A Dream Leh Ladakh Bike Trip Experience

The route from Manali to Leh is one of the toughest and most demanding stretches of road in the whole country. If you are interested in motorcycling in India in dream destinations, you may have already heard about it. A thousand kilometres long, half asphalt road connects Delhi with Leh passing through some of the highest points in the world. It goes up to even 5328 meters of altitude! Dizzy, right?

Months before starting our trip, Abhi spoke to me for the first time about this motorcycle route through north India. At the corner of thirty years, I decided to make an old dream come true to embark on an unprecedented adventure into the heart of the Himalayas. I did not imagine what this adventure was going to become. It was possibly one of the toughest challenges, which I would face.

It was a trip of two weeks in which, if everything went well, we would travel more than 3000 kilometres. It is a trip in which, defying the extreme conditions and crossing wild and untamed landscapes, we would reach some of the remotest places that one can reach in the Indian subcontinent.

But do not be mistaken. Going on a motorbike through such an environment is, in fact, a very physical exercise. Between the frequent fast drops (up to 2000 meters in two hours), the complicated terrain and the other rather confident road users, the chances of sweating - not counting the cold sweats - there is no lack of it! But the result was worth it. Because I have lived to tell about it. It is a trip, in short, which is epic.

We arrived in Delhi during celebrations of Dussehra in full swing with enough time to prepare everything necessary for this adventure. With the expert opinion of Abhi, we decided to hire Royal Enfield. For the next two weeks, those beautiful bikes would become our most inseparable companions.

The next day, taking advantage of the little traffic on the morning, four motorcycles and friends would depart on a trip of two weeks full of hope but not knowing how far we would be able to go. From the India Gateway we wander through Old Delhi, through the immense Jama Masjid. We end up having dinner in the impressive and crowded Pahar Ganj.

A Dream Bike Trip to Ladakh

Day 1: Delhi - Chandigarh (250 km)

As we were leaving early, the intense traffic that inhabits the streets of Delhi had not yet made an appearance. The day began on a wet note and even without having left the city we were already soaked. In addition, the strong wind on the highway did not make things easy for us. Despite all in about eight hours, we reached Chandigarh. After locating a cheap hotel, we went in search of a workshop where we repaired some minor problem in Roni's saddle.

Day 2: Chandigarh - Manali (295 km)

The first few hours of the second day went very quick in the morning. In the second half of the day, we left behind the plains to enter the first curves of the road to the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.
It was on one of these sections of crazy twists and numerous overtaking trucks where we met John and Freddy from North-eastern India. They took a similar route as ours and from there we would no longer separate until the end of this adventure.

With the first foothills of the Himalayas in the background, the landscape that accompanied us was becoming increasingly spectacular. Although, as Abhi repeated, the best was yet to come in the coming days. After crossing Kullu, at night, we were finally in Manali, called valley of gods. We arrived here during the school vacations. So the traffic jam that we found is difficult to explain if one does not understand the concept of the crowd. After crossing the tumult, we arrive in Old Manali where we find a good accommodation to rest for the night.

Day 3: Rest in Manali

After driving more than 550 kilometers in two days, both Shiv and I were devastated. Spending so many hours on a motorcycle was not something we were used to. So we had to convince Abhi to take a day off. During the free day, we took the opportunity to request the necessary inner line permits to continue along the route we had planned.

As the day was beautiful, we also took the opportunity to take a motorcycle tour around and also made some purchases in the craft stores and enjoyed the tasty momos of the Himalayas. The next morning we would start the two-day trip between Manali and Leh, on a road that only opens to traffic for few weeks a year, when the less snow and conditions allow it. Being so, what better to have taken the day off with tranquillity to be able to go with force the next day!

Day 4: Manali - Rohtang Pass - Darcha (150 km)

The morning started with a nice breakfast and a warm cup of coffee. Next, we had difficult days that would take us to Leh, after crossing the spectacular Zanskar mountain range. We drive along the Beas River, heading north, crossing several villages of the green Himalayas like Kothi, Gulaba and Marhi until we reach the Rohtang pass (3980 mt). We were not surprised when we saw hundreds of people enjoying the snow of the glacier at Rohtang Pass.

