Chapter 8 – Ladakh: The best motorcycling in the world?

India

For the second time in six weeks I found myself beating my head on the wall of a Sikhs’ Engineering shop. The first had been in Leh when Dannys bottom shock bolt snapped and the second was here in Shimla when I discovered my shock collar was broken.

Mr Swaran Singh was incredibly friendly and eager to help but would not listen. He and his partner attempted several ways to compress the suspension spring in his press but without success, finally declaring “Sorry, it can’t be done”. At this point he listened and when I showed him how to make a tool to compress it safely he shouted “Yes,yes, yes… of course” and immediately set about a steel tube with his gas torch.

p9290004-1-mrsinghBy now, like Ted Simon (in his book Jupiters Travels) 30 years previously, we had come to learn that know matter what happened, something would turn up. Getting a new collar made was the final piece of a puzzle that would allow me to compete in a Rally Raid event (www.raid-de-himalaya.com) that I had first heard about six weeks earlier in Leh, Ladakh. By 1900 a new collar had been turned from mild steel and was slotted into place.

We finally managed to drag ourselves away from Vinny and Gills on the 8th of August.

Their hospitality had made it hard to leave but we couldn’t let them return from England to find us still there! After delivering Paul’s (Ze Germans) bike to the repair shop and sitting out a rainstorm we left later than expected. Nevertheless we arrived at the Pakistan/India border at 1730, just in time to get changed and watch the daily border ceremony. The Wagha border ceremony is well known and attracts so many visitors (mostly nationals) that both sides have erected grandstands. On the Pakistani side men and women are separated by the border road. Crowd agitators wave large national flags and, are employed to gee up the crowd with chants of ‘Pakistan, cha, cha, cha’ answered by chants of ‘Hindustan, cha, cha, cha’. Then the biggest soldiers either side can muster approach one another using marching steps only previously seen in The Ministry of Funny Walks and proceed to lower their respective flags. All this was highly entertaining until you learn, as we did later in the trip, that just up the road in Kashmir either side not only spend US$1.5million A WEEK guarding their borders but that Pakistani soldiers regularly die from altitude sickness whilst patrolling the worlds highest hostile border on the Siachen.

pict0031-pakistani-flag-man-1In the hotel that evening we asked for the menu. After asking for three different dishes and being told each time “No. We don’t have.” The conversation went like this:

“What do you have then?”

“Karai chicken” the waiter replied.

“What? Only Karai chicken?”

“Yes sir”

“So why did you give us the menu then?”

“You asked for it sir!”

It was time to leave Pakistan.

INDIA

Riding into India was like turning the lights on. Suddenly we were surrounded by colour. The vibrant colours of the women’s saris were a welcome sight but it was smiling faces that generated the most radiance. I think we’ll like India.

Amritsar

Having decided to ease ourselves gently into India we checked into the Grand Hotel. We haggled them down to R600 per night (R85= a quid) for a room without aircon and soon wished we hadn’t been so tight! The hotel bar though was just like an English pub and that evening as we washed down our Chicken Tikka Massala’s with draft Kingfisher in chilled glasses it was hard to believe we were in India.

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We spent a few days here during which time we visited the splendid Golden Temple, collected a parcel from my mate Jez which contained all our maps and guide books to get us from India to Australia as well as a few spare parts. Postage for the 11kg parcel was a staggering GB£124! We also collected a parcel from another friend ‘Sossig’ containing DVD’s of the first nine Moto GP races of the season – fantastico! And a few birthday cards.

Manali

Tim (TNT) had arrived in Manali before us and sorted out a hotel (Hotel Brighu in Vashist) and had rented a Royal Enfield 500 to join us on a tour of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir whilst his wife, Tracey, studied at a Buddhist Monastery in MacLeodganj.

On our first morning we ate breakfast whilst watching the MotoGP DVD from Jerez, Spain on the 54in TV in the restaurant before heading into town to try and track down a new battery for my bike. The 10Ah Pakistani one I’d bought in Rawalpindi had only lasted 10 days. Nobody carried 12Ah batteries but with the help of Anu (the guy Tim had rented his Enfield from) I managed to find a 14Ah one that just squeezed into the same space.

That evening we ate in the restaurant of the hotel next to ours. One of the residents put on their own music. Very hippy/Indian style favoured by the ‘lost in travel/been away too long’ set. Tim changed their CD for one saying ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ – nice one, until it turned out to be ‘Shaggy does Darkside of the Moon’! All very funny but we did feel rather old amongst the weed smoking younger clientele. Anybody who has witnessed this type of character on their travels will enjoy William Sutcliffe’s book ‘Are you experienced?’ Possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read. (ISBN 0-14-027265-8)

Manali – Leh

Day 1

We’d done the right thing by hanging around for a few days waiting for the weather to break before setting off. Up at 0600, the final clouds lifted as we loaded the bikes. The valley road towards the Rohtang Pass was beautiful. The rock glistened in the early morning sun and the waterfalls flowed through the foliage which was particularly lush thanks to the recent rain. The climb up to the Rohtang La at 3900m was excellent. The drivers we passed seemed courteous and the road was more akin to Albania than Pakistan. It had its’ rough patches but it was the few muddy, rutted sections that proved most tricky. We stopped for a breakfast of tomato, chilli and onion omelettes at the top of the pass before stopping several more times on the descent to take photos and remove the linings from our riding suits – the temperature was rising rapidly in the sunshine.

The valley road towards Tandi was stunning. A waterfall fell from the base of a glacier wedged high between two peaks. At Tandi, Tim filled his two 5ltr cans as a sign read ‘No fuel for 365km’.

We rode into Keylong through a packed, narrow street and found a hotel with decent bike parking for R500. Wandering through town we discovered it was the last day of a local festival and the girls seemed to outnumber the boys by about 3:1. Fantastico!

tim-hobin1Day 2

We ate breakfast at the roadside in Darcha before ascending Baralacha La (4880m). There were a lot of ongoing road improvements and we passed many cyclists tackling the climb on beautifully smooth tarmac. After several miles of switchbacks we finally reached the bulldozers. As usual these proved a little tricky to negotiate. The soft, deep loam and large boulders dragged up by the caterpillar tracks making it awkward to ride across without paddling. The top of the pass was rather barren but the rough descent was rewarded with views of the red rock circling a lake next to which were several ‘chai’ shops. After stopping for chai we continued past the summer only tented accommodation at Sarchu before ascending the 22 hairpin bends, known as the Gata Loops, to Nakli La (4950m) and then Lachalung La (5065m). En-route we passed the burnt out remains of a truck that had plunged over the edge.

