It was a regular day in the salon, mid-2014 when a regular client Justin mentioned a motorcycle trip he was going to do with his dad to celebrate his dad’s 70th birthday stop I was intrigued from the start, it was an extreme motorcycle tour in the Himalayas, in India. After he had returned from the tour, we had many discussions about it, and how life changing it was. I felt a burning desire for adventure like never before… also, I thought to myself; if a 70 year old man can do it surely I can do it as well!
After some online research, and a few phone conversations with the tour company owner (Extreme Bike Tours), Zander, I felt confident that I would be competent and safe, travelling as a solo female, riding a Royal Enfield 500. The mighty Himalaya motorbike tour was booked for June 2015!!
Bring on the solo adventure of a Lifetime!!!
Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur – 8 hours.
With a 2hour, 50 min stopover.
Kuala Lumpur to Delhi – 5 hours and 30 mins
Total of 16 hours, 50 mins.
After a 12 and a half hour overnight, eye-opening, chair-gripping “luxury coach” trip from Delhi, we finally arrived in Manali, 2050m above sea level. Rishi Palace is our home for the next two nights while we acclimatize to the altitude.
Manali is a high altitude Himalayan resort town in India’s Northern Hemisphere whole Pradesh state. It has a reputation as a backpacking centre and honeymoon destination set on the bays River it’s a gateway for skiing in the Solang Valley and trekking in Pavarti Valley. It’s also a jumping off point for paragliding, white-water rafting and mountaineering in the Panjal Mountains, home to the 4,000 metre high rohtang pass.
We were transported into the main town for dinner at the Johnsons fish cafe, washed down with a few Kingfisher beers. Afterwards, we had a tuk-tuk race home which was hilarious. The night traffic was hectic, and I was astounded at how many people were out and about after dark.
A lovely leisurely morning ride to acquaint ourselves with our own personal bike.The Royal Enfield was such an easy bike to ride – light and low to the ground, with low revs. Xander said “treat ‘em like a tractor” and he was so right. Also, my first taste of traditional Indian Chai and some locally grown apricots – great for sluggish travel tummies.
This is no ordinary Road. It is a dirt/gravel road that passes through the beautiful valleys of Lahaul and Spiti. A 479 km insane stretch, the road is scenic yet challenging. Extreme care has to be taken while riding or driving as the road is prone to a lot of landslides and Avalanches. Due to the popularity of the destination City of Leh-Ladakh’s, the road is often congested. The road is only open in summer as it suffers severe snow blockage during Winters. We were fortunate enough to experience all of these conditions !! This is one day that I seriously questioned my commitment to this tour. “Extreme” was an absolute understatement !!!
On Our ascending ride, heavy rain fell unexpectedly so we all got very, very wet, and very, very cold !! I have never been so cold in my life!! Nor have I seen snow/ice so deep ( at this point I was thinking: what have I gotten myself into? ) It was terrifying… navigating the icy road with Frozen hands, arms, legs and chattering teeth, while my whole body shivered uncontrollably…
What a weather and culture shock. We were all frozen to the bone, hungry and so relieved to be below the snowline. The warmth of the sun was so welcome. Our crew bought this little shop completely out of alpaca socks! Also, I will never forget MAGGI noodles, Indian omelette and spicy Chai – that was pretty much all we lived on from these little stalls along the way.
Keylong, Himachal Pradesh
With an altitude of 3,080m, Keylong lies on the bank of Bhaga River where Chandra Valley, Bhaga Valley, and Chenab Valley intersect.
We were all pretty happy to get to the Tashi Hotel and thaw out and dry out, both our bodies and our gear!! I will never forget my feeling of relief and gratitude, arriving in the lovely warm, wood-fired restaurant.
Sunrise woke me early so I took myself on a solo photographic adventure. The morning was crisp and cool, and very peaceful, with the village still sleeping. A perfect time for exploring and discovering these ancient prayer wheels, carvings and ruins. A pleasant surprise when I stumbled upon these old hand painted signs. I wish I could read them : Sanskrit is such a beautiful alphabet. Also managed to accidentally find the Bhaga River.
