Himalaya is the name of the world’s highest mountain range running along the top of the Indian subcontinent. The term is also used to refer to a much larger mountain system that includes, in addition to the Himalaya Range, neighbouring ranges such as the Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges. (I’m assured that the locals put the stress on the second syllable: Him-al-aya.) Mostly, both the range and the broader mountain system get called simply The Himalayas.
The Himalaya Range itself has several of the world’s highest peaks; and the greater Himalaya mountain system has all fourteen of the Eight-thousander Club – the peaks over 8,000m high. Dylan, my grandson, and I got to see many of them on our Nepal/Bhutan trip (the ones we passed by or flew over are marked in purple on this map.)
This Himalaya tour is further to the west of the cluster of high peaks in the map; and will head pretty much due north from Delhi to Manali; then right through the main Himalaya Range, which, as it continues east, takes in the Annapurna massif, which dominated the surrounds of Pokhara in Nepal, where we did our parahawking, before merging with the ridges that house Mt Everest and neighbouring peaks, and then continuing past Darjeeling in the shadows of Kangchenjunga before taking in Bhutan’s sacred mountain of Jhomolhari. We travelled under the mantle of all these mountains during out Nepal/Bhutan tour.
On this Himalaya tour, there were several peaks along the way that rose to 6,000m and higher; and several passes that we crossed higher than 5,000m. It was a very much an “up close and personal” encounter with Himalaya.
The Lure and Fears of Himalaya
I’ve had several of my fellow travellers from previous Meanders Abroad seek to persuade me to do the Himalayan Heights tour of Ferris Wheels, with whom I have done five previous trips. While there’s a lot about the tour that had initial attraction, I consistently stumbled on the apprehension of tackling the treacherous (or imagined as such) riding: the narrow, mud-covered roads, with their precipitous drop-offs, Tata trucks and busses coming around the corners two-abreast, the multitude of water crossings as snow-flow tumbled down the mountains!
I was convinced that I would never do the Himalaya. I was determined I would never do it. There was some – rational or not – fear that kept me away from any serious consideration of it.
But, like my approach to other trips, once I crossed a certain threshold for whatever reason, something takes hold of your thoughts, emotions and determination. I hadn’t been convinced of or committed to previous trips until the crossing of that threshold, which usually came about through a sudden emersion into research on locations, people, history, culture and overall tourist attractiveness. It was then like Paul’s enlightenment on the road to Damascus. And you wondered why it had taken so long to see.
There was one significant difference between Himalaya and other tours: with the others, it was just a matter of time. I was always disposed to look into them. I just had to get around to it. With Himalaya, I had made up my mind to rule it out without any further preliminaries.
But that changed. Some fellow travellers from the Nepal/Bhutan tour had recently done a tour across the Himalaya with Extreme Bike Tours, an India-based company managed by an Brit; and were planning to do another. Having stumbled across their plan, I idly checked out the tour – more out of curiosity than anything else. My first foray into doing this confirmed all my previously established fears. Then, imperceptibly, enticements emerged slowly from behind the shadows.
I couldn’t say that there was any one factor that took hold. There was no single, gelatine-like ingredient that set the jelly. Key factors that surreptitiously embalmed me included a magnetism from tracing the route across every pass via satellite imagery; the fascination of the eclectic mix of religious and cultural heritage; having recently shared some difficult and scary riding with the same fellow travellers and the support received from them (I anticipated I’ll need more of that on this tour); the length of the tour (shorter than I would ordinarily have warmed to, but comforting in this case); a more leisurely pace that revealed itself by the number of kilometres covered each day; and, surprisingly, the expectation of conquering the passes, the water-flows and the fears (bolstered by discovering the number and variety of people traversing the Himalaya route by motorbike, mountain bike and on foot!) . There were some major downsides. We wouldn’t get to visit Srinagar or Amritsar – places that have especial historical, political and cultural attraction; and would have been special treats. But there was some compensation in branching out into less-trodden parts of the Himalaya, such as Pangong Lake and the Nubra Valley.
The tour was undertaken with Extreme Bike Tours. I was attracted to the tour for a number of personal reasons (as outlined above); none of which was in any way a reflection on the Ferris Wheels tour. In many ways, they are quite different products.
