There’s a famous Ladakhi proverb, "The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our best friends or worst enemies would want to visit us".
Ladakh, on the eastern edge of India's Jammu and Kashmir state and bordering Tibet, is both strategically important and geographically wondrous.
Travelling through this region by road requires a love of adventure, solid riding skills, and flexibility. All are vital when planning a rugged mountain motorcycle expedition. Road conditions vary from freshly-paved, to rough tracks which can disappear, and of course you have considerable altitude differences to deal with.
To experience the ‘land of endless discoveries’ your best partner is decidedly the legendary Royal Enfield. Virtually unchanged in 50 years, the Royal Enfield is the epitome of a vintage style motorcycle, making it a British and Indian icon. Used extensively for dispatch riding by the Indian army during the war, the bike has been assembled in India under license from UK since 1956.
I found myself at a loss to understand how something so barren could be so beautiful.
The area is rich in natural beauty, the snow capped peaks ragged against the bluest of skies, sitting on dry ochre valleys.
The Indus valley lies in the Ladakhi heartland, where the people cluster around the little available arable land. Nomadic groups live higher in the valleys and hillsides.
Running parallel are a series of starkly beautiful valleys and mountain ranges. North of the Indus valley, the Ladakh range shelters the Shayok and Nubra valleys. A series of minor ranges and uninhabited valleys lie south until you hit Zangskar where the river spins around and flows north through a narrow gorge to join the Indus. The beginning of the Grand Himal range marks the southern limits of Ladakh.
The Khardung La road (5359m), once claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world until modern GPS technology blew the story, takes you to the Nubra Valley, where the scale of the mountains dwarfs green oasis villages. I came upon white sand dunes with camels grazing on the shore of the Shyok river (‘river of death’ in Uighur), a tributary of the Indus, then the Siachen glacier and Buddhist monasteries where colourful fluttering prayer flags spread their spiritual messages metaphorically with the mountain breeze. All this color is purely magical!
Of comparable beauty is Pangong Lake and the road to get there, which traverses a chaotic assortment of minor mountain ranges. Unable to escape, meltwater forms beautiful salt water lakes, their extraordinary shades of blue countered by the low-slung mountain backdrop. It can feel extremely romantic, especially at sunrise, even if you have just shared a tent with other snoring riders.
At an average altitude of 4,000 meters, a population of 150, 000 inhabitants perpetuate an ancestral way of life that was at one stage part of a complicated ancient trade route. The legendary Indus is the life support of the people of Ladakh and Kashmir. A river that witnessed the battles of Alexander the Great is now under threat from development.
Ladakhis of Lamaist Buddhist tradition, have welcomed many Tibetan refugees, mostly gathered in Leh, in Little Tibet. The entire valley of Leh is dotted with monasteries, and are amongst the prime attractions of the capital of Ladakh. The monasteries settled in isolated hilltop sites overlooking the settlements, lend an air of tranquility and calm to the beautiful valleys of Leh. One of the oldest and mysterious Ladakhi monasteries, Lamayuru is situated on a big rock overlooking the Indus.
In contrast, Kashmir and Jammu is mostly Muslim. Srinagar the capital of Kashmir is the home of the Jamia Masjid, regarded as one of the most sacred mosques in India. Be it the holiness, or its architectural elegance, the mosque is unparalleled in every aspect. Composed of 370 pillars of wood, Jama Masjid has survived the ravages of time and conflict.
Returning to Manali where I started my trip, I stop at Dharamsala called ‘Little Lhasa’ home to the exiled Dalai Lama. For ten days of each year, it is possible to attend his dharma talks by registering at the office in the unlikely named McLeod Ganj, 10 km from Dharamsala. Tibet is probably the only country in the world to put meditation at the center of its life. If you like Tibetan art, I recommend Norbunlingka Institute which is the global center for the preservation of Tibetan culture.
The lush and green Parvati Valley, is the last stop of the trip. It's also considered a meditation center with the reputation of being the ‘refuge of the hippies'. But that’s another story.
- Fabien Vuillerey -
When to go
From May to September, when the roads are open after the snows.
Royal Enfield Rental
Go see Keshav Thakur a very cool and professional renter. His bikes are very well maintained and come with many spare parts. But it’s still worth checking cables and going over the bike yourself. Fill up when you can, as stretches of road have no refill stations.