Mid afternoon we rolled into Pang. A collection of large tents, where beds were available for R30. It also had what has to be the worlds’ most disgusting toilet. It was SO bad, Tim had to take a photo of it. However, the photo is SO bad I can’t bring myself to post it here. At least in ‘Trainspotting’ everything was IN the pan!

It proved to be quite a social gathering. Kiwi Steve Perry (whom we’d met in Vashist) and his mate Antonio from Madrid were already there. A South African guy and his Swiss girlfriend we’d met at breakfast arrived soon after us and so did Hashimoto, a Japanese overland motorcyclist travelling on his Honda Dominator we’d met in Manali. Finishing the group was a Dutch cyclist we’d met atop Lachalung La.

p8170257-pang-camp1Day 3

Breakfast was dire. Tim sent his back to have it re-cooked, mine was edible – just, and Danny went without. Then the bikes wouldn’t start. It seemed they didn’t like the altitude (4000m+) and we had to bump start them both.

From Pang the road climbs up onto the Moray Plains, a beautiful expanse of land that stretched to the horizon and was lined by mountain peaks. Approximately 40km long, it’s like riding along a glacial valley at 4400m.On the advice of a group of Indian motorcyclists we’d chatted to the previous evening we took the track that branched off the tarmac road into the middle of the plain..

We soon had the bikes wound up in 4th gear (there wasn’t enough oxygen to pull 5th!). Mostly flat and smooth at the beginning we soon encountered whoops and ruts – all of which could be tackled in 3rd. It was the most ‘fun’ riding of the trip and we both felt like Paris-Dakar riders blasting across the plain on our 300kg bikes. We had a few ‘moments’ that made us (eventually) back off but that’s another story….

pict0123-danny-moray-plains1As is usual on this trip Mother Nature liked to show us new things. After the highest pass of the route at Taglang La (5370m) we descended into the valley before entering a gorge that eventually led to the Indus but not before passing the most incredible purple rock formations. Standing some 10m high the rock appeared like the back of an armoured dinosaur as it stretched away from the road at 40m intervals.

The whole journey from Manali had been like a Geology trip but that was just the beginning. The faces of the people changed in line with the architecture as Hinduism was replaced with Buddhism as the prevalent religion of the region. Prayer wheels appeared at the roadside and Stupa’s on the hillside. Manali – Leh truly is a ‘journey’ as opposed to a ‘roadtrip’.

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Leh

Leh was like Manali only more so. It was full of tourists and travellers -especially Israeli- the younger ones of whom, much to our amusement, seemed to have a fetish for wrapping themselves up in blankets and wandering around in the scorching sun (?) There were plenty of restaurants around. ‘La Pizzeria’ received most of our evening business as it was the only one that would/could serve us beer, whilst ‘Wonderland restaurant’ saw the majority of our daytime business due to its location and outdoor seating. The proprietors of these restaurants would pack up by the end of September and head down to Goa for the summer season as Leh is cut off from the rest of India for up to eight months of the year by snow. Although it has its’ own airport the weather dictates how much use it sees. In our guest house we met an Israeli family with four kids between the ages of 6 & 13. They had left their (own) businesses running at home whilst they took a year out to travel around India. They’d only been in India for three weeks, were all sleeping in the same room and the kids were refusing to eat anything other than what they were used to. I think it will be a long year. Danny asked the parents at what age they dressed their kids up in blankets.

Bike trouble part 1

Whilst checking my bike over I discovered the water pump leaking. Fortunately we knew this to be a common fault and so had brought replacement impeller and seal kits with us. Tim took me to find oil and coolant for the rebuild only to discover nobody sold motorcycle specific oil. One shop owner understood the difference between it and car oil and phoned the local Castrol distributor. He happened to have a damaged case leftover from an earlier attempt to promote motorcycle specific oil in the area.

The following day I replaced the water pump but thanks to the oil pipe that runs from the oil tank to the sump this is a long winded, if straight forward, job.

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Nubra Valley

After arranging our restricted area permits in town we set off across the Khardung La (allegedly the worlds highest motorable pass at 5600m) where we encountered an Army convoy as well as an Enfield tour group. The top of the pass (5300m according to the GPS) was crowded and so we quickly headed off down the rough track towards the chai shop at the army camp.

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Whilst sitting here having a drink listening to Tim explain why his visor was hanging off, one of the tour group walked in brandishing a 5l can of petrol and asking if it belonged to anyone. It transpires that whilst attempting a particularly bold overtaking manoeuvre on one of the Army trucks it had moved right knocking Tim off the road and down the hillside, during which he’d lost his fuel can. Over the next few weeks we would become accustomed to Tim looking particularly ‘wide-eyed’ when he alighted from his motorcycle.

At the valley bottom we passed through a narrow section alongside an Army camp before it opened out. We turned left and crossed what we took was once a lake. It was flat and the sand was rippled like the ocean bed. At the ‘lakeside’ the road climbed 50m up the side of the valley and followed it North West. In the valley bottom were sand dunes! At 3500m! Most peculiar.

We found accommodation in a tented camp at Hunder, the furthest tourists are allowed to travel.

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The following day we retraced our steps across the ‘lake bed’ and turned left to visit the more northerly of the two valleys. At the junction we met two Indian journalists who we’d met in our guest house in Leh. They were road testing a new Indian bike and had bumped into an Austrian girl – Klaudia – who had ridden here from home on her Suzuki DR650 12 months ago. We would see more of Klaudia later. We returned to Leh over a (thankfully) empty Khardung La.

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Bike trouble part 2

Tim and I were sitting outside Wonderland café at lunchtime when Danny arrived clutching his rear shock linkage. Having experienced a big ‘knock’ on the return from the Nubra valley the previous day he had spent the morning checking his bike over.

