In part one I travelled to India and from Delhi to Manali where along the way the bus narrowly avoided being swept over the edge of a mountain at a landslide. From Manali I have been riding a Royal Enfield over the rugged but stunning road to Leh.
From Leh the journey will continue to the highest salt water lake on earth and from the Nubra valley traverse the reputed highest motorable road.
I was looking forward to a shower after the camp the previous night in Sarchu so when I got my room key I dumped everything on the ground soon as I entered and immediately grabbed some hot water before everyone else and this proved wise as later at dinner many people mentioned they only had cold water.
After dinner the Scottish guys were in the mood for some drinking and things escalated rather quickly to people up on tables and various other madcap antics, very funny guys. A bunch of us went into town to look for a bar open despite this being a public holiday. I only had a couple of beers sticking to my plan to take it easy with the altitude but for a few chaps the night got messy and I ended up assisting Toby to get the worst affected back to the hotel.
Next day was a rest day and there would have been a few sore heads. A couple of people who had been affected badly by the altitude sickness spent the day in bed under treatment by excellent new doctor that joined the support crew from Leh onwards. I walked into the town and was besieged by guys selling carpets or local crafts, which were made in China.
If you were looking to fly to Leh then there are motorcycle rental shops everywhere. You don’t want a cruiser type bike here with feet forward pegs as it will transfer more of the rough road to your lower back and be difficult to stand up on. I did not see any proper road trail bikes for rent or any KTMs, which are made in India, just Royal Enfield Bullets and a few Chinese bikes.
Related to this if you rent a motorbike in Manali you cannot ride it beyond Leh. This is a new development brought about by the travel and rental shops in Leh who convinced the local government to back them into forcing people to rent local bikes. Beyond Leh there are more military checkpoints where paperwork is checked and this rule is said to be enforced but I cannot elaborate on that or if this is temporary thing only. The tour company had to rent all local bikes for us to continue so as of writing this is certainly the case.
Enjoyed my first real coffee in a long time and some wi-fi which was a nice interlude after couple of days off the grid. Amazing how used to being connected I have become.
Suddenly the police were running around telling all the shops to close, and using big sticks to hit storekeepers who did not immediately jump into action. I made some enquiries and apparently a local Hindu girl had gone with a Muslim guy and the police were telling everyone there will be a big protest march so shut your shops but one woman shopkeeper told me there is no protest march at all, this religious intolerance by those in authority who like to stir up trouble. Well I cannot comment as I am non religious and of a different culture except for me it meant nowhere to get lunch and I was looking forward to some spicy curry.
I went back to the hotel which had a large kitchen and the staff managed to get me some sandwiches then I had a rest in afternoon. Another big group dinner that night but people took it easy with the beer this time. The next day was a loop ride to visit a temple and a big lunch at a restaurant but I elected to skip it. I felt run down and had mild head cold that had started last night. I went back to bed awhile then went into town to get some tissues and cold and flu medicine at lunch.
The shops were reopened so I had a poke about but they were all selling really crappy trinkets and the eateries were all tourist trap type places. I eventually found a place locals were eating at in the back alley and managed to get some authentic food with a bit of spice. All the food so far had been tasty but very mild. I thought the Brits loved ‘going for an Indian’ and hoped it would be a curry fest every night. When I was in London many years ago the people I was staying with there loved Indian and middle east food but nobody in this group was experienced in it so guess I got the wrong impression. Thali set above cost less than $2 aus.
Leh to Pangong Lake
After two days rest I felt ready to ride again despite a bit of a head cold. Todays ride the road was tar for a good portion leaving Leh however then it became gravel when turning off towards Chang pass.
We took a break on the climb and the Scottish lads were sunbaking. I had my liner in my jacket up as it was quite chilly for me ha- ha. Then onwards and upwards.
Riding all the way up from the distant valley in the photo above, but Leh is already 3500m. On to the top at a breathless 5360m.
This mountain pass like the Taglang pass displays a sign saying it is the second highest road in the world. Checking on Google it is 32m higher than the Taglang pass which is a mere 5328m. I’m not sure why the sign at Taglang pass says it is second highest pass in the world but this road I believe was not always open to public previously so I presume Taglang pass held the record but lost it at some point and the old stone sign there carrying so many prayer flags was left to stand. So now I find I have ridden over the third and second highest* passes in the world. *More on this later.