Guide to the Tour
In preparation for the tour, I prepared a rough guide, as I have done in the past, copying unashamedly from Internet sites. Hopefully, the guide will add to your appreciation of the content of the tour; and perhaps whet your appetite. You can access the guide here: Himalaya Tour.
I spent some extra time catching up on sights in Delhi and Agra; but I’ve written these up on a different page under Non-Motorcycle Meanders.
Map of the Tour
The map, which I have inserted in Satellite mode because it’s more interesting to zoom in on the passes and switchbacks in that mode, shows a combination of what was planned (but not always possible because of road closures) and what was added in as alternative options. You can change the map to Map mode to get a better idea of the locations relative to cities. And if contour lines are your forté, you can switch to Terrain mode.
View Himalaya 1 in a larger map
An Early Glitch
The planed schedule was to fly from Delhi to close to Manali – about 400km north of Delhi. We had early warning that the planned internal flight from Delhi to Bhunter in the Kullu Valley just south of Manali was no longer running owing to the demise of the domestic arm of Kingfisher Airlines. The tour provided for bike collection in the vicinity of Manali, so we travelled by a full-size touring coach with semi-sleeper seats – for just nine of us. Needless to say as compensation for an expected 12 hour (turned out to be an 18 hour!) coach trip, the coach was amply laden with eskies of beer, soft drinks and water. Then there were the duty free refreshments most of us had arrived with. Plus the several meal stops along the way.
Having got away from Delhi around 10:00am, we arrived at our hotel near Manali in time to see the first sparkle of dawn before getting a few hours sleep ahead of being introduced to our Classic Royal Enfields.
Getting Ready for the Passes
Over the next couple of days we first took a short ride along the Kullu Valley to familiarise ourselves with the various idiosyncrasies of the Royal Enfield; then a day’s ride up the more challenging Parvati Valley to the pilgrimage town of Manikaran, sacred to both Hindus and Sikhs. The town is known for its many temples, hot springs and scenery. While we had options for trying the hot springs, our main objective was to master the bikes ahead of our assault on the Rohtang Pass the following day.
I was very relieved to find that my bike had a high level of consistency and predictability of gear change especially in that important change from 3rd to 2nd, which is so vital in the terrain we would be in. I hadn’t experienced such good gear changing in the Enfield before; and it was to provide a lot of comfort and consolation as we climbed to and descended from the high passes; and managed the endless switchbacks.
These days also provided the opportunity to meet the support crew and get some idea of what to expect from them and the terrain. There would be eight of us (nine including the tour leader) with a support crew of three vehicles and twelve staff. This reflected the fact that we would be camping out on several nights, so the tasks for crew, in addition to motorcycle maintenance, included pitching individual tents for us as well as the kitchen and mess tents, setting up the toilet tent, and preparing the meals. It all worked smoothly thanks to their well-oiled routine.
The tour leader was a relatively young Englishman – but more a sort of Indophile Peter Pan, combining an evident love for India with a boyish irreverence to all and everything (and an obvious intention never to grow up) – he would even qualify for the arguably complimentary Australian moniker of larrikin. He’d spent many years even before he and Vijay, his Indian partner, started Extreme Bike Tours hanging around the beaches of Goa, where he had struck up a lasting friendship with Vijay, who had been the local fixer of anything relating to the Royal Enfield. Together with their quartermaster, Billaram, the trio made a thoroughly efficient and delightful band that could take on anything Captain Hook or even the Sherriff of Nottingham could throw at them. The experience was as enjoyable for the company of the trio as for the quality of the food and service.
Mind you, camping in the Himalayas is not everyone’s cup of tea; and we were pleased not to have had more than two nights in a row before retreating to a hotel.
The first of the passes we crossed was Rohtang La (Rohtang Pass – ‘La’ is simply the Tibetan word for ‘pass’). It conjured up an apprehension far beyond warranted by its height. After all, it would be the lowest of the nine high passes we expected to cross on the trip. But it has an evil reputation. It’s been described as one of the most dangerous roads in the world – prone to landslides, mud and horrendous traffic as locals go day-tripping to play in the snow. It’s also very narrow and rough in parts (as, indeed, all the pass roads were). One significant difference with Rohtang La is the fact that its southern side – the side we would climb – faces the monsoon-prone lower country and so is more susceptible to landslides, mud and driving rain. Fortunately for us, we had good weather, but not without horrific traffic, a few patches of sloppy mud, and lots of weaving in, out and around stalled traffic in both directions.
