THE HIGH WAY
Riding the best road in the world on a Royal Enfield
DELHI • MANALI • LEH • SPITI • KINNAUR • DELHI
HIMALAYAN ODYSSEY by gordon may photographs by harsh man rai
he Himalayan Odyssey is a magniﬁcent two-week challenge that tests riders and their Royal Enﬁeld motorcycles as they tackle some of the most staggeringly beautiful yet demanding roads on the planet. Organised and led by the Royal Enﬁeld company who have produced the famous Bullet motorcycle in India since 1955, the Odyssey aims to develop participants’ conﬁdence as well as their riding and mechanical skills. Having successfully completed the Odyssey, it is hoped that the veterans will go on to undertake further long-distance adventures on their machines, whether that be in small groups or solo. The Odyssey route is not set in stone– it varies from year to year, especially on the return from Leh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir – but many highlights, such as the famed Baralacha La, Tanglang La and Khardung-La passes and the beautiful Spiti Valley, are perennial favourites. Each year Royal Enﬁeld makes just 50 places available on this Himalayan Odyssey. The main requirement is that the rider not only rides, but also owns a Royal Enﬁeld motorcycle. And what more eminently suitable or more appealing bike could there be for the purpose? The Bullet is robust, well-balanced and easily controlled in all conditions. Combined with its heritage as the longest-running motorcycle in the world in constant production, its ﬁne classic lines and an exhaust note to die for, there could be no better way for a motorcycle fan to explore the mountains of North India.
Massed riders depart from India Gate, New Delhi, Himalayan Odyssey 2009. Close formation riding is employed around large cities to ensure participants don’t get lost.
his adventure of a lifetime is officially launched in the shadow of one of India’s great monuments: the huge war memorial of India Gate in the heart of New Delhi. Odyssey participants, guides and support crew find themselves surrounded by dignitaries, senior company managers, members of the press and television crews. Under the heat of a sizzling sun speeches are made and prayers offered for a safe return. Then comes the time for action: motorcycle engines erupt into life and the journey north begins. The sound and sensation of so many single-cylinder, thumping engines leaving the capital is spine tingling. Pedestrians and motorists stop and stare as the cavalcade thunders past. Once clear of the busy city streets, the riders join the Grand Trunk Road, one of South Asia’s oldest and longest major roads, to do battle with the trucks, buses and myriad other road users. Day one ends at the stunning city of Chandigarh, renowned worldwide for its Le Corbusier architecture and innovative urban planning. Here the riders get to know each other, talk over and revel in the highlights of their journey’s start. In the hotel car park, factory mechanics undertake any early running repairs. Onwards from Chandigarh the roads remain fast but traffic does begin to thin. Already, riding partnerships have begun to form, with motorcyclists grouping into pairs or small teams and Royal Enfield dealerships provide welcome refreshment stops at intervals along long stretches of open highway. With darkness fast approaching the Odyssey riders reach Manali, an important hill station nestled in the Himalayan foothills and a popular tourist attraction. Departing from Manali the following morning marks a second phase of the adventure. The heat of the plains is left behind as motorcycles wend and weave their way ever upwards through heavily scented pine forests to meet bare, rocky mountains. For many riders this part of the trip brings a new experience – riding a motorcycle in the quiet, free from busy highways and cities. This is an ideal time to take photographs and absorb the silence and sense of utter peace. It is also a time to contemplate the 5
sanjay ahlawat clockwise, from top: Overlooking the Beas river en route
to Manali; prayer and blessings for a safe ride at Manali; riders encounter fog at Rohtang; a few riders on the descent to Koksar; mounting up after a tea break at Darcha; a serene-faced villager looks over the parked Bullets; and the early morning view from the camp at Tandi.
