Traveling by Motorbike

Day in the Life of a Long-Term Traveler: The Khardung La Pass, Ladakh, India

“A Day in the Life” is a series in which we chronicle a specific day in the life of a long-term traveler. Many indie travelers dream of getting off the beaten path during their big trip, and this story is about exactly that – a motorbike journey over the highest motorable pass in Ladakh, India. 

I wake near a window. Slowly, I remember that I am in someone’s home, in Khardung, India.

The wooden bed creaks as I pull my sleeping bag up over my shoulders and prop my head up for a better view.

The mountains are surreal. Each has a different character. The closest, just beyond the chasm separating it from the village, is ill-formed like a melting brain, or like an evolving, fetal creature, or a mountain anciently dead and in the process of devolving. To its left are red and orange, young-looking mountains, and beyond them, the largest in view, a yellow and kingly one. Beyond that is a range of black and purple snow-capped peaks.

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The sky is a grey sheet, with stray puffs of cottony fog drifting over the lower slopes. Such weather is not a good sign given today’s plan to ride our 350cc Royal Enfield motorcycles over Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass – especially given that one of them has carburetor problems and needs a new spark plug before it will even start.

Such weather means a great deal of snow was probably unloaded on the pass last night, meaning there may be landslides again today. The road was closed down all day yesterday due to landslides. Its emptiness this morning (the road runs just below the window) means it probably still isn’t open.

The sky is a grey sheet, with stray puffs of cottony fog drifting over the lower slopes. Such weather is not a good sign given today’s plan to ride our 350cc Royal Enfield motorcycles over Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass.

Nonetheless we’ve been in this valley a week, and we need to get headed south.

I wake up my girlfriend Dolker, and together we begin packing. It takes thirty minutes to get everything bundled up and wrapped in tarps and roped to the bike. Once we’re ready to go, I sit outside in the drizzling fog, smoking, waiting for the Indian bikers who slept in the home next door to wake up so that I can ask them for a spare spark plug.

While I wait, I begin to worry about the road, and whether my bike will actually make it over the pass. Perhaps we’ll be buried in a landslide…

I shake the thought away and order another chai.

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After a while, I go next door to find the Indians still aren’t awake. I go back to my chair and sit there, looking at the village and the mountains beyond. A leathery old woman is out there wandering through the fields, swinging a mani wheel (prayer wheel) in her hand. Somewhere on the other side of the building behind, me a yak is making a warbling noise. Nearby, streams gurgle.

As I wait, I begin to think about how much I’ve begun to dislike motorcycle travel. Actually, I love the unequalled freedom and adventure of it, but right now, as I daydream of bike breakdowns and whether or not the lowlanders next door will have a sparkplug, its negative aspects pervade my mind.

I prefer walking. You can’t go fast walking, but you can go further, and if you ever need to be somewhere in a hurry you can always hitch a ride.

I prefer walking. You can’t go fast walking, but you can go further, and if you ever need to be somewhere in a hurry you can always hitch a ride. And you don’t have to deal with motorcycle problems.

Whitman never rode a motorcycle. With walking, you see more, hear more; you don’t just zoom past things on a roaring metal horse. A motorcycle has its merits, but after three weeks riding one over the most horrendous and beautiful roads on earth, I am fatigued by its merits. I’d rather be free of it, strolling around, listening to birds, staring at fields, wading through rivers. I prefer the wisdom of the feet.

The Indians rouse themselves around 8am. Luckily, they have a spare spark plug. I wrench out the old one, which is charred black and worthless, and plug in the new one. I kickstart the engine and rev it, listening closely for irregularities. The engine sounds wavery and high-pitched, as though it isn’t getting enough air. Days later I will discover that the carburetor diaphragm has holes in it, but for the moment, I blame the altitude and figure there’s nothing I can do about it until we reach Leh, about 40km on the other side of the pass.

We pay our bill and hit the road.

A motorcycle has its merits, but after three weeks riding one over the most horrendous and beautiful roads on earth, I am fatigued by its merits.

The bike runs enthusiastically for about five minutes, then begins powering down until it won’t go any faster than 15kmph. During steep inclines it climbs so slowly that I must keep my legs low to avoid toppling to the side.

When we reach the military checkpoint that guards the beginning of the pass road, I hop off and tell Dolker there’s no way my bike is going to make it. Luckily the road is closed off anyway (due to landslides), and there are plenty of idle truck drivers around to ask for assistance.

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None of them speak English, so Dolker, who is fluent in Hindi, does the inquiring.

Within twenty minutes, she’s found an empty load truck willing to take both of our bikes to the top of the pass for 500 rupees.

We drive the bikes over and wait for the truck to back into an incline, then ramp our bikes up onto the metal bed, and the men get to work entangling the bikes in a web of yellow straps. I watch them, knowing that there’s no way this is going to work. The road over the pass is one of the worst I’ve ever been on, full of potholes and avalanched stones and waterfalls and rushing streams, with loose scree above and paths chopped through perpetually expanding and melting glaciers. We already came over that road on the way into the valley, and I know that the bikes will bang around violently and be damaged if we leave them strapped back there alone.

