We left the lovely family in Jammu after a nice breakfast and hit the road, still humbled after an unexpected free nights sleep and food. The traffic didn’t treat us as kindly though, slowing us on the thin, bumpy roads. The road into the mountains had two lanes, but one was completely full of trucks, all queuing to get onto the mountain roads, they went on for miles and miles, reminded me of the M20 when the Chunnel gets delayed, they must wait here for days at a time. We started losing patience when the road was entirely blocked with trucks though, the driving stupidity was getting off the scale. The oncoming lane was backed up and moving slowly for a few miles, lots of trucks had decided overtaking the queue was a good idea, which is ridiculous because they can’t get back in lane so the whole road is now blocked. This snowballs, because once the road is blocked, trucks further back decide to make use of the empty lane to overtake, but they can’t get back in either. Nobody seems phased by this chaos and we spent about an hour trying to filter through. We learned that if there’s a gap in the road, an Indian will be in it within seconds, it’s mental, and normal.
We arrived in Srinagar in darkness, much later than we’d hoped. Indian driving is dangerous enough to navigate even when you can see them coming, small bikes with no lights, cars pulling out into your lane side on, people overtaking with zero room, all makes for very “pucker’d” riding. We found our self a houseboat out of the hundreds on the lake and settled in for the night.
Day 144 was houseboat day, we only left for a 10 minute walk for lunch, otherwise sitting around using the terrible internet, enjoying the sunset from the boat and building up some energy ready for a few days on crazy roads.
The next day the crazy roads of the Himalayas wasted no time in getting started, with some long stretches of very rough, dusty, thin roads packed with trucks and sheer drops. Very nerve racking to drive on, rocks hidden under the dust bouncing us left and right while you’re trying to squeeze by a truck. We passed without incident though, once you ignore the fact there’s 1000m drop 30cm away you can treat it like any other rough road and we bounced along, uncomfortably, stopping now and then to admire and capture the views.
Arriving at Kargil, we didn’t see much reason for concern in the people in this area, it’s the closest town to the line of control between India and Pakistan for the long disputed region of Kashmir. We’d heard from people to be careful and it’s a dangerous area, there was some shooting between forces here not long ago, and the UN is still here observing the ceasefire, but we saw no sign of it, or any animosity. It was very obvious we were back in a Muslim area though and it did feel more Pakistani than Indian at times, especially the lack of easily available alcohol.
A quick start in the morning to head down Zanskar valley, we planned to camp after 150km so we’d have enough fuel to get back again the next day. It feels weird riding down a road, knowing you’re coming back the same way, almost a waste of time, the trip is always moving forward, always to new places, so purposely repeating an area just feels wrong. It was very worth it though, no traffic, just a rough road leading to more and more wilderness. The road was rough in places, but nothing, my bash plate on the bottom of the bike did take a couple of big hits, adding some more bruises to it. It made for good fun though, rough enough for a challenge, but not enough to cause problems, especially when the road becomes a river, not running across it, running along it.
We found a nice spot to camp in the late afternoon and set up for cold night. My stove was not happy, the pump refused to be a pump and wouldn’t pressurise the petrol, I spent 20 minutes cleaning and oiling it, without much success, and resorted to using Martin and Xenias stove for dinner. Camping with them made me feel a little inadequate, I don’t carry much stuff for camping but I’m usually pretty comfortable. They are luxury campers. They have chairs and a little table, a wash pot, a box of spices and a bunch of other stuff that means they can happily camp for 3 or 4 days in one place without wanting for anything. I even borrowed their picnic blanket for some extra warmth in the night. What I didn’t need was the spider that crawled inside the tent and down the wall then disappeared. To this day I still do not know where he went, I never found him alive or dead, but he certainly didn’t help me sleep.
The next day was just the reverse, except a small detour to a quite unimpressive monastery, the drizzle didn’t help the mood. We got back to Kargil for another night and got off to Leh in the morning. Almost all day on nice tarmac with incredible sharp mountain ranges getting taller and taller the deeper we got into the Himalayas. The road wound through the mountains with very shallow climbs, always cutting back on itself to give us lots of great panoramas of the road and villages; which themselves changed very fast too, outside of Kargil they turned into typical road side stops with no discernible features. All of a sudden, like we had crossed a border, the Islamic look and feel vanished and Buddhism appeared, prayer flags and wheels in the towns and lots of colour.
We rolled into a hotel in Leh and I immediately went on a beer hunt, we’d been dry for 4 days in the Islamic towns, too long with such hard work. Walking around town I bumped into “The Shonas”, two girls on bicycles we’d met at the border crossing between Pakistan and India. We knew they were coming this route but the chances were still pretty slim! We met up with them and another cyclist for dinner and chatted away with pizzas and beer, luxury items for us in this region. I always enjoy meeting up with other travellers on the road. People can have such hugely different experiences in the same countries, especially between cyclists and motorcyclists.
We spent 2 days chilling out in Leh, eating good food again, drinking some beers and catching up on blogs, as well as getting permits for the next few days ride.
Kardung La was the next goal, they call it the “highest road in the world” it’s not, though hardly small at 5300m, but it does bring in the tourists. All the tourists. When we got to the top it was crammed with people, queuing to take photos with the signs there. It must be absolutly rammed here in the height of the season. We took our photos and marvelled at the views, then headed over the pass and down the other side, unlike the tourists who turn around back to Leh.
We failed at finding somewhere to camp for the night all the land was either mountain, sand or a village, and ended up in a weird half finished empty hotel for dirt cheap. We took the back road to Pangong Lake that someone had told us about to avoid having to go back via Leh. Some very rough sections of no road at all, just bouncing across big rocks in a dry river bed, then we rejoined the main road. Despite the tight turns and pot holes everywhere we saw a handful of Indian guys riding Harley’s of all things. There roads are full of tourists on motorbikes here too, Leh is a perfect spot to fly in, rent a bike and ride around the area, but they’re generally on Royal Enfields, not Harley’s.