first major challenge that lies ahead â€“ the 4000m Rohtang Pass. The ascent up this pass, notorious for its sudden changes in weather, is slow. Riders have to tackle sharp narrow bends in the cratered, muddy road or navigate their way round the jeeps and small buses of tourists who are heading to or returning from the snow. At the top of the pass riders encounter roadsides packed with revellers as well as food and gift stalls. Few motorcyclists choose to stop among the ferried-in tourists though, preferring to tackle the exhilarating descent where all other traffic has disappeared. Snow and ice-melt streams cascade across the rutted, shinglecovered road. Riders weave from side to side as they endeavour to pick the most suitable line. Those riding this terrain for the first time find this a wholly liberating experience. When everyone assembles at a lunchtime rendezvous point there have been just a couple of minor tumbles. This is when the true value of the organised Himalayan Odyssey is seen. Participants watch out for each other, offering advice and support. The factoryappointed group leaders offer guidance on motorcycling best practice and in case of any incident, support vehicles with trained mechanics and a doctor are on hand to remedy any damage done along the way. A long dayâ€™s ride ends at Keylong where the party splits in two. One half of the 6
group enjoys dinner round a roaring campfire and a night under canvas. The rest of the team is led to a hotel in the town and the comforts of a nearby restaurant. As Keylong features on the return journey the two parties swap around so no one misses out on the magic of a night under the stars in this most beautiful spot. After so many miles the next day begins with a mass petrol stop. Tandi, on the outskirts of Keylong, is the only official fuel station on the route to Leh, which lies 385 km away. Riders fill their tanks to the brim and many place an order for the support crew to carry a few extra litres for them. Ahead lies the most difficult climb to date: the towering Baralacha La Pass at 4890m where herds of Ibex and Blue Sheep can sometimes be seen on the barren pastures alongside the pass. Even though the Odyssey takes place early in the summer season it is not unusual to see snow begin to fall as riders reach the summit. Sheets of thick ice cake the walls of blasted rock that edge the road. Many riders stop to take in the stunning vision that is the emerald green expanse of Suraj Tal lake, a sacred body of water. The air is thin here and the cold bitter so all but the most hardy quickly remount their Enfields and head down the other side. A pattern of pre-determined rendezvous at tea stops is established which allow Odyssey riders to rest and warm up. These stops also provide a safety net as the group waits for the last biker and the support vehicles, which are always sweeping the tail, to arrive. All of the gypsy encampments, with their gaily-coloured tents, are seasonal. The teashop owners, faces wizened by years in the mountains, live in them in the summer but move to 7
clockwise, from left: Water crossing before Pang; the 2009 trip was the coldest Himalayan Odyssey to date. Baralacha La was closed shortly after our motorcycles descended from the pass due to unseasonably heavy snowfall; exploring the Pangi Valley on the 2007 trip; some of 2008’s riders head off-piste on Sarchu plains.
the warmth of low altitude towns for the winter. Today’s stop is Bharatpur. Riders, sipping sweet milky tea, look up as more bikes arrive at these stops. They wave to their companions and often get up to inspect the new arrival’s machine, offer encouragement or share an experience. After another steep climb, the Odyssey arrives at the summer camp of Sarchu, just 8
a few metres off the side of the Manali-Leh Highway, where they have food and drinks served to them in a large marquee. It is here that Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can affect some riders. Again, the Royal Enfield doctor is on hand with medication and advice. Departing Sarchu is a considerable exercise in logistics. Snow and ice needs to be removed from bikes before they
can be started up. Those with smaller petrol tanks form a long queue to top up from the large drum of fuel collected the previous morning. By now the riders are truly working together as a team. Several help pump fuel, a couple work on the maintenance of friends’ bikes while another larger group form a chain to load the luggage truck. A spectacular day’s ride lies ahead. First up are the stunning Gata Loops, a series of 21 tight hairpin bends that climb up the side of a rocky mountain. Riders whoop with joy as they lean their Royal Enfields well into the corners. The More Plains come next. In the middle of the day, the bikers slide and bounce across this rocky, sandy wilderness. The last great mountain pass lies ahead. This is Tanglang La at 5,359m, the second highest motorable mountain pass in India. 9
The only place large enough for a group photo - the More plains. Himalayan Odyssey 2009.