Keylong to Sarchu
Heading for the second pass, the mighty Baralacha La (16,617ft). The roads over the pass are pretty good and the views are incredible. From here an easy 100km road to Sarchu (13944ft) for our first night camping and further acclimatising.
Below : my ride, distinguishable from the others by the red and gold talisman from Justin, wrapped around the left handlebar.
Elevation 13944 ft.
There is our tiny little camp, at the base of that very high rocky, snowy mountain. We had a minor avalanche during the night with lots of rocks crashing down the cliff face and landing on and around our tents. Pretty scary in the dark because you can’t see a thing!! I just stayed in my sleeping bag because I thought to myself: “ if I’m going to die, I may as well be warm”. Thankfully no one was hurt.
We woke to our campsite being totally covered in snow and super cold, so the bikes need warming up before we rode. The ground was icy, wet and muddy making for very slippery and dangerous riding conditions. We were pretty much riding in dense cloud, so visibility was extremely poor, reducing our riding speed dramatically. Once again, I thought to myself: “ what the hell have I got myself into?”
My poor frozen bike !!!
Sarchu to Rumste
The snowfall continued quite heavily causing my visor to fog up on the inside. So… one finger wipe on the outside to remove the snow, then one finger wipe on the inside to defog. At this point it was so cold all my fingers and toes were frozen, making it impossible to operate the bike controls. As we ascended the Gata loops, consisting of 22 switchbacks, there was a complete white out with zero visibility. Almost at the top, I dodged a pothole and hit amount of slippery mud and snow on my left, and my bike just went for a big slide, and before I knew it I was on my backside in that mound of mud and snow. At this point I was once again wondering what I had signed up for!! Seconds later, Gaz and Matt were there to assist me and get my bike back to upright. I had to go for a little run to get my blood flowing and warm up – worked a treat!! This particular day ‘extreme’ was an understatement !!!
Below : Moray Plains
A 180km ride over Lachalang la (16617 feet) and then over the Moray plains – it was a great feeling to finally open up the throttle here. Then over Tanglang la and on to the first village in Ladakh – Rumste for another night of camping. The roadside facilities are always interesting to say the least…
The second highest pass in the world.
This is literally like being on top of the world !!! The air is so clean and crisp, the peace and quiet, only ruffled by the whisper of the breeze, and the gentle flapping of the thousands of colourful prayer flags… The reflection from the sparkling snow dazzles your eyes. and then there is that beautiful blue sky…
At 13,779 ft above sea level, Rumste is the first and smallest village in Ladakh. We set up camp for the night, and after 180km of freezing cold and wet riding, we welcomed the sun and dried out our gear.
Below : Big Dog makes his cameo appearance !!
Rumste to Leh
Another daunting checkpoint… with military casually wielding machine guns, and often a long wait. This 80km leg of the journey provided some decent roads and took us past thrilling landscapes and Buddhist monasteries, along the Indus River and Leh, Ladakh, our base for the next week.
With a population of over 30,000 people, Leh is the capital of Ladakh. At 11562 ft altitude, the air is thick, and rest was required. Even after riding over the high passes, acclimatising is still necessary, to deal with the fatigue. Our accommodation for the next few days is the Oasis villa, located about 5 minutes walk from the main town. It was clean, comfortable and had Wi-Fi !! The decor, colour schemes and bathrooms are very interesting as well as the nifty upcycling.
After checking in, unpacking, and hot showers, a few of us set off to discover the sights, sounds and smells (not always pleasant) of Leh. We were relieved to stumble upon a hidden little coffee shop serving authentic espresso coffee ( a rarity in India). Hundreds of Indian prayer flags flapping in the breeze at a wonderful festive element to the streetscape.
The main street was a total assault on the senses !! People, colour, noise, smells and dust. There was considerable commercial construction occurring, mostly carried out by manual labour, assisted by the simplest forms of hand-made equipment and machinery. When it all appears to chaotic, there is always that beautiful, blue Himalayan sky.
