22 Apr Riding through the Himalayas on a Motorbike: The Ultimate Guide
The thought of a motorcycle ride to Ladakh is not for the faint-hearted. With a bit of resilient nature and will-power, one can easily conquer the ride through the mighty Himalayas. There are two ways to head to Ladakh by road: Srinagar and Manali. Either ways, you’ll get to see beauty at its heavenly best. However, this guide is for those who are driving or riding from the state of Himachal Pradesh – Manali.
The Manali-Leh roads are open only from June to September, which means you can only ride during these months. Because of heavy snowfall between October and May, you are left with the only option of taking a flight to Ladakh and absolutely no means of travel by road (for your own safety). With Himalayas on its south-west and Karakoram Range on its north-west, this Tibetan region has one of the most dangerous roads in the world – it’s a biker’s Mecca.
My husband and I started this trip without a clue of how a solo couple travel is especially going to be on a motorbike trip through one of the scariest roads in the world. Though we had planned the entire route, little did we plan on the places to stay (turned out for the best). The ride took us about four days to reach Leh, while we stayed in beautiful Swiss tents along the way.
To begin with, Rohtang Pass is a perfect riding exercise for those who’d like to experience how the rest of the journey is going to be. The roads at Rohtang are well-maintained but there have been plenty of accident cases at Rohtang; a reason it’s called body of the corpses. At 13,000 feet you will not feel the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) yet, especially after seeing multitudes of tourists playing with the snow and dotting the pass top. However, the weather conditions are still unpredictable at the top.
Traffic on route to Rohtang Pass. Super narrow roads, lorries, and fog, makes one re-consider overtaking.
The best part is, most tourists do not go beyond or to the other side of Rohtang but that is where the exciting part begins. You pass through isolated villages but still each house has a little corner that has tables spilling out of their compound. These serve delicious local food. For a heavy local meal, stop at Koksar or Tandi.
After a couple of hours of riding, you hit a huge square red arc and a board that says ‘Welcome to Keylong‘ – it’s more like ‘Welcome to Civilisation’. There is a motorbike repair shop just a little further to the arc. A little further, you hit Jispa where you can stay for the night.
Set for the next day, you will still enjoy the ride through Darcha and towards the gorgeous Bara-lacha-La (pass). This is one of my favorite roads as the winding roads are flanked by mountains of ice. It is Narnia.
While you’re here look out for Suraj Tal, a lake that is completely or semi-frozen depending on the time you visit. There is no sign board that says you have reached the Baralacha-La Pass but the fluttering prayer flags makes even the atheist stop by for a silent prayer – after all the mountains are your only God for the next few days.
Many riders decide to continue beyond Sarchu, but it is advisable to stop and stay to enjoy slow travel with less stress.
The winding and cracked roads from Sarchu can add onto altitude sickness that make many people sick at this stage. The solution is to remain calm, sit for a cup of tea at a stall and take sips of water to avoid dehydration.
A little help from the locals to push our bike.
The ride will take you amid pristine beauty; each has distinct features. The Gata Loops, a stretch of 21 hair pins, can give you a perfect-postcard picture from the top – an epic picture of the 21 twisting roads. As we rode to the top, my eyes stumbled upon a pile of water bottles on the left-hand corner of the last bend. Legend says that decades ago, a truck driver and a cleaner were driving to Leh from Manali, when their truck broke down on the loop. The driver opted to walk to the nearest village seeking help while the cleaner stayed back to watch the truck that was loaded with valuable goods. Meanwhile, the weather conditions turned bizarre closing roads from the both the ends to stop any vehicles because of heavy snowfall. Due to this, the driver also could only return to the truck after a week, to find the decomposed body of the cleaner who passed away because of hunger, thirst and weather with absolutely no help. Apparently, since then many passers-by have seen a beggar pleading for water on the loops, and if nobody offers water, they suffer with AMS or accidents. For peace, the locals of Manali and Leh have made a small memorial. Perhaps these ghost stories of Ghata Loops were created by somebody hallucinating due to the altitude?
After Ghata Loops, be prepared for the two pass Nakila Pass and Lachung La Pass at about 16,000 feet. Stop by for a meal in Pang. In case you are feeling dizzy, most stalls offer beds to sleep in for the night at a very minimal rate. It’s best to keep your options open even though it may not be the best. After a while the road leads to beautiful Moreh Plains.
Notice the quirky signboards by Border Road Organisation.
While I was glad to be back on the plains, it began to drizzle. What a perfect way to enjoy different shades of weather through mountains, high altitude lakes and plains. Moreh Plains is home to the migrating Changpa nomads living in tents dotted in an isolated corner of the vast plain. They graze goats and yaks, but most of the time there are hardly any settlements in the region.
Many riders choose to ride directly from Moreh Plains to Leh through Upshi. This is a straight road, but to enjoy more of the frozen lake take a detour (towards the right) to Tsokar. Stay here for the night, as you will find guest rooms have windows facing the beautiful Tsokar Lake. During season you’ll even get to see the black-necked cranes.
Tsokar lake – Frozen salt lake ( June 1st week).
Happy little sweetheart in Tsokar.
With slight snow showers, Tanglang La couldn’t look more beautiful as I experienced snow for the first time. The rugged mountainous terrain majestically sits at an altitude of 17,480 feet. The last leg of the trip features a ride directly to Leh through a small village of Rumste.
Once you reach Leh, take a few days to settle in, in order to acclimatize. From here, plan for an overnight stay in Pangong Tso via Chang La Pass; day trips to Khardungla (claimed as ‘World’s highest Motorable Road’) or overnight stays on the other side of Khardungla top – Hunder – Nubra Valley.
South Pullu, Khardungla.
There is no better way to explore Leh than on a motorbike. It’s been a few months since we returned from the trip and I’m still unsure of what made this journey epic, whether it’s the: ‘Juley! Juley!’ greetings expressed by workers clearing up the ice blocks; soaking in the cool breeze while listening to the Buddhist prayers at Shanti Stupa; witnessing the beautiful white and green lights dancing amid the mountains like an Asian aurora; the joy of completing our 32 Kms white water rafting at Zanskar River in -4 degree; staying in tents surrounded by snow-capped mountains, or craving for Ladakhi chicken curry everyday as a treat to ourselves for surviving the day.
Best Time to Ride to Leh
The best time to start your road trip to Leh is June, as the weather is inviting and you can also enjoy snowfall at times. But if you are an inexperienced rider and not a fan of cool temperatures, your best bet is August during summer.
The soldiers living in this risky and fierce weather need a special bow. We realised the intense effort on our way back from Pangong Tso Lake to Leh City on Chang La Pass. The weather was hovering at minus temperatures and it was impossible to ride or even sit idle as a pillion as our toes and fingers were almost blue. Our only rescue was the gentleman at the army camp who offered us hot tea and fire-lit stove to deal with the harsh weather. The story doesn’t end here. The locals advised us to continue riding to Leh instead of stopping on the Chang La top, but the weather insisted we stop for some warmth. As we started the bike, the engine froze. So in an isolated place with heavy snow, we feared if anyone would come by to help. To our luck, a local family stopped and offered to drop us to the city. It’s experiences like these that help travelers connect with the locals and better understand their earnest endeavor to lead a simple yet balanced routine.
ABOUT: Shilpa Balakrishnan is an Outbound Ambassador. She is a travel writer who enjoys documenting her travels to offbeat places – explored by road from a local’s perspective. She also shares her experiences through illustrations inspired from her travels. She is the author and founder of The Satori Saga – a Travel and Art blog that talks about overland journeys and ways to travel responsibly and differently. You can follow her journeys on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.