Naturally the ascent is steep, with bikes often ridden close to the edge to squeeze past lumbering military trucks that make their way over the mountain. A stupa garlanded in colourful prayer flags and a simple summit sign greet the motorcyclists as they reach the top. This is another fantastic photo opportunity but again the oxygen-starved air and icy conditions are powerful enough to persuade riders back to their saddles and a bleak, windswept descent. The relief of spending the night at lower levels at the grassy summer camp of Rumptse is tangible. The now dusty, 12
clockwise, from top left: Riders take a break at the top of the formidable Tanglang La; Thikse monastery, on the outskirts of Leh, is a must stop photo for all Odyssey participants.; a view of the old quarter of Leh through the ruins of the Leh palace; the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa oversees the whole city of Leh; a monk exits Thikse
mud-splattered bikes are lined up next to a babbling brook. A good meal rejuvenates and basic tents provide adequate shelter for the tired riders. The final dayâ€™s ride on the outward leg is to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The roads are smooth and wide, following the Indus
river that brims with ice melt. For the first time since Manali, everyone has a chance to open their throttles in top gear and experience some relaxed cruising. For the last hour, all the bikes ride in formation, an awesome sight and sound as they sweep into the ancient city. The old part of Leh is dwarfed by the seventeenth century Palace of the Kings of Ladakh, while narrow, cobbled streets create an atmosphere that captures a long forgotten time. Based at a luxurious central hotel riders enjoy two days of rest and relaxation, crowned by a wide range of international cuisine offered in 13
clockwise: Taming the sandy Moré Plains. Motorcyclists’
off-road riding skills soon improve; riders line up at a water crossing in the Pangi Valley on the 2007 Himalayan Odyssey ; riders on the road to Kaza on the 2009 trip
the city’s many restaurants. This is also a time to reflect on the journey so far and to complete any necessary repairs or maintenance. Once recuperated, it is time for the riders to take on the journey’s ultimate challenge: Khardung La. Heralded as the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardung La lies north of Leh and is the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valleys. The ascent is sharp but relatively well paved. Had the Royal Enfield riders faced this pass earlier in the journey they would undoubtedly be fazed but having conquered the challenges of Baralacha La and Tanglang La, they know just how to tackle this climb. At the summit there is jubilation. Many jump off their bikes to hug and congratulate their fellow travellers. Cameras are whipped out and plenty of photographs are taken of rider and Royal Enfield standing proudly in front of the Khardung La signboard that proclaims that you are at 18,380 feet above sea level. The return journey to Delhi begins just as the dawn mist clears the next day. Just 20km from Leh riders have the 14
opportunity to stop at the grand 12-storey Thikse monastery whose motorable approach road from the valley passes through the east side of the monastery’s main building. Its steep, stepped temple walls, redolent of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, make a stunning photographic backdrop. Ahead lies Tanglang La, which by now
houses no demons for the experienced Odyssey participants, then once again it’s the Moré Plains. Flanked on both sides by towering rock formations, this dusty, uninhabited high altitude plateau is one of the ride’s highlights for it is here that bikers get the chance to hone their off-road riding skills. Guided by Royal Enfield Odyssey leaders the participants
manhandle their Royal Enfields through sand and gravel, dried-out riverbeds and a broken, pot-holed road. This is also the only place along the route that is large enough to take all the bikes and support vehicles as a line up for a group photograph. The resulting picture, framed by barren mountains and a huge blue sky, will become a treasured memento of this remarkable trip. After an off-road foray over small sand dunes and dirt tracks, the night is spent under canvas close to the shoreline of the Tsokar lake. This serene mountain water body, in a vast arid landscape populated mainly by the Changspa nomads, is known locally as the White Lake due to the salt that cakes its shores. Here riders can sit around camp or ride their bikes to the lakeside for more photographs. The rapidity of change in the Himalayas can take riders by surprise. Baralacha La, so brutally cold on the outward leg of the journey, is bathed in hot sunshine this time around. The improved conditions mean that this time, the ride to and from its summit is a pleasurable journey rather than an ordeal.
The continued spring melt creates numerous water crossing challenges. Some streams flow directly down the middle of the road, slowly eroding the tarmac surface and so presenting a moderate test for the motorcycles. Far more challenging though are the rivers, which sweep across roads that follow the contours of hillsides. These rushing waters deposit rocks and boulders that are often hidden under white water. Standing high on their foot pegs to gain greater balance and vision, riders rev through these bumpy, jolting conditions, emerging triumphant at the other side. Those who get stuck or take a tumble are soon rescued by their companions. Of course, is in these conditions that Royal Enfields excel. In its formative years, the Bullet was never used for road or track racing but as a hardy, flexible workhorse that could be used in most everyday conditions. The Indian army used Bullets to patrol mountainous Kashmir’s borders with neighbouring China and Pakistan. In many ways the Odyssey riders are emulating the riders of 1940s and 1950’s Britain when Royal Enfields were used in
off-road trials and scrambles competitions. In these conditions, the Enfield’s poise, balance, excellent suspension and a highly tractable engine that provided lots of torque at low revs, served its riders well. By the end of these high mountain roads, most Odyssey riders have become highly proficient at overcoming these treacherous water obstacles. After another night at Keylong and a repeat fuel stop at Tandi, the route deviates from the outward leg. Instead of reclimbing Rohtang, the company heads off towards the Spiti Valley. At first the gravel road follows the banks of a river as it skirts around several mountains. But after a lunch break at the remote stop of Chhatru, the ensemble heads off road for an 80km stretch of track that has never been tar sealed. Boulders and rocks are strewn across the compacted trail, creating a moonscape-like environment far removed from normal highway conditions. Kicking up a trail of dust behind them, the bikes bounce and slide across this remote but eerily beautiful scene. When riders stop to rest silence engulfs them – until a few minutes later 15
all photos (7) on this page: ritam banerjee this page clockwise, from top: a rainbow streaks over the
campsite at Tsokar; dhaba-cum-hotel gyspy tents provide a warm place for a nap and nourishment all along the Manali-Leh road; snowed-in on a freezing cold morning at Sarchu on the 2009 Himalayan Odyssey.