However, the descent to Gramphu and Koksar was hard as the road was in a terrible state. The road conditions around Gramphoo are beyond imagination. Full of powerful water streams, loose stones, slush and what not. It is a quite challenging experience and one hell of a ride. From there, we continued into increasingly spectacular landscapes.

We refuel in Tandi, the only fuel pump in the next 365 kilometers. Then we cross landscapes of fields in the course of the Bhaga River until we reach Keylong. Near Keylong, we start looking for a workshop where we can do some basic bike repairs.

Keylong is the administrative headquarters of the region and has some outstanding temples and monasteries. After a quick lunch, we followed our path that was going upwards, although not too far. Everyone was feeling rusty after 150 kilometers. So we planned to stop for the night wherever we get in, either at a small bar or a shop or a restaurant or a proper accommodation.

From here we go submerging in the Himalayas desert with its majestic mountains between zig zag roads. We arrive at Jispa (3142 mt). But hey, we have our first stroke of bad luck after the long arduous journey in Darcha. We leave the asphalt road and enter a dirt road by a roundabout. We made a mistake in a detour, but we were able to notice it and fix it.

While riding, we had lost our way and ride for almost 10 km, in wrong direction. As said by a wise man, sometimes getting lost pays off. It was an enthralling ride through the mountainous forest covered in mist. The cold wind and woody aroma was so hypnotic, none of us thought to stop and check where we were headed to. I was the last and just followed my buddies experiencing the captivating sights.

On one of the numerous bends, the fluttering prayer flags indicated the presence of a temple and right next to it was this musical stream flowing through the green thicket.

We further covered 50 kilometers, and it is already five thirty in the afternoon. Each time we pass a folk, we park at the side to check if we are on the right track. We do not know how long it will take us to find a good place to live. So we continue our search.

We go around 15 kilometers, and we stop to check the GPS, and we are on the right track. But when it comes to restarting the bikes, John's bike suddenly does not turn on. I cannot say that we are nervous, but it is nearing dusk, and we are in the middle of nowhere except for the sound of some creatures from a distant.

Anyway, we find a man and ask him for help. He looks more like the head of a village, who indicates something and lends us the cell phone to make a call at a workshop nearby.

So after a short wait, the local repairman arrives. He is a short fellow who tells us that he has to take out the cover, check the battery and after that, he can tell the problem. But the screw that joins the part is rounded, and there is no lever to remove it. John asks us, and the answer is affirmative. The repairman tells him that the battery is down and the "starter" broke.

He tells us that it needs to be taken to his workshop and we have no option but to follow until we reach the town. He calls a small boy with his body covered in black soot and asks him to bring one of the batteries lying in a dusty corner and a few more parts. John is skeptical about the battery, but the repairman explains that it is one of the best for journeys in this part of the world.

We also get the opportunity to ask the repairman for a possible stay nearby. As the night was nearing and the repairman kept on solving other problems in the bikes, Freddy and I moved forward in search of a house nearby to stay overnight and which can later be reached by the rest of the group.

The daily goal of 200 kilometres from now on starts as a utopia. But it does not matter as we started about two o'clock in the afternoon and the breakdown of the bike took a good time. So it does not seem as impossible as what the numbers say.

We are approaching a hut and a man with the wrinkled face appears. We put our hands together as a pillow under the bowed head. After that gesture, we lower our palms diagonally so that the man knows that we are looking for a stay.
He does not understand much, but he makes the gesture that we enter his house. They serve us fermented yak milk in huge bowls. The weather is getting rough. We give a box of cigarettes to the gentleman, and more family members begin to enter. At night, we are ten people in the house, eating homemade snacks, drinking tea and sour milk that fascinates everyone.

So, we understand that even if we have not clarified or are fully sure that the man understood our purpose, there is no chance of being taken out of there then. So we feel welcome and, we relax. We step out to build a mud stove quickly so that it does not start raining as the idea of cooking on the camping stove is more tempting. But before we finish ordering things, it starts to rain.

