2 months ago while cycling across Spain, my friend Miguel phoned me with this crazy idea. We ride one of the highest mountain passes in the world, on motorbikes that were designed in the 1930’s.
Well of course I said yes, this was just stupid enough to work!
My Royal Enfield Bullet 500
Starting from Delhi we traveled 1000 miles north over the Himalayas, passing through Ladakh & Kashmir.
The hardest section was from Manali to Leh as we passed over the Himalayas. With the highest pass a whooping 5328 meters high. Making it the second highest in the world!
This road is only open for the summer months as it has to be cleared every spring by the Indian army. We rode during August when it was surprisingly warm during the day, dropping to just above freezing at night.
We covered this in eleven days.
Delhi >Chandigarh >Mandi >Manali >Keylong >Sarchu >Leh >Kargil >Srinagar >Jammu
Click the thumbnails below for larger pics.
We rented the bikes in Delhi from Mr Lalli Singh, who we can recommend as he provided an honest and professional service, qualities seemingly difficult to find in India!
My Royal Enfield Machismo 500 cost 22,000 rupees / £250 for a month. Miguel’s classic; a newer model with fuel injector was slightly more.
If you plan on riding for more than 6 weeks it’s probably better to buy, though you cannot register it in your own name.
Before we could leave we had to get the bikes blessed! Which consisted of a 5 minute Sikh prayer and sweet puff cake offering to a Hindu God.
With the Gods appeased we were ready to start our adventure!
Delhi is a chaotic, filthy, overpopulated city… but the worst part is definitely the driving!
Few drivers have mirrors, and the ones that do, wont use them.
Here it’s all about the horn. With the bigger vehicles taking priority, leaving us bikers pretty far down the pecking order.
That said, the only person to hit me was Miguel. Who twice shunted me from behind and had a third accident with a local.. maybe wise to let this crazy Spaniard drive in front.
Outside of Delhi our guide left us and we headed 220km North on National Highway 1 to just outside Chandigarh.
Highway was in good condition but had to be wary of undertaking and the occasional cow in the road!
We may have escaped Delhi but delhi belly has caught up with us. Day of safe packet food.
Got pulled over by a cop for crossing the line at a junction, the local who did the same was obviously ignored. Thankfully we talked our way out of it with only a warning.
More cows, dogs, horses and donkeys in the road. The worst and scarily frequent problem is overtaking on blind corners.
The first time I narrowly missed a truck overtaking another truck on a corner I was in shock, with my hands visibly shaking. It is however such a common occurrence, that you quickly get desensitised and focus more on avoiding these assholes.
It’s no wonder that India tops the highest road fatalities in the world.
On the plus side we have left the highway and are now driving through some beautiful country side.
Arrived to Old Manali, a hippy town where Cannabis grows EVERYWHERE. The shops and atmosphere were strangely similar to the alternative hippy scene in Brighton/Camden/Bristol.
Manali To Leh
Our main adventure begins. This 500km road stretches out over the Himalayas, with the highest pass up a serious 5328 meters high. Second highest in the world!
We covered this stretch in 3 days; first stopping in keylong then camping at Sarchu (4600m) before riding to just outside Leh.
Only open for the summer months, as the winter snow forces the route to close. It is constantly being rebuilt as the road gets destroyed by the harsh winters. The road surface therefore dramatically varies from tarmac > gravel > dirt > deep slippery mud.
Rohtang pass is the first high pass at 3980m and in my opinion one of the hardest, as the monsoon turns this dirt road into an absolute mud fest! Often riding on the edge of the cliff to avoid the worst of the mud. This leaves you precariously sliding around less than a meter from the cliff’s edge. One wrong move and death would almost certainly be waiting at the bottom.
Unfortunately I was too shit scared focusing on driving to photograph the worst sections of this road.
Slipped with the bike twice, bending and twisting my metal gear selector on a rock and breaking part of my panniers. Had to ride in 1st and 2nd till evening. Thankfully fixed at Keylong for less than £2. It’s impressive what Indian’s can fix with a hammer and a little welding.
We fill the jerry cans and tanks as we wont be seeing another petrol station for days!
Keylong to Sarchu
Met two Italians who have broken down and on the “advise” of the locals were about open up a gearbox to replace the clutch cable. Thankfully Miguel stepped in and showed them a much easier way.
Later while crossing a stream, Miguel clipped a rock on his pannier, sending him flying up into the air. Somehow managed to land without even a scratch! Panniers not so lucky.
In the afternoon we met an eastern European who had broken his arm and trashed his bike, thankfully he was with a tour who could look after him. Later hear he was flown back to Delhi for surgery.
Further ahead a landslide had blocked the road, short wait for it to be cleared and we were on our way again.
Camping at 4600m
That night we camped at Sarchu, which is only 200 meters less than the highest peak of the alps!
There we bumped into the Italians and two English guys. The Italian couple are sharing a 350cc Thunderbird and the English guys had 350 Bullets.
At this altitude we were all suffering from headaches. Any exercise left us wheezing for breath and dizzy. Felt like an old man with lung cancer.
Camping was fantastic, we had a campfire made from dried poop in a teepee. Night sky was incredible, never seen so many stars.
Not such a great night’s sleep due to the altitude but feeling a little more acclimatised. Clear skies and another beautiful day to ride, no monsoon’s this high up.
First climb has 27 hair pin bends/switchbacks where we encounter cyclists, these guys put us to shame.. Hard-Fucking-Core!
