Mountains are earth’s giants. They’re behemoths, slowly pushing their way through the clouds over millions of years to scratch at heaven’s belly. The ancient rocks offer us the highest ground we can stand on. But they don’t give up their prize easily. The roads are treacherous, hairpinned and protected by shields of harsh weather. But that just makes them even more addictive. Straddling a combustion engine through their winding passes, braving the terrain and battling our way to the peak turns us into conquerors. Europe's mountains have been beaten many times; strapped down and tamed with well-laid and ridden tarmac. But there is one road which towers above others, still untamed and wild – the Khardung La pass. The highest rideable road in the world. And it belongs to the Himalayas, home to the highest peaks on our planet. So it’s destination India to have a crack at the legendary mountains.
DAY 1 Chasing Gold
Her golden hair fell out the bottom of her helmet and fluttered wildly in the wind. It was mesmerising. I followed in a daze - eager not to let her escape as we started our ascent of the Khardung La. But it was no use, she was rapidly snaking away. My eyes ached and my breathing quickened as a dull thudding at the back of my head reminded me of all the warnings I ignored that morning. I arrived late and spent one night getting used to my new height before foolishly setting off, despite being told I’d need longer to adjust to the altitude. The Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey group that I had flown in to join were halfway through their 1300- mile ride and had already completed the pass after spending a week building up to the altitude and were resting before leaving tomorrow. My only option was to go up in a three-man crack team for a blitz assault. The lead rider was an Indian motocross champion and the golden hair belonged to a Colombian enduro champion, but that didn’t seem to matter. I wasn’t about to let them escape only 20 minutes into our ride. I ignored the sweat stinging my eyes and got on the gas. The Royal Enfield Himalayan hated it, bucking like a wild horse. I let her settle before trying again. She bucked and threatened to throw me off, every twist veered closer to the cliff edge. But my insistent hand was hell-bent on making us catch them, and I yanked the throttle for the last time before the back skidded out, we kissed the edge of a big drop and nearly cut my trip extremely short. I pulled over, forcing myself to calm down and stood staring at the bike and it’s completely flat rear tyre. Oh. Luckily, as we weren’t that far from base camp, the puncture was fixed in good time and we continued our cold, wet and foggy ride to the top. The pass was covered in a thick, eerie mist, masking our true height and luring us to stay for over an hour, despite being told no longer than 15 minutes. The dull thud in my skull was now an excruciating headache, every bump on the way down shaking my brain. A concoction of Ibuprofen and Paracetamol would soon become my best friend.
DAY 2 Lost on the flats
One hundred miles in a day and we’re in a different world. From the rocky heights of Leh we made it to the pasturelands of Debring for a cold night in a serene campsite by a lake. A couple of the guys decided to ride down to the lake and I decided to ride into it – immediately bogging in deep, sticky quicksand. Five guys and 20 minutes of swearing, cracking backs, and heaving later – and we had it out. I nearly passed out from lack of oxygen before riding back to camp with a bent handlebar. Later that night I found everyone huddled around the glow of a camera phone laughing at a film of the ordeal. As soon as I was spotted trying to disappear into my tent I was welcomed to a roaring hero's return…all for getting stuck and nearly passing out like an idiot. I like these guys.
DAY 3 Gold Dust
New Delhi is mental. The sights, sounds, sweat and smell crawl under your skin and turn you inside out, exposing your soul to the vibrant and manic city. But here, travelling on the dusty road to Keylong, we couldn’t be further away. The road stretches further than the eye can see and our group dispersed, free to roam the wilderness at their own pace. The tracks go on forever, taunting you to wind open the throttle and lose yourself in the nothingness, until you realise your delirious dash has become rather lonely. Slightly panicked, I pulled over. I hadn’t seen anyone for two hours and began scanning the horizon for helmets bearing the Odyssey group’s little yellow sticker. They were like rare flecks of gold dust, blown around the Himalayas in the wind. Finally, two specs appeared. They had no idea if they were heading in the right direction either, but couldn’t be happier. “It’s India,” they said, “relax.” So I set off again, gliding through mountain range after mountain range, trying to think of any time I’ve been happier on a motorcycle.
DAY 4 Bikes don’t fly
Before this trip I assumed we’d only cross over a couple of mountains. But the range spreads out over the planet in ever-changing landscapes – from rolling green mountains to red and purple rock fields. The only thing that stays the same are the crumbling roads and sheer drops. Trucks bellow out nauseating plumes of black smoke, mixed with sand, dust and grit, which fill your helmet if you get too close. I’ve never seen a bus take a blind corner so fast that it kicks its tail end out over a cliff edge before. One bus came full pelt at me, I was forced to move over to the edge. There was barely enough room for the two of us, but a car still decided to have a go at overtaking the bus, pulling out onto my side of the road, spotting me at the last second forcing everyone to a screeching, dusty stop, as I stared at a potential skydive to the end of everything. The car tucked back behind the bus with millimetres to spare. As I came to a stop in a cloud of dust, I gave the driver a stare of fire and he returned it with a pearly white smile, as though nothing had happened.
DAY 5 Hard hats or helmets
Signs reading ‘The world’s most treacherous road’ and ‘Explosions from 12- 2pm’ are not confidence-inspiring. I glanced at the clock, 1.30pm. I looked back up and saw a road block filled with workers who had just blown up parts of the mountain. They ushered us close to a huge cracked wall. We sat waiting for the trucks to move while the workers kept nervously glancing up at the mountain and shouting at truck drivers, we got the impression it wasn’t very safe – compounded when rocks started crashing onto our helmets. We were trapped. The workers ran for cover and, abandoned and fearing an avalanche, we made our escape, gassing it over the boulders to safety.
DAY 6 Home stretch
For the last ride I buddied up with a rider who had also crashed earlier in the day. I nearly went under a bus and was nursing achy wrists while he’d nearly flown of a cliff, busting his elbow. The burning hot yellow rock was long gone, replaced by tropical green mountains. We were nearly there. We hobbled through the final leg, dodging the mountain’s latest attempts at claiming us for themselves by chucking cows in our path, monkeys on our backs and nutcase drivers around every corner. We made the final descent like two war-hardened adventurers descending from Everest. We’ve been through snow, baking desert heat, sand and lashing rain, crossed epic mountains and raging rivers. We beat treacherous passes and maniac drivers. We crashed, got up and carried on. We conquered the Himalayas, and it was one of the best riding experiences of my life. You should try it, you’d love it.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Sign up to next year’s Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey; a 1400-mile, 18-day mega ride through the Indian Himalayas, organised by Royal Enfield. Bike rental, food, drink, accommodation and an organised route with guide riders, fixers, a luggage carrying vehicle and support vehicles including doctors and mechanics costs around £1200.
Discover more at: royalenfield.com/ho
TOP TIPS FOR RIDING IN INDIA
■ Use your horn on every bend
■ Never carry speed into a blind corner
■ Slow down
■ Never expect others to give way
■ Drink bottled water and go veggie to reduce chances of Delhi belly
■ Carry plenty of fuel, snacks and water
■ Watch out for cows… and monkeys