The owner of the house comes and requests us to go back in. There is dinner with some noodles with goat meat and hot milk that they heat up, and they are not bad. We feel good. We started with fears, had trouble with a motorcycle, we moved less than planned, but we overcame a challenge that gave us more nerves. The local man and his family welcomed us, accepted us, treated us great, and we are ready to sleep. Tomorrow will be another day.

Day 5: Darcha - Taglang La (220 km)

The most challenging day of the trip awaited us. More than 200 kilometers and numerous high passes above 4500 meters did not presage an easy day. That is why Shiv and I decided to start a little earlier than the rest of the group, whose driving was usually faster than ours. In this stage, we possibly crossed some of the best landscapes of the trip, with spectacular stretches of road and places that do not seem to belong to this planet.

After making a brief stop to enjoy the Suraj Tal lake, we said goodbye to the snowy peaks and launched for the final stretch. We have about 100 kilometers of descent towards Leh. From Baralacha La (4890 mt), we descend a thousand meters of altitude to the plateau of Sarchu to the beginning of the Gata Loops. We take a winding road until we reach the incredible Nakee La (4950 m).

From here, we climb to Lachalung La (5070 m), a point where we can witness spectacular views of the steep rocks and its unique geological formations. After a brief descent towards Pang (4630 mt), a place similar to Mars, we ascend again, this time through More Plains. The last high step of the day awaits us. Taglang La and its 5328 meters become a tough stretch for me.

I do not know if I can convey the hardness of this stage with my words. In this stretch of the road which is used for a couple of months in a year, a large percentage of it is in poor condition and unpaved. There are areas of mud, dust and many potholes.

We even crossed sections in which the summer that has turned the road into a river and all this is at high altitude with cold and ravines hundreds of meters to our sides. We continue through villages such as Rumtse, Gya, Lato and end at Miru, where we arrived well into the night, with just enough time to find a decent lodging and some hot food.

Day 6: Taglang La - Tso Moriri (200 km)

Our bike route takes us to sulfur springs and the wind-swept Polo kongka la pass of 4,900 meters. There we visit the Thukje Monastery. Destiny of our day is Tso Kar salt lake, a home of the shy wild mongoose and rare migratory birds such as the black duck, Naked Cranes and Brahmini. Tso Kar lake is one of the renowned lakes in Ladakh also known as a white lake. It is a great place for bird watching and other wildlife.

Tso Kar lake is a high mountain lake situated at an altitude of 4,530 m above sea level. On the way, we make frequent stops to visit the Puga geo-thermal springs and the nomadic Rebo tents settled on the Polo-Kongka pass.

After cresting Namshang Pass (5050 m) we arrive at the land of the Tibetan nomads, with bright turquoise Tso Moriri lake at the distance. Time to enjoy the lake and the view of Tibet on the other shore. We go close to the Karzok village and monastery. We have lunch on the way.

We ride a horse today to explore the old Korzok monastery and walk to the nomad tents in the wild valley just behind the Karzok village. We also take a cool dip in the Tsomoriri Lake. We have plenty of time to take in the beautiful scenery and atmosphere in our comfortable camp by the lake. An abundant Ladakhi dinner is served at the restaurant.

Day 7: Tso Moriri Lake - Pangong Tso Lake (210 km)

Today we ride along the Indus river in the Rupshu valley through Chumathang hot springs and the Mahe Bridge. After passing the checkpost, our route begins once more ascending. The road is in perfect condition with unparalleled beauty until we reach Lake Pangong Tso, at 4250 meters above sea level, located in the Chushul Mountains. It contains saline water, but freezes in winter. Local guides say there are no fish or aquatic life in the lake.

The lake is on the border between India and China. From here, it is not possible to continue on the highway. We would need special permits and according to what locals told us, are not easy to obtain. We camp in tents in the night. It is easily a point of rejoicing on the road where we look for wildlife, photograph the beauty of the landscape, admire the stars and share with the group..

