If you’re looking for an easy sightseeing tour, this ain’t the one for you. Hang on tight as ADB editor Mitch Lees takes us on a 12-day bash through the wilds of the Himalayas
To tell this story best, I’m going to start at the end.
After nine days of gruelling adventure riding through the Himalayas, we’ve been promised a cruisey last leg into Delhi. It’s been raining for a few days and we’re still more than 4000 metres above sea level and technically still in the Himalayas, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
We begin to climb a tight winding mountain pass when we notice a steady flow of villagers walking back down the mountain. They attempt to communicate with us but it’s hard to understand what they’re trying to say. We ride on as the rain continues to fall and only gets heavier the higher we climb.
Rounding a hairpin, we encounter a boulder the size of a bus that has just recently settled on the road. The mountain has also started to give way, taking parts of the road with it. With the rain pelting down it looks like our only option is to perform a U-turn and start the seven-hour round trip back from where we came to avoid the landslide and get where we need to go.
But tour leader Matt Natonewksi from Nevermind Adventure Tours hops off his bike and begins traipsing through the sludge of the landslide on foot. He’s determined to try and ride through the debris, no matter how dangerous it might seem.
I’m on board, but I don’t think all the punters on this tour feel the same way. Most of the crew are only confident riding on the bitumen, so the slippery mud – which is still sliding – large boulders and off-camber track is an intimidating sight for them.
Nevertheless, those of us with enough confidence move all the bikes through the landslide one by one. Just 30cm to our left is a near-vertical drop of 200 metres, so there are some racing hearts. But we manage to get all the bikes through in one piece and push on.
As we pull away, a local villager begins to yell at us, waving his hands in the air like a madman, but we pay no attention. We soon learn what he was trying to tell us. Something like: “You idiots, where are you going?! You can’t go that way.”
Further up the road we encounter another landslide, only this time the road is completely destroyed. Boulders and mud are still cascading out of control as they race down the hill.
Again, Matt and I assess the damage and establish that if we act fast we can get the bikes across. We make a small track but need to move quickly because the rain is torrential and the track is slipping away.
As we begin to move the bikes past the first section someone yells “rock!” A boulder is on the move, but it nestles into a patch of sludge just above our track before it wipes out this squadron of bike movers. Phew!
We break the group into two packs working the two sections we need to clear. The first group moves bikes through quicker than the second group can keep up. Fearing we could lose our track, we decide to pile the bikes up in the middle of the landslide and past the most vulnerable section of track. This turns out to be the best move of the trip because no sooner has the last bike been pushed through, the first part of the track finally gives way.
Suddenly some local villagers appear from the clouds to help. They are like angels sent from heaven! We’re still at about 3500m, so the air thin and every metre is a challenge. My lungs feel like they’re going to collapse and my legs have pretty much given up, but if we don’t get the bikes through this last section we will be in serious trouble. So nine of us suck in a few big ones and with what little strength we have left drag 13 Royal Enfields through the sludge and finally up to apparent safety.
There isn’t a single dry piece of clothing left on anyone. We’re utterly exhausted, wet, cold and fearing another landslide could be just up the road. As the rain gets heavier and darkness starts to rear its ugly head, we slide back into our drenched jackets and ride on. To our enormous relief, that was the last landslide.
When I signed up for this Himalayan 12 Day Adventure Ride, I wasn’t expecting to push 13 Bullets and Himalayans through two landslides in the pouring rain with mud up to my knees. That was more like Erzberg, not an adventure ride on Royal Enfields!
But that’s exactly what makes a trip like this so enticing – you just don’t know what you’re going to get when you ride through one of the most remote and wild regions in the world.
Regardless of whether you start this tour in Leh or Delhi, you have to cross the Khardung La Pass, one of the world’s highest motorable passes. The road is a mix of dirt and broken asphalt that winds its way up to about 5500 metres.
At this altitude your breathing becomes difficult, dizziness is disorienting and if you’re not paying attention you can easily run up the back of someone, as one of our group found out on the very first day. He was attempting to let another rider know his bag had fallen off when he nearly ran up that rider’s arse, grabbed a bunch of front brake and low-sided into the dirt. It wasn’t his fault, or so he said.
The Khardung La Pass makes up part of the famous Silk Road that rulers like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan used to invade India thousands of years ago. I’ve lived in Whistler, ridden at Erzberg and Hells Gate, skied in Queenstown and Japan, but I’ve never encountered mountains of this magnitude.
The roads in this region are crazy. Because India is surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, the military presence is overwhelming. We witnessed a constant dribble of military personnel carriers, transporting a ragged bunch of Indian soldiers from one border patrol to another, and they were clearly sick of the tourists. I thought we were meant to share the road but clearly the Indian army doesn’t think so.
