How I got Leh’d – Riding to the land of the Lama by Victor

Sitting next to this big dude from Myanmar on a bus ride earlier in January this year, the man was curious about Kenya and in the midst of our conversation I shared my plan to scale Mt. Everest (Base camp or advanced base camp if time permitted) sometime in August. He recommended, having done a similar trip, that instead of hiking up Everest, I reconsider and tour the Himalayas on a motorcylce. He had backpacked with his friend for about 2 weeks and seemed to believe it was my kind of thing. Later that evening, a casual search and my friend google had me sold completely to the idea. It was adios Everest! Hello, Hi-malaya on an Enfield!

I began researching in April, mostly online, on experiences, requirements, costing, best timing to visit and settled for mid-August, which was about the same time I intended to be away.

In May, I got my visa – e-visa actually, which was very simple to get and began another online search for best way to go about the trip. I settled for a company that would provide an all-inclusive package that included bike rental (chose a 500cc Royal Enfield Classic), fuel, accommodation on half-board basis, back up vehicle (also carrying riders luggage) with mechanic and, most importantly, set dates when tour began and ended.

There was always a risk of going with companies that on the scheduled day did not have ‘quorum’ and would hand you over to another firm, or wait until there was a certain minimum number of riders before departing. With dates fixed and having confirmed several times, I booked my return ticket to Delhi and another ticket to the proposed start point in Srinagar. The plan was to ride from Srinagar – Leh – Manali passing through Nubra, Pangong, Tangste and Tsomoriri over a period of 8 days and covering just about 1,600Km.

The ideas, I had in my head when going through the itinerary…is a story for another day. There is an alternative to rent a bike on your own and basically customize the trip as you want. One, however, has to deal with getting relevant permits, accommodation, repairs if any and fuel (its new territory, one does not know how far apart fuel stations are). The options of bikes are the Royal Enfield Classic in 350cc or 500cc, Himalayan Royal Enfield, and Apache. Didn’t see any Apaches though.

Plans are made to be changed, right? Three weeks before departure, I receive an email from tour director stating that there was a political situation at Srinagar and that the starting point was rescheduled to Leh along with a detailed updated itinerary. He, requested that I change my flight reservation so that I land at Leh instead of Srinagar. Google manenos, indeed there was a situation and tourists were not allowed in Srinagar, lakini air ticket could not be altered so I had to make another reservation to Leh from Delhi. Tour dates, thankfully, remained the same. The new itinerary had the trip beginning at Leh then ride towards Srinagar to Kargil, return to Leh on second day and proceed with the original schedule. It was like we were meant to do a msa to ksm trip but are forced to start at Mtito then ride to Voi, then back to Mtito and proceed as planned because tourists were not allowed in Msa.

Looking out the window as the plane descends towards the airport at Leh, I knew right then that I would be back, views of the vast Himalayan Mountains were incredible. Got to the hotel and met the tour director who briefed the group about the tour, do’s and don’ts, medication to buy (for altitude sickness) and collect the rest of his payment ($100 deposit was paid as reservation fee). There would be 12 of us in the group on 7 bikes including the ride team leader.

Day one and two was a return trip from Leh to Kargil, all on tarmac with a few twists and approximately 245 Km each way. On days three to five we rode to Nubra, Pangong and returned to Leh covering a distance of about 600 Km. For those three days, we had to get different bikes whose registration numbers were allowed in Nubra and Pangong. There were some steep ascends/descends on loose gravel, manageable as long as one does not have a phobia for heights (no guard rails either). On one of the nights we camped at the beautiful Pangong lake. That route had more twists and turns compared to the first two days, 20% of route was on unpaved roads and temperatures were lower.

Some tour operators will opt to take you through this leg by car to avoid renting the required registered bikes. By the end of the third day, everyone in the group was sniffling, due to riding continuously in low temperatures (10 to 14°C). On the following days, everyone could be seen buying anti-histamines and coldcap equivalents to battle those symptoms. The last leg of three days, we rode through Leh – Tsomoriri – Sarchu – Manali, and in my opinion was the toughest. Approximately 50% of the riding was done on unpaved/off road, through sand, across rivers and streams at even lower temperatures. Total distance covered was 640 Km. Sarchu, visited on the seventh day was biting cold but rewarded by incredible views on the last day to Manali.

I learnt to stop strangling the handle bars (death grip) and grip bike with knees, arms at ease and guide the bike with subtle waist movement. Target fixation is a reality when dealing with hairpin bends – one needs to always look and focus on the end of curve (which keeps shifting). Initially I would take very wide turns because my focus was on the nearby part of turn and correct later. With time, I was forced to realise that the bike will move in the direction you look.
After 8 days of riding, sniffles and a stiff butt one just wants to sleep for hours.

Great tour overall, it was an awesome experience, the twists, riding through sand and loose soil, gravel, river and stream crossings all in one package. Delhi to Manali is another 500 Km which was covered by bus as the tour operator took another group through the same tour in reverse – Manali to Leh. If the 8 days are not enough, it is possible to rent a bike and ride another two days to Delhi. I loved the tour so much will consider going back next year for the Spiti Valley adventure. Until then, you never know what google search results for guided adventure bike riding may reveal. I’ll keep searching when idle.

A few tips for those that intend to take the trip:

Most important ATGATT. They will offer helmets and knee/elbow guards but no jacket. The helmets most likely may not be the right fit. Carry your own helmet if possible. Gloves is a must

I chose Leh to Manali rather than the reverse because this option gives one the option to acclimatize more easily. Coming from Manali (1800m) to Sarchu (4250m) will literally shock the body and that’s on the first day.

Have at least 2 pairs of shoes with you or and have gum boots for the stream/river crossings.
Dress in layers to beat the cold or have thermal wear for use in the evenings and during rides
Shades – very important. Though cold, it is really bright. And some sunscreen
Driving license.
Headlamp with one collection of spare batteries.

If you are taking any type of medicine, carry them from home.
Nasal drops can be extremely helpful if you end up with a blocked nose after catching a cold.

Camera with at least 16Gb memory, shooting in RAW twice the size
Trip has a lot of Indians, Hindi is the predominant language, at times the captain in explaining things forgets to use English. Take it easy, someone will summarise what has been said
Ka-nyama dry fry or boil na thupu mbiri, kafirifiri kwa umbali will be very hard to get! Mostly vegetarian food. Chicken, occasionaly, is available.

An open mind, ATT acha JKIA
Most importantly, HAVE FUN, ENJOY THE RIDE

Estimated Costs (US$)
Visa 80
Tickets 700 cheaper if early
Ticket Srinagar or Leh 50
Tour 750
Lunches/drinks 70-100
Misc 200

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