And the joy of finding the wine shop!! Sula was really the only red wine available at $20 per bottle. Sensible drinking was advised due to the high altitude – none of us seem to struggle though!
Left to right :Gaz, Mary, me, Andrew, Matt and Adrian
Day trip to Alchi Monastery
Alchi Monastery Choksor, lies around around 65 kilometres from Leh, on the banks of the beautiful Indus River. Dating back to the 10th century and founded by Ringchen Zangpo, who employed 32 sculptors, as well as wood Carvers to construct the monastery. Alchi is regarded as one of the oldest and most important Buddhist centres in Ladakh, and also as one of the monastic Jewels of Ladakh. There are five shrines in the Temple complex which has some splendid wall paintings. One of its walls features thousands of miniature sized images of the Buddha. Three large sized figures made of brightly painted clay are it’s focal attraction. Religion has not been practised for the last 500 years in the Alchi monastery, however it is looked after by Monks from the Likit monastery.
Tibetan Prayer Wheels are used by many tibetans daily, sometimes 4 hours on end. As part of the meditation practice, worshippers turn prayer wheels to accumulate merit, to help all beings in the world and to purify their karma or intentional actions.
The Indus River Is one of Asia’s mightiest Rivers at one of the longest rivers in the world. From its source in the northern western foothills of the Himalayas, it flows 3,180 km through the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and along the length of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The river and it’s 5 tributaries spans four countries and supports over 200 million people. The beautiful turquoise colour of the water is derived from the melting snow.
Below : Mary and I and the Indus River
A Chorten is a Buddhist Shrine. Typically a saint’s tomb or a monument to the buddha.
Returning to Leh for the night, with a nice little street adventure, a sneaky espresso from our fave cafe, and then to prepare the bikes for tomorrow’s ride.
Serthi – 13,500ft
An early brekkie for an 8.30 departure, with everyone moaning about cold showers (lucky for me I had a hot one) We all rugged up for the 180km journey with water crossings and snow. It was rush hour and there were traffic jams everywhere. On the outskirts of Leh, military camps line the roads for miles and miles. Gradually the mountains are dotted with monasteries, and the scenery becomes breathtaking once again.
We stop at a chai house with a non-existent toilet – getting far too used to squatting – haha. I made friends with a cute little girl about 3 years old, and then an old lady who was circling the Stupa clockwise, chanting and counting her 108 Tibetan prayer beads, one by one. Her thick plaited hair reaching to her waist was very oily and joined at the base buy a piece of string.
We begin our Ascent, gradually zigzagging up the mountains. The base of the valley is a chequerboard of green paddocks surrounded by rock walls. It’s just beautiful. The landscape then becomes quite desolate with literally no vegetation.
The roads are mostly ok, but soon start to deteriorate once we hit the snowline, with lots of water crossings and mud, from the melting snow. There is a surprising amount of traffic. At this point we are riding above 5 massive gliding condors… such a life defining moment !!!
Chang La Pass
It was bitterly cold !! I was surprised at the amount of people there, and friendly donkeys haha.
The charm of Pangong Lake is it’s ability to change colour. The shades range from light green to Crystal blue and sometimes even golden, red and pink. It is believed that change in sky colour and light refraction at high altitudes causes this phenomenon. The lake has a surface area of more than 700 square kilometres and stretches for more than 134km. Pangong Lake, situated at a height of almost 4,350m, is the world’s highest saltwater lake, spanning both Eastern Ladakh(India) and west Tibet (China).
A spot of Yak racing anyone ?
What magnificent creatures – never thought I would be riding a Yak in the Himalayas!!
Once again I am in awe of the beauty of the Himalayas : the turquoise water against the terracotta mountains – just exquisite.
Once our camp was set up, a few of us went for a hike up that hill behind us.
View from the top – There is our camp way down below…
We stumbled upon this group of stone walls and closures. They seem to be purpose-built to contain small to medium animals. Upon further investigation, they are most likely utilised by the Ladakhi pashmina shepherds, of which there are very few remaining. A single Shepherd can herd up to 300 sheep and goats, in temperatures as low as -32 degrees Celsius. The shepherd’s also harvest the silky Wool from the underbelly of the goats, and hand spin it to reduce the finest Cashmere. This provides a healthy secondary income to the shepherds.
