"If you had sat me down and told me how the 2019 Roof of the World’ tour with Aussie Bike or Hike would change my perspective on life…. I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Or, I would have just laughed at you.
This trip to India was only the second time I have ridden abroad. So you could say that I’m a bit of an adventure ‘newb.’ The first was in the comparatively civilised USA. So probably doesn’t rate a mention. Let’s just say you could consider me an adventure first timer and I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead.
My riding background certainly isn’t lengthy. I fell in love with motorcycling in 2014 and began racing the following year. I met Alex Cudlin from Aussie Bike or Hike in 2016 at the track and he eventually became my coach. But despite being coached by a World Endurance Champion, my experience in off road conditions really was non-existent.
This trip was just what I needed. It presented a chance to experience a different kind of motorcycling, worlds apart from a race track. Never in a million years would I have attempted to do this trip on my own, let alone attempt the highest motorable pass in THE WORLD!!!!! Alex and Shane Cudlin were an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience and sometimes moral support! They managed to get this road rider, through some of the toughest roads and trickiest conditions in India. Many, many thanks must go to them for the insane, magical and crazy experience, Ill never forget it.
Who would have thought that in trying to get over post holiday depression Id be looking at adventure bikes!!"
DAY 1: DELHI
On day one, met up with everyone including our fearless local guide Tony or ‘T-Bone’ as he became affectionately known. Due to unforeseen circumstances I ended crashing and all boys trip by being the only lady. I wasn’t too concerned about it and the lads were good sports about it.
That first day we headed straight out to a local market to get amongst life in Dehli. Alex had pre-warned me that that India can be quite confronting. Many people are totally gobsmacked by the sights and smells for a day or so. I’d have to agree. ‘Gobsmacked’ may not adequately cover it. Truly, just cannot describe Dehli to anyone who hasn't been there. From day one, I was very, very aware just how easy we have it in Australia.
DAY 2 – DELI TO CHANDIGARH, THEN TO ANDAPUR SAHIB
We set out on a three hour train ride to Chandigarh where the mighty Royal Enfield Bullets awaited our arrival. Prior to departure, we got right with the Gods. Mala adorned our Royal Enfields. incense was burnt and after we were appropriately attired with a scarf, a pooja (prayer) was delivered by Tony who asked for a safe trip, well-being and good decisions while riding for all.
We then set out onto the streets of Chandigarh in a mere 46 degrees. It was the first time ever that I have elected not to ride in a jacket. I put it on, then took it off. The heat was just unbearable. This turned out to be a wise decision as I started to feel a little strange by the first fuel stop. I noticed the first signs of heat stroke. Despite the intense heat, I had goose bumps and my skin was cold to touch and I was a just a tad unsteady on my feet. We got out onto the freeway and I was hopeful that getting on the move with the wind in my face I’d recover. You know what they say about ‘best laid plans?’ Well, I went downhill fast. At the next stop I couldn’t stay on my feet. My dented pride and I were banished to the support van. Lucky for me, the van was equipped with AC, lollies and electrolytes. Turns out a little break was just what I needed. Heatstroke - 1, Ash - 0. Not a great start.
Between you and I, I’ll freely admit that had there been an airport in the vicinity, Eddie and I may have made an ‘exit stage left’ straight to the airport. The Princess in me was secretly questioning myself, ‘What have you gotten yourself into?’
After a little ride in the van and a truck load of sugar I was ready to get back on the bike. I finished the day in much better spirits with a ride to Anand At Satuj, Punjab.
DAY 3 - ANDAPOUR SAHIB – MANDI - JUNE 18
Our day started with a short ride to Sikh Temple, Andapour. The Aussies were well received by locals at their place of worship. The sounds of prayer and seeing local ladies dressed in their beautiful and brightly coloured saris coming to the temple was amazing.
Early on I became aware that seeing woman on a motorcycle was somewhat unusual in India. I had babies thrust into my arms and entire families came and posed beside me for photographs. There was furious waiving from car loads of women when they saw me near the bike.
En-route to Mandi, the group clocked up 142kms which doesn’t sound like much but riding in India requires your undivided attention. I also got my first real taste of the ‘road rules’ in India:
- Your lane is not yours.... You must share freely share with other cars, people, monkeys and revered horned beasts.... they are above humans and they know it.
- That there is no such thing as a blind corner, anytime is an acceptable time to overtake.
- Flesh gives way to machinery – You should expect any vehicle to pull straight out in front of you.
