It was a pleasant evening and a perfect opportunity to catch up on rest.
August 22nd, Manali [Free Ride]
Arriving in Manali a couple of days early turned out to be a blessing in many ways. Adjusting to time change, getting our feet on the ground, relaxing through the day, walking the streets….it allowed us to slip into India time. It has been a time of relaxation, reflection and education. The India way of doing things seems to beg the word “why”, but we decided not to use that word for the rest of the trip. “Why” is banned.
Images of the last days pour through my mind and make me full of wonder how some of its people carry on, day after day, toiling at incredibly hard, laborious jobs but maintain a smile on their face – not so much of a trace of resentment. Maybe I am just a casual observer and am not scratching beyond the surface, but it seems that no matter what hardships you see in the streets and the countryside of India, there is a momentum of acceptance.
I picked up my Royal Enfield and rode some backroads, passing men, women and children breaking granite apart, chiseling out blocks for building, tractor loads of firewood being gathered and delivered, pick and shovel work along the side of the road, crews filling in potholes with rubble, mechanics rolling around in baths of oil, putting together back axles on dump trucks. If you were to play the game “Jobs I do not want to have” your list would be full by the end of the day in India. Yet, through the dust and disorganization, there are smiles and salutations between the workers. We have all had tough jobs, and India has more than its fair share.
I picked up a Royal Enfield Machismo at Anu’s office. 500cc, left shifting, electric start: this single cylinder is not fancy but does the job in India. It can crawl through anything, it is easy to work on and it even sounds cool. Royal Enfield’s have stopped production in England, but they are still punching them out daily in India at their factory in Chennai. “Yesterday’s technology, today” we joked. It’s like riding a brand new piece of vintage history.
The group did their own thing today. Some went riding, some just relaxed, some walked the streets.
We gathered that evening and some of us went out to eat. It seems that even the smallest action turns out to be a mind bending adventure in India. We bounced down a gravel road and came to a tractor of firewood being unloaded. The people were throwing random sizes of wood down an embankment. The tractor blocked the road. We stopped. Then came another car behind us. Rain spattered on the windshield. A blaring honk came from behind. Then another car comes up behind. Now two honks from two cars, all the while the workers continue to unload the firewood. The driver of the tractor does nothing. Honk, honk, honk…..and finally, the task is over, the tractor fires up and gets out of the way.
We get going again, rambling down the road, but immediately meet head on with another car. The road is only one car wide, so when we meet, there is an impasse. Who will move? There is no shoulder, there are headlights trained on each other, and there is honking, especially from our line of cars. Honk, honk honk…then silence. Three cars against one, and finally, our group of three coordinate to back up to let the single car through. How did they figure this out? Is there a mysterious language through honking? Subtle honks say different things like: “Hey, I know I am only one car, but I would have to back up much further than all three of you, so let’s save some time by having you guys back up, ok? OK. ” Done!
We get to the recommended restaurant, literally in the middle of nowhere, and the lights are out. There is trash spread out all over the entryway. This was supposed to be one of the best restaurants in the town. We go to the door and we are told that they are closed tonight. India. Plan B. We all laugh and get in the taxi again, bound for another restaurant. That is just the way it is!
We are excited through dinner, because the following day, we are to pick up our bikes, and go climb Rohtang Pass. We are still two days from officially starting the tour, but we get to sample the local riding. We are still missing 4 riders, who are to arrive late the next night. We go to bed exhausted but happy. How can you not? India is taking over, and we are going with it!
August 23rd, Manali [Shake Down day at Rohtang Pass]
Today would be our “Shake Down” ride out of Manali. Anu told us that since we had an extra day, we may as well be riding and suggested we go to the top of Rohtang Pass, just outside of Manali. The official tour was not to start until tomorrow, and we still had four riders who were to arrive this evening. We were all excited for this bonus ride. Rohtang Pass was just north of Manali and was on the the direct route to Leh. Our itinerary for the tour would not take this pass and instead head south and around up the Spiti River Valley, so the opportunity to explore this was a treat.
After breakfast, we rendezvoused down at Anu’s headquarters to finish all rental paperwork and to pick up the rest of the bikes. Anu told us that he would send us with one of his mechanics, but, in typical over-the-top Indian fashion, he sent two mechanics on motorcycles and a support truck with two mechanics. It seemed whatever they promised us, they delivered at least 300 percent more. We headed up the pass, clipping along, getting used to the Royal Enfields. There was an air of both excitement and fear: getting used to a new bike is always a time of anxiety, but being propelled by an adventurous spirit always outweighs a reason not to go. Over the years guiding these trips, I can attest to one simple fact: the people that are attracted to this kind of thing are full blooded adventurers. They come from all walks of life but share a lust for risk in order to explore. This is the very fiber that links all of us together on these rides.
The paved road up the valley immediately pays off: sheer cliff walls, thousands of feet up and up, loom at each side, cascading waterfalls, hundreds of feet tall are seen all around us. We enter a cathedral of cliffs, rushing rivers, pine trees and tall, tall mountain tops. The Himalayas have only one mission, and that is up! We enter the first of the switchbacks, back and forth and back and forth. This does not stop for nearly two hours! Little by little we climb through the ecosystems. We pass through deciduous trees, pine forests, scrub, and then we break out above the treeline. The scenery, with its plethora of waterfalls and daunting cliffs, is just extraordinary. It is one of the prettiest scenes I have ever seen.
We pause on an outcropping and I go around the group and ask them how they are doing. Each one of them can attest that this was above their expectations. Indeed, when you superimpose this over what we experienced in New Delhi, they can’t even believe that this is India. I can only smile to myself and think, “This is only an appetizer.” We would be spending the next 15 days doing just this in more remote and rugged land.
The road, for the most part, was in good condition. It was about one and half lanes wide with accessional potholes. There were times when it went straight to mud and rocks, and it hugged the steep mountain slopes and bent around rock outcrops. There was no guardrail and at times you looked way, way down. The traffic was constant but very accommodating. Though every car you pass and passes you will honk, it’s only in a courteous way. It is to say, “I am here.” Large dinosaur trucks lumbered their way to the top of the pass and would edge over to let you through. The use of the horn was essential in order to let the driver know you are there.
We stopped for a moment at a sharp corner where some snow still remained and a mountain stream cascaded down. There we took in the scene. Indian tourists touching snow for the first time, taking pictures of each other and then quickly billing up snowballs and throwing them at each other, all the while large trucks blaringly honking as they geared past, a vendor selling food, two road workers were filling in potholes and a shepherd moved his goats down the road, blocking traffic. It all went down right there. I went over to my bike and was accosted by a group of curious Indians who wanted to take their picture with me.
Indians seem to have a different “my space” value than us, and will come right up into your space. It could be consuetude as offensive, but really, they are just curious and friendly. Not once do you ever feel threatened here, just excruciatingly observed.
We topped out at 13,080 feet, and as the pass crested, there was a monument drenched with prayer flags. We crept just a little further so we could look down the other side. We looked down to see the road that would intercept with the road we would take from the Spiti. The mountains were so rugged and steep, it seemed impossible for a road to make its way through. This would be our home for the next two weeks.
That night at dinner, we were joined by the rest of our crew. All four members entered the lobby of the hotel exhausted and relieved. Some of them had traveled over two days straight to get here. Our group had made it! We had riders from New Zealand, England, Canada and the United States. 14 souls in all. Nearly all of them had been on a MotoQuest ride before. To sum up the day, at lunch, Bill L. came up to me. He had ridden in South Africa, Peru, Alaska, Vietnam and Laos with us. He looked at me and said, “You told me I was going to ride roads I had never imagined in India, and you are right, this is truly unbelievable!”
August 24th, Manali to Shoja
Anu is our Indian guide and the owner of the company which provides our Royal Enfields and support for the trip. I met him 6 years ago by accident, and ever since then we have worked together, coordinating trips in the Himilayas. He was born and raised in Manali. Son to a Buddhist father and a Hindu mother, he chose to not follow any one religion. Instead, he chooses the path of peace in body and mind for himself, not judging or following any one order. He is in an arranged marriage to a Hindu, has three kids and lives happily and vibrantly at 6,000 feet outside this small city on a steep slope out of town, under a backdrop of dramatic mountains. He does not get into his wife’s business, nor does she pry into his. He asks her what she needs and provides it. I asked him how he felt about this arrangement. He candidly responded that he thought it was fine, since it was his mother who had chosen her, and if there were to be any problems in the relationship with his wife and his family, it would be his mother who would be accountable.
When I first met him, he was the main mechanic of his little Royal Enfield Shop, with 15 motorcycles. Now, he has a team of mechanics and has a fleet of 70. He never did very well in school, it just was not for him. But when you look at his thriving business, the loyalty of his staff and the condition of his office, equipment and shop, you gather that he is a natural-born leader, a visionary. He said that at first, when he started his business, he did it for himself, the love of the motorcycle and the chance to meet motorcycle people. Now he has many employees, and he says he works for his family and their families. He has that cool elegance that calmly exudes confidence, compassion and a zest for life. His employees radiate the same. He is a man in his time.