BARRY THE MARMOT
Appearing to Vijay’s whistle, Barry was a wild but very tame and friendly Marmot, who was quite happy to be hand fed biscuits and have a scratch on his belly. He stood about 2 feet tall when coaxed with a biscuit and took a particular liking to Matt. Marmots are large ground squirrels and belong to the rodent family. They are known for standing upright and whistling loudly when there is danger, perhaps from a bird of prey like an Eagle. Marmots prefer living in mountainous areas up to 7200 ft high, and live in harems of 1 male and 2 or 3 females. These harems live in larger groups called colonies. The males are territorial and a male Marmot’s Territory covers for four to seven acres.
It was bitterly cold and windy so the Indian boys constructed a Yak dung fire, which was welcomed by all of us. The fire was surprisingly hot, and not as smelly as you may imagine, and still hot enough the next morning to cook a breakfast. Thankfully no flavour was transferred to our food!!
…Rain woke us all – not the best riding weather. Thankfully, as the sun rose, the rain dissipated. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, beans and good strong coffee, all of which was prepared on the Yak dung fire from the previous evening. I wandered over to a nearby mound of rocks called a Chorten. Some Chortens are built to subjugate evil forces, others as supports for wellbeing and yet others as a part of funerary rights. The Indians take prayer time, and walk around the Chorten,, all the while chanting and counting their 108 Tibetan prayer beads, one at a time. There were lots of beautiful Sanskrit carvings on the rocks so perfectly scribed. I would love to know what they say…
Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley – 150km
The weather ahead looks quite forbidding, so we all rugged up really well.. The newly opened Wari La pass, was newly closed. Also the K stophardung La Pass was closed due to high snowfall and avalanches. We were told that we may not get through and consequently have to go all the way back… a very, very long way. Vijay suggested a shortcut, but some of the boys disagreed and were planning to go their own way, which I thought was pretty crazy. Luckily I was able to convince them to trust Vijay, as he had done this particular trip many times – 32 times in fact. Eventually we departed together as a team, with a heavy sense of trepidation for the journey ahead.
Thankfully the rain held off, and eventually the clouds cleared. The sun was very welcome. The landscape became extremely desolate and devoid of any vegetation. It is difficult to fathom the sheer depth of this valley, and the real beauty of the mountains against the stunning blue sky.
Shyok River Lodge
We had a rest stop along the way at Shyok River Lodge, a community-based eco-friendly retreat tucked away in a remote part of Ladakh. The Lodge is situated close to the place where India, Tibet and Pakistan meet. It overlooks the wild Shyok river and the easternmost ridges of the karakoram behind it.
Situated about 150 km from a, Nubra Valley is known as the Orchard of Ladakh and was originally called Ldumra, which means the valley of the flowers. Known for it’s orchards, scenic vistas, bactrian camels and monasteries, Nubra Valley is the northernmost part of Jammu and Kashmir.
We travelled through the base of the valley, which was initially good roads, then deteriorating to the point where the road was no longer distinguishable from the terrain. I found it almost impossible to manoeuvre my bike over the large, smooth rounded rocks. As all motorcyclists know : if you look at it, you will hit it… All of a sudden, the front wheel of my bike hit an extra large rock and threw me off sideways, with my bike coming to rest on my leg, and foot. Matt came to my rescue and lifted the bike off me. My foot was hurting a fair bit, but luckily nothing was broken. I had to dust off my pride, put on my “big-girl knickers”, get back on my bike and keep riding. To be honest, I really needed a hug, but soldiered on regardless.
