The Himalayas

Normally, around this time of year, the high passes in the Indian Himalayas would be snowed in. We’d read that they are officially closed from 1st October, which meant government wouldn’t send a rescue mission, if you get stuck.

But this year is an odd one and monsoon had skipped parts of the country, while western Kashmir was drowning under floods and landslides. So we decided to take our chances and head for the fabled Manali – Leh highway, then come round in an anti-clockwise loop via Srinagar and back south to Jammu.

It was baking hot and humid as we left Delhi, but when we reached Manali, it was getting a bit chilly. The road had started climbing the mountainside and fir trees and beautiful views of misty valleys had started making an appearance. Not that we had time to take all of it in. We’d spent the whole afternoon dodging colourful Tata trucks with things like “Risky Boy” written on the back, bumping along potholed, narrow roads.

Manali is a great little backpacker town full of shops selling colourful Hippie clothes, patches, stones and woolen shawls. And if you make the effort and ride up the steep hill, you are rewarded with a pretty little village, colourful hostels and more hippie shops lining the narrow street. We found ourselves a cheap room in the homely, family run Krishna Guest House. We were allowed to safely park our bikes in the back yard and had a view over the rooftops from our balcony.

It’s the end of the season and while frosty at night, the days still get quite hot. Life up here is simple and happens mostly outside in the warming sunshine. The kids had a shower in the courtyard in the morning, laundry is washed in buckets outside and hung over the fence and people dry hay for the yaks and herbs on the roof tops.

We got some giant but cheap camping mats in town and one shop guy let me have one of his prized cloth sacks so I could make a sort of saddle bag for Nila from it. Useful for keeping engine oil and chain spray in.Then we were ready to head off towards Leh.

They were selling snow suits along the road as we left town, but I decided it’s too bulky to carry. A choice I regretted later.The road twisted upwards, lined with trees, birds of prey circling overhead.

Loads of jeeps and minibuses were carting tourists up the hill. But they only went as far as the first high pass – Rohtang, where you could eat at tent restaurants, go para gliding or pony trekking. We stopped to take pictures and were soon surrounded by touts selling saffron (which is grown up in the mountains) and wanting to take pictures with us. (Not sure why Indian people are so obsessed with having their pictures taken with tourists, but we’d come across that a lot over the next weeks!)

We made our escape cross the hill and had the road pretty much to ourselves.

Soon the road deteriorated from tarmac to sharp gravel and potholes. It was really cold up here! The American guy we’d kept bumping into along the way came back towards us. He looked hilarious: shorts, woolly socks up to his knees, Cat boots, long ginger beard and red jacket. Wickid! He’d never ridden a bike before but had rented one in Manali and braved this difficult road. Even when he dropped it in the mud, he hadn’t given up. Good on him!

The first night we camped in a small field, in plain view of everyone. No such thing as hidden spots and privacy in India. In the early morning we set off again.

The Manali – Leh highway was stunning. The most beautiful place I’ve ever been! It exceeded all our expectations. And given it was end of the season, it was almost empty. Just us, the bikes and beautiful, snow-capped mountains and colourful plains.

We stopped in a tent town for lunch. The hotel tents and most of the restaurants were closed. But one had some yummie dhal and chapatti with sweet chai for us. You order and pay once, but they keep topping up the food till you’ve had enough.

Then the road went along a river gorge and through yellow, orange mountains before winding up to the next pass in the gata loops (a series of 21 switchbacks).

It was late afternoon now and the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Suddenly it got cold. The puddles on the road were freezing over and my hands and feet went first numb, then screamingly painful. I rode down the other side of the mountain crying with pain, and Aidan asked for a bed at the yurts in the small valley. Our own tent without blankets wouldn’t be warm enough.

But they had nothing for us, and we had to brave the next high pass. Our woollies and jeans just weren’t warm enough, we were totally underequipped for this. The sun was down now and it was getting dark real fast. We’d been caught out unawares and underprepared.

We were at around 5200 metres, and coming up here so fast was dangerous. You’re supposed to get yourself used to the height over days. The plan had been to ride down the other side and sleep much lower down, around 3500m maybe. But it was pitch black now, and the bikes lights didn’t allow us to see much. The road was gravel, potholes and bumpy as hell, so we crawled along the mountain side at 20kph, trying to not accidentally bounce over the edge. Sharp bends and rickety bridges over gorges appeared out of nowhere.

The next town was 30km away and we were watching the mile stones, wishing for this scary freezing ride to end. We arrived in Pang exhausted and numb with cold, stopping at the first tent we saw. The owner came running out “Welcome! Welcome!”, rushing us off the bike and into the tent. She put a hot Chai in our hands and sat us in front of a little gas heater. “First you warm up, then I show you bed.” We were lucky she was still here. Normally Pang would be closed by now, but this year they would stay till 20th October.