It transpires that the bottom shock bolt had broken, cracking the bush it ran in and destroying the needle roller bearing in which that ran. It had also elongated the holes in the bottom of the shock. The rubber mounted bush in the top of the shock was also starting to disintegrate.

The following day we borrowed Tim’s Enfield to tour the local engineering shops in an attempt to get some parts made for Danny’s bike. We needed to get the damaged bottom shock bolt holes in the bottom U bracket of the shock re-drilled larger and two ‘top hat’ shaped pieces turned and inserted into the newly drilled holes. At home this would be simple but not here. The first machine shop had a pillar drill but no vice. Not only did the operator not understand the need for both holes to be drilled in one go from one side (he wanted to drill them one at a time from either side!) he didn’t have a square to set the shock bracket at 90degrees to the drill! We took it off him and continued our search elsewhere.

By this time I was starting to get the hang of the right foot gear change and enjoying cruising round on a ‘British’ bike for the first time.

The next engineering shop said he understood what we wanted and promptly clamped a welding earth clamp to it! – God knows what he had in mind but we quickly took it off him too!

We finally found a motorcycle/engineering shop that could do what we needed although I still had to explain and draw the concept of a ‘Top Hat’ shaped spacer to three ‘engineers’ before one of them understood what I meant. The second part of the problem was the collapsed bearing and cracked spacer. Fortunately, they had a similar bearing (all be it with a larger outer diameter) and could bore out the suspension linkage to suit and make a new spacer. This wasn’t the perfect solution due to the measuring equipment and materials available but it would make an acceptable temporary repair until we could source the correct parts from the UK.

Late the following evening Danny collected his parts and the day after rebuilt his bike. I checked my bike over only to find I had the same top bush deterioration problem as Danny.

Leh cont…

Whilst Danny rebuilt his bike Tim and I spent a day visiting Shey Palace, Thikse and Hemis monasteries in the valley east of town.

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The three of us had planned to visit the 4200m high Pangong Lake together the following day but we awoke to the sound of rain and the mountains were invisible in the cloud – no good for sightseeing. We ate breakfast indoors for the first time since leaving Islamabad and decided not to go. The cloud lifted slightly by late morning revealing a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains. The 5300m Chang La en-route to Pangong would surely have been covered in several inches and we all agreed we’d made the right decision. We were however all getting itchy feet and decided that we would leave for Srinigar the following morning – whatever the weather. Instead, we watched the French and Italian MotoGP rounds on DVD. This was great entertainment until halfway through the Mugello race (at the time, probably the best race of the year) the DVD started playing up and eventually refused to play at all. It was quickly ejected and relegated to Frisbee status. And no we haven’t seen the race in full since.

Rally Raid ? – What Rally Raid?

Visiting the Japanese stupor one evening I met Vivek, the journalist we’d met twice previously. During our conversation his coverage of the ‘Raid-de-Himalaya’ Rally Raid event came up. I’d not heard of it before but was immediately drawn to the concept of a seven day 2100km race across the Himalayas. He gave me the e-mail and web address’s of the organisers and I set about making enquiries as to the possibility of entering.

Leh – Srinigar

Day 1

Paying our bill at the Rainbow Guest House we were all shocked to learn we’d been there for six nights since returning from the Nubra Valley – where does the time go?

The thoroughly enjoyable 4000m plateau crossing was blocked midway by a landslide. Tim found an alternative route down the opposite side of the valley but by the time we realised what he was doing the road had been cleared and we were on our way. We arrived in Lamayura in time to visit the monastery in for evening prayers. The young monks were whispering and giggling amongst themselves throughout the service and when the time came for them to leave they raced out of the door screaming their heads off. The older monks just smiled and raised their eyebrows to one another. It was great to see a religion that accepted kids just the way they are. On the way out we noticed what appeared to be a photo shoot. It turned out to be two Romanian girls modelling wedding dresses much to the obvious delight of the monks. Laura and Christine were staying in our guest house and although friendly were obviously high maintenance.

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That night Tim snored so loud he even woke Danny up. I got up at 0200 and went to my bike to fetch my ear plugs then didn’t hear my alarm go off.

Day  2

We awoke 40mins later than planned to find Danny had a puncture. We couldn’t really complain as this was the first one since leaving England.

Tim set off ahead of us knowing we’d catch him up. When we did leave we only rode for 10 minutes before encountering two bulldozers clearing a landslide. We turned our engines off and sat still for 50minutes whilst the road was cleared.

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We followed the unmade road out of the valley where we rejoined the tarmac and crossed the Fotu La at 4108m. We descended through a landscape that resembled a giant, barren sandstone egg box and as we did so the foliage began to reappear. Further down the valley we passed a group of locals building a new aqueduct high up on the valley side. They looked like worker ants carrying blue plastic sacks up to the workface. At one point they had blasted a groove high up on the vertical rock face – incredible.

Kargil is only a few kilometres from the Pakistani border and at one point we were just 40km from where we had been on the Deosai Plains two months earlier. The road was lined with signs and included my favourite of the trip ‘CAUTION – YOU ARE BEING OBSERVED BY THE ENEMY’. Further on, entering a town called Drass set in a dramatic river valley surrounded by green mountains and rocky peaks a sign declared it the ‘2nd coldest permanently inhabited place on earth’. In 1995 a temperature of -60 degrees centigrade was recorded!

From Drass we entered a wide valley, the road surface deteriorated and the traffic all but disappeared. We thought we’d taken a wrong turning until a sign saying Matayin 6km confirmed we were on the right route. Suddenly, a convoy of 20 or more trucks passed by in the opposite direction. As we crossed the Zoja La at 3529m so we saw the reason for the lack of traffic. A landslide had completely blocked the road and whilst bulldozers cleared the loose debris so gangs of workmen stood atop enormous rocks, attacking them with pneumatic drills in an attempt to re-open the road. We threaded our way through the backed-up traffic and were soon on our way. I struggle to describe the scenery here as I seem to run out of superlatives. Riding along I try to describe to myself what I am seeing but by the time I come to put it into words I have seen so much more that I’ve forgotten my previous descriptions. At the passport checkpoint we met Rob and Annie, an Aussie/German couple travelling on a Royal Enfield and shared chai and a slice of cake with them before setting off towards Sonamarg. The valley narrowed and the sides steepened until we were in a gorge. The road narrowed, deteriorated and steepened as it turned west and emerged high above the next valley. With the sun beaming directly along the valley everything became hazy as we followed the switchbacks down to the valley floor. We found Tim in a roadside café in Sonamarg and were soon joined by Rob and Annie. Together we haggled a reasonable price at the Glacier View Hotel where there was safe parking for the bikes.