We headed out south of Manali and headed for a small town in the mountains called Shoja. The ride would only be a total of 150 kilometers, but would take us almost all day to accomplish. Distance in the Himalayas and time have their own meaning. We stuck out down valley on a narrow country road off of the main. It unraveled through small towns, forests, over clear mountain streams. The traffic grew, and, as we passed through the city of Kully, it was full of Indian magic. Trucks, buses, all passing and blaring their horns surrounded us as the dust and grit and cacophony of unfinished buildings, myriads of cows and motorcycles made for an exhilarating rush towards our goal. It just did not make sense why a truck suddenly decided to back up out into traffic and stop. Or, the car that suddenly decided to go backwards in its own lane. Why did the cows favor the bridges? They just sat there, scattered all over each bridge, lazily lounging while mad traffic sped by on all sides. I guess the most important thing to keep in mind is that the word “Why” is NOT applicable here. It just does not belong.
We rode 33 miles as the crow flies, and it took us almost three hours. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking a river. The talk of the table was about how fun this all was. Each rider loved the traffic and the challenges it created!. This would be the busiest traffic we would encounter on the entire trip and they were eating it up! We had dropped 3,000 feet and the temperature soared. The meal was made up of a wide selection of curries, sauces, vegetables, to be eaten with naan bread and vegetable rice. Anu had ordered for the table and we loved it all.
After lunch, we elbowed into another valley and started climbing up a steep gorge. An aqua blue river flowed far below. The road turned to a single paved lane with narrow dirt shoulders. It was just wide enough for a motorcycle to scrimp by a truck. Two buses would have to jostle to find a shoulder wide enough to let one of the buses pass. I fell in line behind an open truck full of men and merchandise. They were singing and clearly drunk. Smiles, laughter and then I came on to the scene, capturing their attention. The ringleader stood up and yelled, “Do you like wine?! I like wine!” To this the whole group erupted in laughter. Then he yells, “Do you want some wine?” Then it was back to singing as he stumbled back to his seat.
Small towns came and went as we climbed thousands of feet up. The mountains were so steep in all directions. But somehow, the locals managed to build houses, maintain crops and maintain a life. Some of the houses were perched precariously over the valley so remotely, I wondered how those people came to build there, and how they got their crops to market. The answer came later in the day when, at a rest stop, a whining noise could be heard, and when I looked up, you could see a small cart being propelled on a zip-line from far above. Aha! The crops of choice seemed to be apples and cabbages. The farmers would cut tiers out of the steep mountains and use them for cultivation.
As we climbed further, the road went to hell – turning into dirt, dust and loose rocks. The trees took over, and soon we were in a pine forest with few houses. We climbed to a corner where there was a small shop and Anu stopped. He announced: “We are here!” There were a couple of boys sitting, idly watching us from the shop entrance. There was nothing else. The support vehicles showed up and started unloading the luggage. Our bikes were scattered along the steep road. We were told to just leave them there with the keys in. Anu said the lodge was just 50 meters down the hill, that way. He pointed. I went down to investigate, and as promised, a gem of a lodge sat hidden from the road, from the world. We settled into our accommodations, everyone contributed to getting the luggage down the steep stairs. The rooms were elegant, with hardwood floors and an enclosed veranda that connected all the rooms of each floor. There was a small grassy patio area where tea and cookies sat waiting. A fire pit sat idle, to be lit after dinner. The view was divine: steep, thickly forested mountain slopes surrounded us. We were staring across a narrow valley accented by the sound of rushing water far below. Down valley, the mountain tops of the Himalayas drifted into the distant horizon. We were at 8,200 feet, and as you climbed the stairs, you could feel it in your lungs.
The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging in the grass patio, sipping beverages and trading stories. Some took showers, some strolled around the grounds and some read and relaxed in their rooms. The time passed rapidly, and, as the sun went down, there was a call to dinner. We all went up to the main building and once again enjoyed a terrific meal, and as this group was getting to know each other, the chatter of the conversations took on an air of familiarity. Friendships were being forged at this table high in the Himalayas.
After dinner, we went over to the fire pit and continued to regale each other with stories of past and present. Laughter was the order of the evening, and as the fire grew lower, one by one we left the fire for our beds. It had been a short day distance-wise, but a lifetime of sites and sounds had happened since we awoke that morning. Time to recharge for another adventure the next day.
August 25th, Shoja to Sarahan
It’s hard to quantify what happens in just one day here in India on a motorcycle. Anu assures us that we are just doing short days (130 km), but what we see and experience – the sights and sounds are so much – that it seems a lifetime. I would like to premise this days entry by saying that there is no comparison to riding a motorbike in India. I have ridden all over the world, and ever since I rode in India 6 years ago, I have compared every new place to this one. India has its own set of rules when it comes to traffic. Technically, it is left-side riding, but when you get out on the roads you realize quickly that there are no rules. Yes, the left side is the main way of going, but you will see anything and everything done with no logic attached.
There is a whimsically orchestrated dance that is done between all of the cars, motorcycles, buses, trucks and cows. Everything is a near collision and not, at the same time. You are fine to pass on a blind corner and you can expect that is going on when you go around one. When you seem to be in an eminent head on, time slows, brakes are applied, honks permeate, room is given between both parties, and whoosh…you are through with no mishap. This happens repeatedly, all throughout the day. As a rider, expect to be pushed off the road many times a day. It is just a matter of course. A large truck will suddenly, on a straightaway, decide to pass a bus coming towards you. You have no out, you don’t have any room on the road to linger…so you stray off the road onto the dirt shoulder and pass within inches of the oncoming truck. Then, you pop back on the road, and off you go. If this would happen to an average rider in the United States, the rider would be furious and mention this heinous act for the next month at cocktail parties to friends or to anyone who would listen. If you are not run off the road in India by 10 a.m., you are NOT in India. The proper way to react is calmly get out of the way, and get on your way. No problem.
We jumped on our bikes and climbed to the top of Jalori Pass the next morning. The road continued to be loose rocks, steep grade, and sharp turns. One side of the road was a steep mountain side, the other a cliff with a large distance before you hit anything far below. Precarious to say the least, but as you kept the momentum with the bike, it was no problem at all. Every corner, you needed to get ready for a wide bus or speeding truck. The traffic was sparse, so when you did come across another vehicle, especially on a corner, there was a jolt of excitement.
The view down the valley was world class, with tall, sharp mountains and stepped farms far below. These Himalayas go straight up, no doubt about it. We topped out at 10,300 feet and took a timeout. There were a few shops, abandoned buildings, new buildings and a temple. We relaxed for a few minutes, taking it all in. The weather was great, skies were clear and the temperature hovered around 70 degrees.
Then came the descent…and descend we did. It took two full hours to finally bottom out at 3,200 feet at the Spiti River. We went through deciduous trees to tiered farms to pine forests. At the bottom of the valley, we found ourselves in 100 degree temperature alongside the raging chocolate river: The Spiti. We would be following this river to its source over the course of the next few days.
The heat was bearable but not pleasant. The road skirted the river and turned into two lanes, all paved. We could actually pick up speed and enjoy some classic riding: leaning into turns, gearing up and gearing down. A feeling of relaxation, if for only a brief moment, seemed possible. We stopped at a shady corner to enjoy a box lunch Anu had prepared for us. We would only cover 130 km today, but it seemed like a 500-mile day. The change of altitude and temperature took its toll and by lunch we were already tired.
The rest of the day we spent mimicking the Spiti. This far down, there were large towns to negotiate. You had to constantly keep your guard up for the usual suspects: pedestrians, cows, passing trucks, and dust. The asphalt would suddenly give way to talcum powder dust and large rocks. Then a stream crossing! Back to asphalt. The road had fallen away into oblivion in sections and was marked with rocks and piles of rubbles. When you looked down, you could see the raging river far below. At times, it was like you were in a cow slalom.
At 4,000 feet, it was 98 degrees in the shade. We took a side road and began to climb. Within an hour, we were at 7,200 feet and our destination. Along the way, smiling children, all impeccably dressed in red and blue uniforms, held out their hands anxiously for high fives. Up and up and up went. It boggles the mind that so many people could live on such a steep slope. It never ended. India is just one enormous blanket of humanity. Every possible livable space had been built on or cultivated. We finally arrived at our hotel just before 5 p.m. and we joked that this was our “short” day. We had not traveled far distance-wise, but it had taken hours and we had seen so much.
Even now as I write this, I recollect a sheer cliff road, two buses jockeying to see how they would pass each other, honking, maneuvering, and a stream, far, far below. This was just one of the many memories of yesterday. I am not sure how a human can process it all. Everything seems so chaotic and disorganized in India from a western point of view, but the exhilaration lingers and brings a smile. India is not for everyone. It is upside-down. But, for those who venture here, it is the quintessential life experience you’d rather not leave this life without.
That evening, we walked over to the thousand-year-old Sarahan Hindu Temple. You had to remove your shoes, put away your camera and cover your head to go inside. With intricately carved wood, low ceilings, and marble floors, we strolled throughout the grounds at sunset. Some men were hoisting a large pod of lights up a very tall post with a measly hand crank. Watching this exercise, you knew it was going to take forever. Our crew joined in, and there we were, an international rag-tag crew mixed with locals working together, taking turns at the heavy crank. It was a moment filled with camaraderie and joy.
That night, we again enjoyed a great dinner of butter chicken, fry bread, paneer, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. We laughed around the table until our heads started to nod. Though only 9 p.m., we were exhausted and filed to bed early. Tomorrow we had an earlier start time: there was a washed-out road and a detour we had to make…
August 26th, Sarahan to Kalpa
Every day seems to bring a lifetime of images, so many that my mind overflows and can’t capture the details of each and every frame. The big joke going around the group now is the concept of the “short” day. A short day means that we only cover 70 miles in one day. We’re used to 70 miles taking less than one hour on the interstate. In the Indian Himalayas, however, a short day lasts a couple of lifetimes.