when the hearty roar of an approaching Royal Enfield can be heard. As it passes with a deep rumble, riders gleefully wave and greet each other with shouts and smiles. There is undoubtedly a sense of shared joy and wonder that arises from riding a machine through such isolation. Emerging from the desert-like valley, the Odyssey snakes up a series of hairpin bends hewn from the mountainside. The expansive vista of snow-capped mountains makes the climb a breathtaking experience. At the top is Kunzum La pass at 4500m, marked by a large temple set back from the roadside. The tradition here is to ride clockwise around the central stupa with its lines of prayer flags flapping in the breeze. Good luck and a safe journey now guaranteed by this homage, the group descends to the pleasant village of Losar to rest in a cafe or on the grassy banks of a stream before completing the day’s ride to Kaza, the provincial administrative headquarters of Spiti district. Heading south-east from Kaza, the following day’s journey sees dramatic changes in scenery. The barren rocky wilds of the mountains give way to lush green ghats. The air becomes warmer and riders pass through fragrant woods and fields. The route follows the banks of the gushing, reddish-brown Sutlej River, where for several hours riders find they must cling to the sides of a road carved into the sheer rock faces of the spectacular river gorge. This night’s accommodation is found at the small town of Kalpa, known as a
this page: The cheery countenances of the local inhabitants on the the Manali-Leh road, despite the harsh and adverse conditions, are wondeful to behold.
centre for apple growing. The final group of Odyssey riders arrives just before sunset and are greeted by the heavenly sight of the sun’s last rays, which glow ember red on the peak of the mighty Kinner Kailash mountain. Every day of the Odyssey begins with a briefing from the Royal Enfield expedition leaders. Information about the day’s route, assembly points and road conditions are passed on to the assembled riders. The briefing at Kalpa takes place with riders lounging in the sun, soaking up the relaxed mood and looking forward to a pleasant day’s ride ahead knowing that the difficult riding and environmental conditions of the Himalaya are now behind them.
From Kalpa the riders encounter empty forest roads where they can rev their engines faster, then slow to swoop through a series of ‘S’ bends. Soon they meet greater pockets of civilisation – and troops of monkeys who wander gamely across the highways! Sometimes these monkeys challenge the Royal Enfield riders as they pass. Tea stops are also more plentiful, in contrast to the days in the mountains, and these prove vital as rehydrating and cooling are now major requirements. The hill station of Narkanda, surrounded by dense woods and which offers wide, expansive views of the plains to the south, provides another charming night’s rest. Odyssey participants’ confidence levels are now so high that group leaders have to remind everyone that the dangers of high altitude have been replaced by the menace of fast, dense traffic and that restraint with speed is just as important here as on the
deserted mountain passes. It takes two more days to complete the journey. The last of the shady ghats are replaced by the dusty, baking heat of the plains. The ride into Delhi, via a night’s rest at Parwanoo, is completed as it began – on the hectic Grand Trunk Road. By journey’s end it is hard to recognise the Odyssey riders as the same motorcyclists who left the capital just two weeks earlier. Their experience, selfconfidence and riding skills have been transformed beyond anything they could imagine. Every machine shows signs of 18
the 2000km or more of extreme riding conditions that they have conquered yet not one rider seems to mind the marks, scratches or dents. Each and every rider knows those scars as well earned, testament to their incredible adventure. And of course, the pleasure of rendering their bikes shiny and new looking again awaits them. The last day of the ride and the Odyssey’s successful completion is celebrated in great style at a party thrown in an upbeat city restaurant. There is loud music, great food and refreshments aplenty.
Scenes of exultation are common on the highest motorable pass in the world as triumphant Odyssey participants reach Khardung La. The sign is replaced every year so no Odyssey photos taken at the summit are alike.
But the talk... That is exclusively of the joy of riding a Royal Enfield, the connection formed between rider and machine, on one of the world’s greatest adventures. n 19