Looking around while slowly thawing out a little, we found ourselves in a round cloth yurt with gas cooker kitchen and blanket covered benches that double up as beds. Old school travel trunks are used to store personal items and make for great little tables. Attached to this yurt, with a low entrance you have to duck through, is another little tent with thick mats on the floor and walls of blankets and pillows around the edges. This is the guest house where we would sleep.

We doubled up the floor mats with an extra blanket rolled out the sleeping bags, put three blankets over that and crawled in, wearing all our clothes. Our hostess came in to apologise that there wasn’t a separate light switch, so the lights would go out at 11pm. When she saw that we were still shivering, she put another blanket over us and tucked us in.

It was at least -15 degrees outside and probably around -10 inside. You could see your breath in white clouds and our water froze. We couldn’t sleep much that night. I didn’t mind the hustle and bustle going on in the yurt, or the noise of the trucks arriving through the night, the drivers waking our hostess for a hot chai and a warm bench to sleep on. But I’d got a real bad headache from being so high up and the fumes from the gas heater weren’t helping. It took several hours before we were warm enough to stop shivering.

The next morning the sun wouldn’t really break through the clouds and temperatures remained below zero. The coffee warmed us a little, but the ride up the mountain on he other side of Pang soon had us numb with cold again. We passed the highest pass on this journey – the second highest point in the world that can be reached by motor vehicle, but were too freezing to take the camera out for a picture.

Then the road dropped and stretched in immaculate tarmac across a vast barren plain. The colours of sandy ochre, yellow and orange with white mountain tips were amazing. We were too cold to enjoy it and sped along at 70kph. My headache wouldn’t let up and I was praying for the road to go downhill again. Instead it turned to lose gravel. The bike was swimming along and it was all I could do to keep it upright. Aidan was better at this and sped ahead, while I had another frustrated little cry with pain and cold, tears freezing on my cheeks (it’s a good release).

When the road climbed some more, Aidan’s bike ran out of air and put putted along at 10kph. We thought it may be a blocked fuel filter and took it out. It had been put in backwards so we turned it around. The bike worked fine after that so we were convinced that was the problem. For a stretch, then it stopped again. We couldn’t open the filter, so we took it out and tried to bridge the pipe with the tube from my pen. But the tape we used had frozen stiff and the glue wouldn’t hold, so petrol leaked everywhere. Nothing to it but to put the filter back in. We continued to crawl along, consoling ourselves with the fact that there were quite a few army trucks passing by that could maybe give us a lift if need be.

We made it over the hill and finally the road started dropping down. Now Aidan could just coast freely and we sped down the twisting road towards air and warmth. Soon the frozen river in the valley below started flowing again and Tibetan stupas started making an appearance. Autumnal yellow poplars cropped up here and there and then we reached the first village. The sun came out too. People were walking along, their wooly blankets turned to the cold wind. But I’ve never been so happy and warm riding along in three degree heat!

Suddenly the mountains turned an intense maroon red, speckled with the odd turquoise green one. The gravel stretches on the road were pink and where people had painted stones white to mark the roadside, they had a pink tinge to them. The contrast to the yellow trees was stunning! Sadly we didn’t take any pictures.

Eventually the colours returned to sandy ochre again, the valley opened up and we reached a bigger town, where we stopped for chai, watching kids chase street dogs. There is no running water here. People drink and wash from a big water container by the roadside that government fills up with tanker lorries.

From now on the road is lined with army camps, training grounds, parade grounds and even schools and educational labyrinths. Where the land is not claimed by army, villages pop up. They are full of white stupas in various stages of repair and colourful temples. Tibetan prayer flags fly everywhere. The rest of the buildings are made from brown mud bricks. The place feels strange, an almost creepy mix of humble spirituality and brute army force.

 

And it is dusty! It gets everywhere. In your clothes, your teeth, you even breathe it in. Many people here walk around with a cloth mask over their mouth and nose.

We arrived in Leh early evening and found a hostel. Many places are closed and the off-season road and building works have started everywhere. A restaurant has WiFi and we catch up with the world, having been cut off for days. Our phones say “emergency calls only” here in the state of Kashmir. For security reasons apparently. After all this is a disputed area where Pakistan and India can’t seem to agree on which part belongs to who. And the Kashmiris want to be their own country entirely. Hence all the army.

The next day we took the bikes to the mechanics. Nila’s fork seals had started leaking all over the front brake, rendering it useless. And since the back brake is almost non-existent…. The bikes got a check-over too. Oil change, cleaning the spark plugs, tightening the chain… The mechanics are thorough but some of their methods are rather rough. We are so glad these aren’t our prized round-the-world bikes. Not surprisingly it came to a lot more than originally agreed. But 17 pounds for oil, seals and 4 hours work is really nothing to complain about 🙂

After that we explored the town and its markets till it got dark.

