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!)
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.