The air is so thin that my Royal Enfield Motorbike struggles to keep moving from the lack of oxygen. My mind often becomes hazy and my heart labours just like the motorcycle, but every time I look up from the terrifyingly steep, pothole-riddled and rough road I see some of the most majestic scenery I have ever witnessed. Stark and jagged mountains, rugged blue glaciers, remote Buddhist villages, and mountain passes covered in colourful prayer flags. This is just some of the epic landscape set before my eyes on this journey. Every hour I climb higher and closer the Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass set at a dizzying altitude of 5602 m. This is one of the world’s last great adventures to be had!
Getting to Ladakh
In the foothills of the Indian Himalaya is the hippie hangout village of Manali. I arrived here from a painfully bumpy overnight bus from Delhi. This is the starting point to get to Ladakh overland.
Taking the overland route, you really develop an appreciation of what the journey used to take for travellers in the past to get into the secret mountain kingdom of Ladakh. Yes! There is a direct flight from Delhi, but as the saying goes “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there”, this couldn’t be truer when it comes to Ladakh.
I stayed a few days in Manali trying to find the best overland route to the capital of Ladakh, Leh. The local bus will get you there, but it’s a bit terrifying and you won’t get to stop in many of the fascinating villages along the way. I opted for a private 4×4, being India, this was very affordable. From Manali to Leh I was charged 220 USD (lots of bargaining although!).
The route is stunning. You pass by some extreme mountain passes covered in snow, scary steep dirt roads and remote villages each with their own distinct culture. The entire journey took about 18 hours to drive with an overnight stay in one of the villages.
Warning – Leh is at a considerably high altitude. Many travelers experience altitude sickness here, especially those that fly directly here from Delhi. Its best to take it easy upon arrival and if symptoms of acute altitude sickness worsen then seek medical attention.
Leh the Capital of Ladakh
Welcome to one of India’s most hospitable, beautiful and addictive towns! Leh, the capital of Ladakh is a crumbly façade of Buddhist temples, soaring mud palaces, and rugged desert landscapes. It truly feels off the beaten track making it to this extremely remote corner of the world.
The first thing you will notice is the Leh Palace looming above the town. This was the first place I visited in town. Wondering the empty halls it’s hard not to see the resemblance to Potala Palace in Tibet. Leh Palace is a great place to get in touch with the old kingdoms that used to rule this region. Even further up the hill is Tsemo Fort and Tsemo Gompa. This is not only a great place to see the entirety of Leh and the valley, but it’s also a place where monks gather chanting prayers that ring throughout the halls.
Climbing back down the hill you enter “Old Leh”. The vast majority of Leh is considered old, but the crumbly mud houses directly at the foot of the Fort are some of the oldest in the region. Here you will find plenty of restaurants and shops offering local delicacies plus plenty of unique handmade crafts. You will also find the remnants of the old hippie trail here with shops offering everything from tie die to bang Lassi (Marijuana infused milkshakes). I love finding these old school travel hangouts, its fun to imagine our grandparents hanging out here just as we do now!
Renting a Motorcycle in Leh, Ladakh
The next day I ventured out to find myself a motorcycle. In the old city, you will find plenty of shops offering everything from battery-powered crap Chinese scooters to splendid 500cc Indian Royal Enfield’s.
There are two key factors you must keep in mind when it comes to riding here. The first being that because of the extreme altitude do not expect anything less than a 300cc to be able to make it across the mountain passes. I opted for the 500cc and at times it even struggled! Secondly is this is not a place to learn how to drive a motorcycle. The valley roads are chaotic, the mountain passes are very dangerous and if you break down in a remote area there may be no one to help.
If you feel confident enough then what better than to rent the beautiful Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet. This is a classic bike with great handling for the mountain passes. The price ranges from 30 USD per day for a used one to 100 USD for brand spanking new!
Chemrey and Thiksey Monastery
I highly recommend that before undertaking the Khardung La you do as I did and spend a few days getting acquainted with your new motorcycle. There are plenty of beautifully paved roads that take you to historic monasteries and remote nearby valleys.
Two to name are Chemrey and Thiksey Monasteries. They are located South of Leh along the highway. Using Maps.me offline GPS you can navigate there easily and visit both in one day.
First, I visited Thiksey Monastery. This is Monastery which resembles more of a Tibetan village is one of Ladakh’s oldest. The best time to visit is at 6 am when the monks all gather here to pray. Trumpets ring through the valley, juniper incense wafts from the inner corridor and the monks groaning chants are a wonderful experience.
Wondering the multiple other gompas and libraries around Thiksey is also great, but further up the road, you can see medieval villages that have not changed in centuries still living primarily off the barley harvests.
Approaching Chemrey monastery is like a scene from a movie. It sits atop a steep hill in the middle of a valley of yellow barley. Resemble a Buddhist fortress I followed the road through the massive interior gates and all the way to the top of this castle.
Chemrey really has that hidden Shangri La feel to it. The Gompa has stunning views of the valley and nearby villages and the walls are decked out in ancient Thangka paintings.
Khardung La, the World’s Highest Motorable Pass, Ladakh
Following the road north of Leh, it stays paved for quite some time slowly zig-zagging its way up the mountain like a snake. Halfway up the view become climactic and the roads turn into a mess of potholes, ice, and loose rocks. It’s easy to underestimate how rough it gets, but a word of advice just go slow and take it easy, besides that’s why you do this journey anyway!
About four hours of driving the pass becomes visible from the mass amounts of prayer flags that bikers leave here to mark their triumph over the road.
Motorcycle barely working, my mind dazed and confused and my body sore as hell from the bumps I drifted into Khardung La. The Indian military has set up a small tea house for travellers here to stop in and have a cup of clove tea. Apparently, clove tea helps with the altitude symptoms. After my fill of tea and a quick hike further up the mountain to hang my prayer flags, I began the descent down into the opposite valley from Leh, the Nubra Valley.
Hunder and the Nubra Valley
The descent down into the Nubra Valley is epic. You pass by small Tibetan medieval villages with terraced fields of barley, amazing mountain views with rock outcrops that have so much colour they appear to be painted and the odd ancient monastery seemingly defying gravity on the cliff side.
There isn’t much for amenities here, but if you stop and ask in the villages for food there is usually a small tea house offering Maggi noodles and salty tea.
Finally reaching the river at the bottom of the valley you enter a fairy-tale like landscape. There is very little of the modern world here truly allowing you to have a travel experience that feels as if you have stepped back in time.
Another hour or so up the road through the Nubra Valley you will reach the small settlement of Hunder. Here there are a few homestays which you can stay at and get a chance to ride one of the two hump Bactrian camels left here from the old silk road days.
There is something so humbling about climbing the golden yellow dunes atop a camel that was once used for trade during the Silk Road, plus not to mention the scenery is absolutely stunning!
The next day I journeyed back to Leh crossing back over the Khardung La. Arriving back to Leh all I wanted to do is journey further into this amazing region of the world.