A Dream Bike Trip to Ladakh

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 dream destinations, you may have already heard about it. A thousand kilometers 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 kilometers. 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.


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. At night, we were finally in Manali. 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 visit a nearby waterfall. We 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 two difficult days that would take us to Leh, after crossing the spectacular Zanskar mountain range. In a short time, we reached Rohtang Pass. We were not surprised when we saw hundreds of people enjoying the snow of the glacier at Rohtang Pass.

However, the descent to Khoksar was hard as the road was in a terrible state. From there, we continued into increasingly spectacular landscapes. We refuel in Tandi, the only fuel pump in the next 365 kilometers. Near Keylong, we start looking for a workshop where we can do some basic bike repairs.

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.

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. 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 place to stay. 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 AMARON 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 kilometers 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 - Leh (330 km)

The most challenging day of the trip awaited us. More than 300 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, we said goodbye to the snowy peaks and launched for the final stretch. We have about 100 kilometers of descent to Leh, where we arrived well into the night, with just enough time to find a decent lodging and some hot food. From Baralacha La (4890 m), we descend a thousand meters of altitude to the beginning of the Gata Loops. From here, we climb to Lachung Lang La (5070 m).

After a brief descent, 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.

Day 6: Rest in Leh

Although this time it was not necessary to insist a lot, here we had to convince John and Freddy to take another day of rest. 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 Palace of Leh, a former royal residence, and the Shanti stupa from which we can see the city and the fertile agricultural valley of Leh.

The next morning we had thought of ascending the highest step in the world. 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.

Day 7: Leh - Khardungla - Nubra Valley (180 km)

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 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. Little by little, we like more of the sensation of fighting against the elements. We enjoy without worrying so much about the conditions.

We ride on quiet roads through small remote villages, and the sun makes everything warmer. There is peace in the valley. 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 Amaron battery replacement in Darcha for which he was skeptical.

If we continued a few more kilometers on these roads, we would be on the border with Pakistan, but civilians are not allowed to go there. But, we are almost there.

Day 8: Nubra Valley - Pangong Tso (175 km)

We took advantage of the first hours of this eighth day to visit, first, the dunes of Hunder. After some photos, we continue to the temples of Diskit Gompa, 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.

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.

After passing through Durbuk, we reach the last checkpoint of Tangtse, which give us access to a stretch of about 50 km. The road is in perfect condition with unparalleled beauty until we reach Lake Pangong Tso, at 4250 meters above sea level, where we would spend the night. 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.

Day 9: Pangong Tso - Tokpo (220 km)

After a heavy breakfast with a spectacular view of the lake, we make a small off-road excursion along the shores of Pangong Tso. 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. Also, at this stage, we had to cross Chang La (5360 m). It was not going to make things easy for us.

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 Tokpo, on the banks of the still young Indus River, where our group meets again for dinner.

Day 10: Topko - 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. 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.

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 kilometer 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.

Day 11: 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.

5 comments:

  1. It sounds absolutely amazing, but also kind of terrifying! What an amazing experience, thank you for sharing it with us - You're a great storyteller!

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  2. Although I had heard of Ladakh it's a destination I've read more about only recently thanks to some posts like this from a bunch of travel bloggers. It looks like a really great place to visit, especially by motorbike, quite the thrill to ride that road and enjoy the changing views throughout the journey. Great to read your breakdown of the trip in terms of days and where you stopped each night.

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  3. Wow! This is quite the adventure! I have never heard of this excursion so I'm glad you shared this!

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  4. What an epic journey! Congrats for finishing it. I don't think I could ever bring myself to do something like it haha

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  5. What an amazing adventure!!! I confess i don´t like riding a bike, but i agree that this is a wonderful way of travelling. Amazing place...

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