Out of nowhere the most perfectly laid road appears, the Moore plains. Flat ground at 4730m, incredible.
Unfortunately the road only lasts 20k and gives way to the usual dirt track. We push on to taglang, the final and highest pass of the route.
At the top, breath taking views and a great sense of achievement.
Been a difficult but beautiful 6 days. Riding between 8-13 hour every day on some of the worlds most challenging roads.
Euphoric and light headed.
Took some group photos. Then see another group of tourists being sick. Without saying a word we collective decide that its time to descend.
Drop almost 2000m over the next 60km, and with that the headaches and dizziness disappear.
It start getting dark and we discover that Miguel’s headlight have died, he follows close behind and I do my best to avoid the potholes.
Stop just outside Leh in a hotel run by a Buddhist monastery.
Leh and back
Wake up in a real bed and an easy ride to Leh. But first it was time for an English breakfast!
We ride into Leh, a beautiful Buddhist town. Have Lunch and get our bikes patched up.
Here we decided that we’re rather ride through Kashmir to Jammu than return back on the same road. As we’re short for time we stay only one night and set off for Kargil.
While not quite such a dangerous ride, but this 750km route was no easy ride. Faced more difficult terrain and appalling to non existence roads.
But then again… this is what makes it an adventure!
We got off to a slow start as all the petrol stations had ran out of fuel so we had to back track 30 clicks. On the return I notice my tank is leaking petrol. Back for repairs and we we’re finally on our way at 2pm
Had a beautiful ride through the mountains. As we passed through remote villages, kids came running to the side of the road and held out their hand’s for a high five’s as we rode past. Awesome!
Because of our late start we had to ride three hours in the dark over rough dirt track until we made it to Kargil.
We arrived covered in mud and dust, it’s no wonder they gave us the worst room they had.
Kargil was the furthest north we went, it’s pretty remote and staff looked slightly confused when we asked about tourist sights. In 1999 in was central to fierce fighting between India and Pakistan.
Kargil to Srinagar
That morning we see a truck in the river. Stark reminder of how dangerous these roads are.
Road repairs and a big queue, thankfully we slip past on our bikes and the JCB made a gap for us 🙂
Had to skid to a slippy stop as a car speeding the wrong way flies past.
Beautiful freshly laid tarmac, for first time we see proper road markings to indicate overtaking sections. Not that the locals would understand. This of course doesn’t last forever and quickly turns into the usual dirt track without warning.
Ride through Dras, which is apparently the second coldest inhabited place on earth after Sibera. Again thankfully it’s summer.
On some of the higher passes we encounter a much higher level of poverty. Children growing up in harsh environment with little shelter. Stopped and gave a measly donation, must research a good charity and donate.
When we arrived into Srinagar, felt massively out place. Many stares and heavy armed military presence. Even spotted a tank as we drove past. Eventually found a more touristy part of town where many beautiful house boats floated on a river that circles the city.
Lots of fog and mountain roads. Then had 3 near misses is 3 minutes.
I slowly come round this blind corner to find 3 cows only a few meters ahead. One’s partly blocking my lane and the other 2 are blocking the other side.
With a driver coming fast toward me, heading for the gap in my lane.
There’s no where for me to go so all I can do is brake, HARD. Heading towards a cow, he flies between the cows and I turn hard to dodge the cow and pass through the gap that he occupied a fraction of a second earlier.
I will forever remember the image of him smiling as he whizzes past. Speechless.
I knew it was close, but only after I find out close from Miguel how close.
Between a cow, an oncoming car and massive cliff’s edge I count myself very lucky indeed.
Definitely the closest I’ve come to death.
Few turns later and I face two oncoming trucks overtaking on another blind bend. Brake hard, veer left and BEEEEEEEEEP. Trucks slow and I scrape passed. Scary for England but standard here.
At this point I’m riding high on adrenaline and the next near miss is a making of my own stupidity.
Stuck behind a truck, I see a straight and accelerate hard (for an Enfield), pass two lorrys but in what appeared to be a straight, I can now see a massive
pot hole crater.
Hit the brakes to slow a little then brace.
Keeping the wheels straights.
Just before hitting it, I get that oh shit feeling.
The bike launches into the air, I tense my legs, gripping the tank. Fighting to keep the bike straight as it bounces 3 times, with the back wheel landing on either side until it straightens up.
Lucky indeed.. Could of easily broken some bones.
Raise my fist to let Miguel know i’m okay, then pull over at the next lay by.
Just have to expect the unexpected here.
That night we stayed in a reasonable fancy hotel. One veg curry later and I had the worst food poisoning I can remember. Diarrhea and Vomiting. No sleep, weak and feeling rough.
Get to Jammu a few hours later and a massive monsoon hits.
Roads flood and chaos ensues.
At one point my bike stalls and refuses to start. Create a traffic jam then rocks start falling around me. After many attempts the bike fires back into action and I escape.
Later read how a few people have died from falling rocks in the last few days.
Get to a hotel, drenched. Both bikes refuse to start.
The next day we’re still having problems. My electric starter has died and Miguel’s spark plug is screwed.
Although we could get them fixed we decide that with only 3 days until Miguels flights it’s better to skip the boring highway and put the bikes on the train.
£10 for a 13 hour journey and slept 11 hours, perfect.
So much better than capital connect!
That’s all folks… thanks for reading!