Eventually the road appears, and the landscape changes. Times like these I did wish I had a GoPro. We follow the river which is a beautiful turquoise colour from the melting snow. There are sections of the road which are still quite precarious – slippery Shale under wheel with jagged rocky outcrops overhead and the thought of a land-slide was entirely realistic – a sense of fear was quite prevalent. Many times I have had to swallow my fear, at the same time loving the thrill of the adventure. We have to pull up a few times because the going is so tough. I was a bit gun-shy after my fall , so taking the conditions very seriously.It was definitely the most interesting day of riding so far.
Our campsite just happens to be in a river-bed cow paddock, a little concerning considering the recent snowfall in the mountains…
It was so cold we could chill our beers in the little creek. Everyone was excited for the big day tomorrow – crossing the World’s Highest Motorable road. Some shenanigans were had that night, with another appearance from Big-Dog !!
Today’s ride started out with the news Khardung La was closed due to the heavy snow falls overnight, and subsequent avalanche, blocking the pass. ViJay decided to press on regardless.
The road conditions deteriorated rapidly, to a muddy, icy and slippery mess. I was completely surprised by the amount of stationery traffic – so many cars, trucks and buses full of tourists lining the side of the mountain road, waiting for the pass to open. Our bikes were able to slip and slide past all of them, arriving just as the snowplough had finished clearing the last of the avalanche. Solid black ice covered the road for about 200 metres, making it extremely slippery for our two wheeled bikes. All of the boys went first, with hands-on help from our spectators. Most of them lost control and fell over. Vijay had said to me earlier: “ when riding over ice, keep the revs very low”. That advice was my saving grace, and after refusing help, I chugged along tentatively, and thankfully my icy crossing went without drama.
We made it !!!
This is the moment we had all come to the Himalayas for – to ride across the highest motorable road in the world. Unfortunately the celebratory moment was cut short by the loud blast of explosives, triggering the potentially destructive avalanches. After a few quick photos we were back on our bikes and out of there as fast as possible before there was another avalanche.
We all arrived safely back in Leh. With a spare day to explore the high altitude city some more, my boots were a muddy mess so I decided to have them properly polished by the”smiling shoe-shine man”.I asked hi9m his price, and bargained him down.. He proceeded to shine my poor, muddy, expensive Harley-Davidson with a smile on his face. All the while we talked about his wife and 3 beautiful children – he was so proud – and the day to day financial struggle of survival. He took such great care with my boots, applying layer after layer of different products and vigorously polishing them many times with such precision. He did such a wonderful job, they look better than new!! When he was finished, I was so happy with my “new” boots, I donned them, thanked him, and walked away. Halfway up the hill I thought to myself “did I pay him?” I looked back, only to see him sitting there and smiling up at me. I asked him if I had paid him, and he said “no ma’am”, still smiling. So I ran back and apologised profusely, and paid him double what he originally asked for.. He could have chased me up the street, but he just sat there with patience and humility. I will never forget that smiling face…
Some random pics from the day…
Early morning adventures in Leh with Ian and Deb.
The primary diet of the street donkeys seems to be supplemented by the abundant Street waste, some of which ends up as tree decorations. We decided to explore the deserted Ancient Palace, circa 1533 AD and 9 storeys high.
Street dogs were abundant. Initially shy, then friendly. Most of them appeared to be well fed, but very dirty and smelly.
I rose early to go for a wander around the back streets on my own little solo adventure. The city was still asleep, so nice and quiet and calm, with not many people around. I felt an interesting sense of privilege to experience this, compared to the chaotic hustle that seemed to be normality. The little narrow streets twisted and turned, with new discoveries around every corner. The smells were interesting as well, delicious breakfast aromas, punctuated by putrid rotting rubbish. The waste management in India is something else…
Dating back to the 11th century, Hemis Monastery is considered to be the largest Buddhist Monastery in the Ladakh region. It is The Llamas training centre for all of thel the royal monasteries and at 12,000 feet, one of the world’s highest settlements.
We had some T-shirts custom made for each of us at a little embroidery shop in Leh. This was the last time we rode our Royal Enfields and with Vijay and the boys, before returning to Delhi. During our tour, I had noticed that some of the Indian boys lacked decent warm clothing, and shoes. So when we got back to leh, I decided to give them my Kevlar Jeans, track pants, flannelette shirt and Ugg boots. They were very humble and found it hard to accept my gesture.