Going down the other side we got stuck at road works for over an hour while new tar was being laid. I took a nap just on side of road in my full ride gear and helmet falling asleep within minutes. Now I am a very light sleeper and find it difficult to get to sleep so this was indication of how much the high altitude and a small head cold was affecting my energy levels. Leaving this spot was a timely reminder to take things easy by the ever entertaining Border Roads Organisation (BRO) signs.
I was riding probably in a state where my reaction time was very poor so I just trundled along taking it easy. The doctor examined me before riding this morning and besides the cold I also had high blood pressure and he said for now just see how I go but need to monitor it. A fellow rider had those energy bars the push bike riders have on the tour de France, what a smart idea!, he kindly gave me one today and that really gave me a boost.
We had a packed lunch by a stream, it was simple fare but tasted pretty good as it was already well past lunch with the road works delay so everyone was hungry.
The scenery was like riding on the moon at times and the shadows made for some dramatic landscapes.
The sun was slipping behind the mountains when I finally reached Pangong lake. The road along the lake to the camps site was about 20km of loose stones or deep sand. A couple of people came off and I had to stop and get my breath back at one point as it was really tough going. This is the highest salt water lake in the world and goes from India into Tibet.
Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley
I don’t like camping but this was not bad at all. Ensuite with hot water, power, lights, even a radiator inside each tent.
Riding back along the ‘road’ the next day it seemed not half as difficult. My cold had lifted this morning so I had more energy for the task.
Then as you gain some height the view of Pangong lake is stunning.
Wide angle photos push things back and give the wrong impression of scale. Its much grander in real life.
The landscape and the reflections on the lake are amazing. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen.
Sorry I recognise my posts are too long and people don’t have the time to read now days. Take a break or bookmark and revisit here another time to read some more.
The road today was for the most part sealed but there were many small areas where water flowed across and had washed the tar away and left a surface a bit like a creek bed with stones and sand. Some had water but most were just sand which caused a few people to come off with the front wheel tucking in or locking the brake and sliding.
I just continued to take it real easy, I did not want to have any falls or risk any injury. A very rocky landscape for much of the morning with huge boulders sitting on the hills in loose shale rock that could slide at any moment onto the road while riding through theses canyons. The boulder incident on the way from Delhi to Manalia in part one was still on my mind when looking up at these.
Along the way this morning we crossed the Wari pass 5245m which was not an open expansive road but rather a more traditional mountain road closed in. All sealed which provided some nice riding and I forgot to take photos having so much fun. Exiting there we dropped into the Nubra Valley.
In the valley there were a number of areas the road was washed away and a huge landslip where a road had been built using river bed stones and sand over the soil which must have be impassable mud when wet. These sections were particularly rough and challenging.
My Enfield Bullet lost its exhaust. It copped a bashing on the rough washout road section bottoming out numerous times and hitting the muffler on a few large rocks. It fell off a little later on the tar and I retrieved it then the support crew put it in the truck and Toby swapped his bike for mine but at the next stop someone else’s bike had mechanical issues so I said no problem I can ride my bike without muffler since I wear ear plugs it was not going to bother me and Toby’s bike then was passed to other rider while the mechanics got to work on his.
We had a late packed lunch in this scenic rocky landscape by a river. Some clouds but just a light mist for short while no rain fortunately. If you come to ride here then I think late August or early September as I did is a good time. Early September has a soft autumn light (on fine days) that I spoke about in part one and on the road the endless small washouts and creek beds are dry. Most landslides have been cleared and many road repairs already done.
It would have been far more difficult earlier say June when the snow is still melting and every washout would have been flowing water as well many roads would have been damaged from the winter when first opened. But be aware there was snow falling on the high passes already the first week of September so later in the month conditions on the high passes will likely deteriorate.
Another couple of people had small offs on the gravel after lunch. The riding at the front of the group was a bit of a competitive thing as it had been since day one. At intersections the lead riders had to stop and wait till everyone passed, this was the tour rule and seemed to annoy some who complained about having to wait then blasted past everyone back to the front only to repeat the same thing.
I recognise this competitive mode that affects some people. I used to fall under it’s spell myself turning any ride into an imaginary race. Here that was stupid on a few levels, none more so than you miss the amazing scenery you came so far to see.
Sand blown across road everywhere on these old bikes with Chinese tyres. It seemed less that suitable situation to be racing but what do I know. Only thing I’ll ever suggest to another rider is use sunblock. Amazing scenes of the sand dunes of Nubra late this afternoon.
Tonight is camping again but in luxury tents with ensuite and heaters and the camp site was actually a lovely setting amongst trees and small water stream. Inside the tent was beautifully fitted out with even a small separate lounge room.
