Our final movie covers the high-altitude ride from Leh to Manali, including the Khardung La north of Leh. One of the most breathtaking rides we’ve ever done, and not only because of the altitude! Hope you’ll enjoy the movie too.
Our last ride takes us from Manali to Delhi, leaving the mountains behind. The time has come to put our bikes on a plane and fly home. However, finding an agent who is able to do this proves to be more difficult than we expected. In true Indian style they all tell us ‘it’s no problem’, but after three days we don’t even have a quote yet. Only after getting in touch with Mr. Lalli Singh, who has been providing his services to motorcycle travellers for twenty years, things start to move. Lalli clearly knows his business and within hours gives us a quote. Given the huge difference in price, we decide to ship by sea instead of air. After handing over the necessary documents, the paperwork is started at once. Within a week the bikes are crated, cleared through Delhi customs and on their way to Mumbai for the long sea journey to Antwerp. As for ourselves, we’ll both be home before the weekend!
Monsoon started early this year and struck India hard, especially in the Himalaya states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We were in Pakistan at the time, and already then we’d decided to spend more time in the Karakorams and Ladakh, where the monsoon doesn’t reach. Instead of riding to Nepal in the pouring rain, we’ll end our trip in Delhi.
When we cross the Rohtang La pass (3979m) on our way to Manali, we literally ride into the monsoon. No more bright and sunny weather, from now on our days will be wet and cloudy. The high-altitude desert landscapes of Ladakh give way to lush green valleys, and again we see a different side of the Himalaya.
On our journey through the Indian Himalaya we’ve ridden two spectacular high-altitude roads: the Srinagar-Leh Highway and the Leh-Manali Highway. These are the only two roads that connect Leh, the capital of Ladakh, with the rest of the country, and only for five to six months a year. The rest of the time the high passes are snowed under and flying is the only option.
Despite the very bad road condition (as opposed to the newly paved Srinagar-Leh road), the Leh-Manali Highway has been one of our most beautiful rides ever. Much of the road is above four thousand metres and it crosses several high passes, including the world’s second highest motorable pass. The scenery is simply stunning and over the whole five hundred kilometres never once gets boring.
In two days time we’ve crossed both the world’s highest and second highest motorable pass. The Khardung La (5603m) crosses the Ladakh Range towards the Nubra Valley and the Karakorams in India’s far north. The Tanglang La (5328m), on the Leh-Manali Highway, crosses the Zanskar Range. Whether these are really the highest motorable passes in the world is debatable, as Tibet has some higher, albeit military passes. Still, this is by far the highest we’ve gone on this trip, and in a way we’ve reached our destination. Unbelievable, is not it?
Leh, the low-key capital of Ladakh, is one of those Indian traveller hangouts where you meet too many Israeli’s and would-be hippies. Still a nice place to unwind for a few days though, with great food, peaceful garden hotels and perfect weather at this time of year. It’s also a good place for An to work on her upcoming novel, as her deadline is coming closer.
The road to buddhist Ladakh runs through the troubled region of muslim Kashmir. Here, the Indian government has to defend itself on two fronts: against Pakistan and Kashmiri insurgents. Never have we seen such an overwhelming army presence. The border road is congested with military convoys and we ride past one army camp after another. While we’re enjoying a shikara boat ride on touristy Dal Lake, a few incidents elsewhere in Srinagar (hindus burning a quran and the police shooting a protestor, or so we’re told) result in a curfew being announced, out of fear for demonstrations after the friday prayers.
We leave Srinagar at five o’clock the next morning, just before the curfew starts. Police is on the ready, blocking the entry roads to Srinagar.
As seen in our KKH movie, the F650’s charging system stopped working in northern Pakistan due to a burnt stator. We tried to have the coils rewound in Lahore but this didn’t work out. As our Pakistani visa was about to expire we decided to order a new stator from the US (BMW does not sell this part of the alternator separately) and have it sent to Delhi, where we picked it up at the UPS office a few days later. Back in Amritsar, from where we’d taken the train to Delhi, Mr. Kanav of the local Royal Enfield dealership was so kind to let me use their workshop so I wouldn’t have to fix the bike in the dirty streets. As BMW Delhi had not been able to provide us with a new paper gasket for the alternator housing, one of the mechanics helped me to create a liquid one, a great solution that I didn’t know about. After a few hours’ work the bike was running perfectly again and we were ready to continue our journey.