Day 8: Pangong Tso - Nubra Valley (320 km)

Today we get up early but without shrillness and go to the dining room for breakfast. We have a typical tortilla and toast with butter and jam, but also homemade pancakes, honey and even spicy legumes! After a heavy breakfast with a spectacular view of the lake, we make a small off-road excursion along the shores of luminous blue-green magic of Pangong Lake.

The objective of this stage was to travel as much as possible but as usual, the laziness of my teammates in the morning made us lose some time. After passing through the last checkpoint of Tangtse, which give us access to a stretch of about 50 km, we reach Durbuk.

Also, at this stage, we had to cross the second largest mountain pass in the world called Chang La pass (5360 m). It was not going to make things easy for us. The weather began to change and it began to snow until we reached the pass with almost no visibility and lots of snow everywhere. After a couple of photos and a lot of cold we continue. We started to go down and the streams were all frozen.

We go down and down. In the distance we could see Tangtse, the big city in this part and then we left to Shachukul.

We have a steep climb - the recently opened road to Wari La Pass at 5,300 will demand our undivided attention. There are not many references about this place on the internet but, from what we had heard, they did not look very good. The road follows the course of the Shyok River and is in terrible condition, with most of the sector being pure loose rock. The only favorable thing about this section is that the road is not consistently up.

From there it is a wild journey down in terms of our bikes in the vast and arid expanse of the Nubra Valley, where we will visit the ancient, remote Diskit monastery. This road is the ancient Kashgar route in Central Asia. It is also the supply route to the Siachen Glacier, located further north, which is a boundary point of Pakistan, India and China, and the second largest glacier in the world outside the polar regions.

We ride on quiet roads through small remote villages, and the sun makes everything warmer. There is peace in the valley. We continue descending thinking that it would be good to find a place to eat, but here there are no dhabas or villages. Luckily we had bought some emergency cookies and some potatoes and this would be our food on the side of the road seeing the views.

We do not stop hallucinating with the landscape. As something so arid can be so different in a few kilometers. Today's destination is Turtuk, an oasis surrounded by high snowy peaks. Known as the ancient Baltistan, Turtuk seemed to us that it was at the end of the world but, like every time we make plans, we arrived there after evening. The inhabitants of Turtuk speak in Balti. They are considered, first, Baltis.

If we continued a few more kilometres on these roads, we would be on the border with Pakistan, but civilians are not allowed to go there, since only ten kilometres away is the border or line of control between India and Pakistan. But, we are almost there. It is the gateway to the Siachen glacier, with the snow-covered peaks of Mount K2, visible on the horizon from the top of the town.

Turtuk is located at the end of Nubra Valley, in a desert region crossed by two rivers (Shyok and Nubra) and almost isolated from the rest of the world. The organized excursions, after spending the night in Diskit, go to Hunder sand dunes or ride a camel and some approach Turtuk to buy dried apricots (considered the best in the country) in the first store in town but nobody stays there to walk and, even less, to spend the night.

Entering this quaint little place through a rickety wooden bridge with strong military security, a sense of tension and gravity envelops the atmosphere. Photography around the bridge is strictly prohibited due to the sensitive nature of the location. On the way across the suspension bridge, there is a beautiful creek adjacent to the war memorial for those who fought in the Indo-Pak war in Kargil.

Gray sand, like ash, heat and dust, accumulate like a cloud on the banks of the river, with miles of nothing except jeeps and maybe some locals working on roads here and there. Time seems to stop along with the stillness of the hot air, due to the maintenance of the road, which tends to happen frequently in trips like these.

We assume that's why we were the attraction of the day for the inhabitants of Turtuk. Shortly after crossing the bridge for pedestrians we found smiling faces as women and children greeted our step. We went to find accommodation without much success.

Turtuk is made up of a couple of villages, one of the main ones is Pharol, which is located on top of a hill. A boy took us through the town to a small homestay. We got a double room with dinner included and have dinner and spend the night in the guest house with its cozy garden.

