Riding High.

Riding High. Classic motorcycling in the Himalayas.

Sitting in our local bar sipping a beer the four of us were getting pretty excited about our motor cycle adventure in The Himalayas just two weeks away. Mark, the sensible one, made the comment that once on our way we would be travelling from our home city of Leicester, at a mere 200 feet above sea level, to the highest road in the World at 18,000 feet - a little higher than the Everest Base Camp - in just four days.  Did we think we would suffer altitude problems?  Duncan, Dave and myself dismissed his notion with typical male bravado and ordered four more beers, but his words did come to haunt us later.  Not that the altitude, or side effects encountered did anything to diminish our enjoyment of this trip.

We had booked to join a German tour of the 3 Lakes of the Ladakh and the Nubra Valley.  A wild region of northern India high up in the foothills of the Himalayas.  With our time at a premium we planned to tag a week onto the German’s two week trip and organiser Peter Dos Santos configured the trip to accommodate this without any detrimental effect on his other guests.  We flew into Delhi and enjoyed a crazy 36 hours in this vibrant and chaotic city before catching an internal flight to Leh, itself a heady 10,000 feet above sea level.  Tired, hot, sticky and instantly unable to get enough oxygen into our lungs we met Peter at Hotel Bijoo and, after introductions and a safety briefing, had an afternoon nap.  The rest of the group were away in the mountains and would not return until the next evening.

Feeling considerably better the following morning we were introduced to support rider, Raja Seth, who along with three local lads would be showing us around the immediate area and assessing our ability on the bikes.  We would be riding Royal Enfield Bullet 500’s - a direct descendent of the bikes we produced in the UK back in the 1960’s.  Oh how I coveted one of these as a schoolboy.  Back then they did a range of 250cc models as this was the most powerful ‘bike you could have before passing a riding test.  The model that all novice riders aspired to was the Continental GT with red ‘racing’ tank, five-speed gearbox, clip-on handlebars, swept up exhaust pipe and hump-backed ‘chuck’ seat.  It was simply gorgeous.

They were tricky times for the British Motorcycle Industry, that by the end of the 1960’s had seen it virtually wiped out.  The Japanese were arriving in force with ‘bikes at were reliable, comfortable and didn’t leak oil all over your parents driveway.  Royal Enfield, though, had a massive boost with the Indian Government ordering 800 of the 350cc Bullet models for its police and army to use patrolling the country's border.  Over the next few decades the seeds were sown resulting in a range of Royal Enfields being manufactured in India and exported back to Europe and to the U.S.A. through a dealership in Milwaukee.  The legacy today is that the Royal Enfield Bullet is clearly the most popular ‘bike in the Ladakh where strength, simplicity and ease of repair are factors that far outweigh speed and handling.

The centre of Leh is not the easiest of places to launch yourself into unregulated and mixed traffic on an unfamiliar ‘bike, but we wobbled through town expecting to be knocked off at every junction until we were out on the open road.  The Bullet’s were a delight to ride with the rhythmic ‘dugg, dugg, dugg’ of the single cylinder engine as your music and a winding strip of tarmac reaching out into the Himalayas your vision.

Good roads took us up to the Hemis Monastery that can trace it’s roots back as far as the 11th Century and has existed in much the same form as it is now since 1672.  You can feel the history talking to you through the wooden floors and brightly decorated walls.  Looking into the life of Buddhist Monks on their own territory was a fascinating experience and it was refreshing to see how genuinely welcoming they are to outsiders, even letting us into the large room where groups were chanting to the soft beat of a drum.

We had clearly passed our ‘test’ and continued riding around the area with Raja and his pals eventually finding ourselves back at the Bijoo Hotel in time to meet our fellow riders.  Luckily for us Brits all of the Germans spoke excellent English, as did most of the Indians, so English was adopted as the trip default tongue.  We are forever grateful in our worldly travels that English is such an international language.  Our riding partners seemed a friendly and very mixed bunch and were clearly having a great time swapping tales with us of their ride so far.
The next morning all 18 of us set off following our guide and ‘Road Captain’ Wolfgang Schulte with young Raja riding somewhere in the middle to keep an eye on as many as he could and bringing up the tail Ramish on the last Royal Enfield in the pack with ‘sweepers’ Sunam and Tunrup in a pick-up truck at the rear, that also carried all of our bags.  Peter’s company have over 25 years experience behind them and clearly work to a relaxed, but efficient routine.  There was no chance of any of us drifting off, never to be seen again, though with so few road options this was unlikely anyway.  We were aiming to ride over the highest road in the World that links Leh to Nubra and peaks at 18,000 feet at Khardung La.  This was what we had come for!  It started as an easy ride on good tarmac until we reached a Police Checkpoint roughly half way up the climb.  Right there the tarmac stopped, the temperature dropped and the rain filled potholes started.  Remembering our basics and that water is always flat on the top, but can hide all sorts of obstacles underneath it’s shimmering surface, it seemed wise to avoid these. This made the ride quite challenging as we ducked and weaved our way closer to the sky, the Indian manufactured road pattern tyres doing their best.  It was so bumpy that my Spot Locator devise fell out of it’s holder never to be seen again and by the time we reconvened at the top all of us were feeling like we’d had a work out on the muscles. 