It was a great relief to get to the top with no burned-out clutches or major incidents. It was more the build-up of pessimistic expectations rather than any particular hardships of the ride that bought the feelings of relief. We lingered at the top, with time on our side, having got an early start that morning and a relatively quick ascent. But the sky was rapidly changing so we soon moved away from the increasing grey above the southern approach to Rohtang La. And it was just as well. We later learned that the south side had copped heavy rain shortly after we had made our ascent.
The descent from Rohtang La down its northern face was rougher than anything on the ascent, with mud and loose gravel on the switchbacks. We also encountered our first water crossings as substantial waterfalls cascaded down the cliffs and ran over the road. I was fast encountering new challenges and even faster having to learn new skills.
It was even more of a relief and more comforting to reach our first stop-over on the Manali to Leh Road at Keylong – a small, well-established village that becomes totally isolated over the winter months when the passes are inaccessible. We had the comfort of a hotel in Keylong that night, enjoying local hospitality.
The second day along the Manali to Leh Road had us climb over the 4,890m Baralacha La.
I felt decidedly more settled by now. Rohtang La was behind me. I had experienced switchbacks with varying surface conditions, traversed a couple of water crossings, felt the bone-shattering shaking of some of the road conditions, and felt the comfort of predictable gear-changing (apart from the expected false neutrals and an occasional slide of the back wheel as you mistakenly hit the brake when you meant to change gear – having the brake lever on the Enfield where you ordinarily find the gear lever on other bikes!). I could tackle Baralacha La – and, indeed, the rest of the trip – knowing that I could do it! That made such a difference to my outlook and enjoyment.
The much higher Baralacha La (relative to Rohtang La) meant that there was a lot more snow on the peak of the pass and on the towering slopes above the pass. Our first sighting of the shrine that traditionally marks the high point of the pass brought another sense of achievement. Not more than a couple of hundred metres before the pass shrine, a Tata truck had come to grief. It seemed incongruous that it has fallen so close to the top – not that such a thought would have been on the driver’s mind.
We had a small memorial ceremony at Baralacha La. One of our number had put together a framed montage of photos of one of our fellow travellers who had been on the Nepal/Bhutan trip in 2010-2011. We had called him Mick, but he had been know to his friends as Mike. He had died shortly after the Nepal/Bhutan trip. His close friend, Graeme, who was also on the Nepal/Bhutan trip, placed the picture along with many other miniature shrines on the summit of Baralacha La.
The descent from Baralacha La brought us down to the area of Sarchu. Sarchu is a popular staging post for travellers who stay in one of the tent camps there (that’s about all there is in Sarchu). We stopped about 13km short of Sarchu and chose our own camping site, where we had our first chance to see the operation of our support crew. It wasn’t long before we had our own sleeping tents in place; and could retreat to the mess tent for an afternoon chai.
A Long Day: My Birthday
My 2012 birthday dawned for me at our camp site near Sarchu. I would be celebrating my birthday with our longest riding day: three passes to cross, two of them over 5,000m; the Gata Loops of 21 switchbacks to negotiate; and a 50km stretch across the dry, sandy More (Mor-ay) Plains.
It was an early start fortified only by an early chai (or black tea as I preferred) with brunch scheduled at Pang – after The Gata Loops and the first two passes of the day.
The day started with a relatively pleasant ride on reasonable roads for about 40km before we started the climb to Nakee La and Lachulung La. The first phase of the climb was scaling the Gata Loops, which consist of 21 tight switchbacks in succession that take you up a vertical height of 466m over 7km of road. Rounding the switchbacks made it seem that the road itself was vertical! The road all through the Gata Loops was soft and lose, slippery and inviting the bike to slide. It remained pretty awful as it almost imperceptibly scaled Nakee La at 4,739m and struggled to maintain its hold on the mountain sides to get to Lachulung La at 5,059m. The road down towards the tiny camp of Pang was no better and threw up rocks and water as though both were essential components of the road.
