An extreme motorbike trip through the Himalayas Part 2
“When you’re completely exhausted both mentally and physically, but have no option but to carry on, you discover that your body can do much more than you thought possible. Attitude is what takes you over the finish line.”
Continuing the story of Tinggly co-founder Linas Ceikus’ journey by motorcycle through the Himalayas, along some of the world’s most dangerous roads.
130 kilometres of impressions
I woke up at 4 am from a nightmare. During this trip through the mountains, I would rarely sleep either calmly or deeply. And always in the back of my mind whether awake or not, the constant burr of motorcycle engines.
The bright morning sun lit up the mountain as we looked out of our hotel room’s window. The beauty on display was astounding – a snowy peak, deep furrowed crevices in the rock, and colourful flags flapping in the wind all around the town. It signalled time to continue our adventure.
With every turn of the road we encountered another stunning view, another village of people smiling and waving as we passed. We didn’t have time for anything but to wave back, but inside our spirits were lifted.
The quality of the road was forever changing. Fresh solid tarmac became muddy and pitted track, then back again. Landslides would take over half the road, so we would need to angle the bikes around strewn rocks, and at points mountain rivers would overflow their banks, forcing us to ride through water which reached almost to our knees. Even though the Indian government invests heavily in infrastructure, very little can be done about these types of conditions – as soon as a new road is laid, a change of seasons can pull it all to pieces.
During our road-trip, we met many other foreigners on bikes – Americans, English, French, and Spanish travellers. From the conversations we shared, I realised that this journey is one of the iconic motorbike routes, something many riders dream of, but very few actually have the opportunity to do. And even when they have the chance, these roads have the capacity to defeat even the best riders – we were inexperienced, but so far, lucky.
The landscape began to change. Mountains became darker grey, then even reddish. Into every valley, mountain rivers poured, sometimes three separate rivers joining in one place. In the peaks we could still see a lot of snow left from the winter, that before our eyes was forming immense waterfalls. At one white slope, we saw a group of local men enjoying an impromptu snowball fight.
Close to the cosmos
By now, we were near the “Bara-lacha la” pass, said by some to be the deadliest mountain crossing in the world. It was hard to believe, but we were now 4890m high, at a greater elevation than the summit of Mont Blanc. Around us were even higher peaks. When we stopped to stretch our legs, we found it difficult to breathe, so thin was the air.
We tried to get across Bara-lacha la as quickly as we could. It’s not recommended to stay long on these crossings, or to climb higher without equipment, because you risk getting serious “mountain sickness.” We took aspirin preventatively, and kept swigging from our water bottles, but even so we were more than a little nervous of taking an accidental plunge over the mountainside.
After 130km of rough riding, tension, shallow breathing and headaches, we reached Sarchu around 4pm. We were physically and emotionally drained, and by the time we finally found a camping spot and erected our tent, we were too exhausted even to admire the dozens of handsome Royal Enfields parked all around us.
Later, we began exploring in search of dinner. We found a small kitchen in a building made of stones with a tarpaulin roof. By 8pm, darkness shrouded everything. Crowds of travellers, many of them bikers, had now arrived, and began swapping “war stories.” Some were Indian, but again, we met people from every continent. The food was plain – soup, rice, dal, vegetable stew and bread, but we fell on it like starving wolves that have found a lost sheep.
Wandering back to our tent, I imagined I would fall asleep instantly, but then I caught sight of the sky full of bright stars, an unimaginably beautiful sight, and I managed to stay up a little while longer, just staring at the cosmos.
Tents have no central heating, and because we were travelling by bike, we could only carry small, thin blankets with us. Nighttime temperatures regularly dropped as low as 5 Celsius, so we were forced to sleep fully clothed. Troubled by thoughts of mountain sickness and being found frozen like an icicle the next morning, I drifted off to an uneasy sleep, only to wake at 5am to the roar of bike engines starting up again.
The last day
Breakfast was served in the camp kitchen at 6.30. We ate our fill – today was going to be the hardest of all. We would travel 240km, making crossings at heights of up to 5300m. It felt like all the challenges we’d endured up to now had been building up to this point.