We woke to the loudspeaker blaring a prayer from the Sarahan Hindu Temple. Why they wanted to get their message out before sunrise, well, who am I to ask? We got word that the road up the Spiti Valley had been washed out, and that there would be a detour around it. There was a time table that set one-way traffic on this detour, so we had to get there by 11 am in order to not miss our opportunity to arrive at our destination of Kalpa. For those who have been to India, you may have seen a red flag when I used the word “timetable” and “India” in the same sentence.
So, clutch out at 9 a.m. and down the mountainside we went. Back by the waving, screaming uniformed-laden children, the power station and the military base. Around buses, people, and honking Mahindras, going down and down until we arrived at the main traffic artery, where we hung a right and headed north and east up the Spiti. The road was paved, usually two-laned (but sometimes one-laned and sometimes gravel) and for the first few kilometers, you could even relax and get into the turns. The valley got narrower and narrower, and the slopes steeper and steeper. These mountains never stopped impressing me by the way they just WENT STRAIGHT UP. But that did not stop the road, no, it just kept on. And as the slope became nearly vertical, the road was literally cut out of the rock. You would ride along, under a rock canopy, along heavily damaged and sometimes missing guardrail, and as you looked down…..whoa, vertigo. It must have been around a thousand feet down to the river far below. This road went on and on to the point where you felt like you were in some sort of dream because, simply, there are almost no roads like this in the world.
After this section, the road descended to the river and crossed it. There were dams constructed and being constructed in this section and you felt like you were in a work zone. This is the place that mankind actually tries to tame nature. The road went to hell and we found ourselves riding for miles through rocks, sand, talcum powder, and broken asphalt. Big tucks crossed us spewing up great clouds of dust. Dust, dust, dust. The wind chimed in and there was more dust. We went by a tall cement structure, tapping nature’s water and generating electricity, with a large painted sign overlooking the valley “No Dream Is Too Big.” India was just that: a country that dreamed big, and was half-way to accomplishing it. Always half-way.
We came to a police checkpoint and were directed uphill away from the river. This was where the detour began. We were late (it was 11:20am) but that did not seem to matter. The road was a one lane, paved ordeal that climbed precariously up the mountains side, switchbacking as it went. Each switchback was a quick 180 degrees, and the higher we rose, the more consequence there was of falling right off the road. Not a guardrail in sight. Occasionally, oncoming traffic would come buzzing down, honking. As we reached the high point and started a traverse along this most vertigo-rich environment, a sudden stampede of Tata’s (large trucks) came blazing our way, a herd of wild elephants was more like it. All we could do was take cover and watch aweingly, this procession. They honked and pressed harder on the gas as they went by. So much for the one-way traffic schedule!
After a few minutes, the rush was over and we could continue our detour. We came around a corner and a small bucket loader was there, busy clearing boulders from the road. After a while, it backed off and let a bus through. The bus could barely fit around the loader, its tires inches from the cliff. A man hung out the cliff-side winder and blew a whistle, letting the driver know his boundaries. They had done this before. I could go on and on about the detour, but suffice to say it had it all: cliffs, steeps, rocks, dust, mud, water, loose rocks, mad traffic, and inexplicably beautiful views. At one point we ducked to the side of the road to let another Tata through, and “Drifty” aka Bob from Virginia had to literally jump off his bike to avoid the back tire from running him over! When the truck passed, I looked at his dust-covered face and he said in his southern gentry cantor, “Phil, I believe I got my money’s worth already!”
We finally dog-legged our way back to the main road, descending thousands of feet and regrouped with the other riders. The detour must have been only 20 kilometers long, but it had taken every ounce of effort and motorcycle skill to accomplish. You needed to have complete control of your motorcycle in order to ride this road, and be a master in all conditions. I told Drifty that if you can do this detour you can ride the rest of the ride, no problem. And, as we pulled off our helmets when we met the other group, Toronto Bill said, ” You should just do a Detour Tour!” Ha ha! We were all glad we made it! Only India can deliver this.
We continued up the main road along the Spiti. Much of the road had been damaged by landslides, so asphalt was few and far between. At one point, the road ahead had gigantic boulders on it and was impassable. Not a problem in India, a country that majors in recovery: a small detour down and around the road was carved out and we bumped our way over rocks around it. The original landslide was just left there, with a construction date hanging there, somewhere in the unknown future.
The only mentionable incidents during the day was Ian’s over-the-handle-bars episode and near miss with a tractor bucket to the head. Loose rocks in a construction zone had grabbed his front tire at slow speed and sent him over. Tim’s tailpipe fell off. We stopped to pick it up, after it cooled off. Tim doubled back. We pushed his bike to the shade. I brought the three-foot pipe over, slung over my shoulder like a continental soldier. I went to let the tail pipe down, but it got hung up on something…a clothes-drying line? NO! An electric line! Ha ha! How dangerous is that? Again, things only India delivers.
We stopped as a group and collected ourselves in the shade and drank some tea. Faces were covered with dirt, smiles were faint. We were tired. And it was not even lunch yet. We were close to the town of Reckong Peo and our lunch spot for the day. We climbed up another narrow, one-way road that zig-zagged across the steep slope. Up and up we went. Finally, we ended up in Peo and were ushered into a broad parking lot. We were now in the downtown area of a bustling small city! All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we were here. The first question that begs as you walk the busy streets lined with shops and choked with traffic is: How did they get all this here?!
After a pleasant Indian buffet lunch of vegetables, bread, rice, and beans, we did our paperwork for our Inner Line Permit. This is a permit we needed in order to continue up the Spiti Valley. This road comes to within just a couple miles with the border of Tibet and is a real tender point for the Indian government. So, they require each foreigner to register their passage through here. We filled out a form and waited. Walked across the parking lot to a shaded waiting area and waited. We were called in one at a time and they took our pictures. Then, we went back to the original office and waited. Our passports were in their hands, and the paperwork was being processed, so we were free to go to our hotel. The passports would be in our hands that evening.
We climbed away from Peo and into a pine forest. The steep switchbacks were all paved and traffic was sparse and it was nice to be climbing up the mountain, gathering altitude and with it a drop in temperature. The other incident was Tim’s close call with an amorous bovine. He just happened to be passing a cow and a bull right in the middle of hooking up. Startled, the bull fell backwards and almost took him out. How do you prepare for such a thing?
After about 30 minutes, we pulled into our hotel, perched among a grove of apple trees and pines. The hotel sat out alone, with only a couple of neighbors, the rest all trees. We got checked into our rooms and then the group collected on the open-aired pateo. The view was outstanding with tall, glacier-covered peaks that rang out sharply around us. These pointed spikes of rock pierced the sky high above us. We were at 9,400 feet and those spires were at least 10,000 thousand feet higher. The only audible sounds were the birds, no honking…Where did India go?
Showered, beveraged and happy, we sat down to an Indian buffet of vegetables, chicken, dal, rice and soup. After dinner, we were back out on the patio in the darkness, enjoying a bonfire. The Alpen glow of the peaks was behind us, and now a canopy of stars arrived to show off. Clear and brilliant, they symphonied from the heavens.
It had only been 70 miles today, but it had taken all day to do so. We had climbed thousands of feet up and down, traversed impossibly steep slopes, and dodged oncoming traffic, dogs, cows and did water crossings. Yep, a short day.
August 27th, The Inner Line: Kalpa to Nako
We headed out of the apple orchard at 10 a.m. and descended down to the main road. We hooked a left and once again followed the Spiti River up. The road turned into something of a blend of Road Warrior, Blade Runner and Indiana Jones. It had been paved at one time, and there were still pieces of it intact, but for the most part, it was in shambles. The combinations of falling rocks from above and the road falling into the river down below had made it a veritable gauntlet of motorcycle Rubix cube problems. Dirt, dust, rocks, narrow passes with trucks, water crossings – this section offered the motorcyclist the opportunity to practice not only all of their dirt riding skills, but survival skills in general. At one point there was a sign with a truck waiting. It was a picture of a stop light and the words, “Shooting Rocks. Stop, Look, Go.”
I looked ahead and saw a stream of small rock and debris tumbling down the mountains side from far above and spilling onto the road. Ian did not hesitate and went right into the rock shower. Some of the rocks were sizable – the size of baseballs and bigger. As he went headlong into the shower he took hits all over and continued on. I looked over to the driver of the truck waiting, and we both gave each other that Indian head wobble which meant: How stupid was that? I sat there for a time, waiting for a natural pause in the erosion process, and finally it died down to a point that Manoj, our Indian sweep guide, went for it. I followed suit. Made it!
The road continued to awe you – rock overhangs, raging river, bumps, trucks….repeat. We stopped on a bridge for a minute to collect ourselves. What had we just been through!? The moment I went through the rock shower I got that jolt of adrenaline and feeling, “Am I really doing this?” I checked in with the other riders and they were all heightened as well, but very, very happy. There was something uniquely wrong with them – which qualified them for this ride. At the end of the bridge, as we sped away and a sign stated that this was “the most treacherous road in the world” and that we should drive with caution. Thanks India, we’ll do.