Pang, humble as it was, was a welcome rest for brunch and chai before heading across the More Plains and the next high pass of the day in Tanglang La.
The More Plains extend for some 50km and are a few kilometres wide in places. The plains have an average altitude of around 4,000m. The road starts with a nice, smooth, straight bitumen surface. Along the sides of the road are flat, hard-surfaced “sand pans” that lend themselves to some rapid, dust-exhibiting riding – just for fun! Then things got tricky. Lots of road repairs, reconstructions and new foundations push you ‘off-piste’ onto long, wide stretches of at times quite deep powder-fine ‘sand’ (more akin to the ‘bull dust’ encountered on Outback roads in the centre of Australia). Some bikes stalled. Others had near-topples. All had to push hard to get through one patch after another with short intervals of half-made road in between.
A brief chai stop adjacent to the local More Plains Hotel and Bar (a thin canvas yurt of sorts) was our next lot of sustenance before making the assault on Tanglang La, which, at 5,340m, would be out highest pass on the Manali to Leh Road.
Despite its altitude, the climb to the top of the pass was not as arduous or scary as Lachulung La had been; and it was fairly barren, not exhibiting as much snow as lower passes we had crossed.
The day ended with setting up camp at a location called Rumste – about 70km short of Leh. While 70km seemed at a glance enticingly close to Leh, we were unanimous in our contentment at making camp and not having to spend a few more hours covering the distance to Leh. In fact, one of the attractive features of this tour was that the five-pass trip from Manali to Leh was spread over four days (at last three and a half) rather than three, as with the Ferris Wheels tour.
The woodless camping site was initially not prospective for a fire despite the prolonged attempts by Scot, one of our more intrepid fellow travellers, to get one started. Soon enough, Bamaram and one of his staff appeared with wood and cowpats bought from local shepherds.
Much to my delight, I was presented with a bottle of top Australian Red as a birthday present (lovingly brought all that way in Scot’s luggage); and to top it off, Billaram, quartermaster and overseer of the kitchen, produced a chocolate coated birthday cake that he had cooked up in the kitchen tent after pitching camp.
A Look Back on the Manali to Leh Road
Overall, the Manali to Leh road over the Himalaya Range was a mix of rocks, mud, loose gravel, thick powder-fine dust, water courses running across the road, some patches of ice and snow, lots of sharp switch-backs (many with either mud or very loose gravel on them and often enough a TATA truck trying to negotiate the almost 180 degree turn from the other direction), potholes galore (many filled with water), and some bitumen (both good and ancient historical).
All in all, it was a full-on, exhausting but satisfying ride. And without incident except for two riders who at different times tried to take a short cut between switch-backs only to find the track far too steep for the Enfield to manage. No harm done. Just a little hurt pride.
As we climbed towards the top of the passes, the poor Enfields would frequently give a cough or three or four as the engine gasped for oxygen that simply wasn’t there at the altitudes were we reaching. It was necessary to back off on the throttle until it caught its breath or reach down and turn the petrol tap off a tiny bit to reduce the flow of petrol to match the reduced amount of oxygen available.
Despite being only a 70km ride to Leh from our camp site at Rumtse, the road wasn’t consistently “great” as foreshadowed; and it took us about three hours. We enjoyed a day and a half of rest and recovery in Leh after our ride from Manali.
The hotel in Leh initially had more shortcomings than benefits. It had all the potential to be a quaint, serviceable hotel of more than sufficient comfort and convenience. However, being more accustomed to local clientele, it needed a hurried make-over, which it duly got.
On a more positive note, our support crew took over the hotel kitchen, so our meals were excellent. We also had ‘drinks’ left over from a joint purchase in Manali (we didn’t drink much en route because of the effects of the altitude) so pre-dinner drinks in the garden were de rigueur (not to mention Kay’s morning coffee ‘with a twist’ (of Kahlua)).
Leh provided endless shopping forays; and purchases I had no intention of even contemplating. But it was all good fun.