The border crossing at Wagah, the only border between Pakistan and India open to foreigners, went smoothly. Pakistani customs was mainly interested in changing our remaining rupees (at a bad rate of course). At the Indian side our walkie talkies were discovered for the first time, although we always hide them in An’s trousers when crossing a border. Fortunately, the only thing the Indians seemed to care about was whether we were carrying a satellite phone (which we don’t).
Our first stop in India is Amritsar, home to the Sikh’s most holy shrine, the Golden Temple. We stay a few days at the Grand Hotel, a quiet oasis in the Indian chaos, and enjoy the food and a beer again.
Thursday night in Lahore is Sufi Night. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism, with a strong connection to music. I’d seen Sufi performances before -the famous whirling dervishes of Turkey and Cairo- but I was not prepared for the eclectic trip that is Sufi Night, and An even less… Sufi’s gather in the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal to dance to the hypnotic music of great drummers. By whirling their bodies and vigorously shaking their heads they try to reach a higher state of mind. The cheerful crowd, barely fitting in the small courtyard, only adds to the sensation.
Beware: you can get a culture shock just by watching the movie!
Before our race down south, we actually spent a wonderful two weeks in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. First of all, we’ve been riding the Karakoram Highway, one of the most spectacular roads in the world. The KKH runs for twelve hundred kilometres from Kashgar in China to Islamabad, and every day is an adventure.
The Karakorams are also a prime trekking destination, with some of the most awe-inspiring mountain scenery I’ve ever seen. Most of the eight thousand metre peaks are found here, including the K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to see it, as the trek to the basecamp takes two weeks. We did go on several day-hikes as well as a few longer treks. The most unforgettable being the trek to the basecamps of Rakaposhi (7788m) and Diran (7266m), on which we crossed the impressive Minapin Glacier with the help of our guide Hasan.
We stayed a while in the magical Hunza Valley, which is quite different from the rest of Pakistan. People are Ismaili here, a school of Islam far less radical than Sunnism, and are extremely friendly. Ever since 9/11 tourism has been on the decline, although in this region there has been no attack against foreigners in more than forty years. Until two weeks ago, when nine trekkers were killed around Nanga Parbat. In Karimabad, where we were staying at the time, people were genuinely sad about what happened, embarrassed even. And they’re afraid, afraid that the trickle of mountaineers and trekkers still visiting the Northern Areas will now also stop.
We were glad not to get another police escort when we left Abottabad. The night before we’d been looking at the map and decided to skip Islamabad and take the M2, Pakistan’s only motorway, straight to Lahore. Motorbikes are not allowed on this multi-lane divided highway, but as nobody stopped us at the toll plaza, we opened the throttle and raced off at 120 km/h. Even at this speed the wind could not cool us down.
It took about half an hour before the first police car pulled us over. We were taken to the nicely air-conditioned office of the chief of command who was so kind to grant us special permission to ride on to Lahore, where we arrived in the evening. The five hundred kilometre ride in 38°C and no shade was taking it’s toll, and by the time we found a hotel in the air-polluted, ten million people metropolis, we were totally exhausted and overheated. Before heading for India, we’ll be staying here in Lahore for a few days, enjoying our air con room…
After the Nanga Parbat killings we cancelled our Fairy Meadows trek and continued riding down the Karakoram Highway, to the capital Islamabad. The remaining six hundred kilometre journey turned into a slow, four-day endurance race, with armed police escorting us most of the way, a lot of waiting at checkpoints, temperatures of over forty degrees making driving in the afternoon almost impossible, a failing charging system on An’s bike and an overheating fuel pump on mine. Even my body let me down. On the way to Abottabad, I got extremely painful abdominal cramps and had to stop at a gas station (read: toilet). I was soaking in my own sweat and could barely stay on my legs. Again we were in for an early stop. After an hour of rest and cooling down in the station’s office, we went to find a hotel in Abottabad.
Just letting everyone know we’re alright. As you may have heard in the news, a group of nine foreign trekkers were killed last night in a Nanga Parbat basecamp in northern Pakistan, about two hundred kilometres from where we are now. This is pretty discomforting news, because if it wasn’t for An being ill the past few days, we would’ve been trekking in that area ourselves. We’re changing our plans now based on the information we get in the village and our hotel, and will try to post more info here in the next few days.