Day 3

Sonamarg was reminiscent of Switzerland with pine trees and waterfalls and so the urban approach to Srinigar was an unwelcome experience. After three weeks in the relative quiet of the mountains we were back amongst the madness of the flatlands and we hated it. Nagin lake took some finding as nobody spoke English and unless we pronounced ‘Nagin’ EXACTLY the same way as the locals then they didn’t understand what we meant. Eventually we found it and were mobbed by houseboat owners desperate for our business. Tim and I looked over four boats whilst Danny looked after the bikes and we eventually settled on the first one we’d viewed. The owner cleaned all of our luggage before we took it aboard and then jumped on the back of Tims bike to stock up on beer. On their return we watched the sun set across the lake from the back of the boat whilst supping a cold one – beautiful.

Srinigar

That first night it started raining and it didn’t stop for 72hours. This was unheard of weather for the time of year and really concerned the locals for whom it was harvest time for the rice crop. Srinigar quickly became cut off from the rest of India when the river Jhelum burst its’ banks to the south and landslides blocked the road to Leh in the north-east. When we’d arrived we’d walked along a garden path to the middle of the boat and stepped almost directly onboard but after three days the path was submerged and we needed steps to climb aboard at the shore end and walk along the edge of the boat to the doorway. The lake had risen almost 1m in three days.

Eventually it stopped raining and we caught the bus into town. After spending the day wandering around, we caught a Shakira (similar to a Gondola) back to our houseboat.

We spent two hours cruising through the narrow waterways past businesses, houses, temples and derelict industry. We saw Kingfishers, Kites and Herons and numerous species of flowers. It was the best ‘off bike’ activity we’d one in a while.

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Back at our houseboat we met Maarten and Ilse. A Dutch couple who have been travelling on their Honda Africa Twin for 14 months and were staying on a boat two down from ours.  We got on well and spent a few evenings together much to the obvious disgust of our boat owner (we’d done our deal with his son). His behaviour became increasingly strange as the weather seemed to be sending him stir crazy. He’d wake us all up at 0700 by crashing around on the boat for no apparent reason, move our stuff around, turn lights on and off in rooms we were using and appear on the boat without knocking. The final straw came when a group of six arrived to join us on the boat and we were told that our meal time would be moved as they wanted to eat at the same time as we had for the previous four nights. Having had the third degree from the boat owner the previous evening because Tim wasn’t on the boat five minutes before meal time this wasn’t acceptable and we read the riot act to the boat owner. Fortunately we got word that the road to the south had been reopened and we would be able to leave the following morning. When it came to paying the bill the old man asked for a tip. Tim tore him off a strip telling him that a tip was for good service and not only had he made us feel unwelcome but that his behaviour was unacceptable and his food mediocre (which it was). When the old man wasn’t looking we tipped the son who had bent over backwards to provide a good service and make us feel welcome.

Srinigar – MacLeodganj

Day 1

It was good to be back on the road again after six days on the boat. We weren’t sure what to expect after the flooding and landslides and soon encountered a longwinded, un-signposted detour around a still flooded section of road. Back on the main road we repeatedly encountered long stretches underneath 350mm of water and rode through with our feet on the tanks hopeful there were no potholes to throw us off. At Batote we turned east to Doda where we topped up with fuel and checked on the condition of the road to Chamba. “Road open. No Problem” we were told.  Turning south-east it was only a few miles before we encountered our first landslide. The road had been fairly well cleared but it was only wide enough for one vehicle at a time and full of deep puddles and muddy ruts. This happened several times over the next few miles as we followed the fast flowing rock strewn river used by the locals to irrigate their paddy fields. In Bhaderwah we were given conflicting directions regarding the route to Chamba. We went with the most decisive but as the road narrowed it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a dead end. It transpired that not only was the road closed it had been for three years! We were given alternative directions via six villages (none of which were on the map) by means of the armies gravel tracks. This would take two days and include spending the night at an army camp to avoid the bandits. We had just about enough daylight to get us to the army camp but as we approached an army check post just 500m out of town so Danny got a puncture. Too late to continue on our planned route and after repairing Danny’s puncture, we returned to Bhaderwah where we were lucky to find the towns’ only hotel had secure parking. Over dinner we decided that tackling the unknown condition of the gravel road was not a wise option given Danny’s temporary suspension repair and agreed we would backtrack to Batote and follow the main road.

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Day 2

On the stretch of road to Udhampur we encountered several convoys of army trucks each one of which was driven by somebody with total disregard for other road users. They would overtake whenever and wherever they wanted including blind mountain bends. Anyone in their way was simply run off the road.

The road to Dhar was gravel strewn and potholed but it was nice to escape the traffic and enjoy the scenery. We passed a vast group of lakes before rejoining the main road at Madhopur and rode via Pathankot to MacLeodganj.

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MacLeodganj

It’s not called ‘Cloud’ for nothing and I don’t recall seeing the sun during our stay. It is however a very pleasant place to spend some time. After speaking to Vijay Parmar (organiser of Raid-de-Himalaya) I went in search of a Clinic to get a Medical for my Indian racing licence. This was a comedy sketch in itself which included ‘Close one eye; How many fingers am I holding up?’ as an eye test and ‘Have you got a hernia?’ as an abdominal examination!

The chuckling didn’t stop there however. When we managed to block the toilet in our hotel my attempt at unblocking in resulted in the need to have a second shower, hose down the bathroom and visit the laundry! Nice.