The road ahead was completely straight, and the views sublime. The road condition, however, left a lot to be desired. It was so bad we couldn’t accelerate past 25km/h for fear of wrecking our suspension. We passed a checkpoint – in this part of the Himalayas there are checkpoints every 50km. Officials need to know who is on the road, where and when, so that if anyone goes missing, they know where to start looking. In most cases, I assume, they start by looking over the side.
A short distance later, we hit serious traffic. A bridge up ahead had partially collapsed, and until it was fixed, no-one was going anywhere. We watched as a couple of young men armed with just wire and crowbars got the bridge back into action. The repair work looked so flimsy and precarious that I decided to switch my view for the sake of my sanity. Sitting on a flat rock that overlooked a couple of rivers, I basked in the warm sunlight for a while. There were about 12 trucks and buses in front of us in the queue. If they make it over, I figured, so will we. So why worry?
Well, I’m writing this, so as you can probably guess, we made it across the bridge. From that point on, the day went magically. Again the scenery and the road conditions varied constantly. Most of the time we rode alongside rivers, sometimes through flat valleys or ravines. Towards the end, at a section where the road was simply carved into the rock, I noticed some other riders ahead had stopped and were looking down into the river. We pulled over ourselves. Over the side, we could see a couple of guys we’d met on the campsite the night before. They’d had a lucky escape – although their bikes were floating down the river, they themselves were not.
At the highest crossing of the entire journey, “Tanglang La” (5328m), the sky clouded over ominously. It began to rain, and grew so cold that I was forced to put on almost every item of clothing I had in my backpack. The need to be constantly alert, and ride slowly, made the cold even harder to bear. Just stopping to take a photo was tortuous. Exhaustion began to creep up on us again as the air thinned further.
Arriving in Leh
The final day took us 12 hours, and I can honestly say, I’ve never felt more tired in my life than when I got off my bike that evening. For comfort, there was nothing but a cold shower, and a restaurant serving salad. Over dinner, we heard a rumour that the Dalai Lama himself would be visiting a local temple the following morning. Collapsing into bed, I knew that however tired I was, I couldn’t miss a chance to see him in person.
In the central square the next day, a few hundred travellers, and some local Tibetans, mainly women and children, had gathered. We were almost outnumbered by the Lama’s security personnel. The Dalai Lama walked past with just a small personal escort, greeting the crowd. You could almost feel his aura of calmness – it seemed to me that he radiated goodness.
Later, after lunch, the Lama participated at a ceremony in a local temple. We sat there and enjoyed the incredible atmosphere and scenes of everyday Leh life for a while. Here motorcycle travellers mingled with adventure tourists, trekkers and climbers, as well as people on spiritual quests. Several of the foreign motorcyclists we saw seemed to have the same cavalier attitude to safety as the locals, wearing just shorts, sandals and no headgear at all.
Compared to the mountain paradise we had just emerged from, Leh was a world apart. The city was alive with noise, dust, rushing motorbike taxis and cars, the smell of incense and the chants of shopkeepers selling souvenirs. We saw familiar faces from the road, including one of the Americans who had almost fallen into the river after their bikes hit a rut and flew into a huge rock. He’d had a miracle escape and felt born again.
That event, right at the end of our journey, only served to confirm the dangers we had just faced. It could easily have been either Michal or myself at the bottom of that cliff, and just as easily we might not have been thrown from our bikes in time. In the Himalayas, sometimes your life hangs in the balance without you even knowing.
The Finish Line
A few days later, we flew home. Between bouts of sleep, I tried to sum up my thoughts and feelings from the trip:
We passed through scenes of shocking poverty that really cut at our emotions, but we had also witnessed incredible joy in the faces of people whose lives involve hardships we could only imagine.
We were blessed with some of the most mindblowing scenery that we’re ever likely to see, but balanced always with the knowledge that one slip, one puncture or one invisible rut in the road could see us flying off into the void.
We had been able to see the Dalai Lama up-close, watch him meeting his adoring people, yet this was only one of many incredible experiences that made up our adventure.
We had learned that when you’re completely exhausted both mentally and physically, but have no option but to carry on, you discover that your body can do much more than you thought possible. Attitude is what takes you over the finish line.
For years, I had dreamed of riding through the Himalayas, and putting myself to an awesome test such as this. Now I have proved to myself that I can do it, I turn my face to the horizon and the next experience.Life is all about Tinggly moments. Be inspired and book YOUR next adventure on https://www.tinggly.com