Saturday, September 24, 2011

14th to 17th Sept. Leh to Manali, 3 days ride, tents, rain, new friends and around every corner another jaw dropping majestic scene.

I had planned to head for Manali, which is about 500kms south of Leh, and then turn left into the Spitti Valley, which would have been another 3 days driving through what sounds to be amazing scenery. Plans changed as I approached Manali, it had started raining in the evening of the second day and I woke to more rain on the third, and I thought I had to get to 'civilisation'.

Leaving Leh, the road runs over the second highest pass in the world, Taglangla at 5350m on my GPS. It runs across high desserts, up and down beautiful valleys. Mostly heavily pitted, rutted gravel and sand roads, with about 25% tarmac, which is such a blessed relief, particularly for my road tryes…more on that later. The road is only open for about 4 months a year, so maintenance will never be up to date, despite the thousands of workers busying away.

Some intrepid Brits on holiday and cycling from Shimla to Leh

There are no hotels as such on the first leg, but clever locals have developed a couple of these tented hotel villages. You arrive and get swamped by offers. Selection was lucky dip for me at Pang, having no gauge or reference, and went with the first tent on the right.

Comfy tent although it was so cold that I slept with nearly all my clothes on and under 2 duvets that were more like mattresses

Pretty soon after my arrival, there was a great roar as the Aspen riders turned up. 14 guys aged between thier mid twenties and mid forties, who are on a 17 day tour of Ladakh on their much loved Enfields. I did not get to meet them all, but they were all great enthusiasts for the ride and with diverse backgrounds as Educators to the National shooting Champion, from polo team owner to former golf professional and national coach. They welcomed me into their group and stood me dinner that eve. Unfortunately one of their members was suffering from Altitude sickness (these mountains are all between 4 and 5000 mtrs) and was put on oxygen at the local military clinic.

The Aspen Riders

I set off early the next day, crossed a few well known high passes, drove some non stop amazing roads and reached Kyelang mid afternoon in the rain.

One of my favourite shots...road worker's transport
One of many road snakes...the most was 22 corners, if the sign was to be believed.
About the only wildlife I saw apart from the odd gerbil

Nothing worked in Kyelang, no electricity, no mobile phone network and no internet across the whole town….weird, but apparently it was more often the case than not, I was told by a charming Sikh fellow who I had breakfast with. He was a hydro electricity engineer working on a local project. Luckily the electricity came back early evening.

Kyelang was my 'turn left or right' decision place. Either to Spitti Valley or to Manali.
I only have 6 weeks left in India before my visa runs out and what with the rain, I thought I had better get heading south and turned to Manali.

The rain got heavier and heavier as I climbed Rohtang. I had heard people mention this place in rather hushed tones and with some reverence….well the climb up was ok-ish, largely driving through streams of water as the rain water gushed off the mountain. On occasion it was so deep that the exhaust was covered, and I listened to that lovely bubbling sound as we bounced along hidden rocks under the water. My new waterproof trousers were not, and as the climb continued the rain changed to sleet, it was getting decidedly cold and I was mostly wet through. Sadly with the low cloud/fog, there was little to see, I imagine it must be beautiful on a clear day. It did cross my mind that there were no other bikes about, which was odd as one had been always passing bikes every hour or so over the last few days.

The descent started as a relief, quite smooth and with very little traffic. This was not to last. Tarmac turned to mud…deep mud, above the base of my panniers sometimes, which meant pushing Batty through it…she could not do it all by herself, it was very hard going. Then there was the traffic jams. A single track, muddy road 4000metres up the side of a mountain with the occasional passing place is fine when there is little traffic, but not on the day I crossed…it seemed every lorry, bus and army truck in the district was crossing that day and the co-ordination was zero. I persuaded an army officer to get a little wet and organise 3 trucks to reverse a 100mtrs back to a passing point, another to edge 1 metre forward, and bingo we could all start moving again after sitting for an hour. With the lorry drivers fretting about the risk of landslips (which were apparent all around) the only blessing was that the fog meant one could not see over the edge of the road…we were high up and it would have wobbled me I am sure.

There are 8km of this sort of condition. I would have really struggled going up, rather than down.