MacLeodganj – Shimla

Thinking we’d ride out of the cloud as we descended from town we didn’t bother putting our waterproof suits on. As we approached the valley so it poured with rain and we were soon soaked. When we stopped for breakfast we fitted the Goretex liners back into our riding suits so despite the outers being soaked we were warm and dry.

It wasn’t long before Danny picked up his third puncture in two weeks. All of them had been big nails and this was no exception, taking both of us to pull it out. By now he had become quite adept at the repair and it wasn’t long before we were on the move.

We rolled into Shimla at 1700, rode up a ‘sealed’ road and found the ‘Classic Hotel’. Whilst Danny haggled a price with the owner I stayed with the bikes where it wasn’t long before a policeman arrived and started ranting about our bikes being on a ‘sealed’ road. He said we couldn’t park in the hotel; presumably because it was accessed via a ‘sealed’ road. He wanted us to park in the town centre and carry all our luggage back to the hotel. I told him he must be joking at which point he demanded to see our documents. There was nothing on his uniform saying ‘Police’ and when I refused to show him anything unless he showed me his ID card he got really angry, threatened to impound our bikes, made a phone call and radio call. His superior arrived and showed me his ID card at which point I showed him my documents and we had to negotiate a deal whereby we covered the bikes up until the day we left and rode away at 0600 when we did.

Shimla

We went to the offices of Himalayan Motorsport where we met Vijay Parmar, whos brainchild the Raid-de-Himalaya is. Vijays’ grandfather was the founder of the state of Himachel Pradesh and his statue stands in the town mall. Combined with his French mother he is extremely well educated and very western in his way of thinking. In fact, his grasp of sarcasm is matched only by his execution of the dead-pan delivery.

After learning more about the Rally and what I would have to do paperwork wise over the next few days in order to enter, Vijay gave us a lift back to town. We quizzed him about India’s obsession with using the horn. Typical of his East/West understanding he offered the following: ‘In Europe you use the horn to tell someone they’ve done something stupid. In India we use it to tell people we’re about to do something stupid’!

Back in town I undertook a blood group test, had passport photos taken and met an insurance salesman for personal accident insurance (all requirements of the Rally)

I spent most of the following day at the Himalayan Motorsport office where I met Damon I’Anson, a freelance motorcycle journalist and former editor of Performance Bikes Magazine. He to was here for the Rally and between us we still had a lot of questions we needed answering. I got a lift back to town with Manjeeve; President of the club and Clerk of the Course. During our walk across the Mall I learnt about his Heli-Skiing operation in Manali along with his joint venture with an Australian company into avalanche safety research. This was particularly interesting to me being a snowboarder and having being caught in an avalanche in the French Alps some years ago.

Shimla – Manali

Day 1

After a row with the hotel owner regarding missing laundry we settled on paying half the bill and left town. Danny would take the direct route to Manali and meet up with Tim and take some Paragliding lessons, whilst I would recce the Rallys’ route over two days.

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Vijay had given me GPS Tracks of the Rally route to follow but I would still need to use them in conjunction with the road book as it’s not possible to watch the GPS all the time.

It was a beautiful route and I was glad to ride it at a relatively leisurely pace before riding it competitively. Being fully loaded and stopping to take photos slowed me down and when I reached the foot of the Jalori Pass I realised there wasn’t enough time to cross it in daylight. It took me 1.5 hours to track down a guest house in nearby Ani and when I did they had no drinking water. I joined five local guys who had got together to eat dinner and drink whiskey in the room opposite. The curried chicken drumsticks were good but having spent 10hrs riding and another 1.5 tracking down somewhere to sleep I was knackered and turned in early.

Day 2

I left early and crossed the Jalori Pass. Much rougher than I’d expected and under the cover of the trees, I decided I’d definitely want to be across here in daylight on the Rally.

I arrived at Hotel Bhrigu in Vashist, Manali just as Danny and Tim were dragging themselves out of bed and joined them for a very drawn out breakfast.

Manali II

Over the next three days I made a few repairs and adjustments to my bike and began to learn my way around Garmins’ ‘Mapsource’ software. Danny and Tim arranged their Paragliding course and together (along with Klaudia who was staying just up the road) we watched the Australian GP live on the hotels 54’’ TV.

Danny had answered a posting on the Horizons Unlimited  from an English guy travelling on a BMW1150GS with his Danish girlfriend. He wanted some information regarding the Manali – Leh road and so when they arrived in Leh we met up with them. They’d travelled a very similar route to ours but thanks to the anti-Semitic cartoon fiasco in Denmark they air freighted from Istanbul to Delhi thereby bypassing the Islamic countries of Iran and Pakistan.

Spiti Valley

I wanted to visit the Spiti Valley to recee days 2 & 3 of the Rally. My first attempt was aborted after encountering a broken down bulldozer in the middle of a landslide on the Rohtang Pass. When I finally made it to the valley I saw what all the fuss was about. Everyone we met had spoken of how beautiful it was and they weren’t wrong.

From Gramphoo, a broken tarmac road switchbacks down the valley side before deteriorating into a gravel track for the next 78km to Losar. The valley widens as it becomes strewn with boulders left by long since receded glaciers. Travelling east I could sometimes see the glaciers trapped in the mountains to the south.

Twenty kilometres into the valley I developed a severe knocking from the back of my bike and was dismayed to find that both of the subframe/rack mount bolts had sheared off again. Fortunately I had two bolts I could cut down to fit as I was only passed by one jeep during the time I was making the repair.

As the valley widened so the track climbed up slightly from the valley floor to escape the river. Crossing the river at Batal the track climbs up to the Kunzum La at 4551m before becoming increasingly rough as it descends to Losar.

pict0130-1-spiti-valley-recce1

The wild and rugged scenery had now been replaced with irrigated, inhabited, farmland. The houses here were more Tibetan than Indian and the road overlooked paddy fields which in turn overlooked the turquoise river.

I spent the night in Kaza before recce’ing day 3 of the Rally. This involved riding along two dead end tracks to the villages of Komic and Demul. Demul, in particular was like stepping back in time. Tucked away in a valley 18km north of the already isolated Spiti Valley I was surprised to find a village there at all. It was obvious that nothing had changed there for centuries.