Day 9: Turtuk - Stok (325 km)

We wake up in one of the most lost corners of the world. The fresh and pure air of the mountains make this trip something special. Traveling to a place is not just to get there. It's about the trip, especially on a road trip through Ladakh. It is the feeling that evokes a place, being there in the moment. If she is not able to stir emotions that make a lasting impression, it did not make sense to have gone there.

To look at the landscape at a distance with narrowed eyes, this town could well imitate the Italian countryside, with tall green Viridian trees in contrast to patches of pale ocher barley. There is a desire to stay, the feeling of being part of a time tunnel in the past that would change if it were abandoned.

Could such a place exist in the realms of reality? Or was it an accidental door opening into the land of Alice's secret wonders, so that being as knowledgeable as outsiders was like looking through the mirror?

We have a half-day ride through the wide valley to the Panamik Hot Springs, followed by an afternoon riding Double Hump Bactrian Camels through the Hunder sand dunes. It is said that these camels, called Bactrians, have a Mongol origin and were used to travel the silk route.

When it was interrupted, a colony remained in these dunes and here centuries go by. After some photos, we continue to the temples of Diskit Gompa, which houses a 100-foot-tall Maitreya Buddha statue. From where we can see the entire valley. The worst section would be found about 50 kilometers from Diskit, between the small towns of Agham and Shyok.

We visit some small thermal baths and finally rest after finding very good accommodation in the center of the town of Diskit. Here, as usual, we also visit the workshop. We were more relieved to see the cheerfulness on the face of John as his bike did not give any major problem after the battery replacement in Darcha for which he was skeptical. We left early without knowing if we would have the strength and desire to reach Leh. Although this time it was not necessary to insist a lot, here we had to convince John and Freddy to go ahead.

While I was buying a commemorative patch to sew on my jacket in case we managed to cross it, my head started to spin because 5603 meters seemed like several meters. Our warm-up ride take us to the most famous monasteries in Ladakh of Hemis and Thiksay in the upper Indus Valley.

We cross the villages of Karu and Sakti, and stop to admire the Chemrey monastery. We then continue to Hemis, where every summer the festival is celebrated in honor of Guru Padmasambhava, known as the second Buddha and responsible of extending Buddhism to the Tibetan world.

We go further on to the majestic and iconic Thiksey monastery built in 1430 AD and considered one of the most beautiful monasteries and buildings. We visit the ancient capital of Leh, Shey, with its famous monastery that houses a great golden Sakyamuni Buddha. The trip ends at Stok at night, which is followed by a night's stay at the hotel.

Day 10: Leh - Alchi (250 km)

Today we take our bullets up mountain narrow tracks to the remote Tangyar village and through an unnamed mountain pass to Hemis National Park, an ancient forest. By the way, we also took the opportunity to visit the ancient capital of the kingdom of Ladakh, Leh. We stroll through its busy streets, buy souvenirs and once again enjoy the tasty Tibetan food of the place. We visit the Leh Palace, a former royal residence, and the Shanti stupa from which we can see the city and the fertile agricultural valley of Leh.

We have a cold morning climb to the Khardung La pass, located at 5320 mt. Khardung La is less than 60 kilometers from Leh by road if it is in good condition and if we do not count the last stretch that does not exceed ten kilometers. Although less touristy than Manali, Leh is also a holiday destination. Many tourists take advantage to get closer to the supposed highest motorable road in the world.

The traffic during the ascent is more or less fluid although in the first kilometers and we find many taxis and tourists. After passing the first control, the decision to leave early was a success. We adapt better to the harshness of the road. It does not matter - the mud, snow, water, and potholes. Slowly, we like more of the sensation of fighting against the elements. We enjoy without worrying so much about the conditions.

We stop at the ruins and temples of the large snake Buddha statue in Likir monastery and the former royal palace of Basgo and the Ser Zung temple, famous for its huge frescoes. The destination of our day is the oasis of Alchi and up to the endless forks of the La Fatu pass that meanders up to 4,000 meters. Post the Alchi Monastery, we visit the Magnetic Hill that shows an epic confluence of the Indus River and Zanskar.