The road stayed interesting the entire day, cutting into the rock cliff for kilometers at a time. There was always the ledge, and from time to time I would go over to it and admire how far down the river was, that churning chocolate beast. We came to the town of Pooh, which was perched up on the side of the mountains. Along the road were abandoned vehicles and machinery from days gone by. Each one told a story of remote toil and demise on a road that really should not exist at all. They sat empty and still, almost ghostlike. The debris of rocks, sand and trash around them were testament to how long they had been there.
We had passed through a checkpoint where we handed over our Inner Line permits. We would be passing within two miles of the Tibetan border and it was strictly prohibited to use or have Satellite Phones or any other GPS devices. This was a sensitive area, and judging by the amount of military bases, trucks and soldiers we passed, India was going to maintain a presence here no matter what. China was the neighbor, enough said.
We stopped briefly for Chowmein and ate in shifts in a little concrete room underneath the glowing smile of a Dali Lama poster. A bridge spanned over a narrow gorge, and the Spiti raged through the narrows, far below. Wind tore at the lines of Tibetan prayer flags stung along the rail. An outhouse was perched on the cliff, strategically depositing its contents down the rock slope and into the river. Garbage clung to the cliffs.
After eating, the road continued to be a mess of construction. The entire steep slope was made up of large, round boulders, held together by sand and pebbles. There was absolutely nothing stopping the rocks from falling on the road. Bulldozers and jack hammer-wielding crews with handkerchiefs covering their faces worked laboriously along the entire stretch, clearing rocks, breaking rocks, and tumbling rocks down onto the road. Every now and again, a boulder the size of a car or small house, sat on the road. You tried not to think about it. It was clear that this road should not exist and would not last long, but the Indian government would not stop. This border was disputed, and, being the source of fresh water and hydroelectric energy, India was not going to give up its position in the area. So the battle raged on – man verses erosion.
We finally started to climb and the asphalt reappeared, beckoning. Long switchbacks brought us higher up to around 9,000 feet, where a long traverse began. The road bent around a solid cliff offering a drop off nearly 2,000 feet down. Ironically, this was the best paved section of the day, and it was quite delightful to ride, and I even relaxed a little. Any time I wanted a jolt of adrenaline, all I had to do was look down. There is nothing like rounding a sharp turn, a cliff straight up, a cliff straight down, and you there, honking, hoping Mr. Tata is not lurking around the bend. The road was only one and a half car widths, and the Tata took all of that and then some.
At one point in the day, we passed a few semi-permanent shelters underneath a rock hang, right on the road. There were people living there. Just down from that, the raw, acrid smell of urine wafted through. Down below, you could see people next to the river, sifting gravel. It was hard to believe this existence and what some people in this world call a life. It dawned on me that a road in the Himalayas is much more than just a road for vehicles. It actually acts as a terrestrial river of life. It was a means to provide not only transportation, but food, water, and building materials. It supplied jobs and an area to move livestock. It acted as a meeting place, a place to rest and even a place to live. It was the very reason all of the towns along the valley could arrive at their present state of development. It was the reason there was an electronics salesman in Reckong Peo or an apple orchard in Kalpa. It also offered the country as a whole the ability to protect and maintain its borders and to provide energy to its people. The road was EVERYTHING. It was the mother provider. To India, to keep it open and functioning was not only a question of convenience, it was a question of survival.
We climbed to nearly 12,000 feet. The slopes were tan and desert-like. The lush greenery of our other destinations were behind us and now we were entering an arid alpine environment. We pulled into the town of Nako and rode through the town. It was not like a town, but rather a timeless collection of shepherd rock huts and we were on a herder’s path through it. We parked our bikes next to a small gated building and walked up the slope. There we found – to our surprise and delight – a collection of very modern safari-style walk-in tents, with rock pathways through a garden of flowers and sunflowers connecting them. There was a main lodge, a fire pit and a gathering area underneath a parasol. Wicker lounge chairs, footrests and tables invited you to come sit and relax for a while. The rock buildings of Nako were below us, bordering a small lake. Prayer flags dominated the roofline. The view out across the valley was dominated by tall, arid mountains. Not a glacier was in sight, but we are getting close to the elevation where they reside. We had somehow left India and now were in the past, on the Tibetan plateau. The dominant religion is Buddhism.
Each tent was clean and offered a flush toilet and bucket bathing area in the back. This was not roughing it by any means and the group delightfully got settled into their tents and wandered out, underneath the parachute. Tea, beer, water, french fries and fried Indian delights were served. We talked and laughed in the warm sunlight for almost two hours. As soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted and everyone layered up and continued the banter, recounting the day’s events. Hot buckets of water were dispersed to each tent for washing. Dinner was served soon after, a buffet of Indian Dal, bread, rice, mixed vegetables, and chicken. Afterwards a fire was lit at the pit and most of the group collected down there for one last round or storytelling. Soon the voices drifted to silence and silence drifted to bed. We had come only 70 miles again, but no one would forget this day for the rest of their lives.
August 28th, Nako to Kaza
We awoke to clouds racing above the mountain tops, rippling prayer flags, bellows of burros and cows and a single drum, somewhere off in the nearby village rhythmically sounding, and a man chanting as it drifted throughout the scene. Good morning, Nako. The sun, with its brilliant rays, showed up for work and the temperature immediately went up. Chad (arguably the best roommate in the world) and I walked up to a point where a prayer wheel was spinning, propelled by the force of the wind. There was a small bell hanging and as the prayer wheel did one revolution, a small stem of rebar from the wheel would hit the leader of the bell. Ring, ring, ring Its rhythm was slow and it lent to this most precious Himalayan scene. We looked down on the town from this higher point, and I stood there, taking in the lake, the rock houses, prayer flags, livestock roaming the gardens and alleys. I looked over to see our camp, embedded in this uniquely pastoral scene. We were right in the middle of this Himalaya life, observers and explorers.
We ate a breakfast of egg omelets, coffee, Indian Tea, toast, butter, jam, honey, thin pancake, porridge, granola and milk. We talked about our last day and what would come today. Some of us were affected by the altitude and had slight headaches and one had been hit by the food. But all in all, spirits were high and all were ready to explore some more.
Nako was arid and farming was tough at this altitude, since most of the ground was just bare rock. To make things grow, the farmers collected cow dung to produce a growable base. There was a trickle of a stream that provided life for this village. It was collected in a small lake in the center of the village. We watched farmers carrying large bushels of what looked to be alfalfa. They set them in piles next to their houses and laid it out on their flat roofs. We figured they acted not only as a source of food for the cows, but also as insulation. Gardens of potatoes and cabbage grew on the tiered steps all around. Life was going on as it always had, all around us. And we, the motorcycle travelers, from a land so distinct and different then here, observing, learning. What everyday toil these people went through. And us, living in a bubble of modernity. It was humbling to see.
Bikes started. We traversed the mountain slope ever upriver. We passed by precipitous cliffs, avalanche chutes, and workers, breaking rocks, filling in potholes, and sweeping the road. I asked Anu why they did not just do this work with modern equipment, and he said that the government plans to provide jobs, so they have them do it the old-fashioned way. At one point I looked down to the river, and could see the road that used to be the old road. It has long since been closed and was completely covered by landslides. It would never be used again.
We dropped to the river after a series of cutbacks. Here and there along the river you could see that a farm had been set up, with verdant gardens and trees in all their glory, growing proudly to the backdrop of arid moonscape. The river continued to churn brown and boiled its way downhill. The road never let up even though erosion was trying its best to eradicate it.
We stopped at the second Inner Line checkpoint. Our journey along the Tibetan border was coming to a close and we were officially out of the sensitive zone. There was a road that stretched to the east, and if we were to take it, we would be in Tibet. We were now entering a place I liked to call erosion valley. Between the river and a high, steep-slanted slope of small rocks, the road held its course. This scree field was enormous, and met the road at almost a 45-degree angle climbed at least a thousand feet in sections. There was nothing to stop rocks from cascading down on to the road for miles at a time. Toronto Bill smirked, “You don’t get erosion like this just anywhere.” He had taken a small stone in the helmet.
Tim remarked that this was the “shooting gallery”. It was almost laughable that this road was maintained and open to the public. It was just a random alleyway of falling rocks. We just kept on through it, aware that this was dangerous, but somewhere, deep in all of us, we were having the time of our lives.
The river turned a whitish glacial color as we climbed. We stopped in the small town of Tabo, where we took a small timeout, ate lunch, checked out a temple and shopped. We ate family-style underneath a parasol in the courtyard of a guest house. Lunch comprised of Chinese dumplings, rice mixed with onions and cucumbers, chow mein, and cubes of fresh-cubed cucumbers and tomatoes.
Our last push to Kaza was highlighted by striking mountain views of broad river planes, tall, snow-capped mountains and a dodgy road that strung it all together. At times we would go through old patches of paved road that had been broken up by the large trucks. These were the worst sections of road as you would hit potholes 6 inches deep, and every now and then a large collision between the edge of the asphalt and somewhere underneath your bike would jar you.
We were over 12,000 feet as we reached Kaza. You could feel the altitude.
The hotel in Kaza, along with the rest of the town, was at the mercy of intermittent electricity. It would turn on and off like the weather. No one knew when and for how long. Each room had a tank of heated water waiting, but that was it, until the lights went back on. We sat on the balcony, sipping tea and beer, recounting the day.