The loop around Dhankar Gompa afforded magnificent views of the valley and I spent some time taking photos before setting off on the 280km ride back to Manali.

pict0095-dankar-gompa

Shimla II

I left Danny and Tim Paragliding in Manali and rode the 250km to Shimla. The manager of Damons’ hotel wanted to charge me almost double what they were charging him and so I told him he was ‘joking’ and checked into the Kabil Hotel further down the road. The cheapest room had no windows but was a good size, had a good shower and most importantly of all, satellite TV with a good picture – it was, after all, Moto GP the following day!

In the workshop at Motoworld (Vijays’ Maruti Suzuki dealership) on Sunday afternoon I found a 250mm long bolt holding the anti-vibration cradle in place to be broken. Fortunately, Vijay knew just the man and the following morning took me to meet to Mr Singh to arrange a repair.

That night I joined Damon, Suzie (owner of Blaizing Trails Enfield Tours), Josie (her tour medic) and Ryan (Kiwi assistant) to celebrate Damons (40th) and Suzies birthdays.

I would come to spend five days in the workshop repairing and preparing my bike for the rally. The top shock bushes I’d ordered from Andy White at KAIS were out of stock but he swiftly arranged for Ohlins in Sweden to send two to Danny in Manali and two to me in Shimla. I fitted new clutch and throttle cables, air filter, brake pads, serviced the callipers, replaced the top shock bush, had a new shock collar made, repaired and refitted the cradle bolt, stripped and greased chain adjusters, removed the pannier frames and rack, made number plates, fitted mudflaps (as per rally regs), made a handlebar mounted clipboard, had name and blood group stickers made for the tank and, eventually, fitted new tyres; but getting my hands on them was another saga…

During this time Trigan, Suhrid (Bantu), Vishwas and Damon were a tremendous help, without whom I would not have made it to the starting line.

p9290001-1-f650-rally

Scrutineering day dawned still with no sign of my tyres. They were being brought overnight by a competitor from Delhi but there was no sign of him. Because this had been arranged by Vijay the scrutineers let me off the R300 fee for failing scrutineering (tyres must have a minimum of 4mm of tread). I spent the rest of the day hanging around waiting for my tyres to arrive. All was not lost though as it was a great opportunity to meet and chat with the other competitors – and what a great bunch they are. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and entrepreneurs arrived with all kinds of machinery from the very basic to the most ingeniously modified including a mono-shocked Royal Enfield fitted with Kawasaki suspension front and rear that we nicknamed the ‘Stretch Limo’!

When the guy who brought chai twice daily to the workshop recognised me in the crowd and gave me a cup I realised I’d been there too long.

Eventually news came that the competitor from Delhi who had my tyres had arrived in his hotel. Vishwas took me there on the back of his bike to collect them only to find they were actually in his service jeep which had broken down and was in a garage 12km away. After sharing dinner with them in their hotel room we set off to find their jeep and my tyres. Vishwas was a tidy rider and I held on for grim death as we raced along the twisty roads through the traffic. Fortunately the ride back with a pair of tyres on my lap was a little more sedate. It was quite late once I’d fitted my tyres and returned to my hotel so I wandered up to a well known Café on the Mall for a pizza. I was the only customer and when I finished, walked into the kitchen to pay – OH MY GOD!! I shall surely die of food poisoning in the morning – it looked like the aftermath of a food fight!!

On the day before the rally I moved into the Royal Oaks Hotel (my allocated accommodation for the night before the start) and shared a room with Damon and Sushant Shetty, an Indian lad who I can’t help but think reminds me of Neville from Crocodile Dundee. He’d put his bike on a truck at home in Bangalore and sent it to Delhi before travelling the 2000km by train to collect it and spend another day riding it to Shimla. A great show of dedication by a 20 year old lad.

After squeezing in a recce of the first transport and competitive stages I returned to the hotel in time to join the others for the compulsory riders/drivers briefing at the Peterhoff Hotel (Rally HQ). After that we all still seemed to have lots of little things to do and didn’t turn in until midnight.

The Raid

This morning I learnt there are two 4 O’Clocks in a day! Alarm at 0400, mug boiler in cup ready for a caffeine infusion (or two!), wake Sushant; Damons already awake  – hasn’t slept a wink. Bikes loaded and we’re away at 0500. Rally rules say you must carry a sleeping bag, first aid kit and survival rations. I am also carrying my tools, spare tubes and electric air pump.

The Parc Ferme is open 0430-0530. Any competitor who does not enter their vehicle into the Parc Ferme within this time is immediately disqualified. With my bike safely parked up I head off in search of Ryan and Josie who have kindly carried my kitbag and laptop (for uploading GPS tracks each night) from the hotel in the ambulance. Once I’ve found them I track down Kevin (a British diplomat driving his Landrover Discovery in the Reliability Trial) and his Dutch co-driver, Kees who have offered to carry kit bags for Damon and I. Most riders/drivers have service crews who do this for them but that was not an option for Damon and I.

Despite still being dark it is surprisingly warm, the banter and well-wishing is flowing and the ‘loosening’ effect of pre-race nerves is setting in I’ve not experienced this for a few years now and whilst it wasn’t a welcome feeling it meant one thing – competition was imminent! After six months of cruising along I needed something to focus me and make my pulse race – this was it.

adammatt

Daylight came at around 0545 and the first rider was flagged off at 0600. The rest followed at one minute intervals. I was the last bike and set off at 0632. There would be no delay between bikes and cars meaning I was just one minute ahead of the fastest guy in the rally – great!

At the first competitive section I was faced with the same dilemma I had been since I decided to take part – how fast to go? The racer in me wanted to win but the traveller in me knew I had another 2 years and 40,000 miles to ride on this bike – I settled for a compromise with myself. I was happy with the pace at which I’d ridden my recce the previous day and that would be my pace for all the competitive stages of the rally.

I quickly catch and pass the two riders in front of me but although general visibility is quite good, detailed visibility is reduced by the dust of the riders ahead of me. Just 8km into the 26km stage I hit a rock and puncture the front. Quickly filling the tyre with ‘Finilec’ I get going just as the first jeep appears behind me. The tyre is flat again within 20m and I pull over into a clearing, gather enough flat rocks to prop under the engine and set about replacing the inner tube. As I go to inflate the tyre so my electric pump packs up. Stripping it down I find the fuse has been arcing. Cleaning off the Carbon deposits gets it running again and I’m soon on my way.