The roads match the scenery just out of Leh – they were wild! I don’t think I’ve turned that many corners in a lifetime of riding. They spiral through the mountains, never straightening for more than 200 metres. And on this tour you’ve got 12 days of this. Each corner was blind and about truck-width wide, meaning you had to be liberal with the horn to warn oncoming motorists.
On the second night we camped at about 4500m and one of the Greek riders had been suffering so badly from altitude sickness he was eager to leave camp the next morning. He’d spent most of the night on all fours throwing his guts up and sucking on an oxygen tank. When I passed him in the morning and asked if he felt any better, he simply said, “Yes, a bit better. But let’s get the hell out of here.” His face was still horribly pale.
Incredibly, the bikes still work well at this altitude. Sure they’re down on power, but they somehow soldier on. Don’t be misled by the Royal Enfield factor; just because they’re made in India and are not a hardcore adventure bikes doesn’t mean this tour is soft. You simply wouldn’t want to do a tour like this on any other brand because nothing gets the mechanical support that Royal Enfield does in India.
The fifth day of our trip was the toughest, with more than 20 river crossings and 90 per cent of the trail being tight four-wheel-drive tracks. After about 10km of winding track on the side of a very steep mountain we came across our first glacier crossing. The glaciers are melting further up the mountain and they cause rivers of freezing water to cascade across the mountain passes below.
A handful of us came charging into a river that flowed down the dirt road. As soon as we hit the water one of the guys lost his rear end and speared into a wheel track, nearly taking out another rider who had just lost a footpeg. Fearing I might get caught up in the carnage I made a pass and squeezed past while managing to keep it right side up, though only just.
Further on a car had drowned in another river and was blocking the easy route through. Everyone was forced to the high side of the passing water where it was flowing the fastest. One rider was close to making it through until a hidden rock under the rapidly flowing water washed out his front wheel. He went down and landed on the horn. It was funny for a minute, until we realised his air filter was under water. We managed to de-drown it and were soon on our way again.
It was more of the same for about 100km. Tight, winding four-wheel-drive track with glacial waters spilling over the road. All the while Everest-like mountains continued to appear around every corner. There were wild horses with foals playing near the river below, and shepherds tending to goats high up in the mountain.
That night we camped above 4000 metres, right next to the Chandra Taal lake. It is nicknamed The Moon Lake because it’s one of the highest lakes in the world. The glacial water was crystal-clear but freezing. Nevertheless, some of us took the opportunity to wash the Tibetan dust from our ears. After a long and tough day, sitting around this majestic piece of water, a few Kingfishers would have gone down a treat. Oh well, next time.
Much of the landscape on this trip felt alien. There are hardly any life forms because you’re so high up; the sight and smell of vegetation when you finally descend is a welcome relief. It’s amazing how much more comfortable a tree or shrub can make you feel.
Our tour had begun in Leh and as we got closer to our final destination of Delhi we got lower and the Mars-like landscape turned into a scene out of Jurassic Park. The mountains seem just as big, only now they’re covered in dense jungle with a layer of mist hanging mid-mountain.
The dogs and trucks we were dodging high up in the Himalayas were replaced by sacrilegious cows and mental bus drivers. And the soft, friendly, warm, loving nature of the Himalayan people was replaced with the reckless, arrogant nature of urban Indians. The mass of humanity had tripled almost overnight, and while it was a relief to come into some civilisation in those last few days, it did make us appreciate how remote the setting had been for most of the trip.
For 12 days we had bashed through rough dirt roads with a fair whack of bitumen as well. It’s tough on the body but the scenery makes it all worthwhile. It’s corner after corner with deadly drops and insane trucks. The food is limited, with a staple diet of rice, naan and dahl or occasionally chicken curry. Red meat is like gold in the Himalayas.
The Himalayan people are wonderful and always willing to help and share a smile. They’re hospitable, loving and peaceful people who still rely on the land and their animals to exist. It really is like stepping back in time. It’s an adventure for the senses, and your nose, ears and tongue will
For the most part of a tour like this, there’s no power, phone reception or hot water. Showering is done in a bucket and our beds were occasionally made of straw. Oh, and did I mention yak cheese is a thing in the Himalayas?
While all this may seem daunting and uneasy, this is what you’re paying for. A Himalayan adventure will take you to places not many people have been, it will force you to eat things you never thought you would, push your body and bike beyond what you thought possible, and take you down the road less travelled.
As pubished in AMCN Year Book Vol 67 No 12
By Mitch Lees