The window was closing to ride the Himalayas. Winter was coming. Brendan, a retired Aussie and wealth of information on riding Royal Enfields up rough roads who we bumped into in Nepal, rated the Ladakh region up there with the best. We had a quick diversion to Delhi for an Iranian visa, then we beelined north. There are 1.3 billion Indians. Half of them are under 25 and most of them on the road seem to be trying their best to kill you. After a day of near misses and clogged air filters, we opted for the Indian railway… it’s excellent. You dodge the traffic, take in the scenery and get dropped off in downtown Delhi. Delhi must be smelt to be believed. People urinate in public and the trash is piled high. The next day turnaround on the visas was a good excuse to get out of town and see the Taj Mahal.
Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of his time, had two wives who bore him no children. His third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, bore him 14 children and died in childbirth. I think she deserved a medal. Shah Jahan thought she needed a tomb that cost his empire AU$1 billion (adjusted to modern times). The marble looks good, but it is also porous and turns yellow from air pollution. This has necessitated an indefinite process of cleaning small sections at a time with clay packs, which we saw at the back right tower during our visit. To put this expense in perspective, the Sydney Opera House cost almost the same amount, but has utility to match its looks.
Manali to Srinigar
With visas in hand, we returned to Rampur via railway and rode to Rishikesh for some up to date weather information. The consensus was that mid-October was a bad time to do the Himalayas. It could snow any day. We’d spent too long staring at pictures of the Himalayas back home, so proceeded north anyway. In Manali you get a permit to ride to Leh. The permit both subsidizes road improvements and caps the number of vehicles so you don’t end up in a traffic jam on the mountain. From Manali onwards to Leh, the riding gets better and better.
The first of many mountain crossings is Rohtang aka “Pile of Corpses” Pass. It was apparently a bad place to get caught out in inclement weather. There’s now a series of switchbacks on the sealed road to the top, then matching dirt switchbacks on the other side with a few boulders that haven’t been cleared since the last landslides.
The yearly landslides and road closures, coupled with an interest in border security, is what’s leading major work on tunnels and perfect roads all the way to Leh within the next 5 years. The organisation doing this work is the Border Roads Organisation, or BRO.
We’d made it just past Jispa when we came upon a rope drawn across the road. We could see snow falling on the mountain ahead. A BRO employee waved us into his tent/office at the side of the road. It had a desk, a bed and the rest of the tent was piled high with firewood. I shivered thinking how cold his nights must be. He said it was snowing on Baralacha-la Pass and we wouldn’t want to be up there nor stuck in the next valley for the night if we made it through. We were glad to hold out riding into a snowstorm for another day.He gave us a hot cuppa masala and his number to call in the morning for a weather update. We backtracked through the sleet to Keylong to wait it out. It’s in the unlikeliest places you find the best chapati. We woke the next day to a 48 hour window of blue skies – enough time to fully appreciate the route up to Leh, and the best riding of the trip. It lives up to it’s name as “The Land of Paradise”.
Up around the village of Pang, BRO is knocking in perfect roads at over 4600m. This involves breaking rocks, pushing barrows and general hard graft. Men, women and children are involved. If you’ve blasted up to this altitude on the motorbike, standing up from dinner leaves you out of breath. These are hardy people!
Leh seems a peaceful place. It has a big Tibetan refugee population, and a lot of Indian military on the streets. It was in the middle of a beautification process, which means the streets in the centre were torn up and didn’t look all that nice.
Riding from Leh to Srinigar there is a both a big change from Buddhist to Muslim culture, and an increase in military presence. Convoys of army trucks swarm the mountain roads to supply barracks for the winter ahead. As of 1989, Kashmir has been the most militarized territory on earth, with an estimated 1 million Indian troops on the ground.
A quick history of Kashmir explains why.
In 1947, British India was given independence and partitioned into India and Pakistan. Majority Muslim areas in the East and West form Pakistan. Princely states which collected taxes for the British, of which Jammu and Kashmir was the largest, were allowed to choose a side.
Given the 77% majority Muslim population and its border with Pakistan, it was expected that the ruler would choose to join Pakistan. When the Hindu ruler stalled, Pakistani guerillas invaded. The Kashmiri ruler requested help from India, which they agreed to, on the condition that Kashmir acceded to India. They accepted and the invasion stopped. Then the United Nations entered and drew up a boundary, called the Line of Control (LOC), which still exists to this day.
The LOC divided Kashmir so that Pakistan got the mountainous areas to the north-west. an area with limited access to roads and where not much grows. India got the southern more fertile areas, as well as Ladakh to the south-east. Muslims on the Indian side got to see a continuation of the last 100 years of Hindus looking out for their interests. The LOC is still dotted on maps because neither side acknowledges the claim of the other.
The Chinese trounced India in a brief war in 1962 over territory in the north east, which is geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau. The Line of Actual Control (LOAC) was drawn up. Then in the 1990s both sides signed a peace treaty agreeing it was pointless to risk wide-scale war over a 5000m high salt plain where barely a blade of grass grows. Territory now mostly stable.
Meanwhile, unrest has continued since 1947 between India in Pakistan. There have been claims of widespread human rights abuses from both sides. An attempt at reconciliation was made with the introduction of a “peace bus”, used to transport Kashmiris across the LOC on a weekly basis to be reunited with family. It was off to a shaky start when the first peace bus was fired upon and several persons injured. Still, it has operated for the last 10 years.
Back to present day. In October 2015 cow carcasses were found and Hindu truck drivers were instructed to go on strike. A gang of Hindu fundamentalists firebombed a truck during the strike. Two of the three Muslims in the truck died from burns. Muslim kids hit the streets armed with sticks and rocks. Police and army reinforcements were mobilized. This was when we rode into town.
Kids in masks feigned throwing rocks at us and we were temporarily stopped at a strike on a bridge. This was the closest we’d felt to being in serious trouble. We were surrounded by a very angry mob but when they saw our foreign faces they let us pass. We didn’t hang around for any sight-seeing.
There was one last place we wanted to see before reaching Pakistan. This was Dharamsala, the new home of his holiness the Dalai Llama.
You can feel your blood pressure drop when you arrive at McLeod Ganj, the village perched on a hill in a pine forest above Dharamsala. Though he is a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama also holds a doctorate in philosophy. He rejects anything that has been disproved by scientific inquiry and dismisses Buddhist teachings not verified by science. The rest of the world should take notice of what he says. He could be the voice of reason for peace in Kashmir.
India has provided both the best and worst riding. Stay away from the plains if you can avoid them and get up into the Himalayas. The riding is AMAZING! Kashmir lives up to it’s name as “The Land of Paradise” – for onlookers anyway, not for a lot of the inhabitants.