The road over the pass is one of the worst I’ve ever been on, full of potholes and avalanched stones and waterfalls and rushing streams, with loose scree above and paths chopped through perpetually expanding and melting glaciers.

“We should ride in the back with them,” I tell Dolker.

She is up for it, ignoring the obvious danger of such an endeavor and instead quite enthusiastic about riding in an open truck bed because of the possibility that snow might fall on her.

When word spreads that the pass will soon open, we crawl into the truck and stand near our bikes. Moments later a military officer orders us to get down. It’s too dangerous, he says. Not long ago some people riding in the back of a truck were killed by “shooting stones”, and now it is forbidden.

Dolker rides with the truck carrying our bikes, I ride in the truck behind it.

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It doesn’t take long before the bikes have jerked and jumped out of their original positions. I watch them, knowing soon something terrible will happen. I am so worried that I barely notice the two men I am riding with.

Dolker’s bike begins to slide down onto its side, then a big bump sends mine leaping against the wall, bending the right handlebar back onto itself.

“Stop!” I shout.

I leap down from the truck and run up to Dolker’s window.

“The bikes are being thrown everywhere. They can’t make it like this. We have to ride back there with them.”

It takes awhile for the driver to strap the bikes down again, and he doesn’t look very happy about it. We wedge ourselves between the bikes, wearing our helmets to protect us from falling rocks.

It is a lot rougher than I had imagined. Entwined in the web of straps, we must use every ounce of our altitude-enfeebled strength to keep the bikes from jumping around and being damaged. And then there’s our own bodies to worry about, and our brains, which begin to throb as we climb higher into the atmosphere, up over the snow line, where tiny snowflakes begin to swirl in the air.

“Snow!” Dolker shouts, opening her mouth open to the sky to catch some on her tongue.

As my clarity begins to deteriorate, my head starts womping and my vision darkens. And then my ears began to ring. It feels I could white out at any moment, but we still have a long ways to go.

But I’m too busy to watch her for long. I can barely breathe, and each time I must strain to hold the bike up I start heaving, unable to catch my breath. As my clarity begins to deteriorate, my head starts womping and my vision darkens. And then my ears began to ring. It feels I could white out at any moment, but we still have a long ways to go.

The road only grows worse. It is narrow, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and has no guardrails. Some stretches are no more than a hacked-open path through a glacier with a steep plummeting drop-off to the left.

I keep my eyes on the rocks above, which are overloaded with ice and fresh snowfall. It looks to me that there could be another landslide at any moment, and I am planning accordingly, thinking of how best I can grab Dolker and leap out of the truck should we begin sliding over the edge.

And then there is the traffic.

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In theory, the pass is only supposed to be open to one-way of traffic at any given time, allowing vehicles to make their way over these dangerous roads without getting stuck in landslide-prone areas because of a jam. In practice, this rule isn’t well regulated, meaning at bottlenecks both lanes come to a standstill, unable to go forward or reverse, and instead just sit there honking at one another.

As we inch along, we must often idle on the most dangerous stretches of narrow road, with death above and death below, and nowhere to go.

We stop and go, stop and go, inching past other large trucks with our wheels millimeters from the ledge. As we inch along, we must often idle on the most dangerous stretches of narrow road, with death above and death below, and nowhere to go.

Nearing the final stretch, we pass a broke-down SUV parked on a slope within inches of the ledge. A Ladakhi family is standing outside it, bundled in whatever extra clothes and blankets they could find in the cab. The patriarch, wrapped in a loose-fitting blue robe, shouts up at us in Hindi: “Water! Do you have any water?”

But our water is too hard to reach, and before we can even try, our driver has already moved too far on, a millipede of cars following and honking behind us.

I am beyond relief when we finally reach the pass, and from the look of it, so is the driver. Without hesitation, he backs the truck up into a pile of stones and snow. Then, without a word, he jumps up and begins unstrapping the bikes.

There is a one-foot drop between the truck bed and the snowy boulders we’d backed towards, but somehow we get the bikes down and guide them over the icy stones to the road.

The damage, at first glance, seems bad. One of my handle bars is bent around the other, and Dolker’s clutch handle has broken off.

But Dolker soon figures out how to make the broken clutch work, and I bend my handlebars back into workable shape, and soon we’re on our way down the pass. My carburetor still isn’t vacuuming enough air in, but as we were descending a mountain all I had to do was kick things into neutral and drift silently down, occasionally squeezing my brakes to slow the pace.

It takes about two hours to descend down the long, bumpy road full of potholes and puddles to Leh, and we immediately find a cheap room, have dinner, and fall asleep.

Read more from our “A Day in the Life of a Long-Term Traveler” series:

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