I would do more ‘camping’ if it was like this.
Tonight after a huge dinner a big bon fire was lit and a few beers were consumed. The tour group had by now formed sub groups at the dinner table divided up by country of origin. I did not fit in to any group. I found all the guys from the UK very funny. I miss that dead pan satire and the witty observations about the absurdity of life. In Japan I don’t enjoy a lot of laughter unfortunately, but I now am starting to digress.
The next day was a loop ride to visit the border with Pakistan. I wanted to see that but then I also was feeling exhausted. I got dressed in my ride gear and then just sat down again. These roads need you to be sharp. You often quickly have to find a place on very edge of road and cliff to stop for oncoming trucks that are as wide as the entire road. Then quickly react to dodge vans with tourists that careen madly around the bends on your side of road or are overtaking you recklessly on blind corner.
I was still slightly groggy feeling from the cold I was getting over and the altitude and long way from the alertness level needed for safe riding today and idea of sitting around in the relaxing eco resort camp was far more appealing. I spent the morning in the tent lounge room typing some of this ride report and dozing off then noticed the Scottish guys had also bailed on the ride so we sat around chatting over a long lunch right on into the afternoon. Great company.
The only ride I did today then was on humpback. The group went to the nearby Nubra sand dunes and oh well I was there so why not. An on board riding shot with a difference. Two wheels is better than two hump.
Nubra Valley to Leh
The weather the next day cleared for a final look at the Nubra valley.
And then it was time for the big one, the ride over the reputed highest motorable road in the world. As Doc Neeson once said “ this is it folks, over the top”
The approach was very dramatic although none of my photos captured the scale of the huge canyon that the road followed or the mighty peaks all around. The road started out in good condition and sealed before changing to gravel that was not too bad for the most part.
Higher and higher you ride. I am surprised how well the Royal Enfield’s handle the altitude. On my ride in Taiwan I rode a 125cc scooter that in all honestly accelerated faster and probably has a higher top speed than the 500cc Enfield’s but on a mountain pass that was a ‘mere’ 3200m that scooter was reduced to 10-15kph maximum speed at one stage with wide open throttle. The Enfield single cylinder just keeps going thud thud thud and on upwards with no noticeable difference.
Toby said the new Enfield Himalaya motorcycle model struggles to make it over the mountains it is named after. I presume the new model had to meet tighter emission controls and its EFI cannot adjust to the altitude where as the old models have no catalytic convertors and can be jetted correctly to work up here. I would not mind some of the new models suspension travel on these rough roads.
As the climb reached the snow the road conditions deteriorated considerably with melt water making it even more hard going. The final 15-20 minutes riding was tough work and I was breathing very hard to get enough oxygen. But then I stood on Khardung top, 18380ft.
It was cold but fine clear air. I have been very lucky with the weather as a day or two before it had snowed on this pass and some riders were reportedly unable to make the summit.
There is a bit of controversy regarding if this pass is the highest public motorable road. There are at least two passes on China border slightly higher but controlled by the military. Then it is said Chang pass I rode on route to Pangong Lake is a few metres higher at road height than this pass which was measured at small ridge above road. Well a squabble over few metres is trivial to me. I feel completely satisfied I have ridden the highest mountain passes in the world which are accessible to me at this point in time.
The ride down the other side was rather slippery soil. I had a big slide at one point with the Enfield crossed up. “Steady Warren, the finish line is in sight so lets complete this tour without crashing” or something like that was what I said to myself and dropped the bike back to low gear on the freshly graded surface and got back up on the pegs.
Always most dangerous part of a ride is nearing the end when you start to lower your guard. Not too long after this the road suddenly became a excellent sealed surface that provided a superb ride with grand views down to Leh.
There is a video of the ride hopefully being put together. The tour leader Toby has a drone and every rider except me had a GoPro stuck on their helmet. A mix of the best footage from each rider was spoken about but I know when people get home and have hours of similar looking helmet cam video the edit task can be daunting and the footage gets looked at then archived. (edit – yep nobody made a video)
And finally some of my favourite roadside signs from BRO, builders of the highest roads on earth.
A really nice farewell dinner tonight and a few beers then an early night as had to pack for tomorrow which was a dawn departure from hotel.
Leh – Delhi
I have never arrived at an airport before not knowing my flight details. One of the tour group was given booking reference to check us in but he already had family members to look after. I proceeded to get myself sorted as only one fight it could be. After security check you had to walk outside to a loading dock and find your bag then show boarding card for the bag to get a check mark otherwise it will not be joining you on the plane. Again one person had been tasked this but I thought how would he recognise everyone’s bags?