We farewell our favourite Indian Barista with a final Cappuccino, and return to our hotel to prepare for our departure to Delhi the next day.
Leh Airport Was antiquated, chaotic, and ridiculously unorganised. It was clearly uncertain whether our flight would leave today or tomorrow, and in typical Indian fashion, there was twice as much paperwork completed than necessary. Due to the altitude, and high winds, flights only depart and land in the mornings. being a military airport, the security was tight, Indian Army guards armed with machine guns were everywhere, so a photograph of the interior was totally out of the question. Eventually we boarded an extremely crowded spicejet domestic aircraft, for an hour and a half flight to Delhi. I was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a freshly prepared handmade inflight meal, carefully wrapped in Glad wrap. A welcome treat to hasten the bumpy flight.
Indira Gandhi Airport, Delhi
It was such a relief to land safely, even if we did arrive into such a noisy, chaotic airport. A crazy taxi ride, taking in the roadside sights of Delhi – there’s those unfinished buildings again… and back to the quiet luxury of the Justa and lucky for me a lovely queen-size room all to myself (the benefits of travelling solo) for the last night of the most amazing adventure of my life !!
“What have I signed up for?”
In 2015, life was very busy running my salon business, and studying Graphic Design full-time. The “Extreme Motorcycle Tour in the Himalayas” presented both an exciting challenge, and a wonderful mid-year break. Nearly seven years later, almost exactly to the day, this article was written..
The seven year gap gifted a wonderful opportunity to re-live such a spectacular holiday, and also an interesting memory challenge. My trip diary was an excellent reference tool, accompanied by my 1,500 photos and their location information conveniently supplied by Google Maps. Our tour was led by Vijay, the shy Indian gent, who was not very confident with his English, so communication was minimal. I am reasonably certain that if Zander had led our tour, the commentary along the way would have been far more informative. Consequently, I have thoroughly enjoyed the new little journey of discovery that I have had, while collating this book (part of me wished that I had known a lot of these facts whilst on the tour, but would I have remembered them ?)
There were countless occasions where I wanted to stop and take photos of the breathtaking scenery, or the extraordinary road conditions, or the visions that were blurred by the extreme weather. But then we would have taken twice as long to get to our destinations. The internet has been my best friend with borrowed images, and lots of educational facts and figures along the way. Sometimes, the photos do not do justice to what the naked eye sees. And more often than not, the size of the photo is not nearly enough to appreciate the incredible, spectacular scenery of the Himalayas.
There were many times where I asked myself “What have I signed up for ?” or “What have I gotten myself into ?” But I am confident that I wasn’t the only one questioning myself. We all had to soldier on regardless, because there was no turning back. Bitterly cold, howling blizzards, zero visibility, or roads that were a foot under water, or snow. Being the only female rider, there were many times that I had to put my big girl knickers on and get on with it. Vijay assured us that these conditions were very unseasonal for that time of year, which didn’t do much to warm us up, or boost our confidence.
The intense cold was something that I had to manage, to avoid a disastrous outcome. Riding with frozen hands and feet is next to impossible, so I would resort to my own version of “motorcycle aerobics” whilst riding to prevent my whole body freezing. When camp was being set up, I would help – much to the dismay of the Indians – to get my blood flowing again and thaw out. There was always afternoon exploring to do, to thaw out, stretch out and warm up. I was very thankful for my hot water bottle at night, keeping my feet warm, whilst tucked in my sleeping bag, in temperatures as low as minus twenty degrees.
Although they deliver a sombre message, I was continuously amused by the road signs. With the varied spelling, rhyming and English translations providing a few laughs along the way.
In reflection, I am so grateful for such a once in a lifetime experience. It was absolutely the bravest thing I have ever done in my life. Would I do it again ? Probably not. Do I regret doing it ? Absolutely not. Would I recommend this tour to another motorcyclist ? One hundred percent YES !! It was definitely character building and on many occasions, “Extreme” was an understatement.