It was misty up there as we were actually in a cloud, so there was no great view and before we all became too cold we began our descent to a lunch stop at a roadside cafe. These humble family run places seem to pop up in the most remote places with a maternal figure in the kitchen, possibly helped by a husband and children and animals running freely outside. Yet they dish up a good lunch - sometimes with a choice.  We all settled on dumplings with a chilli sauce.  Being in India, but so close to the border with China, the food has influences from both cultures.  Our little vegetarian dumplings had a strong Chinese influence for sure.  They were served with Masala Chai, a milky tea flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ground ginger.  By the time it reaches you it is barely warm and, in my opinion, undrinkable!

Refreshed, we dropped down into the Nubra Valley and back onto tarmac, where the weather was clearer and we could fully appreciate the vast arena we were riding through.  The mountains towering around us were slate grey reaching up into brooding skies that could close in quickly.  Thankfully they didn’t and when we arrived  at a small hostel in the village of Sumur the sun was out and it was a warm evening.  Beers were quickly put in the stream to cool and we sat in the shade chatting about the days events.


We had to make an early start the following day as we had over 250 kms to cover over two mountain passes. The undrinkable Masala Chai was brought to our rooms at 06.30 and we assembled for a breakfast briefing from Wolfgang to discuss options.  We would be riding on two high mountain passes that were closed to tourists until as recently as 2013.  Tension between the Chinese and Indian Governments in the area have always been tense, with both sides laying claim to the land, which explained the strong Indian Army presence there. (There are 60,000 Indian troops stationed in The Ladakh).  As if more drama were needed Wolfgang added that there had been quite a large snowfall up there the previous day, but if it became unsafe we could take a lower option.

With a heady mixture of excitement and trepidation we hit the road at 08.30 and were soon out of the comfortable village of Sumur and climbing fast to a point where we were above the tree line and only hardy grasses could survive.  We said goodbye to tarmac and accepted the gravel tracks that we would be riding for the rest of the day.  Scatterings of snow were soon visible on the land around us and a heard of Yaks, their thick coats protecting them from all weathers, were spotted off to our left.  Soon the snow was on our track, but with the temperature just above zero it was melting and a one foot wide track was clear enough to ride on without to much difficulty.  The problems came when trying to negotiate a hairpin bend whist climbing steeply.  Inevitable in the wrong gear for the job several of us dropped bikes, but were soon helped up again by the ever smiling Raja, or Ramesh and able to continue.  It was a tricky ride to the tea stop at the summit, but we all made it with a special commendation to Jörg Heilmann, who at 73, was the oldest rider in the group, but also the most experienced.

The descent was far easier and soon we were out of the snow and onto disintegrating tarmac road. Frost and water damage is inevitable at such height and we often found ourselves splashing through melt water run offs that had taken the tarmac out.  It was on a comparatively good stretch that one of our group, Duncan, fell off!  On a tight bend his front wheel slipped on some gravel and he was pitched off onto some rocks.  It was an undramatic, low speed fall and at first we thought he must be okay, but as we gathered to help him it was visually obvious that he had broken his collar bone.  Within minutes the ‘sweeper’ truck arrived and he was helped in, whist Sunam swapped places and, with a hammer, straightened our the slightly bent front wheel of Duncan’s ‘bike and we all continued to the planned lunch stop.  It was decided that Duncan’s riding was over and a Taxi was called to take him to Leh Hospital for examination.  This all happened with remarkable efficiency, considering where we were.

After lunch we continued our ride hoping to get to the first of the 3 Lakes, Pangong Lake, before darkness fell.  Fortunately good conditions had us all safely at our camp at Spangmik on the edge of the lake half an hour before sunset and we had time to absorb the splendour of the area in daylight.  Under a clear blue sky the surface of the lake was the brightest blue we had ever seen and the mountain tops cut a crisp line between land and sky.  This was one of the destinations only opened up two years ago with the agreement that the Chinese control the eastern end off the lake, just 20 kms away, leaving the western end to India.