- The horn is not an offensive weapon in India, it is an acceptable and readily used means of communication.
DAY 4 - MANDI TO MANALI - JUNE 19
Twisty roads and amazing views were the order of the day and it was our first real taste of the mountains. We saw monkeys, herds of goats and working horses loaded up with packs.
The first challenge was the Aut tunnel, located in India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state, the Aut has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous tunnels in the world. The air was thick with diesel fumes which made for generally poor visibility and I had a greasy residue on my visor after travelling 2.6km! My strategy was to ride close to a car in front of me and use its tail lights for reference…. Gives you an idea of the lack of visibility!
We then passed through some India style road works. Wet muddy, slippery dirt roads complete with gigantic pot-holes. For someone with little experience on the dirt, the roads in India were initially challenging. It was a case of learn fast!!! Apparently rear brake is your friend, the front not so much!!
We spent the night in Johnsons Lodge located in Manali. With a well earned beer in hand we enjoyed a magnificent view of snow covered mountain tops.
DAY 5: MANALI TO JISPA - JUNE 20
An offensive 5:30am start got us on the road bright and early headed up to Rohtang Pass. The initial part of the pass made for challenging riding as we passed through melting glaciers which caused landslides. These landslides, complete with mud and rock resulted in some interesting conditions. I’m pleased to report that I managed to negotiate these roads with increasing confidence.
Riding up to the Rohtang Pass there were walls of snow on each side of the road. As I rounded the last bend I got pelted with snowballs! After a few happy snaps, we were off again descending into the Lahaul Valley. The roads improved dramatically and we got stuck into some twisting roads with stunning views. The scale of near vertical mountains vs valleys below simply cannot be captured in a photograph. They just don’t do the sheer scale of the place justice.
True to form, I was always the one to provide the days entertainment. I managed to get stuck in the middle of a nullah. A nullah is a melting glacier creating a water crossing over the road. In this case, the water had created a subsidence of the underlying road surface which was about 3 feet deep. I was one of the last to cross which provided additional time for the already assembled audience to gain a good vantage point. More importantly, this also gave me some additional time to devise a plan to cross with my dignity intact.
As ‘Eddie’ and I set off, confidence was high. But alas, three quarters of the way through the water crossing, ‘Eddie’s’ front wheel got caught between two large rocks which brought us to an abrupt halt. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t drop the bike! However the undignified extraction from freezing cold, knee height water was courtesy of some helpful locals. There may or may not have been some girlish shrieking!
DAY 6: JISPA TO SARCHU - 21 JUNE 2019
The road up to Barachala La is a winding single lane carriage way. Carved out in the snow drifts that tower way over head makes for an interesting ride. We saw cars right up against walls of snow and trucks squeezing past with millimetres to spare.
We continued on to our second highest pass which was Barachala La. The pass is situated along the Leh-Manali Highway connecting the Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh to Ladakh in the Jammu and Kashmir region. At an elevation of 16,050ft or 4892mtrs, just moving around was hard work!!
We spent our first night ‘glamping’ in the valley located at Sarchu. With towering mountains all around us and a temperature of -12deg c, the prospect of showering with a bucket, didn’t appeal. It was around this time that the princess officially left the building. All elected to just sleep in our ride gear!
DAY 7: SARCHU TO LEH - 22 JUNE 2019
A super early start at 5:30am in sub-zero temperatures was not for the faint hearted, it was absolutely freezing. But you get that in the Himalayas! So the ‘hardcore’ adventurer in me rugged up - two layers of thermals, two jumpers and yak socks (yes they are awesome and best 200 Rupees I’ve ever spent!!) I waddled over to Eddie to see that he was covered in ice and not particularly impressed by the early start either.
The day started off in an exciting fashion as black ice got the better of 6 bikes in the group. For once, I managed to avoid the mischief. Thankfully no one hurt, just a 'that'll wake ya up in the mornin' kind of deal. Secretly, I was congratulating myself for keeping Eddie upright. These Royal Enfields are a relatively indestructible beast as I was about to find out. But we will get to that.
After that minor incident, we got stuck into the day with our first climb the 21 steep Gata Loop hairpins. Well If you dont like hairpins, you certainly must change your attitude here. When I say hairpin, I mean steep uphill or downhill gradient which makes the 5km/h ones at home look like nothing. We continued on to Nakee La pass up to an elevation of 4700 metres. Somewhere along here along the decent, I managed to ride over some ice and down Eddie and I went….. and to think, just 5 minutes earlier I had been congratulating myself on the improvement in my off road skills!