A mini glacier bridge near the top

Nearly there, going down below the clouds and a welcome return to some greenscape and all tarmac roads

It was during the stop start of the traffic fiasco, that I noticed the front brake was getting spongy…a quick pump of it restored it for a while, but not for long and soon I was on Batty's good engine braking and the rear…not ideal. How I did not come off I do not know. I am no great biker, and what with my stupidly smooth road tyres, I deserved to take a tumble, but luck was with me and by late afternoon I was in a Manali hotel thawing out. There was 8km of that mud, and it was as good a work out that I had for years.

The next day broke very fine and I took Batty for a service.

- new clutch plates
- new chain and new rear sproket
- new brake pads all round
- replaced broken wheel spoke
- more welding of the rear frame holding the pillion seat and mudguard
- fixed a slow puncture in the rear tyre.

these were the jobs…it took most of the day, and the price of a Himalayan crossing from Srinegar to Manali in terms of the bike repair was about £40-50, 3/4 of which were for parts.

3 brothers who did a good job and were good spirited.
The Enfield Club, Vashist Chok, Rotang Road, Manali. -9816058420
I was happy and confident using them as their tools were all in order and well set out, unlike a lot of mechanics here. Also the chain came off the rear sprocket right outside their shop, so my hands were sort of tied. I had been on my way to a much recommended chap called Anu.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lovely Leh, Ain't no mountain high enough

The next day was very gentle, we upgraded ourselves from the good but simple Barath guesthouse, to the more comfortable Omasilia Hotel, did a little shopping for new boots and had a hilarious hour watching the Polo contest. Brilliant horseman and polo players on tiny little ponies, which were little more than 13 hands but as strong an animals twice their size.

Leh is a great town at 3500metres (which allows for very little strenuous activity for quite a few days until acclimatised) and is full of adventurous types from all over the world (apart from Britain). In particular it is full of hundreds of Royal Enfields...far more than any other bike. Their riders are by and large guys and a few girls who hire them for a few weeks and tour around some of the worlds' most exciting and beautiful roads. A bit of an Enfield Mecca really.

One day we made a short trip to the  Drukpa Monastry at Hemis, which is famed for its position both naturally and in terms of wealth and intellect. 

Suddenly, and all too quickly Sophie was on her way to the airport and the two-week holiday, or should I call it adventure, was at an end.  Traveling with another certainly adds to the experience and it has been great fun doing so with such good and game company.

11th Sept
To re-adjust to just Batty and I being by ourselves again, we went off to climb the highest road in the world. The Khardung La pass seems to vary slightly in its height depending on who you believe, but my Garmin said 5376, with 4.6 m accuracy variance. There is also some dispute as to whether it is actually the highest road, but I think it probably is in terms of allowing vehicles such as Batty to navigate.

I was worried if Batty would be able to get up there with so little oxygen and the steepness of the climb, but there was no need as she did it with seeming ease. It is a great feeling being at a height that is 3/5ths the height of Everest and four times higher than the highest point in Britain.

The top box rack had fractured in 2 places on the road to Kargil and had it fixed there, however I was not very attentive and the angle of the top box was such that it partially masked the rear brake light, so the 12th was a day of getting that fixed and starting to up date this journal.

I bumped in to Dhala and her Wildfrontier clients today and am joining them for supper tonight, before making an early start south tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Srinagar to Leh. Most challenging/exciting days yet

In the sailing world it is said that you should never take a girlfriend out for her first days sail with you when it is anything other than perfect weather, I think it could be said the same when taking someone on the back of a bike for the first time.

We left at eight in the morning with the expectation of it taking about six or seven hours. My pal Stephan, who I had met in Jammu, had e-mailed to say that it took him about six hours, there was very little on the road and the roads were pretty good. I think Stephan was blessed with a quiet day and a bike that enjoys rough roads. In fairness several other people had said that the road was good and we would not have a problem with it.

All was going well until we met a tailback of traffic, we drove past it ( the beauty of bikes) until we reached the taped off road. After a little confusion it became apparent that there had been a landslip and we would have to wait till it was cleared.