The following day was a non riding day giving the chaps a chance to do some maintenance on the long suffering Royal Enfields and us the opportunity to do some trekking around the lake.  To the east was a 2 km. walk to one of the grandest natural views in the area.  A vast amphitheatre of mountains with the lake shimmering in the foreground.  To the north, following the river upstream was a small nomad encampment enjoying the last of the season’s grazing before the Winter forced them to move lower.  Four of us walked up there and were taking pictures of a woman outside her tent when, with a welcoming gesture, she invited us in.   Their way of life is remarkably simple.  There being no firewood at these heights, bottled gas and 12 volt batteries, charged by portable solar panels, are the only form of power, yet she generously enough to offer us tea, which we accepted, rather regretting this when we tasted it.  It was a salty tea with a thin skin of Yak’s milk butter on the surface - a nomad delicacy.  We all managed to drink it out of politeness, but I can’t say I will be in a rush to have another one.

After a reasonable nights sleep, considering we were in tents at about 14,000 feet, we ate a hearty breakfast of omelette and porridge with cups of regular tea before mounting our cleaned and serviced ‘bikes for a ride over Changla Pass, at 17,688 feet  - the third highest road in the World!  Maybe the conditions were getting easier, or we were becoming better riders, but dodging potholes and feeling the gravel shift beneath our tyres was becoming a natural instinct.  What we had not expected was to be having to dice with about fifty 10 ton Army trucks on a single track road.  It was a long climb and, perhaps worryingly, we could see the trail stretching skywards ahead of us around many hairpin bends, punctuated by these trucks at regular intervals.  Their standard of driving was high and they would see each of us in the mirror waiting patiently for a chance to pass.  As an opportunity arose the truck would pull slightly to the left and allow us to give the 500cc engine everything it had in second gear to get past as quickly as possible.  Often we would be on the rough dirt at the side of the…. rough dirt!  It required all of our skills to achieve, but one by one we all managed it and had a clear run to the top for a tea stop and, for the first time, a decent Masala Chai.

That evening we were back in The Bijou Hotel in Leh and greeted by Duncan who had been X-Rayed confirming a broken collar bone.  He had decided to fly back to the UK in the morning and get it treated at home.  Understandably, he was disappointed as he, above all, had been looking forward to a good adventure and break from his demanding work.  We though, had two more lakes to visit and an early start had us mounted up and on the road at 08.00 hrs.  An easier ride with a gentle climb through a lush green valley, the colours almost luminous in the clean, unpolluted air.  Then climbing through a pass cut into red sandstone glowing in the morning sunlight.  Soon we were above the tree line and sweeping through long bends on good tarmac enjoying the purest form of motorcycling in wide open valleys between mountains that are part of the highest range in the World - The Himalayas!

We had one more high pass to cross though.  At 17,582 feet slightly lower than the previous day, but boasting the World’s highest restaurant strewn with Buddhist Prayer Flags to wish travellers a safe journey.  From there it was a slight drop to the second lake, Tsomoriri Lake, where would camp at our highest campsite of the trip.  Sleeping in a tent when the temperature is just below zero is okay with enough bedding and a hot meal inside you.  We had all of those, but throughout the trip the altitude had been seriously effecting our sleep as we gasped for oxygen.  It is noticeable that when you change your body’s natural rhythm the brain has some mechanism in it that makes allowances.  There is an area of the brain that must remain active when you sleep and periodically wakes you up to remind you that oxygen levels are dangerously low.  You wake up, hyperventilate for a couple of minutes, then fall asleep again.  Repeat every 15 minutes and, whilst you get some sleep, it can never be enough.

After a particular bad night I felt drained in the morning and faced a 200km ride back to Leh via our third lake, Tso Kar.  We started from the camp and the riding was easy enough, but I felt my eyes going and was aware that I was hallucinating a little.  Fortunately there was enough of a brain left to tell be to stop riding and I swapped places with Sunam in the Pick-up.  He was very happy to ride for the morning, whilst I rested, half asleep in the rear seat of the truck.  After lunch I was fine and continued to Tso Kar, the smallest of our three lakes where we were lucky enough to see a herd of Kiangs, a small horse unique to The Ladakh.  The shy creatures ran off as we approached, but we felt privileged to see them.

From Tso Kar it was a beautiful run back down to the Indus Valley and on to Leh and the end of our trip celebrated with a large Italian meal in Il Forno - not surprisingly the only Italian Restaurant in Leh!

Back home a few days later and in the same bar, Duncan was strapped up to allow his collar bone to recover and had analysed his GoPro film.  His theory was that as he fell he stretched his left arm out to protect himself.  A natural action, but in this case his elbow was straight and the force moved to the collar bone and broke it. Us three were fine, but it took me at least a week to catch up on my sleep.


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Peter’s Classic Bike Adventure Tours

Peter Paulo Dos Santos has been running tours of The Ladakh and Goa using Royal Enfield motor bikes since 1990.  There experience ensures that the trips are both fun and efficient.  The Royal Enfield 500 Bullets we used were all it excellent condition and we all agreed the trip represented excellent value.
Peter can be contacted via the company web site.