✍️Chris Marer 📸Chris Marer & friends
Way back in the day I spotted a photo in a magazine of a bloke riding his motorbike over a pass on the Pakistan-India border (the highest motorable road in the world at the time 18,000 + feet) I thought to myself “I’m going to go there one day” 2020 was suppose to be that day, but a pandemic got in the way, I thought my dream was over…
Fast forward to January 2023, I was talking to an old mate of mine from Nelson & he mentioned he was going to ride in the Himalayas for 21 days in August. My eyes lit up, and an hour later I was booked!!
The lead-up to the Himalayan adventure was packed with filling out medical and indemnity forms, insurance policies, visa applications and generally more paperwork than you can poke a stick at, Indian bureaucracy at its best.
August the 25th finally arrived & we were off, eventually arriving in New Delhi for the start of our adventure. Spent a day sight-seeing & get acclimatised.
New Delhi is mental, the sights, sounds, sweat and smell crawl under your skin and turn you inside out, what a crazy and manic city, loved it.
The next day we got a taxi about 4 hours north to Dehradun to collect our bikes, (a Honda copy) – A Hero X-Pulse, 200cc of pure power! They were light & with the right size wheels (21” front & 18” rear) this will do the job..
The next couple of days were spent getting ourselves adapted to the bikes and used to the manic traffic - Might is right! If a truck wants to overtake a bus it does, no matter what is coming the other way! We soon learned to dive off the road onto the verge trying to dodge the cows & the locals, it seemed to work most of the time.
As we headed north we were constantly climbing into the Himalayan foothills & beginning to gain altitude, towards Manali we had a few detours to deal with, they had recently had their own biblical weather which had wiped out most of the major roads in the area, causing us to take some rather “interesting” detours…
Manali is an alpine city (7000ft) with some cool markets and was basically the beginning of the real adventurous part of our trip. A lot of hiking, whitewater rafting and skiing also take place in the area.
Half an hour out of town, through the 9km long Atal tunnel & boom, we were in the Spiti Valley and the scenery changed instantly to mountains, some with villages just stuck on the side of them.
This is when we started to tackle what we came here for, high passes. Now the riding was going to get a lot more serious, the roads were going to be potholed, mostly gravel & gnarly dirt… fun times, I couldn’t wait!
As we climbed up into the mountains the traffic definitely thinned out as did the atmosphere. A couple of the guys in our group had problems with altitude sickness, they had to constantly take Diamox (pills to help you deal with altitude sickness) & they also carried oxygen bottles…
We spent around 2 weeks at 10,000 feet or higher, we were also to cross 10 passes higher than 15,000ft, the lack of oxygen was certainly noticeable. Just the simplest of tasks got you out of breath, getting out of bed, walking to the toilet, even getting dressed in the morning would leave you gasping for air.
The road down into the Zanskar Valley was only just being constructed, it was a goat track at best & dusty as hell.
But as was the case in many places, there was always an entrepreneurial bloke who had set up a tea hut for weary travellers.
The higher & further north we got the landscape changed dramatically, most of the vegetation had gone, a whole lot drier and an almost complete lack of people.
With one stark exception, roadwork crews (no orange cones though…) usually around 100 people set up makeshift camps (tents) & basically built the new roads by hand, it was super common to see people just sitting on the side of the road breaking up rocks by hand, putting all the rubble in sacks and carrying it to the nearest pothole or slip.
We soon ended up in Leh - Ladakh in the North of India – very close to the borders of Pakistan, China and Tibet. We had about three days to hang out in & around Leh, which is a centuries-old city of around 30,000 people surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. In years gone by it was an important stopover for traders travelling between India, Tibet, Kashmir and China, their wares including grain, silk, cannabis resin and cashmere wool. These days the streets are lined with small shops – selling nick-nacks and Pashmina (cashmere) shawls, scarves and wraps.
We had been on the road for about 10 days so were hoping to also catch up on some rest. The locals were more Tebetian in look, food & language, a really cool place. Trying to walk home from the restaurant at night was always a challenge, we usually ate too much & the local beer had quite a kick. Being located at 12,000ft, the alcohol had a stronger kick and it was uphill all the way back to our hotel, we had a lot of breathing issues. A good night’s sleep would’ve been appreciated but the infamous dogs of Leh put paid to that idea; the little buggers slept all day and barked all night…
Over the next day or so we followed the Indis river, along the valley floor, it was so rugged & desolate, at times the road was so narrow & the drop to the river below was at times hundreds of feet, no room for error or the faint of heart, really beautiful all the same.
All this riding was heading, for me at least, to one of the absolute highlights of the trip - Umling La. The highest motorable pass in the world!!! This pass is 19,024ft high, yes you read it right…
For us to get there was going to be quite a mission, for a number of reasons.
It is illegal for foreigners to go there, meh
It is super high, severe altitude sickness is a real risk.
It is flipping miles from anywhere, meaning we will have to be on the road for 12+ hours
There is no fuel available, we will have to carry 8L of extra fuel.
There will be no help available, we will have to just sort it out…what could possibly go wrong
So we left Nyoma (alt 14500ft), population 53, at 5.30am, 2 degrees & dark, heading towards the monastery at Hanle, here we had to spend the next 2-3 hrs completely off-road to get around the military checkpoint, they would have stopped us & sent us packing. This route was so desolate, a desert completely in the middle of nowhere..We managed to navigate our way to the Chisumle Bridge & back onto the road up to Umling La.
The higher we got the harder it got to breath, I had to consciously take heaps of very deliberate deep breaths, it worked & soon enough got to the top, it was an amazing feeling to be on the highest pass in the world, so I stuck a club sticker on the sign to mark the occasion…
We got back to our accommodation in Karu 12.5 hrs after we started, ½ a litre of petrol left, completely exhausted, but a huge sense of achievement.
Something that became a ritual everyday, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, especially in the extremely sensitive border regions was the military checkpoints. We had to show our passports, visa & explain our intended destination.
The next few days took us over some quite extreme roads, high passes & narrow gorges, truly amazing scenery & very fulfilling riding. We noticed hundreds of shrines on the edges of the roads (some with over a 1000ft drop to the river below) I asked our guide about these, he replied “Where people have plummeted off the side to their doom, 15 people went off in an overloaded ute last week..” okay better take it easy then..
Even though we were as remote as hell at times you still came across the odd village, every time we cruised into town the people would look up and wave. Seeing westerners was clearly a rarity in some parts & all the kids would run out & try to give you a high five. When we actually stopped things went to the next level, everyone wanted a selfie & talked to us (practising their English) wonderfully friendly, chilled out people.
The village life was pretty humble to be fair, just making do with what they had, which wasn’t much.
Cows, did I mention the cows? As they are a sacred animal, they simply wander around wherever they want with total impunity, you MUST give them right of way at all times & they would appear anywhere… around blind corners, wandering around streets or on pedestrian bridges.
The same went for ALL wildlife, Horses, Goats, Sheep, Monkeys, Yaks, the lot, if they were on the road, you took the evasive manoeuvre not them, this lead to some seriously close near misses at times
As they say all good things must come to an end, Our 21 days riding adventure eventually got us back to Dehradun 3352km later.
This trip was pretty close to the best trip I’ve ever done, the people were super friendly, the food was amazing & the scenery, just mind blowing photos just can’t do the awesomeness of the Himalayas justice.
I came away feeling on top of the world.