Dinner was exceptional – a mix of pasta, rice, chicken, vegetables, curries, and roti (Indian bread). Even though we had only come 65 miles today, the combination of altitude, road conditions and consecutive days on the road were starting to take their toll and, as dinner was over, there was a perceptible silence among the group. We were tired, drained. Our next day was to be challenging riding topped with rustic camping with rustic tents, sleeping bags and no showers. We would be remote – the most remote we have been so far – in the Himalaya. The road was to turn challenging too, with stream crossings and boulders.
August 29th, Kaza to Chattru Camp
Looking around the breakfast table it was apparent that the altitude was starting to creep in and affect some of the riders. Of the four riders who showed up late, and did not do the Rohtang Pass ride, 3 of them had mild to moderate altitude symptoms: headache, cold symptoms, lack of sleep. Those that had gone up to 13,000 feet and back down again on our shakedown ride of Rohtang did not. Once they got up and started moving around, the symptoms seemed to ease. During the night, Anu’s boys had gassed and tuned all of the Enfields, and they sat ready for the journey, parked in front of the hotel.
This would be another “short day” and we had to make 120 kilometers through rugged country and would top Kunzum Pass at nearly 15,000 feet. The road out of town was a mixture of broken asphalt and gravel. The valley broadened out and the Spiti turned a vibrant aqua blue, which made it jump out in each scene. The sun splashed against the arid mountain slopes and high rock cliffs, reminding me of the American Southwest.
Across the valley, you could see the ancient Kiber Monastery – a collection of old rock houses huddled on a rock promontory. It had been there for thousands of years. We were basically in Tibet, and each town showcased the typical architecture. Houses were two stories, painted white with stacks of firewood on the roofs. Prayer flags were everywhere – on the houses, along the bridges, and on the slopes of the valley. The valley was farmed when the land allowed, with large groups of farmers out in the fields working. The way of life here had not changed for centuries.
The road stayed to the middle of the valley for the most part, but at times had to negotiate along steep cliffs in order to get around a small ravine or across a river. We were climbing and the effects of the altitude on the body were apparent. There was a certain element of fuzziness that seemed to creep into your head and stay there.
We stopped in the small town of Lossar, and checked in with the officer there, before climbing the pass. After the town, the road went bad, and the asphalt disappeared completely. It would be just rocks, potholes and gravel for the rest of the day. We stopped for a short while on a grassy knoll, which overlooked a broad river valley. The gravel plain stretched out for miles and you could see where the Spiti river got its start. All the drainages, with their small creeks, came together to form this mighty river. The sun warmed us as we enjoyed a pastry, cheese and drink. We lounged around on the short grass, taking it all in.
The climb started right after the break, and did not stop for two thousand feet. At the top of the pass, there was a small shrine with hundreds of prayer flags, sailing in the wind. George’s front tire had gone flat, so as Anu’s crew fixed it, we took in the scene. Ahead of us were tall, daunting mountains, dusted with snow and capped with glaciers. Shepherds guided their goats by, and each one took a turn ringing a ceremonial bell at the shrine as they passed. You could see, high up on the pass, a ravine and a trickle of water. This would be the very head-waters of the Spiti, our travel companion for the last week. We would be leaving this drainage and heading towards our camp at Chattru.
We descended the gravel switchbacks to the basin of the valley. Another glacial river was there to greet us and escort us down the valley. Grass and greenery was at a minimum. It looked like the volcanic landscape of Iceland with its rushing glacial rivers, valleys of rocks and steep mountainsides.
Rain started as a trickle then came down in earnest. The road was bumpy and at times water ran down the tire tracks. Large boulders needed to be avoided as you rattled your way along. This was not easy riding, and the fact that it was raining did not help the conditions. Some of the climbs were steep and bumpy, with water coming down them. Speed was your friend, and you needed to keep on the throttle as you jostled your way through. At this altitude, with these road and weather conditions, this ride was a true challenge. You needed to use all of your off-road skills to maneuver through. It had reached late in the day as we came over a rise and could see our camp down below. There was just one patch of grass, and there awaited a vehicle, and a cluster of tents.
Anu’s friend had driven in from Manali to set up this remote camp for us. Each person was ushered to their own tent. Inside, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag were at your service. The skies had cleared and as we all got out of our wet gear we came over to a small table with chairs all around and had some hot tea. All around us were tall peaks and it was simply amazing. Cold beer lay in the little creek nearby, cooling. Hot tea and appetizers were being served. We had not seen a building for hours, and there were no habitable dwellings in sight. We had our own little oasis of rustic comfort. This was like some adventure movie, us being the stars.
The ride in was tough, with some riders admitting that it had pushed them to their limit. Ohio Bill even had his headlight kicked out by a horse! And then there we were, sitting around the low table on camp chairs, sharing stories and laughing at the memories we had just made. This was living!
As the sun set, the cups were cleared and the main dishes were set out. We enjoyed paneer, chicken, dal, roti, rice and fresh cut cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots. The sliver of the moon disappeared and the stars brightly danced in the sky. After dinner, a bonfire was lit and we all stood around it, enjoying its warmth and just taking in the moment. We were in the middle of the Himalayas and it was wonderful!
August 30th, Chattru Camp to Keylong
There are two main factors, I see, when considering a motorcycle tour. The first is the destination. The second is the group you are with. You can go to the a place you have dreamed of, but it can be ruined by the people you are with. Our group in India came from all over the world. There were two Canadians, three New Zealanders, one Englishman and rest Americans. They came from a variety of backgrounds from financial advisors to aluminum manufacturers to lawyers and entrepreneurs. They rode at home, some of them strictly on the dirt, some of them on the street. Some of them had ridden with other tour companies but most had ridden around the world with us. They all loved adventure, and chose India because they were told that they would experience things here that they would not anywhere else in the world, on and off the motorcycle. They also chose this trip because it was demanding, rigorous, and would test you. After riding the Spiti Valley, they could say for the rest of their lives, that they had ridden the sketchiest road in the world.
One thing I can say about this group is that they did not complain and when faced with adversity, they laughed and got on with it. Some of them had ridden together in other places and some of them did not know anyone else on the trip. When we get off the bikes, you could see the camaraderie forming. Some of them would be friends for the rest of their lives.
We awoke at Chattru Camp to the sights and sounds of the pastoral life in the Himalayas. Tall, prominent mountains surrounded us, reaching to the sky. A waterfall silently cascaded down the slope from high above. Glaciers peeked at you from around corners. Shepherds huddled around smoky camp fires. Large trucks lumbered by every now and again, on their way up or down the valley. Flocks of sheep, goats and horses strolled right by camp, escorted by proud shepherds. The rushing sound of water, the Chandra River, on its way to Pakistan, resounded through the steep valley. The sky opened up and rays of sun filtered to the valley floor making the temperature soar.
We ate a modest breakfast of Indian tea, omelet and toast. We had a couple of hours before departure, so the group spent their time drying their clothes in the sun, brushing teeth, taking pictures of Shepherds, and visiting with each other. Anu’s crew had a chance to go over the bikes and make sure each one was running in top shape. They were then aligned perfectly, waiting for the day’s journey. It had gotten cold the night before, but almost everyone was comfortable, with some riders commenting that this was the best sleep of the trip. We were at 12,000 feet again and there was still that slight fuzziness that stays with you at altitude.
We laid out a map and Anu went over our route for the day. Our goal was the farming town of Keylong, on the road to Leh. We would be leaving the remote region, and heading up the main road to Ladakh. Engines started, gear on, we waited for Anu’s signal, and he started down the road. We all followed, by ones and twos. The road was rough and you had to concentrate on your line. Bumpy, rocky, and full of puddles, this was not easy, but manageable. The Royal Enfield was up for the task. It was light enough that you could throw it back and forth to avoid obstacles. It had enough power to get you through almost any situation. It was our little Himalayan tractor. It did not have enough power to spin out, or to get you going too fast. Each blind corner you came to, you had to slow down and get way over to the side, because you never knew when Mr. Tata would be there. It was always best to give a sharp honk before going into one of these blind curves. It’s funny how a horn is your friend here, but it will start fights in the USA.
The valley was so precipitous, it warranted a photograph almost each mile. Waterfalls cascaded down in their mute glory, horses grazed at the side of road and sometimes walked down the middle of it, and the river was a ribbon that unraveled through it all. Tall cliffs surround us the entire way, so high, so silent. The valley turned ever greener and broader. More and more houses, farms and people populated the valley as we went. A waterfall crashed to the road and then spilled down it. We all took turns riding throughout the water and with it for 200 yards before it spilled off the road. It was like the running of the bulls.
More and more trucks and cars appeared on the road. We were returning to civilization again, always a sad reality. We stopped at another police checkpoint to check-in. After we passed through, we came to a bridge that was literally sheets of iron laying unattached over iron beams. Upon crossing the bridge, the first two feet were not covered at all, and you have to put your front tire on top of the narrow “I” beams to get on the bridge! As you crossed, the eery shuffling of loose metal sheets underneath you thundered. There were sections with no sheets, and you had to either go around, or choose an “I” beam to cross, if only for a couple of feet. Hold on!
Around the corner, a traffic jam. A bridge was out, and the smaller cars were waiting since yesterday for it to be fixed. In the interim, a detour down and across the creek was created. And there we were, crossing a two-foot deep creek, one by one, trying to keep up pace and not hit the large boulders underneath. This was India in a nutshell: expect the unexpected and bring your “A game” as a rider.