I just went about things myself and this part of the tour could have benefitted greatly from everyone having been provided separate booking but small regional airport so not so difficult.
I tried to see everyone in Delhi at the baggage to say goodbye. Nice group of people that were easy to travel with.
Going back to the beginning of part one I wrote that I was not sure if I should do a tour or go solo. I had dwelled on that a few years before choosing this. I would have missed the jaw dropping scenery from Sarchu if I had flown to Leh and ridden solo. These roads are all being sealed, possibly in future riders will not have the challenges and the sense of achievement on that route I had. More fortuitous than good planning on my part but very glad I got to see it this way.
Being on a tour made everything run smooth. Fixing the bikes, carrying the fuel, water, food and spares. Looking after the paperwork and checkpoints and 2nd bike needed from Leh. Even just having all the breaks organised so I could simply rest rather than face another solo challenge of finding food made a big difference.
Sure you can do this yourself easy enough and I never had any of those ‘you’ve really got yourself into something now Warren’ moments thus to answer my other question from part one – yes it does dilute the sense of adventure to be on a tour even in a place like this and if I went again it would be solo but first time I’m totally satisfied. The only negative of a tour (besides price) is it limits photo opportunities but I’d recommend Ride Expeditions without hesitation. The owner Toby (below right) is with you all the way with every assistance possible.
Some ideas if you do a tour like this. Consider a camping bed sheet or whatever those things are called for Sarchu if you are a city slicker hotel dweller like me. A power bank to charge all your gear in tent. Energy bars – proper ones not snickers. Full box of ibuprofen for headaches at altitude. Technical base layer shirts. Off road experience is essential or do a training course. Dust is a problem, I used my buff over my nose most of time and I could have done with a pair of those riding sunglasses that seal off dust (look on Revzilla) as whilst it is cold you are working and going slow so with a closed visor you will get very stuffy.
If you have proper off road helmet and goggles then for sure take them but I would not buy them especially for this ride as a regular helmet is fine with nose mask and those foam seal sunglasses. If you ride solo here then need to think about how remote it is. I would suggest you carry a tool kit. Collection of McGyver repair stuff like spare fuse, length of wire, zip ties, gaffa tape. Spare tube, mini compressor, tyre levers and vulcanize kit, and know how to fix a flat. Water and possibly spare fuel. And of course a medical kit and you probably should know how to use it too, do a first aid course like Saint Johns, it’s time well spent for any rider really.
The journey home
Back in Delhi I could indulge in some spicy dishes. Wow this was hot! But delicious.
And found a cool bar finally that stocked some of the better wine produced in India.
This was all in the greater airport area. I just rested in a day room and did not go downtown as I had planned on the train. It was stinking hot with a big thunderstorm brewing. I could not be bothered with that or visiting man made monuments in Delhi after the grand sights that nature dished out in the Himalaya’s.
It all went well until I boarded my plane in the evening. Leaving Delhi I was on Singapore Airlines. After taxiing to the runway it sat on tarmac for 5 hours! No food was provided, onboard staff were inexperienced and rude. The flight eventually is cancelled at 3.00am. I got to Philippines eventually 24 hours later.
It was so very nice to relax a couple of weeks after this ride with my mate who retired to the Philippines. I always enjoy the laid back island time lifestyle he has and friendly people but lack of internet and poor food makes me leave.
On my way back to Japan I flew to Hong Kong using Cebu Pacific for about $38. So affordable to fly in Asia. It had been 25 years since I last visited Hong Kong so I decided to look around. Leaving a regional Philippines airport the signs inside were all images of beaches and palm trees with slogans about having fun. In Hong Kong airport the signs are all about making money and buying luxury goods.
When I last visited it was under British rule and I landed at Kai Tak airport downtown, one of the more exciting airport landings in the world. Now you land off in the islands and there is a high speed train network. Last time everyone used the Star ferry but now it is just the odd tourist like me. I revisited the peak tram but it was horrible now with an hour queue to travel the few minute ride with many hundreds of visitors from mainland China pushing me until I raised my fist which broke though the language barrier in an abrupt but effective way.
Still the night view really is one of the best. I savored it over an expensive pizza and beer then took the local bus back down which was far better, a fraction of the price and it drops you right next to the Metro.
Big city, self absorbed rude people people walking into me … take me back to the Philippines please. I have zero desire for a Rolex or a Bentley. I don’t desire to buy anything in life now except wine, cheese and fuel for riding a motorcycle.PART ONE