Luckily it was only for about 30 minutes. However this was the end of the tarmac and beginning of the gravel and mud road, it was also the beginning of the steep climb up to the passes before we reached Dras, the second coldest inhabited place on Earth. Changing repeatedly between first and second gear, Batty struggled around countless switchback corners that carried us up a single tracked road that a glance to the un fenced edge had you looking down hundreds and hundreds of deadly metres. This joy was enhanced by trucks trying to over take us around corners and fast appearing on-coming traffic. As a final challenge to that particular section of the road, Batty just ran out of power going up the steepest and roughest bits. Sophie quickly learn when to jump off and even then at times it was not enough and I had to get off as well and run beside Batty slipping the clutch until we got to a flatter stretch. I was dreaming of a 14 tooth sprocket rather than the 16 tooth I had replaced the standard 18 tooth with. The additional weight meant that Batty was carrying something like 35 stone which for a little 10 hp engine is quite a load particularly when going up the Himalayas. Eventually we reached Dras and had lunch.

                                      Shank's pony

We were only halfway and prayed that the road would improve to Kargil. It didn't really and by seven o'clock we arrived at a hotel that we been tipped off about by Walter and his wife who had said hello in Dras, he had done that road two years before on a holiday with some other Dutch pals. The other excitement of the road was hearing small arms gunfire about 10 miles from Kargil. It was right on the Pakistani border but we thought it was just target practice. I was later to learn from some Army officers that I met on their bikes and shared a whiskey with, that it would have been definitely combat in that area….furthermore 4 Pakistan soldiers and one Indian soldier had been killed in the area a week before in an exchange of fire. We worked out that our average speed of the day was 15mph..

We elected to spend a day in Kargil as we were both shattered by the drive. We did go for a 2 hour drive down the Padum road until it switched from tarmac to gravel. What a stunning road, and when it is completely tarmac, it will be one of the roads to ride. Give it five years though.

We set off even earlier for Leh at seven o'clock, again thinking that six or seven hours on much better roads should be about right. We were having a lovely ride and with the new support that we put behind Sophie, her back suffering was a lot less.

We stopped at Lamayuru monastery before lunch for half an hour and started savouring the new atmosphere of Buddhism that I'm afraid to say wins out over Islam, to my mind.

All was going well and we were only an hour or two from Leh, when we came up against another roadblock. Slipping past the traffic and up to the front we discovered that there had been a significant rockfall about two hours earlier and the JCBs and detonator equipment had only just arrived. We hung around for a couple of hours and watched rather entranced as the diggers slowly cleared the way. It got to the last few metres of rubble when something got jammed and the process stopped. At that stage it had been quite a spectacle, and we have met a number of other Western travellers caught up in the jam make it quite fun. It was remarked that in the UK a security tape would have been across the road a mile or so away and nothing to entertain those waiting. The Indian way, although very precarious, did at least prevent frustrations and foster some travelling bonding.

With the news of the now defunct digger we heard from an Army officer that there was an alternative new Road that was about an extra 12 km. He promised us that the road was Tarmac and would not be a problem for us. It was now about six o'clock and we thought it best to take this route. It was rather frustrating that we didn't know two hours earlier, but such is the way here. I was very wary of the time and how the night comes very quickly here. Before long our lights were on and I was breaking one of the few rules the trip, which was never to ride at night. To compound this anxiety, the road quickly changed from tarmac to gravel and the weather changed from a calm into hard squalls. Batty's lights are not that great and it took us about an hour and a half of very slow going, hampered by endless trucks overtaking us and kicking up a fog of dust, to eventually get back onto the main road. A nerve wracking time for my passenger, but to give her every due the only hint was the occasional tensing of her grip as we tiptoed around barely visible corners high up on the mountain face.

It was a 14 hour day by the time we found a hotel. The two days on the road to Leh from Srinagar would probably count as the hardest two biking days of my life (so far possibly). To have subjected Sophie to that ordeal is not something I would have done knowing what I now know, and nor would I think she would want to do it. However, hard and as exhausting as it was, Mother Nature rewarded us with absolutely amazing scenery and a sense of achievement that would not been possible without the pain.