Flying into Leh from Delhi, everyone on the plane suddenly rushes to one side to catch their first glimpse of the snow-covered Himalayas unfolding below.More Himalayas travel news and reviews:
It's hard to believe in a day or so 10 of us will be together riding through these same mountains, on the classic Indian-made Royal Enfield motorcycle. The excitement builds, along with a fair degree of nerves.
Security is heavy at the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Airport at Leh; this part of India is very close to both Pakistan and Tibet, and a very sensitive area, so the Indian Army has a massive presence throughout the region. Also being one of the highest airports in the world, altitude becomes apparent instantly. Breathing is laboured and moving becomes difficult. It takes a few days to acclimatise.
Leh is a town of about 30,000 people situated on ancient trade routes between Tibet, Kashmir, China and India, though today political tensions have closed a lot of the trading. Tourists flock to the area in the warmer months to explore the mountains, and locals have a thriving business selling local crafts, the most famous being the pashmina shawls, from the mountain goat of the same name. Their fleece is woven into warm and lightweight garments with intricate colours and patterns. Expensive but very popular with visitors.
We get to meet our bikes at our hotel, lined up and freshly washed, the red, green and black C5 Enfields will be our reliable and trusty companions for 2300km of Himalayan roads from Leh in Ladakh to the hill town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We choose our own and after a brief rest and introduction from our guide, we're off for a short familiarisation ride.
We are a diverse group - from Austria, Denmark, America, England and Australia - though four of us share a link with The West Australian: photographers Mogens Johansen and Rob Duncan and I work for the newspaper, and Trevor Collens is a former photographer with The West. But the whole group share the love of riding in remote places and we soon form a great bond.
Indian road rules are very simple: there aren't any. You share the road with goats, donkeys, cows, scooters, cars and diesel-belching trucks, all of which wander at will among a throng of pedestrians who themselves change direction without warning. This was the same wherever we went, but as chaotic as it sounds, there is no road rage or impatience, and once you get used to it and the constant noise of horns, it works as it only can in India.
The first high pass at Khardung La (5570m) gives a spectacular first view of the Himalayas. Peak after peak dominate the horizon. It's a cold and bleak spot, rainfall is infrequent, the hillsides are totally bare and army check posts halfway up mark the change from a bitumen road to a rocky, bumpy narrow track. This becomes a familiar routine over all the high passes. The weather at altitude is so severe that roads are only maintained at a basic level towards the top from both sides.
Some of the most spectacular campsites are found dotted along the shores of glacial lakes, such as Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri. Pangong is reached via a narrow, rutted road over the 5289m Changla Pass, where Indian soldiers hand out free cups of hot, sweet tea. Snow melt means water crossings are frequent, and the knee-deep, fast-moving water tests riders' confidence and fills up the boots at the same time.
Each day brings its surprises: warm sunshine and a smooth road, or biting winds and clouds of dust, teeth-rattling ruts and cold, rushing water, or welcoming villages with promises of hot tea and sweet biscuits. Day's end brings a warm bed and a hot meal, usually rice, dhal and a curry with delicious roti bread or butter naan. Small pleasures that mean a lot after a challenging day.
Half of Pangong Lake is in India and the far side is in Tibet, so permits are required to visit the area. This is the case for a lot of our trip, being so close to the disputed Tibet-China border. Local people are always welcoming, though. The Tibetan influence is huge throughout Ladakh, Buddhist monasteries dot the hillsides, towns and villages proudly display Tibetan signs and flags, and pictures of the Dalai Lama are everywhere.
The weather dominates travelling. We encountered heavy snow, rain and sleet over high passes and blazing-hot sunshine in the lower altitudes. Landslides are common, and we were forced back to Leh for a couple of days because roads ahead were blocked; flexibility is necessary for travel plans in this area, as is patience.
Religions co-exist comfortably in the region, Buddhist alongside Hindu and Sikh, and in Leh the mosque call to prayer can be heard every morning for the Muslim faithful. The friendly shopkeeper who bartered with me for a couple of pashminas was dressed in his finest, having just been to the mosque for prayers. The narrow streets allow animated conversation between shop owners while they wait for the next group of tourists.
Possibly the most beautiful area of all was the Spiti Valley in the north-east of Himachel Pradesh State. Its green valley floors and high peaks streaked with mineral deposit colours of reds, greens and browns set against a sky of deep blue make it a magnet for visitors. The town of Kaza is a centre and its bustling marketplace and narrow, winding streets attract people from all over the valley.More travel on two wheels:
The richly decorated monastery, consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2009, looks over the town.
Riding further south and to lower altitudes brings a marked change. Hillsides become tree-covered, tall pines start to appear, birdlife is abundant and troops of rhesus monkeys appear everywhere, especially around the hill town of Shimla. The mall is the place to be seen, and locals come out in their best clothes to stroll, window shop and have a coffee with their friends.
Traffic becomes hectic again after the relative calm of the high mountains, and we trade empty but arduous roads for the smoother but crowded roads of the towns. By now, all the riders are having mixed feelings: a hot shower and a comfortable bed are inviting but it means the end of the trip is near.
A four-hour train trip from Kalka into Delhi, overnight at a city hotel and we're scattered across the world again. Three weeks riding the Roof of the World was an experience never to be forgotten in a small corner of this wonderful country, with lovely people and memories to last a lifetime.• indianmotorcycletours.com
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