Why riding up the Himalayas should be on your bucket list
Riding through this landscape is a life-changing experience and it’s not as difficult or as expensive as you might think
We may as well get this out of the way from the start: in 40 years of riding, taking in everything from pre-WW1 flat-tankers to MotoGP bikes, the most memorable thing I have done on a motorcycle is ride an Enfield in the Himalayas.
I thought I’d seen and experienced most things. I was ready for the sprawling, roasting chaos of Delhi traffic, where sacred cows and hand-pulled carts jostle for position with blacked-out limos, and entire families squeeze, helmetless, onto 200cc Hero Hondas.
Even when that urban anarchy escalated to the scarcely-believable rural madness of the Punjab my upper lip remained stiff (though I confess my eyes went wide: buffalos and hayricks on a motorway? And no-one even cares). But when I got to the high-altitude province of Ladakh, I realised that further resistance was futile. As one of the many poetic official roadside signs put it: ‘Virgin nature of Ladakh is art of God’. This is a place where nature is total, and man is an ant. Either you acknowledge that fact, or the mountains will do it for you. And a motorcycle, even a 15-horsepower, single-cylinder relic, is a wonderful place from which to experience that mixture of humility and awe. Ask people who’ve ridden here why it’s so great and they’ll tell you the same two things: the people and the scenery. I was bowled over by both, but I think there’s a third reason Ladakh is so magical: it forces you to adapt. Think of our crazy, flat-out Western lives: phones, screens, supermarkets, traffic jams – responsibility and rules of every kind. When you’re riding across a high-altitude desert they simply evaporate. Life is simple: wake, ride, eat, sleep. Or, if fate decrees, you might also struggle with the squits or altitude. Or find that a flood has washed the bridge away. Your accommodation is basic. The food’s the same as ordinary people
‘Life is simple: wake, ride, eat, sleep’
eat. Your shower, if you have one, might only be a dribble of cold water. The point is, you aren’t in charge. If you can accept that, the whole world transforms. And you discover you are in the most beautiful place imaginable. Don’t just take my word for it. Adrian Petyt rode a Bullet from Shimla to Leh with tour company Blazing Trails in 2017: “I loved every single minute of it. I must be weird because my favourite day was when I broke down high in the mountains on a gravel track (going too fast through puddles, to be honest). One by one all the other guys passed, asked if I was OK and then rode on. I had over an hour, sitting on a rock listening to nothing but the wind, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, until the sweeper bike came and got me going again.”
The Himalayas really begin in Himachal Pradesh: a rolling, hilly land of orchards, wild ganja and green, mist-wreathed mountains. Manali, the main mountain town, was my tour’s start point in 2010, but new local laws mean it now runs from the capital Shimla to Leh, capital of Ladakh province, to the north. The wild, arid, mountainous landscape changes
colour and form throughout the day, and the ancient monasteries, or gompas, give the landscape a Shangri-La character. Kardung La, the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet, is a highlight. “I’ve done 46 tours and every time I ride out of Shimla it’s just like the first time,” says Adam Lewis, tour leader of Blazing Trails. “There’s something magical and humbling about being in the mountains. Sometimes we’re riding through snow cut 30 feet deep. Six weeks later it’s all wild flowers.”
But change is on the way: more tarmac, more tourists in some spots, and a fleet of JCBs laying roadside fibroptic cable. One day, maybe, even this landscape will be tamed and covered in Maccie Ds. Get there before it’s too late.
‘There is something magical about riding here’
BY RUPERT PAUL Riding instructor, ex-racer and lover of all bikes Buddhist monasteries dot the landscape
‘I made this girl a flapping paper bird. We both spoke origami’ Toggler’s Gate on the Tso Kar road Baralachla is high but not the highest. That’s Kardung La at 5359m