As soon as we crossed, the road turned to smooth, two-laned pavement, and as I was working up to fourth gear and cruising easily along, it dawned on me how unusual this sensation felt. It had been almost a week since I was able to just cruise! As with most things here, this apparition came to a sudden end as we came to a cliff area where the road had given out, and now a dusty, bumpy section just one car wide appeared, with a bus coming the other way. Ah India, keep me on my toes!
The road was good and bad for the rest of the day with some sections being marvelous pavement, and some being a disastrous rock and dust field. But the mountains did not give up their grandeur, and I had to stop from time to time to look up narrow side valleys or to take in hanging glaciers with world-class waterfalls. These sights were as beautiful as I had ever seen in my life. These mountains were new, steep and impenetrable.
We pulled into Keylong mid-afternoon, after only going 80 kilometers. It was good to get in early and we walked the streets and relaxed. We were now at 10,000 feet and it was relieving to have a little more oxygen and a little time to reflect on our last few days’ riding. We had been on the move, and even though our group joke was “this is just a short day”, as we were only covering an average of 60 miles a day, we were exhausted. The road, the Spiti Valley, is like nothing else in the world, and challenges you to the fullest. Its vistas are simply incredible, but the random rocks cascading down, stream crossings, tall cliffs and overhangs that never stopped for days took their toll. We had passed the world’s most treacherous road, and we’re here to tell about it!
We pulled into Keylong, home to green bean and potato farming, perched on a slope overlooking the Tandi River. It is a town that is accessible only eight months of the year. The rest of the time they are snowed in and the only way in and out is by helicopter. There is only one main market street, the rest farms. We pulled into our hotel and were glad to have a hot shower again. We met for drinks and ate dinner late that evening. The group was really getting along well, and laughter sprinkled up and down the table. There was always something to talk about. If it got quiet, someone could mention a water crossing or cow.
August 31st, Keylong to Sarchu
We woke to a warm and sunny morning with tall, glacier-capped mountains smiling down on us. I suppose I was in a good mood, having slept well at 10,000 feet. Boy, what a difference 2,000 feet makes!
We clutched out at 10am and started up the Paga River Valley. The road was paved and in really good condition, except, of course, when it was not. I’m sure by now you can understand that sentiment. We traversed along steep cliffs with a green-blue river far below, and tall, sharp, snow-capped peaks across the valley. The sun warmed us quite well and we clipped along at a good pace.
We started to climb up the Baralacha La Pass and the greenery gave way to tans and browns. We came to a stop at a road construction area: two trucks were facing off and there was no room to pass. Traffic was backing up on each side, especially our side. Both drivers refused to budge. Anu, ever the diplomat, ran to the front and talked to the oncoming driver. He said that he should be ashamed of himself, that there were all these foreigners and this was embarrassing for the country of India. At that, the uphill driver backed up and gave us room to pass.
We topped out at 16,300 feet and took in the sights and deep breaths. Down the other side and we came to a small collection of Dhabas – restaurants/sleeping houses and we had lunch. We sat on large mattresses underneath a blue tarp with narrow tables facing the center. The blue light gave the whole scene a psychedelic quality. We ate roti, beans, mixed vegetables, ramen and drank tea. It was warm and cozy inside. Some of us just laid down after the meal and slept.
The altitude was very palpable, and even the slightest walk would leave you winded. We continued down the valley, which seemed to be very arid, and almost no grass grew. Not long after, we pulled into our tent camp and got settled. It had been a short day, but this was needed as there were not only no places to stay between here and Leh, but we had to rest, since the next day would be a long one.
Once settled in, we drank tea and beer and looked over some photos and head-cam footage from the trip. Dinner was then served and the cold wind at this high camp (14,500 ft) drove us all inside. After dinner, despite the cold, we enjoyed a fire outside under the stars. The wind died down and we all drifted to bed.
September 1st, Sarchu to Leh
A night at 14,000 feet is no easy task but most of the group managed to get a restful sleep. We had a long day ahead of us so we had breakfast at 6 am and clutched out at 7 am. The air was still cool on this high grassy valley and the pavement was broken. When there was pavement, it was so riddled with patches that it was bumpier than as if it were just plain gravel. We followed a clear stream down the valley for about a half an hour. We passed through the “town” of Sarchu, a cluster of corrugated metal and rock huts. It was just a truck stop and offered the casual visitor the opportunity to just keep going. The rivers at this altitude were clear or at least had a bluish tinge to them. It was refreshing to see something so clean in a country that did so well at being dirty.
Not far after, the road commenced a series of switchbacks and climbed over three thousand feet before it continued on. We had to pass truck after truck, belching black, acrid diesel fumes and kicking up dust. The drivers of the trucks were very cordial, and when you were behind one, all you had to do was toot the horn, and they would, at the next opportunity, pull over and give you the right flashing turn signal. Most times, you could see a hand protrude from the cab of the truck, signaling you to come on. Each time I passed one, I always gave a wave, and, if the opportunity presented itself, I would look back to see the face of the driver. Usually, I would get a genuine smile. If India excels at anything, it would be classic faces and open smiles. Turbans, beards, and weathered features, the faces were striking. No matter who you saw along the road and what they were doing – tending sheep, digging ditches or just walking – you could almost always get a smile. If you initiated a wave, invariably a wave came back at you.
We crested the first of three passes that day at 16,000 feet and meandered down the other side to a shallow oasis of rock and dust. The surrounding mountains were completely arid with nothing green to be seen as far as the eye could see. We stopped for a little while, sipping tea and catching up on our adventure with each other. Kevin showed a blue mark on his helmet where a bus he was passing had hit a rock, leaned, and the side of the bus donked him. Truck drivers worked on their trucks, bus drivers unloaded cargo and a few independent motorcyclists went by. Anu told me that during June, it was common to see up to 300 motorcycles in one day on this road. Indeed, this was a bucket list ride for many Indians and international motorcycle travelers.
We climbed out of the depression and to our second pass of the day, Lachlung, at 16,600 feet. This was the third-highest motorable pass in the world, and we were now headed to the second highest. On the way down, it seemed like we had entered the American Southwest again. Tall, pointed sedimentary rock spires freckled the narrow valley. Sandy-hued mountains of all colors, lights and dark complemented our dusty ride down. A clear trickle of a stream traveled with us. We bottomed out at a dusty little outpost and took a timeout to relax out of the sun and sip some noodles. The hostess was very friendly and joked with us as we munched on potato chips, slurped noodles and drank tea. If you needed to go to the toilet, you just walked out back. But be aware, this was not a pleasant experience, and when you looked down the embankment to the stream below, you saw a large pile of trash there. Sad, but somehow India does not care at all where the trash goes, and you will find piles of it indiscriminately scattered virtually everywhere. I wonder at what point they will decide to try a new trash system.
After lunch, we climbed again, but this time it was different, as we did not stop and the road turned from dirt to nice pavement, but continued to go up and up. We were climbing Thanglang Pass – the world’s second-highest – and as we finally crested the top, my GPS read 17,500 feet! At the top, there was a small roundabout, and as Himalayan tradition dictated, we rounded it, clockwise. I was surprised that the altitude was not that oppressive, though, when you got off your bike, you could really feel it. At this altitude, no one lived and so, a dormant shrine and prayer flags was all there was to adorn this inhospitable and remote place.
Only after a few minutes of taking it all in, the group dashed for the the road down – a race for lower altitude. The road was, for the most part, in very good shape. Fresh pavement with ample width for several trucks allowed us to relax as we descended down a series of broad switchbacks. We were now only 80 miles from our goal and making good time. After a tea stop, we decided to just push on, forgoing any formal lunch.
At this point, the geology turned to stunning. Layers of hard and soft rock had turned horizontal over time, giving the landscape the appearance of parallel walls, striping the entire landscape. The walls were up to 10 stories high, and between them, the softer rock had eroded to gravel, forming alley-ways that crossed the entire valley. I had never seen anything quite like this before, the rock being of a red and sandy color and the “walls” being continuous in nature and crossing the valley, no matter how steep the mountain was. These “walls” formed points at the top of a ridge ahead of me, looking like spikes on the back of a dragon. A clear stream meandered throughout this scene, and where there was broad space, there were verdant farms, complete with aimlessly grazing cows and white-washed Tibetan homes adorned with prayer flags. I had to stop several times just to take it all in.
The road popped out of this narrow valley and the stream joined the Indus River, on its journey to Pakistan. The Indus valley was much more broad in nature, but the arid quality of the landscape never wavered. Only along the river were there plants, farms and trees. The rest was pure desert. On the outskirts of Leh, we traveled through a section of military compounds that stretched for miles. This is a sensitive area, with China and Pakistan being right on the border. India’s military muscle was vividly apparent. And, as we arrived at our hotel, we did not have cell service. This is also an indicator of India’s will to keep information from freely flowing, so that no undermining of the government can happen. We talked about this as a group, and it’s apparent that this area is precious to several countries at once, and India means to keep it.
September 2nd, Leh [Free Day]
The head wobble in India is an ambiguous way of saying “yes”, “no” and “maybe.” It’s also a recognition of information and a salutation. It also can be used to flirt or say “hello” in traffic. Indeed, you can almost use it for anything. The wobble is subtle and does not waste time. It also is a great way to get out of accountability. This light sway of the head can let you know that you have been understood, that there is not a problem and that all is ok. The reality, however, may be the opposite.
