By Hugo Minnaar | Published on 2020-04-20
It is June 2018 and my wife and I are backpacking in India. We find ourselves in Manali, the gateway to the Indian Himalayas and there’s Royal Enfield’s everywhere. It also so happens that the Manali-Leh-highway just opened after the winter.
We didn’t plan on doing a motorcycle trip, so we had no riding gear, but instead two laptops and big backpacks – already heavy with souvenirs. I however convinced Caro that we couldn’t give up this opportunity.
I found a rental shop that could also arrange the necessary permits to cross the Rohtang Pass. I decided on renting the classic Royal Enfield Bullet with a 500cc engine. The rental shop added a metal luggage rack with place for three bags and two fuel cans.
The road from Manali to Leh, in Jammu and Kashmir, is 470km and goes over four high altitude mountain passes. We rented the bike for 10 days to give us enough time to get to Leh, explore there, and return to Manali.
To split the risk, we left one bag and laptop at a backpacker’s in Manali and strapped my laptop bag to the motorbike, together with one backpack for our clothes and a carton box with our toiletries, tools, and sundry items.
On the first day we had to cross the feared Rohtang Pass, translated as field of corpses, which starts just outside Manali. We got a late start, so the pass was already filled with bumper to bumper traffic. The permit is to limit the amount of private traffic on the pass and the price is based on engine size to curb pollution. The pass is also used by electric busses to ferry people to the top and military trucks doing supply runs for the numerous military bases in Kashmir.
With the motorbike we could pass the standing cars, but the going was still slow. Narrow roads meant we could barely pass the one-way traffic, never mind dodging kamikaze trucks coming from the front. Despite traffic supposedly being one-way, up in the morning and down in the afternoon, there were numerous bottle necks where people disregarded this rule and then got stuck.
I was still getting used to the bike and on one particularly bumpy corner I got pushed off the road and lost control of the bike. We fell over against a car, whose driver quickly got out, helped us up and drove off again. We also took off not wanting to stay in the dusty mosh-pit. After a few minutes, I smelled burnt plastic and started feeling pain in my leg. We stopped in a safe spot and noticed that during the fall my leg touched the exhaust, which burnt through my synthetic hiking pants and into my skin. Luckily, we had a small first aid kit and Caro bandaged my leg.
We finally made it to the top at 3 978m where hundreds of Indians played in the dirty icy snow. Despite the heat they were all in snow suites that can be rented, along the road outside Manali. It’s a comical sight to behold. We just flew past without stopping, glad to leave the crowds behind. The ‘real’ adventure lay ahead towards Leh, while all the cars we passed this morning would just return to Manali later in the day.
We could finally relax a bit and admire the breath-taking views. Neither of us have seen the Himalayas up close before, so we were completely awe-struck.
The road to Leh is only open for a few months in the year when the snow has stopped. This however does not mean that there isn’t any snow left. The mountains were all snow-capped which meant that there were snow melting and thus lots of river crossings. We knew we were unprepared when riders coming from the front would shout to us to put on our rain boots for the upcoming river crossing. Like, is that something we were supposed to bring?
I only had trail running shoes and thin hiking pants on, not even regular jeans. We made it down into the valley and then to Keylong, where we spent the first night. We found a nice normal Guesthouse with private rooms and en-suite bathroom. We were mentally prepared to sleep in tents as that is what most of the accommodation along the road is like.
Keylong is situated at 3400m, which is the highest place Caro has slept. Height sickness is a real threat on this route. At a restaurant, the owner suggested we drink garlic water to help with the height sickness. He gave us a hand full of garlic cloves to throw into a water bottle. The bottle would then shake whilst riding, resulting in nice garlic flavoured water. We followed the advice and who knows, maybe that did save us.
Our carton box was destroyed from all the water spraying up from the road. Luckily, we found a new box and a place selling thick plastic which we wrapped around the box.
The second day was the toughest day, but also the most spectacular day.
Just 28km outside Keylong the ascent starts and does not go below 4000m again for 250km. The day also started with a few river crossings where my feet got wet with the icy snow water. The mountain air blowing through my breathable trail running shoes through my wet socks resulted in very cold feet.
At ZingZingBar (there are funny place names along the route) we stopped to wring out my socks before ascending even more to the top of Baralacha La (la means mountain pass in Tibetan). The road was literally carved through the snow. At one point we were driving between ice sheets twice the height of us. Baralacha La is the first true high-altitude pass we crossed at 4890m.
We simply could not believe our eyes. The photos don’t do it any justice. Frozen lakes, snow covered mountains reaching high up into the sky and a seemingly endless road snaking over and through the mountains. Add to this the rhythmic thumping of the 500cc Royal Enfield. What the Enfield lacked in suspension it made up for in character.
We stopped in Sarchu a potential tented overnight spot but decided to just order 2-minute noodles and continue. Little did we know that the toughest part still lay ahead.
The road stayed flat along a river for a while before reaching the Gata Loops. Picture a shear cliff and then a road going up it with 21 switchbacks, that is basically what the Gata Loops is. The road reaches 5035m at the top of Lachung La, before descending again.
The sun was starting to set, and the road turned into bad narrow gravel roads carved into the mountain with shear drops and no protection. We made it to Pang, at 4600m, and even found another brick building. We got a big family room with about five beds to ourselves and basically slept under all the blankets from all the beds. We both had massive headaches from the altitude but managed to eat something before going to bed.
On the third day we left the snow-covered mountains behind and entered the desert area. But that did not mean any less altitude. For 40km the road was flat, despite being at 4800m. From here we still had to cross the highest pass on the Manali-Leh-Highway: Tanglang La. The top of the pass is at a whopping 5359m. For comparison, the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro, is only about 500m higher. It is like riding to Everest base camp with a motorcycle.
We stopped at the top for tea, but soon realised the other patrons were locals and much more acclimatised. Our headaches got worse by the second, so we quickly had to get back on the bike and head down. Luckily, the pain lessened with every meter we descended.
Down in the valley we started seeing the first permanent villages with ancient monasteries. We got to Leh in the early afternoon. Leh turned out to be a massive city, with a lot of traffic. It thus took some time to find accommodation. We ended up staying at a Zostel backpackers. I was happy to have a soft bed to sleep on, but sad that the ‘adventure’ was over so quickly.
The next day we found out that motorbikes registered outside Jammu and Kashmir were not allowed on any of the other roads leading deeper into Kashmir. We thus rode to a few monasteries around Leh, which were really interesting. We then decided that we did not feel like riding the same road back again, given our lack of proper gear and the fact the we probably made it without any big incidents just by pure dumb luck. Luckily, we could arrange with the rental shop to pick the bike up in Leh.
For the return journey we shared a taxi with a French couple taking a slight detour to the Tso Moriri high altitude lake. On the second return day it started to rain, and the river crossings were much deeper and longer. We were thus glad about not having to ride in those conditions. At certain times, however, we were so scared of being in a car with a crazy driver overtaking convoys of military trucks on blind bends and narrow roads, that we felt like riding the motorcycle back would have been the safer option.
This trip was the highlight of my motorcycle journeys so far. I would definitely want to come back with a friend or two, be better prepared and explore more of this incredible region.
For more footage from this epic journey watch the following video from 02:28
For more photos, check out the post on Two Monkeys.
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