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Kashmir: mystic adventure – Part two

This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series Adventure Rider Issue #20

Last issue we left Ian Bowden and his group in Leh after a big day riding over Himalayan passes in conditions that varied from zero degrees and snowing to 30 degrees in the blazing sun. The adventure continues…

Below the Thikse monastery in Leh. It clings to the side of a hill.

On the tenth of 21 fantastic days touring Northern India and mystic Kashmir, we were in Leh for what the guide described as ‘a Leh-day’ (pun intended). We enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and relaxed for the morning.

That relaxation wasn’t to last.

Race to the sky

After lunch we mounted the trusty Enfields and rode the short distance to begin the climb on the mighty Khardung La, the highest road in the world. We had to travel in two groups because a local bike-hire service was trying to stop tour operators using out-of-State bikes on the road, forcing them to hire local bikes. In a cunning back-up plan our guide had signed the bikes over to us.

Ha, ha! We had an even more cunning plan of keeping them.

After passing the control gate we regrouped a few kilometres up the hill. The whole area was actually a military zone and special permission had to be obtained from the authorities because it’s fairly close to the sensitive border with China, specifically, Tibet.

Would you like some denting done?

Our guide, Mike, said, “See you at the top.”

The pace was on after Craig got the jump on us past a working bulldozer and we were in hot pursuit on our 25-horsepower rockets.

As you can imagine, 25hp at altitude wasn’t much, so there was no backing off as we raced to the sky. The lead swapped a few times once we caught up, and it was a lot of fun for us non-competitive types. Near the top Craig and I were side-by-side with the poor Enfields running out of puff at close to 5600m, but neither of us was prepared to back off. Failing to see a concrete culvert until it was too late, we slammed into it together, the 10cm of suspension travel unable to absorb the impact. Craig’s handlebars slipped down in the mounts close to his knees and my carrier bag went airborne. We managed to stay upright, although it wasn’t pretty.

It was a forced stop during which we nearly died laughing. I’m not kidding. Have you tried uncontrolled laughter at 5600m?

After composing ourselves and straightening the bikes we rode the final few hundred metres to the summit.

Descending the Khardung pass.
Looking back at Leh.
The highest motorable road in the world.

Lazy day

Lots of photos and a push-up competition between New Zealand and Australia followed at the summit. A draw was declared, keeping trans-Tasman relations intact, and we then cruised the 40km back down the massive hill to welcome beers and dinner.

That night Mike had a diplomatic chat in my ear about being a bit kinder on the poor machines. Fair enough, too. They were never designed to be ridden that hard.

We stopped back in Leh for another day checking out the surroundings. The whole area had a huge military presence with army bases everywhere. The airport was a military landing strip shared with civilian planes and we were woken by fighter jets screaming overhead, practicing for the day when it’s for real with nearby Pakistan or China.

It was an easy day with the highlight being a ride back along the Indus Valley to visit the Thikse Gompa. The dramatic Buddhist monastery clings to the side of a hill with great views over the surrounding countryside and it’s full of pictures of the Dali Lama who makes regular visits to train new monks. It was a lazy afternoon and we finished the day draining an Old Monk.

The mountain road to the Lamayuru monastery.
Kashmir twisties.


We woke to a beautiful fine day and headed off down the Indus Valley where there was a contrast to the rough roads of previous days. It was asphalt-road heaven with many kilometres of fantastic corners and incredible scenery. The old Enfields were ideal for the conditions: not too fast, just purring along and taking in some of the best roads I’d ridden – it doesn’t get much better.

After a nice samosa lunch we turned off the main thoroughfare and climbed an amazing narrow mountain road with very steep sides and big drop offs – it wasn’t for the fainthearted. There was an area beside this road best described as a ‘moonland’ of light-coloured rock wedged into a high valley. It was very unusual and apparently a parched lake zillions of years ago. A little further on we were above Lamayuru and a spectacular 1000-year-old Buddhist gompa perched on a near-vertical hillside.

After a couple of photos we kept heading west, crossing two more high passes, the Fatu La and the Namika La, and arriving in a little town called Mulbekh. There, having spent the first week of our travels in Hindu-dominated Himachal and the second week in the Buddhist Ladakh, we now crossed the threshold into muslim Kashmir and proceeded through to Kargil for the night.

Kargil was unnervingly close to the disputed border with Pakistan and the site of several recent conflicts between the two nuclear nations.

Looking down on the 1000–year–old Lamayuru monastery.
Narrow road cut into the cliffs in Kashmir.

Srinagar and the Dal Lake

A chilly ride on good roads to Drass filled the next morning, a place which apparently has the second-coldest temperature ever recorded at minus-60 degrees!

It’s not something I’d boast about.

Don’t visit in winter unless you’d like to freeze to death.

It was then a ride up a very scenic valley, checking our paperwork with the local military before crossing yet another high pass, the Zoji La, at 3500m. More fantastic mountain scenery greeted us as we dropped into a stunning green valley for lunch in Sonamarg, described as the Switzerland of India. It was a total change from previous days.

After lunch we continued descending the beautiful valley, riding beside a turbulent river as the traffic and population increased.