Our rest day in Leh could not have come at a better time. Bikes needed to be maintained, people needed to rest and permits needed to be submitted. Each rider needed to have a permit in order to go over Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass. At over 18,300 feet, Kardung stands alone as a bucket list pass to cross for the motorcycle adventurer. We were all here in India for that, and though the Spiti was the most epic road that anyone had ever ridden, Kardung would be the cherry on the sundae.
The only commitment during the entire day was to reunite at 7 pm for dinner at the hotel. The options for the day were: relax, internet, go shopping, or visit a monastery. For those interested, Anu proposed that we meet in the hotel lobby at noon, and we would go to a monastery called Thiksay, have lunch and could then there was a possibility of shopping at the downtown market. Some of the group elected to just relax, some hired their own taxi to go about and the majority I met in the lobby.
Anu had arranged a mini-bus to take us there, and so, we loaded up, and took to the streets of Leh. After so many days of being in the boonies, with little or no traffic, it was exhilarating to be a passenger in a crowded city. Honking, cutting in, swerving and passing, we made our way out of town to the monastery. As we climbed our way to the main gate, all you could do was be in awe of the collection of white-washed buildings and prayer flags that clung to this outcrop of rock, overlooking the Indus Valley.
We climbed up the steps, catching our breath as we went (11,000 feet took its toll on these flatlanders), and finally made it to the top of the monastery. The view down was simply extraordinary. The monastery had been here for thousands of years. From the top, you could see the valley below, with the nurturing Indus River as an anchor. This harsh, dry landscape, with a ribbon of green, lush vegetation – a stripe of life through the valley- was a sight to see. The Indus has and would continue to be the source of life for all those who lived along its banks. The stark contrast of green on tan jumped out at you, and reminded you how precious water was. From one end of the valley to the other, you could see snow-capped peaks, verdant farm plots, livestock, sand and rocks. The further away from the river, the more harsh and unforgiving the landscape. Life simply stopped after a point away from the river.
The very top of the monastery had a building harboring the library. It struck me, symbolically, how high knowledge was regarded. It was one thing that was held above all.
After lunch, we got on board our mini-bus and I decided to count how many times the driver used the horn and why. I thought by watching a local, I might pick up a few tricks. At first, it made sense. We passed a man on a bicycle, HONK. Then, we passed a large Tata, rounding a corner, NO HONK. Then, a car was passing a bus, coming towards us, HONK. Then, there was a straight-away, and nothing at all on the roadway, HONK. Hmmm… After 10 minutes of driving, I had counted 45 honks. About half of which made sense, with the rest being a complete mystery. The driver drove on, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the horn. I had learned absolutely nothing and had more questions than I had before. This was India in a nutshell.
We were dropped off in the middle of the commercial district in Leh, and the group scattered to the four winds, to meet later at the hotel. Drifty and I decided to go on a mission: T-shirts and Stickers. We found our T-shirt guy right away. We wanted one that had “Khardung La, Highest Motorable Pass in the World” and found a small embroidery shop with what we sought.
Next, we went hunting for stickers, but came up empty. What we did find was a bustling downtown area filled with tourists, students, merchants and locals. They were tearing up the main street, putting in a sewer. This was good news, because there was no traffic to dodge. It also made for a leisurely stroll where we could take in the people, the shops and the construction. Dogs lay everywhere, balled up and sleeping. A lone cow strolled down the street. Anywhere else, this would be out of place.
After some time, we decided to catch a taxi back to the hotel. We met for dinner at the arranged time, and everyone had a story to tell. Rain had started outside, and Anu warned that Khardung may be closed tomorrow due to snow. We would have to wait and see.
Though it was a relaxing day, we all drifted to bed early to get some needed rest. It had been a good free day, one well spent, and we would be ready to continue the adventure tomorrow.
September 3rd, Leh to Nubra
Cows walk aimlessly everywhere. There is almost no scene in India complete without a cow, leisurely strolling or laying along the road, or absent-mindedly chewing on a piece of cardboard. They are absolutely fearless when it comes to crossing busy streets and react passively to honking. They tend to congregate on bridges and can be found wandering anywhere in the countryside or city. It is considered sacrilegious to kill a cow, so cars, buses and trucks do everything in their power to avoid collision with them. An entire intersection in New Delhi will avoid a cow crossing katy corner through it. The “diplomatic immunity” in which the cow enjoys in India is comical and hard for us westerners to believe. We see them as food, the Indians see them as life. You could dress up in a cow suit, put on a blindfold, and waltz, care-free, down the center of any avenue.
We awoke to good news and bad news. The good news was that the pass was not snowed in. The bad news was there was an immense landslide, and it was uncertain when we would be able to cross Khardung Pass.
We waited for an hour and were given the green light: the landslide would be cleared at 11 am. We packed our bags, donned our riding gear and headed out of Leh. We started at 11,000 feet, and quickly gained altitude right out of town. The road wound up and up and up: 13,000, 14,000, 15,000 feet….and the snow line appeared at 16,000 feet. The road clung to the mountain and went up at a level diagonal across the slope. A line of cars appeared before us that seemed to be kilometers long. It’s lovely to be on a motorcycle, as we just went up the side of the road, passing all of them. We had to stop briefly for a security check, and then we were back to climbing.
Yaks walked along the mountain slopes and snow lay on the ground. The road was clear, however, and we continued our climb. We came to the first landslide, and a bucket loader was there, moving rocks off the road. There was only one lane open, a short rocky muddy section, with the usual Indian traffic antics: honking, jockeying for position, dangerous passing. All the while, mini-landslides were trickling down the slope from high above, onto the road. Along the edge of the road, no guardrail allowed you to look down the steep, steep slope to infinity. The snow was melting, and the rocks and debris were starting to slide. Wonderful.
We got through the first bottleneck and rounded the corner and came to another. A dump truck and some cars were trying to get out of the way of each other and the dump truck got into some large rocks, and could not go further. The driver was busy clearing the rocks from the tires, and we sat patiently, on the edge of a very steep slope, while more mini-landslides cascaded down. Snow about 4 inches deep lined the roads. Cars and trucks were stacking up behind the dump truck. I could not see how all this would clear out, and there was no easy way of us getting by. I could see the rest of our group, high above, riding out of sight. We were the ones left behind. With all impossible traffic situations here, somehow this too slowly cleared and we were able to continue up the road. My heart was pounding. I thought that this would be an easy day, for some reason.
Again we climbed, passing a bulldozer, its blade just feet from our heads, edging its way down to the last landslide. At 17,600 feet, we rounded a corner and there was an enormous junkshow of vehicles, pedestrians, military officers, tourists and honking. This was the top of the pass. We had made it. The sign that indicates the top was choked with picture takers, each taking their turn in front of the iconic sign, that read “Highest Motorable Pass.” The sign stated that we were at 18,380 feet. My GPS read 17,660 feet. Who could you trust? The most important was that I could now wear the shirt I had bought in Leh, saying I had been here!
Only after a few minutes of picture-taking and people watching, we took off, headed down the other side, towards our destination of the Nubra Valley. Through the melee of snow, picture takers, tea drinkers, honking horns, and stopped traffic we rode. We weaved our way through the snow and rocks and finally popped out at the other side to open road. The highest motorable pass was actually the highest motorable junkshow. Anu admitted later that the pass is never that crazy – that the landslide had created a bull rush. You could feel the altitude in your head and as we descended, it seemed your mood suddenly improved. The road went from bumpy gravel to pavement. If I could have had a dime for every rock bigger than a basketball on the road, I would have a hundred dollars.
We stopped briefly for a simple lunch of noodles and soup and handed in our papers once again to clear the security gate. Kevin and Keleigh had been hit by an open door from a vehicle they were passing, and were flung into the rocks. Keleigh was OK, but Kevin’s knee was throbbing, and growing. We laid him on the floor, and got some ice on his knee. They had no time to get out of the way of the opening door. This adventure was turning out to be more than we all expected.
We went down, down, down, and out of the snow line and enjoyed nice pavement for a while. I came around the corner and Bill from Ohio was on the ground. A taxi had run him right off the road. He said that he had no choice. They tell you in motorcycle safety courses in the USA to maintain your lane. But in India, the motorcyclist is expendable, and you are but a deer on the road. You must do anything and everything you can to stay out of the way of the traffic. When you see trucks coming, you need to plan on finding a safe haven to duck into so that the oncoming traffic can pass. They will not budge for you sometimes, and you need to have an out. Each blind corner that you come to, you need to hug the outside of the road and be prepared to see “TATA” in your face. Oh, and remember to honk! Bill was upset, and reasonably so. And as he sped off, I said to Anu’s team, “This would not happen in the USA.” They smiled and one said, “India is different.”
We followed a river through arid countryside to where it collided with a much larger river, the Nubra. The sweeping view of the valley, its dry slopes, brown, arid cliffs and its vast plains of gravel along the river gave it a “no man’s land” appeal. Here and there, however, were little oases of lush farms, hugging small ravines, where the water seeped out of the mountains. The sharp contrast of green on tan, again, was amazing. The air had warmed and dried, and we were now almost down to 11,000 feet. You could feel the difference in your head.