Nothing major, just needed extraction by Shane Cudlin who was performing 'tail end Charlie' duties. Dusted oneself off as well as one could (given its mud) and off we went again. Into some crazy road works and deep gravel. Now I learnt yesterday that deep gravel is not my friend. I found that steering in the general desired direction is near impossible. I was later advised that it helps to sit a little further back and momentum is key. After a few very minor but ‘spectacular’ disagreements in deep, uncompacted gravel I opted for a self for a self imposed ‘time out’ in the van to ‘gather’ myself. Now what was I saying about the Princess? I was relieved to find that the general consensus amongst the group was that it had been a tough morning of riding.
We then headed into Tanglang La which looks like something out of an alien landscape. Its the third highest pass in the world 5300m above sea level! Again I was feeling the altitude. The gentle tingling gets stronger the higher you go and I was starting to feel like a fizzy soft drink.
We then descended to a mere 3500m to Leh where we had a rest day. A welcome break after 250km. Lets just say, I didn’t even make it to dinner.
DAY 8: REST DAY LEH - 23 JUNE 2019
A rest day in Leh was a welcome break and we were all on the hunt for some much needed caffeine. It was amazing and I nearly had to share my coffee with a cow who took a great interest in my latte!
The markets were certainly the centre of activity in the town. The usual activity, food for sale and open air butchers. Certainly smelt fresh but we are talking open air!
Local regulations met that Delhi registered vehicles were not allowed into the Jammu and Kashmir regions. So I used the opportunity to get acquainted with 'Eddie 2.’ He was again a Royal Enfield Bullet.
DAY 9: LEH TO DIKSIT - JUNE 24 2019
Well just a normal day. Just Eddie 2 and I setting off towards Khardung La which just happens to be the highest motorable pass in the world!!! The novelty still hasn’t worn off!!
In India, as you cross into different regions, there are checkpoints where you have your passport inspected. At the check point the weather rolled in and the pass was closed for motorcycles. Normal people probably would have called it a day….. Not the intrepid Aussies who elected to stay for a bit to see how the weather unfolded. Plenty of time for a chai and I managed to make friends with a little donkey!
About 1.5 hours later we were given the go ahead. All rugged up we set off up the road which was bitumen for a very short time. The remainder was slippery, muddy, rocky and full of pot holes. Was it a pleasant ride up there? Not really. Was it a challenge? You betcha! The whole objective was to make it to the top of Khardung La... and that I did! We were all a bit emotional at the summit with plenty of smiles and hugs. It is a whopping 5,359m (17,582 ft) above sea level. I can say that there is a real sense of achievement that comes with it. Its no walk in the park. Its not easy. Needless to say that my fingers felt like I was fizzing soft drink. No other altitude symptoms thankfully. We even met a few other crazy Aussies up there. Little did I know that this was going to be the easy one of the two crossing we would make. But we will get to that.
The weather started rolling in so the decision was made to get a move on and begin our decent toward Diksit. The roads were amazing and as you ride through the Shyok and Nubra Valleys the scale of the place leaves you in absolute awe. It was this day that I was left under no illusions that I was deep into he Himalayas!
DAY 10: DIKSIT TO LEH - JUNE 25
We set out back to Leh via Khardung La. It quickly became evident that the weather was looking somewhat ominous when looking up into the mountains which were hidden by some angry looking clouds. As we began our ascent, the temperature dropped well below -10 deg c. Despite wearing two sets of motorcycling gloves could not feel my hands within a short time. Thoughts of frostbite quickly entered my head. It was one of the most challenging rides I have ever done. My hands were in agony, after a little while, I couldn’t operate my hands. Eddie 2 wasn’t too happy with the altitude either and point blank refused to idle or run at low revs. I improvised and just rolled down a section. I managed to tough it out and get back over Khardung La pass.
So I am going to take a moment and remind you all that not once, but twice I have ridden the highest motorable pass in the world. Just standard stuff for the Adventure type I had now become😊
DAY 11 & 12: LEH TO PANGONG LAKE AND RETURN - JUNE 26/27
We set off from Leh rode over the Chang La pass (elevation is 5,360m or 17,590ft) what is claimed to be one of highest motorable road in the world. The initial part is bitumen but the road surface goes downhill from there. Potholes are epic. The scary part however is the gravel and sand on the road. Accuracy is key and you are riding along on your side of the road, trying to stay in a narrow corridor of a few inches.