After a bit of searching and scoping out, we found a nice spot to camp right on the shore of the lake, hidden from the road and the wind. Xenia cooked a nice veg curry, determined not to let me eat my instant noodles again, my low food standards offend her. The temperature really dropped in the night though and I was glad for the picnic blanket again. Being at such a high altitude (4300m here) gives you some seriously trippy dreams to, as well as waking you up occasionally when your body forgets to breath faster to compensate for the low oxygen.
Beans on toast for breakfast was amazing, lovely and warm, and I think my first since the UK. I tried to help dig out a car that was stuck in the sand not far away while Martin and Xenia finished packing, but had to leave them to it, they were well and truly buried, they might still be there. Then we hit the road that doubled back on yesterdays ride for a bit before climbing a lot. This was another “Highest road in the world” at 5375m it was certainly the highest I’d ever been, and probably ever will be, though the challenge of them was now wearing off, we’d tackled a lot of “highests” and they started to seem like big hills.
It was more of a challenge for the guitar though, after I stopped to put on a jacket and take a drink, I didn’t tie down the guitar properly. So 10 minutes later I stopped when I heard a noise behind me at 40mph and the guitar wasn’t there, he was swinging along, dragged by the netting that usually hold him on. He’d transformed himself into a folding guitar by repeatedly pounding the road. I also managed to lose a roll of tools, the tool tube that had been missing a lid for 2 months spit it’s contents somewhere along the road, probably up a very bumpy steep section that tipped the end downwards. Luckily there was only really 2 spanners in there that I actually need, the rest was spares and extras.
Another day off in Leh getting some energy back after 3 quite long days, then we were off again heading south to Tso Miriri, a high altitude lake. The roads over these passes are almost always spectacular, they’re carved into the side of the mountains and just take the path of least resistance around them, so you end up climbing back and forth getting panoramas of the the road and towns behind you all the way up, and the road ahead on the way down. There was very little in the way of civilization on this road unlike the others, and we stopped at almost the only place we’d seen with food, a military compound, we asked if we could eat at the cafe at the gates and they waved us in, we’re still not sure if we were meant to be there or not, but they didn’t seem bothered.
We made it to the lake and took some time finding a spot to camp. Passed the last village the road seemed to just dissolve into the sands, so we figured there wouldn’t be much traffic and pitched up on the lakeside. My stove was working nicely again after some TLC so we cooked dinner and prepared the ceremony. We decided a cremation at 4500m was a perfect way to say goodbye to the guitar, and he kept us warm as the sun went down. I surprised myself how sad I was watching the guitar burn, it’d been a constant source of entertainment for me, amusement for locals and amazement for other travellers for 3 months.
The temperature dropped massively in the night, easily below freezing and none of us slept very well, but we got on the road back the way we came for a little while. Then we turned off to cut back to the Leh-Manali highway and the road got really rough, slowing us a lot. Bouncing along at 20mph gives you a lot of time to appreciate the landscape though, and there really was nothing here, which isn’t as common as you’d think up here. There’s almost always small villages dotted along the road or settlements visible somewhere. We eventually got back to the highway in the afternoon and the almost immaculate wide tarmac. It felt great to open the throttle wide for the first time in weeks, until the hidden dips showed themselves. The road rose up a little now and again for a water tunnel, usually not too much of a problem, but on the other side of one was a huge pothole. I was certain I’d wrecked the wheel when I hit it, and must have been totally airborne for a little while too. Do not recommend. I slowed somewhat after that, not trusting the road at all.
The Gata loops were incredible, from the top the road is sprawled out below, dozens of hairpins within about 2 miles of road. Almost totally empty of traffic too, I had great fun, and a nice way to end the day. We found a little shack to stay in on a restaurant strip, and I had a really surreal evening. I found myself reading my book in the lounge/restaurant/shop, lying on the mats lining the shack walls, holding my feet near the stove in the middle of the room, and it felt totally normal, just reading my book waiting for dinner. It wasn’t until I looked around at the situation I realised how odd it was, and actually felt like a traveller. It only happens now and again, doing things everyday I would have considered weird 6 months ago desensitises me a bit, and now and again flashes of realisation make me realise where I am.
An early start in the morning, it dropped to around -10 in the night but our little shack kept us warm enough for a good nights sleep. We bumped into the Swiss truck again on the road, I last saw them in Pakistan about a month ago so it was very odd to bump into them up here, them coming the other way. Most of the morning was spent trying to use the throttle as little as possible, saving fuel. The run from Leh to Tso Miriri and down to the next fuel on the map was about 300 miles. I’d taken some extra fuel but it would still be tight, so I was riding very “economically” which basically means don’t brake, keep any momentum you have, which was actually quite fun on these mountain roads.
The rest of the day was on some of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, wide open, sweeping corners, very little traffic, usually good surface. Very, very fun after all the rough roads. The Rhotang pass was something else too, getting up it wasn’t pleasant with most of the road still being built, but at the top the view was incredible. Looking down to the valley almost 2000m below, and you can see almost all of the road that would take us there, and see it getting greener and greener as you descend from the very dry altitudes.
We got into Manali in the evening and found a hotel after a bit of searching. It wasn’t easy even riding around the town, super steep tiny roads take you directly in front of the shops with people everywhere, tuktuks flying around and cows humping in the middle of the road, nearly killing Xenia. The smells took me by surprise too, I didn’t realise the lack of scents at high altitude, but coming down the hill and into town the pine trees smelled amazing, the town did not…
Extra photos https://www.facebook.com/travellingent/photos…
19/09/2017 – 03/10/2017