We dropped down to the valley floor and leveled out to 10,000 feet. Almost suddenly I was overcome with great thoughts, good feeling and joking to myself. I realized what a change of altitude can do to your attitude. I asked others in the group, and indeed they felt the same way. We went along the gravel plain of the valley floor and the panorama was of sharply rising mountains everywhere. We passed through small towns, veritable oases in this land of dryness. We arrived at our destination of Hundar, a tent camp, where we parked, and got settled in. We were just at 10,000 feet, our lowest elevation since Shoja. It had been almost two weeks that we had been sleeping at 10,000 feet or higher, and the sensation of lower altitude was perceptible and readily enjoyed.
We would be at this camp for two nights, the reasoning was for us to enjoy the valley and also to avoid any dangers with altitude sickness, as we were to cross Khardung Pass once again. Two days in a row, riding over this high pass would be hard on our bodies, and we could use any sort of safety measure we could control.
The group checked in, and then gathered at our tent (with the expressed permission of my cordial and professional roommate, Chad) and as the rain started, we huddled under the awning of the tent, sharing beers and stories. John came over with some beef jerky, we snickered as we snacked on this western delight. A call to Islamic prayer rang out at sunset throughout the valley. We were in a place where Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism sloshed together. We were high up in the crossroads of the world.
We gathered for dinner in the main hut, designed with alcoves which could seat several different groups. The dinner was served buffet style, and we enjoyed Roti, Papadum (a crispy style bread), mushroom and pea curry, soup, hard-boiled egg curry, and mixed vegetables. It was 8:30 pm and too early to turn in, but everyone was tired. We decided to watch the footage I had been shooting throughout the trip. The scenes seemed from so long ago, but had only happened over a week ago. We watched and laughed for about an hour, and decided to watch the rest another evening. It had been a huge day, even though we had only covered 125 kilometers! We would have a rest day tomorrow, with camel riding and monastery-visiting on the agenda. To our tents we went.
September 4th, Nubra [Free Day]
We slept to the sound of steady rain on our tent the entire night. At 4:30 am, the call of Islam resounded and it got a pack of dogs howling. As a whole, the group had gotten a good rest, perhaps the best rest of the entire trip. Who would have thought that coming down to 10,000 feet would make us feel so good? The rain simply would not let up and most of the group was not excited in the least to go out and ride. Our itinerary for the day was to ride to the small town of Panamik, and then a camel ride. There was also a chance to check out a monastery. But the rain made most of the group want to pass on most of the activities. Only the Kiwis and Tim wanted to brave the rain and explore the road to Panamik. This road was back down the valley, up another, and ended in Pakistan. We were only 50 kilometers from the border.
The rest of the group opted to check the sky at noon, and if the rain did not let up, pile in the mini-bus and go to the nearest town to check it out. I stood there in the rain while the riding group jumped on their bikes and rode out of camp, under a canopy of constant drizzle. At noon, I caught a funny feeling, and although it was still raining, I decided to go riding, too. Chad decided to come along. Better to go out there and have a ride than to hear from the Kiwis that it was a great ride!
We all left at the same time, the bus to the next town and us to the border of Pakistan. The rain was light, but constant. There were many new rocks on the roadway as we made our way up valley. The temperature was not too cool and there were many mud puddles on the road. Looking out over the valley, you could see sand dunes and shrouded mountains. We were in the land of the silk road and the dunes evoked that far away.
We came to a “T” intersection and went left, heading northwest. I never thought I would be heading to Pakistan, but there we were. We passed small farm towns, passed wide-open rock fields and skirted low cliffs. The road was paved and we passed through towns that advertised hotels and restaurants, but none of them were open. We were off the tourist track. Traffic was non-existent and donkeys were everywhere. Each town centered around a water source, and farms stretched out into the wide flood plain of the main river. The green abruptly stopped and turned to rocks at a certain point. Oasis after oasis in this valley, that was the theme. The rain let up for a bit, but then started again. We traveled 40 kilometers into the valley, passed the town of Panamik and came to a police checkpoint. A sign stated that “Inner Line Permits were no good here.” We looked over to see an officer emerging from the guard house. Our conversation, totally in pantomime, went like this: He motioned we had to fill out papers to go further, we motioned that we were going to turn around (we had no papers) and were going back to Panamik to get something to eat, he motioned “OK” and with a slight head wobble, we were off.
There were no restaurants to speak of in Panamik, so we settled for a small store, which sold us some guava drink and tomato-flavored Cheetos-type chips. We stood in the rain, draining our juice boxes and our chip bags, fishing around the bag for the “free gift inside” that was promoted on the package. I mooed to a cow walking by. It mooed back. I found my prize – a small, blue plastic sword. A man standing there, who owned a homestay tourist house, told us that Khardung Pass was closed for the day. The Kiwis,Tim and Manoj showed up. We briefly chatted and they headed towards the border. They wanted to see how close they could get to Pakistan before being turned back.
We waited for some time, admiring the sketchy electrical wire situation at the store. Somebody had simply tied on two wires to the mainline and lead it to the building. It was alway fascinating to see how dangerous and disorganized everything was. It was actually refreshing in a way. We lived in such a regulated society, far from the wild west days where you could do what you wanted. True, our lives were safer, but India was still living in this unruly time, and part of me longed for that.
Time went by and no Kiwis, so we decided to ride back to camp. Did they make it to Pakistan? The rain started again in earnest and we pressed on against it and the wind on the final push home. It grew cold and our hands and feet were wet. We were relieved to pull in to camp. It had been a soggy day, but well worth it. The rest of the group recounted that the town they went to was small and poor. They only spent a matter of minutes there before leaving. So, the shopping spree was not what it could have been. We were off the tourist track and we stood out from the crowd. I kinda liked it.
That evening, the rain came down even harder, and our thoughts turned to the possibility of us not getting out of here the next day. If it had been snowing in the pass for a full day and a night, how could we? The only way out of this valley was over a high pass, above the snow line. Perhaps we could make a run at Pakistan?
The temperature stayed low, and we dressed warmly and went to the unheated main shelter. There, we sipped on beer and tea and enjoyed intermittent electricity. The buffet was set, hot soup was served, and we enjoyed another good Indian dinner with the usual suspects. Alfredo pasta was the only thing out of the ordinary. We sat in a circle, adding to the conversation, until finally our weary bodies succumbed to slumber.
I sat in bed listening to the rain. It had not let up for almost 24 hours, and in this arid climate, this was unusual. We would make a run at the pass the next day, and see if providence had plans for us to make it back to Leh the next evening. (head bobble).
September 5th, Nubra to Leh
The rain finally let up. We gathered our stuff after breakfast and headed toward Khardung Pass, with our goal being Leh. The pass had been closed the day before, but word now was that it was open. With some trepidation, we headed down the road. The days of rain on end might have been snow at 17,000ft. With the day heating up, the threat of landslides was greater, and our local rider suggested that we go over the pass earlier than later.
We rode up the Nubra valley, past cliffs, dunes, broad floodplains and started to climb. We had started at 10,000 feet, but were quickly at 12,000 feet, and the rain started again. Cold set in and as we climbed, clouds enshrouded us. We climbed our way up, up, and up. We passed ghostlike cars and trucks in the fog, none of them with their lights on, and you could only see them at the last minute. Our side of the road was the cliffside. You could not see how far down it was, but you could imagine that it was steep, somewhere beyond the thick cloud barrier. At 15,000 feet, Anu pulled over at a Dhaba, so we could have some hot tea and warm up a little. We stood around underneath a parasol, the rain falling all around us, cupping hot tea in our hands. My toes were cold, my feet were cold, and we had not even hit snow line yet. At 16,000 feet, the snow line was upon us and we broke out of the clouds and could see the road far above us. The pavement turned to rocks and mud, and we kept climbing. I had to stop and take a picture of a large boulder in the road. We had passed so many, but I had failed to capture just one. It was so commonplace that you got used to it. The traffic just went around it.
At 17,300, there was a block in the road ahead, and as I approached, I could see a bulldozer pushing large rocks off the road. It was an awesome sight. When he was finished, he let us bikers go by first. The air was thin and you had to inhale fully to get enough oxygen. We topped out at the pass, but this time, there was no one around. We stood around for some time, waiting for the entire group to collect up there, so we could get a photo. Some of the riders had been up there almost an hour by the time our last rider came into sight. We were all gasping for air, some being very dizzy, and there was a hint of desperation to get down ASAP. As soon as Drifty pulled up, we took one picture, and then scattered like birds, each to their own bike and then down we went. We had made the top of the world again, but this time, it seemed so much better, perhaps since we had the place to ourselves. It was not the circus it had been a couple of days before.
We descended fast and punched back through the clouds and the rain began again. We arrived at 12,000 feet and collected again as a group, with rain coming down on us. You could feel a tinge of accomplishment amongst the group. With only blocks left until our hotel that night, we had, as a group, ridden the most treacherous road in the world and arrived at the world’s three highest passes. What a trip, and after this, every member of our group could honestly say that they could ride anything.
India sits apart as one of the most difficult places to ride a motorcycle. The traffic, altitude, and road conditions will challenge even the most seasoned adventure rider. This is a place that will be compared to anything else for the rest of our lives.
To India, you do not travel with the word “why.” It is simply not applicable. India has its own value system on its own timeline. It is the future and the past at the same time. There is a congenial “live and let live” attitude that seemed to permeate the culture. Our time here was brief, but we all have been moved by this incomprehensible giant we call India.
Phil’s VIDEO Diary can also be found HERE.