Leh – and presumably the whole district of Ladakh – is inhabited by a people who look and speak a language similar to Tibetans. Needless to say there are many cases where the affinity with Tibet and Tibetans is evident: Tibetan markets, handicrafts, other goods, refugees, political messages etc. The market streets of Leh are full of tourist goods as well as antiques, old paintings and silk carpets. It was nice to relax and enjoy.
Our schedule for Leh included a day trip to Lamayura Monastery on the Leh to Srinagar Road. That would also have entailed seeing the characteristic moonscapes of the area and visiting Fotu La, the highest point on the Leh to Srinagar Road. I don’t know if this trip gets done regularly, but the prospect of 240km round trip in a day didn’t much appeal after the Manali to Leh Road. A new option emerged, namely, to visit the Monastery of Alchi, which was also along the Srinagar Road but much closer to Leh. It was a good option. The monastery was founded over the period 1020-1035 as a shrine that attracted many contemporary famous artists. It’s one of the oldest shrines in all of Ladakh.
The monastery is in fact a complex of buildings in the near-by vicinity. The Alchi Sumtseg in the complex is one of the most outstanding buildings. The Sumtseg is a three storied building, though small, built with loam and natural stone in the Tibetan building tradition. However, the woodwork columns, facades, walls, clay images and paintings in the interior of the monastery were made by Kashmiri artists. The sanctum in the ground floor and the first floor has images of three Bodisattvas (a Bodisattva is an enlightened being), all in standing posture and about 4m in height. Most of the Sumtseg is well preserved in its original form, as built in the early 13th century.
Chang La and Pangong Lake
Leh was also to be the start of a 3 day circuit: west over Chang La and to Pangong Lake for a camping night; then back over Change La and north over Wari La into the Nubra Valley; and finally over Khardung La from the north and down the south side into Leh.
We had a great ride over Chang La with a height of 5,360m. This, as with all the passes, is the height of the pass itself, which is overshadowed by the peaks of the surrounding mountains on both sides of the pass. At 5,360m, Chang La could well be the highest pass we cross, despite the claims, accolades and boasts relating to Khardung La, which claims to be higher and, indeed, the “highest motorable road in the world.” (More on that below.)
The climb to Chang La was long and on a decent enough road until possibly 6-7 km from the top. It was a similar situation from the top of the pass down the other side. For these lengths of the road, the surface deteriorated into patches that were worse than we had experienced on the road from Manali to Leh. There were a few spots where the road was nothing more than a pile of rough rocks with no dirt or sand to provide grip – and water quickly flowing the full width of the road. There were more water crossings than on the full length of the Manali-Leh road; and several were significantly deeper.
Once down from Chang La, the road improved and snaked along valley walls for mile after mile, changing from one valley to another, as it made its way to Pangong Lake. The lake sits at 4,350m and 60% of its length lies in China (or Tibet, as is often claimed). Having no out-flows of creeks or rivers, the lake is saline and has high mineral content. It has spectacular colours of blue and green, with a backdrop of high, barren hills of almost every shade of brown.
We camped a few kilometres back from the lake (supposedly less cold) and were entertained by “Barry the Marmot”, who seemed to expect the group from previous visits. (A marmot could be described as a rock squirrel but is more the size of a beaver – half way between a ‘possum and a wombat.) He was undoubtedly pleased to see us.
Once we broke camp, it was a lengthy ride along a deep valley until we gradually approached the evident end, where the walls seemed to meet, with their snow-capped tops. As it turned out, there was an unseen valley going off to the left, which we tuned into. This valley broadened into a wide base with even higher sides. We had done all this coming to Pangong Lake the day before, but the network of valleys had not been so evident.
Then started the climb back to Chang La with the deep water crossings, which had been on the way down from the top the day before. Also more evident coming up this side of the pass were the high perpendicular walls of snow that seemed to tower above the bikes. The ride down from Chang La was possibly more difficult than the ride up the previous day. It’s easier getting through the rocky stretches with some power. Coming down, with brakes, that’s not always so easy when you’re negotiating avoiding cars coming against you looking for the best line to take.
The next day’s plan was thwarted by a rock fall on Wari La which would prevent us getting into the Nubra Valley. So we headed back to Leh for the night. That was a disappointment, but not entirely unexpected where conditions can change so quickly.