Continuing into the stage the front end of the bike has a strange feeling to it that I can’t put my finger on. Have I done everything up tight? Have I left out the thin wheel spacer? The tube I fitted is narrower than the one I removed – is that it?

Instead of gripping, the front tyre was ‘tucking’, making a crash feel imminent.

I clock out of the stage 72 minutes after entering it; a full 34 minutes slower than it took me on my recce yesterday. Bummer.

With some time in hand at the end of the second ‘transport/liaison’ stage, I pull out the front wheel just to check I’d re-assembled everything correctly – I had. I was hoping to have found something easily remedied to regain my loss of grip.

The time I’d lost meant I was now starting behind the first ten or so jeeps. If I thought the dust from the bikes was bad I’d seen nothing yet. Dust lingers in the air for a good kilometre behind a jeep making catching and overtaking a tricky business. With the breeze blowing straight up the valley and the track winding its’ way around the mountainside the dust would sometimes be blown off the track but also blow straight up it. Riding as fast as I can in the clear sections and backing off in the thick dust (you wouldn’t want to ride off the edge!) I catch Jeep No10, one of six female competitors in the rally. She sees me coming and waves me through – good sportsmanship. It is still another 20km to the end of the stage – this competitive section is 46km long. The jeeps are making a real mess of the track, littering the surface with loose stones. The front end ‘feel’ of my bike is deteriorating and so it seems is my ground clearance. I’m grounding out despite the lack of any large undulations in the track. What is wrong with my bike?  Different theories start revolving inside my head. At the end of the competitive section the track descends into the valley and rejoins tarmac. I park up and put the bike on its’ centre stand to find a lot of up/down movement in the swinging arm. Looking closer I see the whole shock body moving suggesting my new top shock bush has failed in just 300km. Should I carry on or return by road to Shimla? All of my clothes are in my rucksack heading for Manali. Danny is in Manali and by now, hopefully his bushes from Ohlins will have arrived. I’ll ride on.

The third and final competitive section of the day is 60km long. As I queue up for my start I notice the intervals between vehicles has been increased to two minutes. 30km into the stage I catch jeep No7. I can only get within 20m of him because of the dust. Exiting a left hand hairpin the co-driver looks across at me. Knowing I’ve taken 2mins out of him he’ll move over and let me through – won’t he? Disregarding all that was said by Clerk of the Course, Manjeev Bhalla, at the drivers/riders briefing regarding faster drivers/riders. ‘’If another driver/rider takes a minute out of you he is obviously faster; move over and let him past. Why spoil somebody else’s rally?’’ the ignorant bastard would not budge.

I ride 8km in a gear lower than I want to be in. Sometimes I’m in first gear unable to see 10m in front of me. I know there is a short tarmac section approaching. This will be my only chance at passing him. I give it everything knowing I will be much safer once I pass him. Even as I catch him he won’t move over. I sound my horn and keep it sounding for the next kilometre when he finally moves over just as we enter a sandy section. Within three corners he disappears from view in my (compulsory) wing mirrors. At last I can see where I’m going again, only another 20km of competitive stage to ride and I can relax.

As I exit the stage I suck my 3litre Camelback dry. Stopping in the next two villages I try unsuccessfully to buy bottled water to replenish it. Dismounting at the bridge at the foot of the Jalori Pass a soldier offers me water and promptly fills my Camelback. Although the competitive stages are finished its still 160km to the finish.

Danny and Klaudia are waiting for me at the finish in Manali as I roll in after 14hrs and 427km. My allocated hotel is just 50m from the finish and after eating dinner with Damon, Matt (an English competitor living in Delhi), Dinesh (Dr) and Imran I help Danny strip the suspension out of my bike.

Sure enough the top suspension bush has failed again. Danny has a spare but it is no good fitting it without knowing why it failed so soon. We soon arrive at a theory: The shock is fitted with the stiffest spring Ohlins make in order to cope with a 300kg (fully laden) motorcycle. Of this, 85kg is pannier frames, rack and luggage. Without this weight to compress the spring the bush takes all the punishment, destroying it in just 300km. There are three solutions to this problem: 1. Fit a softer spring. 2. Replace the rubber bush with a rose joint. 3. Re-fit pannier frame, rack and luggage. None of these however are feasible at midnight in Manali and as fitting another bush would only lead to another failure in 300km I am left with no choice but to withdraw from the rally. I am gutted. Not only to be out of the rally but to miss out on a week of ‘Abenteur’ with a group of truly wonderful people. To say I had been welcomed and made to feel like one of them would be an understatement.

dsc00202-raid-bivvy

My opinion on jeep No7 was cemented in the early hours of Sunday morning as we re-assemble my bike. Revving the nuts off his engine and racing up and down the street outside whilst a hotel full of tired riders tried to grab some sleep confirmed he truly is a complete cock!

Another week in Manali

Tim had left the previous day to travel via the Spiti Valley and collect Tracey from Dharamsala, so I checked back into Hotel Bhrigu with Danny. We moved into our favourite room in the hotel on the top floor and with a huge corner balcony overlooking the valley. With the weather being so good we took the opportunity of getting our riding suits washed. Mine was in a state after spending the day eating dust on the rally whilst Danny’s bore all the hallmarks of some dubious paragliding landings.

We replaced the top shock bushes in both of our rear shocks – thanks to Anu at Anu Motorworks in Vashist for the use of his workshop facilities (he’s the guy Tim rented his Enfield from).

On Friday night I wandered down to the rally finish. Damon and Matt were already there having made good time from Leh. The day however, had not been without incident. After taking the lead of the rally on the final stage Damon had just to get back to Manali within time. Just 30km from home a car he was overtaking decided to overtake the one ahead. Slamming on the brakes as the car pulled out it took his front wheel away from him. As his bike slid down the road so Damon fell off the Cliffside, tumbling some 30m to a standstill. Battered, bruised and sporting a potentially broken hand he climbed back up onto the road to find his bike with bent handlebars and a broken footrest. Had the bike gone over the edge he would have been out of the rally. He limped into Manali within time but when I met him he looked like he’d gone several rounds with Tyson.

pict0037-1-raid-crew

The following evening (Saturday) I joined everyone for the formal prize giving ceremony and dinner. It was a great evening with excellent food and company. Eight of us managed to fit into Nittin’s service jeep for a ‘taxi’ ride back to Vashist – thanks again guys.