During the ride, our biggest fear was fulfilled. The wheels of the motorcycle of Roni got deflated. In the end, we had to make several trips around the valley to find a workshop, but it was not that bad either. Through a somewhat tricky route, we would go back once more to Leh while we pushed the bike in turns.

After leaving Roni and Freddy who were repairing their motorcycle in an official workshop, we continued until the night became powerful. We had no choice but to stay at night in a nice camp in Uleytokpo, on the banks of the still young Indus River, where our group meets again for a good dinner to recharge energy for the long day that follows.

We spend the night in a charming hostel in an apricot orchard near the oldest monastery in Ladakh, now a Cultural History Museum with exceptional temple murals that have been restored by students of the University of Aachen. We have dinner at the garden restaurant.

Day 11: Uleytokpo - Kargil - Sonamarg (270 km)

According to all the references, this would be the last difficult day of our trip. What we did not know yet was the intensity of that difficulty. Although it would not take us long to discover it. We start the day with a spiritual note by visiting the Samstanling Monastery. After rolling a few kilometers through the beautiful valleys of Kashmir, we make the first stop at the monasteries of Lamayuru and continue to the Kargil War Memorial.

The region is famous for its lunar landscape, and has attracted several film production companies in recent years for its natural beauty. Lamayuru is the home of one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh, dating from the 10th century. Local legend says that the place was once a lake that dried up. It contains a majestic collection of frescoes, carpets and thangka.

The route is guided by the path of the Indus River, a very nice point where we will make a stop is the Sangam Point where we can see the union of the Indus and Zanskar rivers.

Our journey leads us to Zoji La, the last of the great steps we would have to face. The accession was quite hard and, although the altitude of the pass is lower than previous ones, here we find much more snow. With the night approaching, after circumventing a descending stretch of road of about half a kilometre that looks like a river due to the melting snow, we find ourselves with a desolate vision.

A massive traffic jam of trucks that make the upward journey and tourist taxis that do it the other way extends as far as we can see. The mountain road is in terrible condition and with a huge precipice. It is a perfect complement to our nerves, as we were already exhausted after a long enough day. It took almost an hour to travel a few kilometers in, which would undoubtedly be the hardest and toughest experience of the entire journey.

In spite of everything, we did not have any severe problems, and we managed to get relatively well to the Sonamarg hill station, where a giant landslide prevented us from continuing. Being that way, we looked for a place to spend the night among the various hotels of this holiday destination. We went to sleep hoping that the road would be cleared by next morning and its snowing in July. Its like winter in July here.

Day 12: Sonamarg - Srinagar - Anantnag (140 km)

From Sonamarg, the road continues to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir through several bustling towns that contrast with the tranquillity that we experienced in previous days. Srinagar is chaotic but at the same time beautiful. Despite the stifling traffic, its ephemeral beauty is visible from any side. The Dal Lake provides a soothing balm to our minds. We stop here, with enough time to find a workshop and repair my motorcycle (which day after day is deteriorating more and more).

We leave the bike, take a walk through its congested streets, and eat amidst splendid views of the lake. We leave Srinagar, and when it is already dark, we find decent accommodation in Anantnag. Right there we are lucky to enjoy the delicious cuisine of this area of the country in a feast of biriyani and lamb rogan josh that leaves us more than satisfied.

We only have the way back to Delhi. From now on, it is necessary to subtract kilometers to reach the end of our adventure.

Now, from the comfort of our home, we can analyze the greatness of this adventure and give us an account of the real dimensions of what we were able to overcome. It was a journey of thousands of kilometers through the Himalayas, where the roads, for the most part, were terrible. There were challenging cliffs, many dusty curves, and extreme conditions that did not push us back.

I had to come face to face with some of my fears, accompanied by unusual and extraordinary landscapes, in a constant challenge that would end up becoming one of the most important experiences. These are memories that I always return to when people ask me about the places that impressed me the most and about my favorite moments of the trip.

The truth is that it was not bad at all and less if I take into account that I had never ridden a bike on that long stretch before. But I did it, and that will stay with me forever.
Kalyan Panja