Then, bitumen gives way to dirt. This was probably one of the most challenging roads to date. Its was very steep, slippery and bumpy. En-route we end up in a Military style traffic jam with military vehicles coming up the pass.
En-route to Pangong Lake you are surrounded by snow covered mountains complete with winding roads and surprise gravel filled ditches. They have GIGANTIC pot holes. Tricky - Yes! We were all a bit weary and glad to get to our accommodation which was our second ‘glamping’ experience right along side Pangong Lake. We were a mere 5km from the Chinese border which would explain the military presence.
Waking up the next morning there wasn’t a breath of wind. We broke off into our little groups along a pre-determined route and I rode back with Shane and Alex. We stopped along the way for some happy snaps.
Now one item on my wish list for the trip was to see a Yak. Now that I had seen a few along our route, the greedy part of me decided that it was now no longer enough to have seen one. I wanted to pat one. Would you believe, we managed to do just that! Right on Pangong Lake and I have the photographic evidence to prove it!
DAY 13 & 14 - LEH TO LAMAYURU - JUNE 28
Our final two days we got spoilt for road conditions, bitumen all the way would you believe?
The scenery was like something from another planet. Absolutely no vegetation and a twisty road along a deep canyon with near vertical cliffs on both sides. The river at the bottom of the canyon is bright turquoise in colour! Very spectacular but tough on the eyes as you are riding through bright sunlight to near darkness created by shadows in the canyons.
En-route we stopped in at Alchi Monastery, which is one of the oldest in Ladakh and home to 150 resident monks. Our accommodation was the Moonland Resort, its right amongst the canyons.
On our last day we returned to Leh, I bid farewell to both Eddies who were miraculously returned intact. Needless to say, I am somewhat pleased with myself as I had managed to negotiate some very challenging roads.
ROOF OF THE WORLD - THE WRAP UP
I can only describe the trip as a crazy, insane and magical experience at the same time!
My riding background hasn’t involved much off road riding. I am the first to admit that the road conditions were pretty difficult even for those with off road experience. Few emerged from the trip without a story to tell. I really had no idea there would be so much off road riding on the roads. It was a case of sink or swim.... Or sit in the van. I’m glad I persisted and I learnt so much. I can now confidently ride in the dirt, on mud over rocks, through nullahs you name it. Its not an issue. If I had my time over, it would have been beneficial to have done some off road training just for the sake of preparedness. Just to take the stress out of it and make it a little safer initially.
So what did I get out of it? A close friend of mine told me that India would change me forever. She was so right. India is a place of competing perspectives. Wealth and unimaginable poverty. I saw people living in conditions I could not have even imagined. Living beside railway lines, underneath concrete slabs. In median strips, growing vegies to live. There are a thousand examples I could give you. It really makes you appreciate the absolute civility of Western living. Despite all of this you ride up a road, kids run out and want to high five you as you ride past. It’s a different world. So what did I get out of it? In a word, ‘perspective!’
Tony our local guide told me that I was the first lady they have ever had on their tours. Im sure they looked on at times with curiosity and great amusement. I mention this and my lack of off road experience to demonstrate that it can be done. I would encourage anyone willing to give it a go. There were some serious altitude passes. It requires planning, support and some know how.
Would I do it again? Yes in a heartbeat.
Could you do it? Of course but it requires some local knowledge and support.
The reward for compromising on the luxuries that we would normally expect is seeing and experiencing the sights, sounds and culture of a place, not many in their lifetime ever will.
Join Aussie Bike or Hike in India in 2021
INDIA "ROOF OF THE WORLD" TOUR 2021!!!
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About the AUTHOR:
Ashlee De Bakker resides in Sydney and is a relative newcomer to the world of motorcycling. Ashlee first fell in love with motorcycling in 2014 after buying her first motorcycle. Shortly thereafter, found her way to the race track with the intention of undertaking some initial training. Fast forward twelve months and in the grip of a serious addiction to the race track, Ashlee took the plunge and began competing in the Formula Extreme, Ninja 300 Cup. The following year Ashlee competed in Australasian Superbike Championship in the Formula Oz category.
With the help of Alex Cudlin, Ashlee secured a 2016 championship win in her maiden year on board a superbike.
2019 "Roof of the World" Photo Gallery