The necessary change of plan would have us tackle Khardung La the following day as a day trip from Leh up and back on the southern approach to the pass..
Khardung La has considerable controversy about it. It’s been long claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass; and signs at the top attest to that, although the signs so clear on the Internet all seem to be drowned in prayer flags. Modern GPS surveys suggest the height of the pass is 5,359m rather than the claimed 18,380ft, which would be 5,602m. That puts it on par with Chang La, which we crossed the day before. Irrespective of the controversy, we are talking significant heights above 5,000m – almost two and a half times the elevation of Mt Kosciuszko and significantly higher than any pass in the European Alps.
Khardung La is almost overlooking Leh; not that you can see one from the other. But the road to Khardung La seems to start in the middle of town; and it isn’t long before a gradual climb commences. For most of the way, the road, although narrow with a centre line of thick sand, was sealed. It ran along valley walls for reasonable distances before switching sides and climbing up the next wall. Eventually, the bitumen ran out, the road sharply deteriorated into sand, gravel, rocks and fanned-out water running across or down the road. The climb got steeper and the switchbacks came into play. All this for about the last 20km to the top.
We got an appreciation of how easy rock falls can happen. There were delays in both directions as a grader sought to remove huge boulders from the road, leaving the road at the next level down (after the lower switchback) strewn with smaller but still substantial rocks. Regular blasting to remove dangerously loose rocks was also part of the process.
Notwithstanding the doubts about Khardung La’s claim, it was satisfying to have made the top. If everyone else that gets to the top of the pass boasts that they have conquered the world’s highest motorable pass, why shouldn’t we? But I did avoid buying a T shirt to that effect. Instead I had one embroidered that simply recorded that I had crossed five passes higher than 5,000m! (Even that has turned out to be inaccurate since we didn’t cross Wari La.)
We were back in Leh by 1:00pm to heat and sunshine. In fact, Khardung La had been the only place where we felt some snow flurries and a decidedly cooler temperature than at any of the other passes.
Our last day in Leh was a pleasant 50km ride to Hemis Monastery or Hemis Gompa, hidden well up a high valley off the Leh-Manali road. Hemis Gompa is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Ladakh (the district of which Leh is the capital). It dates back to the year 1630.
We took a back road to return to Leh to avoid crowds already gathering as we came out of Leh to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The back road, we were told, would be okay because recent reports had indicated that there was no water on it. Ha! We had at least six or seven major mud-bottomed, deep and wide, in effect, billabongs to negotiate; plus some pretty rough roads although nothing like the roads across the passes. Expecting the day’s ride (in 30°) to be a straight-forward bitumen cruise, I hadn’t quite dressed for the water!
We all made it back without any drowned bikes, but to a less than impressed Vijay.
Back to Delhi
It was an uneventful flight back to Delhi, but not before we had a full-on celebratory dinner in Leh that provided us the chance to revel in the exploits and triumphs of the voyage.
We had planned the farewell dinner on the eve of our early morning flight to Delhi. However, one of our number, Scot, who had endeared himself to one and all with his cowboy, cavalier approach to the venture – and his genuine camaraderie – had to leave a day early, so we brought the final dinner forward. It was a good night of cocktails, good food and good cheer – somewhere high up in the labyrinth of lanes and narrow canals that constitute the back streets of Leh. Getting home in the dark was as much a challenge as any riding day – almost.
We had a quiet final afternoon in Leh capped with local cheeses, the bottle of the Australian Red that I had been presented with on my birthday and other alcoholic beverages that needed demolishing before the next day’s flight.
We caught up again with Scot in Delhi. He hosted us all to lunch at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi – an institution that epitomises the Raj and Empire days of early India.
The monsoon had made its first appearance the day before we arrived in Delhi, bringing not only rain but the first day in over five weeks when the temperature dropped below 40ºC.
It was a very pleasant feeling to breathe humid air at a sensible altitude after coping with the extraordinarily dry air and the high altitudes. In Leh and over the passes, every air passage had felt as though it had been artificially sucked dry to the point of hurting; and every physical effort was so debilitating. I’ve never felt so welcoming of stepping out into the full strength of a humid monsoon day!
Here is a slide show of the Himalaya venture.
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