Crossing Khardong La on a Motorbike
A rented motorbike, the highest passable road in the world, snow, fog, cold weather, amazing scenery, storms, fear, and recovering from food poisoning. These are a few of the things that come to mind when reading through my diary of my travels around India.
In Leh, Ledakh, in the legendary Kashmir Province of India I rented a motorbike, a brand new Royal Enfield 350 Electra. My plan was to visit a beautiful remote area known as the Nubra Valley. This area is only accessible via a single lane road said to be the highest passable road in the world. It crosses the 18,000 ft Khardong La Pass.
I was travelling by myself and I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to make the trip on my own. But I met a cool Spanish guy at my guest house who was also travelling by motorbike and he convinced me to go with him. The only snag in the plan was that I hardly had any experience on a motorcycle. The sum of my riding experience was four months on scooters in the previous year in South East Asia.
So, in the dusty urine-soaked parking lot in the centre of town that also serves as the polo field, my new friend Pablo explained the basics of motorcycle operation and let me loose with his Royal Enfield 350.
After about 20 minutes of buzzing around I naively felt my drive and determination could overcome the challenges ahead despite the fact I had just barely recovered from an epic food poisoning episode. The food poisoning left me thankful the bathroom in my guesthouse had a drain in the floor because I was shitting while puking against the wall all night. However, I was there for adventure!
Before we left I told Pablo that I was concerned that since he was a better rider he would far outpace me as I would be stopping to take photos. Pablo assured me he would wait for me.
The 100km ride was to take about 6 hours. To my dismay, Pablo was well out of sight for the first couple of hours. However, he circled back as promised. Then he disappeared again and I did not see him for another hour or so until I saw him returning from the top of Khardong La.
The weather had changed rapidly. Although most of the rest of India was sweltering, we were high in the Himalayas. I knew there could be freezing conditions at the top of the pass but I wasn’t expecting to be in solid clouds with blowing snow and light rain. Despite having all of my winter gear on I was still chilly.
The going was slow and the driving tense with many hairpin turns and sheer drop offs. I had to constantly lean on my horn to alert the occasional oncoming vehicles.
I was starting to seriously question the sanity of going forward.
The toughest part of the ride is the top of Khardong La Pass, which is a 10 to 15 kilometer stretch on either side of the crest. The road is just a narrow path in spots – dirt, rocks, potholes, and stream crossings. Riding the bike was like being on a bucking horse. The road was so rough I was just crawling along. It wasn’t a fun a ride.
I was so focussed that it was hard to enjoy the amazing views once I got below the clouds. The cold was starting to penetrate to my bones when I thankfully came upon the Indian Army Checkpoint where I had to show my permit. I hopped off the bike and, despite some language difficulties, got permission from the soldiers to warm up at the stove in their outpost. The two soldiers were friendly. They let me hang out with them and made me some tea while we all watched a Bollywood movie on their tiny TV.
I was there around half an hour but there was no sign of Pablo. In fact I never saw him again and I hope that he is well. I assume he just decided to go back to Leh, although I wish he had communicated that clearly.
I spent the next two days reading and relaxing in the Nubra Valley with occasional forays out to take some photos. The Nubra Valley is big and wide with desolate snow capped peaks on either side. Barren rock reaches down into the bottom of the valley where there is a small meandering river surrounded by a small but beautiful crop of fields. The jagged peaks are at least the size of the Rocky Mountains, but their colour looks more like the most arid parts of the Okanagan minus the trees.
Although I wanted to stay longer that was not possible because without Pablo there was no extra fuel to make it back and running out would be very bad news. I could see storm clouds surrounding the peaks and knew I could get trapped in the valley.
The return trip was more enjoyable. My confidence on the bike was growing and I was able to better enjoy the amazingly stark scenery.
Everything was fine until I was about 4 kilometers from the top of the pass where I came to the tail end of huge traffic jam that snaked it’s way to the top and out of sight. Hundreds of vehicles were stopped and then occasionally crawled along for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.
Since I was on a motorbike I was able to squeak past the parked rigs until I came upon what was causing the delay. The Army was clearing snow. The road was slick and the potholes were filled with slush and muck.
It was here that I discovered the pain of my inexperience riding a motorcycle and things got dangerous. The problem was starting on a hill. I can do it in a car, no problem. However, you can’t apply the same technique on a motorcycle because you need momentum to keep upright on the bike. The result of trying to apply the brake and give the engine more gas until there could be forward movement was a chugging stall.
After a series of stalls in the slush I was starting to hold up traffic. I had visions of the bike lurching over the side of the cliff in the moment the back tire got some traction while I was trying to get going on the hill.
At one point I was constantly spinning out and couldn’t move when the bike’s ass end started to kick out the side. I came inches from dropping the bike. Thankfully a solider clearing snow on the road came over and started to give me a push to get the bike steady and moving. I would not want to see what would have happened if I wasn’t able to get the bike moved.
I was thoroughly relieved when I reached the top and stayed to enjoy the triumph with a few others. I had a quick chat with another rider who asked me who I was with and when I told him I was travelling alone his reaction was astonishment.
“How do you feel about that?” he asked. I said it has been one hell of an adventure, which was everything I wanted.
Photos by Christopher Edmonstone