Riding at 18,000 feet is at once punishing and rewarding. Our guide to making the most of this journey of a lifetime
A creative way to kick off a bike trip through Ladakh would be to ride into it from Manali. You will save two days of acclimatising, which would be imperative if you flew into Leh. Biking into and around Ladakh is the Holy Grail of biker-trails anywhere in the world. Terrifying mountain passes, thin air, the awe of the beauty around you—no other route offers as much. It is also a rite of passage that any biker worth his engine-oil must endure.
The first obstacle to getting into Ladakh is the aptly-named Rohtang Pass. Depending on the translation you prefer, it either means ‘pile of corpses’ or ‘soul torture’. The name comes either from the wildly unpredictable weather, or from the bone-jarring terrain that will often throw you off your bike. ‘Soul torture’ could also refer to you dodging a million squalling tourists on your way to Rohtang.
Once you cross over into Lahaul Valley, bikers reclaim the roads, the tourists having disappeared into their budget accommodation from where they will drive back to Manali the next day. Peace reigns, the hot momos and thukpa soup will calm your nerves, and the silent giants to the north silhouetted against a starlit sky will remind you that your journey has only just begun.
The next day, as you cross the Baralacha La, you notice the scale of the mountains has changed. Huge has been dialled-up to enormous by now. Somewhere along that beautiful ride across the Sarchu Plains, you cross over from Himachal into the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir. Stretching ahead is a seemingly endless chain of mountains that led Kipling’s lama, Kim, from India into Tibet.
You are now in the land where everything is superlative, including peace, solitude and the hospitality. The formidable Tanglang La stands between you and Leh. As you descend into Leh on the other side, Buddhism asserts itself gently and lovingly. The magnificent and legendary Shey and Thiksey monasteries rise out of the rock face as if they were born from the same tectonic movements that created the mountains themselves.
Like the weather-ravaged traders of silk and spices, who came before you on horse- or camel-back, even the hardiest of bikers will take a break in Leh. Today, it’s more Diesel jeans and North Face jackets, but it serves the same purpose: a place to rest your limbs, and as a launch pad for the other wonders around. Your biking agenda can take a break for a bit: recline in Leh’s cafes or stroll around window-shopping for trinkets and shawls.
To the north-west of Leh lies Nubra Valley, accessed by the snow-bound Khardung La, which at 18,380 feet, is considered the highest motorable road in the world. Like the passes you have already crossed and those yet to come, there simply isn’t much road up there. The Border Roads Organisation has given up battling the onslaught of melt water, and you have to contend with whatever remains of the road.
Watch the two-humped Bactrian camels and furry soft-toy marmots scurrying around as you criss-cross over two gushing rivers, Nubra and Shyok. Here, precipitation is so sparse, you wonder how any life takes hold. But all around are lush poplar firs, and a few apple and apricot orchards. Well-appointed campsites are the new accommodation. You could also live in a Ladakhi home and guzzle their one-of-a-kind butter tea with momos and thukpa soup.
Two days in the Nubra are usually sufficient to probe all its wonders, biking up to its outer reaches of Hunder and Panamik, on either side of the Shyok River. Check out the hot-springs at Panamik before heading east, back the way you came. Unavoidably, you weave past the Internet cafes and carpet shops of Leh one more time, until your motorcycle sniffs out the highway again.
You have to contend with another arduous mountain pass as you ride to one of nature’s grandest wonders: the Changthang, a.k.a. The Great Tibetan Plateau, home to Mount Everest, and the source of the Yangtze and Mekong rivers. Your destination: Pangong Lake, whose salt water has been rendered brackish by 70 million years of precipitation. Geo-politically, it is a dead-end: a third of the lake is in India, the other two-thirds in Tibet.
After a two-hour ride on plateau roads, your first sight of the lake is heart-stopping. As you nose your motorcycle past the dun-coloured rocks, you catch a sudden gleam of cobalt-blue, which extends into the most magnificent water body. Here are colours borrowed from the Mediterranean and splashed onto these ridiculous heights creating a basin of calm. With the best of Ladakh now etched in memory, you can begin your journey home.