Danny’s BMW parts from Motorworks arrived on Friday meaning we should be able to return to Shimla on Sunday, refit my pannier frames, rack etc on Monday and set off on the two day drive to Nepal on Tuesday.

We need to find a hotel with satellite TV for the following Sundays MotoGP from Portugal. We haven’t had a climax like this to a season for years and we NEED to see it live!

Shimla III and the road to Nepal

Back in Shimla we checked into Hotel Kabil where I’d stayed on my previous visit before I borrowed Danny’s bike to collect my luggage I’d left at the Royal Oaks Hotel prior to setting off on the rally. I spent the following day in the workshop at Motoworld putting my bike back together. I had to wind the preload back onto the rear shock, re-fit the pannier frames and rack (which I modified to allow access to the tail compartment), change the front tyre and give it a general check over.

I said my goodbye’s to Trigan, Bantu, Vishwas and Sanjay but Vijay was still on his way back from Manali. Later that evening I met him at home for a chat before saying goodbye to him too. A truly great bunch of people whom I hope to see again (next years’ Rally?).

Danny and I decided to stick to the mountain roads en-route to Nepal. Although a longer (840km), slower route it would be quieter and more picturesque than the lowland alternative. It took us three days to ride to the Nepalese border, the second day from Rishikesh to Chaukori being particularly nice. We followed the river Ganges for miles out of Rishikesh. This far upstream it is a beautiful mountain river and along the banks were several camps used by the rafting companies. At Srinigar (not the Kashmir one) we were held up in a demonstration over the availability of Propane gas bottles. Bottles had been strung out across the road in the centre of town and despite jumping the considerable tailback we had no choice but to wait at the front until the protestors had made their point and the road was cleared.

Despite there being only one road on the map there were several on the ground. A smaller scale map would have been helpful but we didn’t have one. We eventually made it to Chaukori where we took the last room in a kind of bungalow complex. Unbeknown to us it was holiday season in the Calcutta region and this area was prime holiday destination.

As we loaded the bikes up at 0600 the following morning so a waiter wandered around dishing out cups of chai to everyone who was up to see the sunrise. A map of the local area in the hotel lobby proved very useful. I wrote down the order of the villages we would pass through and the distances between them. With many of the signs in Hindi only and the roads not resembling anything on our map we navigated by compass and distance to next village + distance travelled from previous village. Asking directions occasionally helped but unless we got our pronunciation spot on (rare!) we weren’t understood.

The approach to the border crossing at Banbassa was an unusual one but we’ll save that for the next instalment…

Indian summary

We had it easy in India. We enjoyed the far north (especially Ladakh) so much that we didn’t venture any further south than Rishikesh, thereby avoiding the chaos that most overlanders talk about.

However, between us our tally of objects we struck include: Cars, Minivans, Tuk Tuk’s, pedestrians, dogs, cows, water buffalo, sheep, goats,  motorcyclist’s and a tree. The tally of objects that struck us include: Buses, cars, taxis, Tuk Tuk’s, a motorcyclist, water buffalo, cows, water buffalo, pedestrians and a dog. You haven’t read that wrong; that second list is of things that have driven, ridden or walked into us whilst we’ve been riding along! India – it’s a special place.

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7 Responses to Chapter 8 – Ladakh: The best motorcycling in the world?

  1. jsr says:

    Hey! just fumbled upon your blog! Great going! BTW I think I have seen you guys at Paang and also spoke to you guys we were on also touring Ladhak. BTW I remember seeing a Jap guy too with you guys on a Honda If I remember correct (in the pic the covered bike @Paang tent camp). I hope you were the same blokes :)

    cheers

    jsr

  2. jsr says:

    yes yes! you were the same blokes! just read the blog completely. I will send you a pic with us :)

  3. GK says:

    hey..we met at paang..am in us now..do let me know if i can be of any help during ur ride in americas..cheers n great going

  4. I have been doing Tour to Ladakh. Did it in 2010 and 2011 + Spiti Valley(Toughest of all). I just wanted to know which Adventure bike would you recommend. I have been doing it on my RE 350. Thank you!!

    • adamlewis says:

      Hi Sourabh,
      Manali – Leh – Srinigar remains my #1 favorite ride of all time. I have also ridden some of the Spiti Valley from below Rohtang La to Dankar. One day I will explore this region more. It’s a magical, breathtaking region.
      Adventure Bikes – I am VERY happy with my Suzuki DR650. It’s cheap, simple, reliable, tough and lightweight (for a 650). Another good option is the Suzuki DRZ400. I think the Yamaha WR250R has a lot of potential – take a look here:

      See you in India!

      • Hello Adam,

        Not offend anyone but you guys have really good economic policies at your countries…
        India has been and shall continue to promote and sell only commuter 100cc motorbikes…
        I long to see India sell dual-sport, adventure and bikes like your DRZ, KLR or a WR, specifically in the lightweight sub650cc category.
        In the past decade, the best motorbike India sold was the Enfield Lightning535, which I managed to get my hands on…converted it into a dualsport machine and completed a continuous 8months’ ride around India; 24000Kms. The road Gramphu(RohtangLa) to Kaza(Spiti) via Batal being my fav too :)
        Hope to catch up with you somewhere when our roads meet.

      • adamlewis says:

        Hi Sushil,

        I love to see Indian’s exploring their own country on whatever machinery is available to them. Good on ya!
        I too have a Bullet (350) which I have ridden from Delhi – Kathmandu – Kochi – Chennai. Then on the train to Kolkata before riding to Darjeeling -North Sikkim – Nepal – Delhi.
        I think the bullet is a great bike for travelling India and thoroughly enjoy riding it.

        I hope you ride many more km’s on yours.

        Cheers

        Adam

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