Proceeding through the Vale Of Kashmir we arrived at Srinagar, the troubled-but-exquisite capital of Jammu And Kashmir State, where our accommodation consisted of a luxury houseboat moored on the picturesque Dal Lake.

With a paddle

The military presence was huge, with a lot of hardware evident.

Srinagar has been the centre of the dispute over Kashmir since the troubles began at the time of partition, 50 years ago.

Violence has peaked and ebbed several times, all but destroying the tourism industry upon which much of the city’s economy depended. In the mid-1980s, 650,000 tourists each year flocked to the beautiful lakes of Srinagar to enjoy the decadence of lazing on a houseboat for a week. A decade later only 5000 each year were venturing into Kashmir, although the position had improved considerably in more recent years. We spent the next morning visiting local sights, including checking out the famous handmade carpets woven there.

After lunch Terry and Greg had a local barber trim their hair and cut off all the accumulated stubble with a cut-throat razor, and the transformation was a big improvement.

The day finished with a paddle through the city’s backwaters in a shikkara, the unique Kashmiri gondola-style paddled boat.

Cockpit view after leaving Drass.

Southward bound

Day 15 saw us heading south from Srinagar on a very busy highway to one of Jammu And Kashmir’s hill stations, Patnitop. On the way we experienced the rather impressive Jawahar Lah tunnel, 2.5km long and literally right through a mountain with no lighting.

We had to see our way with the aid of the one-candlepower Enfield light. None of us needed our sunnies.

The traffic on this day was madness.

Indians have to be right up there as the worst drivers in the world. If there are rules nobody follows them. It’s just a crazy free-for-all. The machine guns and unrest aren’t the worry – it’s the kamikaze drivers who are the real danger.

A rather damp group arrived at the hilltop hotel after rain started pelting down around 3:00pm, and the warming Old Monk had to be secreted and mixed into bottles of Coke as we were still in a Muslim country and alcohol was frowned upon.

Terry at a cool Drass.

McLeod Ganj and the Dalai Lama

After more traffic madness and trying not to end up with a Tata truck badge embedded in our foreheads, we wound through the mountain roads on a mix of tar and dirt,even outrunning a monsoon downpour before lunch. Fingers Hafiz had to spring into action yet again after the rear subframe mounts broke and the seat ended up sitting on the rear tyre of my trusty steed.

No problem to Fingers. He wheeled it into a nearby welding shop while we were having lunch and before we’d finished it was fixed.

I wouldn’t consider a tour here without the excellent back-up provided, though I copped a bit of a ribbing from the team for it needing to be repaired again.

We didn’t outrun the next downpour, arriving in McLeod Ganj rather damp.

Now out of Muslim territory and back into the state Himachal, a warming drink wasn’t a problem.

The following day was spent in McLeod Ganj, the home of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He was forced to flee in 1959 following the Chinese invasion of his homeland and this has been his home and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Tibetans have never given up hope they will one day be permitted to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

A good massage and some real coffee were the highlight of the day. You could be mistaken for thinking you were in Tibet as most of the population is descended from there.

That evening was a boomer. We had a nice meal in a rooftop restaurant and bar, and as it cleared, the owners, a really nice couple, got together with us for a night of fun. We didn’t leave until 2:00am.

A well laden Tata truck on the road to McLeod Ganj. The boys are unloading a bit of grain.

The Grand Trunk Road

It was with fuzzy heads at 8:00am we kicked our Enfields into life, headed south and down from the hills and onto the plains. Chandigarh was our destination – where it all started a few short weeks ago – stopping the night there after the ride in on busy roads.

Earlier in the Himalayan mountains and passes there had been a bit of traffic at times, but it was pretty spread out due to the remoteness. Once back in the more populated areas it picked up considerably and we had to get used to lots of people.

This place was very different after New Zealand and Australia.

Our final day on the bikes was to ride the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi. This is one of the great highways of the world and the busiest in India, described by Rudyard Kipling as ‘that veritable river of humanity’.

It traverses the country from Calcutta in the east right through Lahore in Pakistan to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan.

Traffic consists of as many bullock carts, camels, cows and pedestrians as it does cars, buses and trucks, so it was a matter of keeping our eyes peeled and thumbs over the horn.

We survived the 250km of Grand Trunk Road and arrived in Delhi mid-afternoon for a cold beer to calm our shattered nerves.

We’d completed an epic 2500km trans-Himalayan adventure. Over a beer Mike told us we were the first group in 20 years to complete the ride without some-one dropping a bike. ‘Pretty good!’ we thought. ‘Better have another beer!’

The group at the Taj Mahal. Mission accomplished.

The end game

A ride in Northern India wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal.

A trip had been arranged to Agra in an air-conditioned minibus to see the temple and Agra’s Red Fort. It was very impressive and well worth the time taken. It included a nice drive down a very good highway, unlike the day before.

All good things come back to the beginning. This had been a fantastic adventure with good people. Everyone got on fine; Mike put together a great package with very good helpers. There was no way you could do and see as much as we did in three weeks without the organisation provided. The bureaucracy and paperwork of India would stop you before you even got started.

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