The next day, nicely refreshed, we set off again, towards Srinagar, basically west from Leh, and much lower down. There is lots of army along this road and they use it to transport all their soldiers and supplies. So its pretty much all well looked after tarmac. And having been spoiled the last few days, we didn’t expect the landscape to be nearly as amazing either.

So we were pleasantly surprised when we reached the part the Indians call moon landscape (mainly to market the hotels in town). The road had been going downhill most of the day, but here it climbed steeply up the mountain pass. Suddenly soft sandy yellow hills interrupt the sharp grey mountains. Too many tourists had stopped to take pictures for us to get a pretty shot. So we rode on through town and up the mountain and stopped there for a much prettier view.

And then it started snowing! Dark clouds had threatened all day, and we’d tried to outrun them; I’d lost my rain pants a few days ago on the bumpy road. It was really cold here and the snow settled by the roadside.

Luckily the road dropped down again and we soon found ourselves basking in the sunshine in a gap in the clouds, swishing along the most amazing sweeping bends along the terracotta-red mountainside. You could really get up to speed here and we had giant grins on our faces when we reached the bottom of the valley.

Some road works slowed us down. The road had been reduced to gravel and traffic had inexplicably stopped. We more swam than rode through the deep loose gravel to the front of the que and could see no reason, why everyone was waiting here. Then a loud BANG! offered an explanation. The road workers had blown part of the hillside up with dynamite. Now it was done, we were free to go. We soon reached Kargil, where we stayed in an otherwise closed for construction hotel for cheap. It’s an army infused town pretty much next to the border of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. And we found a girl swinging on a lose power cable!

The next day we reached Dras – the second coldest permanently inhabited place in the world – around lunchtime. With the sun shining, it wasn’t nearly as cold as we’d feared, only jammed with people and army buses. Afterwards the road turned to gravel and we were bouncing along in the dust behind trucks and buses. We were treated to some pretty nice views along the valley though.

Then Nila decided to have a puncture. So I nursed her to the next village, about a kilometre down the road and the local tire place had her fixed in no time. (There are tire repair shops and mechanics everywhere along the road here, cos all the Tata trucks frequently need them.) Good chance for a hot cup of chai too 🙂

We soon found ourselves amongst snowy mountains. The snow reached down to the roadside and in the shade there was ice on the road. It must have snowed here a lot last night, and now it was melting, turning the gravel road into black sludge for us to skid around in. We crawled along at 10kph trying to stay upright.

Suddenly Aidan was lying in the mud! I wanted to take a picture first, but his foot was caught under the bike and a Tata truck was gaining on us, and they stop for no one Suddenly we were surrounded by soldiers asking if we were ok. I hadn’t even spotted them, concentrating on the road. But apparently they’d called out and Aidan had turned around in his seat and thus fallen over. That’s his excuse anyways 🙂

Bike and Aidan ok, we crawled on…..and soon found a que of trucks and buses. Squeezing past to the front, we found the problem. A landslide was being cleared by a bulldozer. After a short wait, we on the bikes could squeeze though and past the que on the other side. Only to find ourselves in front of another landslide! People here had been stuck since 11 am…… hm, that could take a while then!

But we didn’t have to wait too long. A shout “the road is open!” caused a frenzy and once again we were able to squeeze through with the bikes, long before anyone else. The road was winding down the hill and the bulldozer had pushed loads of gravel over the edge. So I was waiting for this to block the road further down. And loh and behold, four kilometres on, there was another landslide! This one looked nowhere near being cleared any time soon. But the workers knew of another way down, two kilometres back. Sweet!

Hidden behind heaps of stones we hadn’t spotted it before, but this steep shortcut with switchbacks too tight for lorries seemed clear, as we looked down on it. It was narrow, gravely and steep and took all our concentration. But it had us down the mountain and back on tarmac in no time.

From here the road followed the curves of the mountainside gently downhill and we opened up the throttle. Till Aidan found himself kissing a Tata truck! The driver had screeched to a halt and looked shitscared, unable to see the tiny bike right in front of his grill. Much to his relief a stunned Aidan soon appeared at his side in the mirror.

The truck had overtaken another around a blind corner, driving on our side of the road. Luckily for all it had been uphill for the trucks, a 5kmh truck overtaking a 3kmh truck. So they’d been able to stop in time. I’d love to tell them they are just rushing towards a landslide blocking the road 🙂

We were obviously back in civilisation. The mountainsides soon became a luscious green with fir trees everywhere. The valley opened out and the road was lined with villages and towns. Rice fields made an appearance, farmers collecting the bundles and carting them off on little tuk-tuk style trucks (the first we’d seen since Manali).

Villages soon turned to towns and before long we’d reached Srinagar with the usual traffic mayhem, just as the sun went down. I miss the peace and quiet of the mountains already!

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