After hearing that Khardung La isn’t actually the world’s highest motorable road, Dan Greening set out to conquer Marsimik La in India which, at 5,582m, is the true holder of the record
Ever since I was a young boy I’ve had a fascination with The Himalayas. When I was eight years old my father, an avid motorcyclist himself, was booked to fly to India and ride a Royal Enfield with a tour group through the world’s highest mountain range.
I used to sit with him, watching him giddy with excitement as he read through the promotional material – tracing the maps with his finger hypothesising which of those squiggly roads they would take leading them further into the mountains. On reflection, I think this moment was where my obsession with adventure motorcycling began. As it so often goes, my father never actually took that trip, forfeiting his deposit for a number of different reasons.
Fast forward 16 years to where I was working as an air ambulance helicopter pilot in Australia. Flying and riding were my passions – having owned a number of bikes since I was 12, I’d finally bought that elusive BMW F650GS Dakar that I used to have framed in a picture on my bedroom wall. Going out for regular weekend rides with my dad and brother is what I loved doing, I couldn’t get enough of it.
I always wanted to ride more, and I also wanted to take a break from the seven years I’d been involved in aviation to get out and see the world. The solution was simple really, modify my recently purchased Dakar, tell my boss of my plans to disappear for ‘a few months’, rent out the house and then set myself a goal. Perth, Australia to London, England sounded reasonable to me!
It was February 2014 when I set off with my dad and family waving on as I disappeared on what was to be the biggest adventure of my life. Everything felt right, after months of preparation and planning it all of a sudden felt very real. I wouldn’t be returning to this city without having at least attempted my dream of riding my motorcycle to the other side of the world.
It was emotional saying goodbye to dad, because although we hadn’t really discussed it, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of handing over the baton as he patted me on the back of my helmet, wishing me luck. This was once his dream, and now it was mine. No pressure! He definitely thought I was a little bit crazy though.
Over the next three months, I experienced a very steep learning curve. 2,800 miles from Perth to Darwin saw me iron out my packing woes and had me send- ing most of my gear back home. I then proceeded through East Timor, before learning the true meaning of traffic chaos as I battled through the Indonesian archipelago before an onion boat facilitated my arrival on the Asian mainland.
So began the South East Asian segment – Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, back through Thailand, Myanmar before making a beeline through Eastern India to arrive in Kathmandu, Nepal. Wow, now I felt like I had really covered some ground! At this stage, the trip odometer stood at approximately 13,500 miles, with my bike odometer now exceeding 50,000 miles (not without its problems mind you). Finally, I had arrived on the doorstep to the Himalayas.
I had also met up with another Australian, Brian, who was also riding his KTM 990 overland from Australia toward Europe. We met during our organised crossing of Myanmar, where we needed a group of riders in order to facilitate a government escort crossing of the country.
Brian and I spent over a week in Kathmandu, fixing lots of small snags on the bikes and also preparing our maps and route for the next couple of months before setting off east toward Agra. Nepal was stunning. Beautiful people and breathtaking surrounds made for an unforgettable few weeks. And then… we were back in India. Gone were the afternoons of sitting down over a beer, reminiscing of those fabulous views experienced earlier in the day, or laughing over exchanges with locals at the fuel bowser.
The traffic was horrific and extremely dangerous. With more than one death and four injuries every minute, India has the dubious distinction of reporting the highest number of road fatalities in the world. TukTuk’s, with zero regard for their surroundings, would suddenly dart from the right-hand side of the road over to the left as they were waved down, resulting in a handful of front brake to avoid, but more often than not a collision with one of our panniers. And if it wasn’t them trying to kill us, the sacred bullocks which roamed the roads and highways did a good job of trying to knock our bikes over as they were led through the traffic jams by their owners.
One particular incident which still haunts me was a bullock walking from left to right on one of the few three-lane highways we rode – not an uncommon sight, with us passing anywhere up to 100 each day. As had become very natural at this stage, I moved left, continuing at about 50mph to pass behind it, only to see at the last minute that some pillock had tethered him with a rope to a tree on the left-hand side of the highway.
Of course, the rope became taught and lifted off the road as he continued to meander across the lanes, at which point I was about 8m away. I gasped, realising I was about to be ‘clotheslined’ by a bull, and tensed every muscle in my body. Through some miracle, the rope caught the top of my front tire tread under the mudguard, and proceeded to pass under the bike – all I saw in my peripheral was the bullocks head whip backwards before I noticed him mosey back off the highway in my rear vision mirrors. Maybe purchasing the Dakar with the 21” front wheel as opposed to the standard 19” was a life-saving move after all.
We couldn’t get out of the slums fast enough, we needed to get up into the mountains where we had been told the crowds and traffic were much more manageable, along with the temperatures being far more comfortable. The only problem was that I needed a BMW dealership with a diagnostics machine! Earlier in East Timor, my ECU had fried, and the bike would not idle, requiring constant throttle input at every stop to keep it running. I arranged a replacement second-hand ECU from a motorcycle shop in Bangkok.
The Thai mechanic assured me it was from a 2005 Dakar. The bike now idled but having suffered serious power issues ever since I wasn’t convinced. Where was the next suitable dealership after Bangkok? Delhi, of course, home to 21 million people. In what was quite possibly the most miserable ride of both our lives, we set off for the capital.
As sods law would have it, my rear brake hose blew whilst stamping on the pedal to avoid yet another rogue tuk-tuk in the mayhem, so I negotiated the final push toward the dealership with only my front brake. Upon arriving at the dealership and connecting my bike to the computer, things didn’t get better. I dis- covered that the ECU I had been sold was from a 2006 standard F650GS, completely different fuel injection map to my 2005 F650GS Dakar. Finally, I had an answer!
I was so happy for a moment until they told me it could only be reprogrammed back at the factory in Munich. Funny, as I was conveniently planning on passing through there on my way to London. They also advised a genuine rear brake hose or a reprogrammed computer would both be at least four weeks away.
A week later with the same mismatched ECU installed a bodged rear brake hose, a newly welded rear subframe and nine-year-old ‘new’ spare rear tyres strapped to each of our duffle bags we set off north along the trunk road toward the Himalayas. Of note, India banned any foreign tyre imports back in 2006, so we were forced to settle for old rock hard tyres found covered in dust in the attic of one of the street market shops.
Hence, the tyres were kept as spares and would only be used if our extremely worn Heidenau K60s gave out. Finally, we were met with the huge archway ‘Jammu & Kashmir’. Looking off into the distance I couldn’t wait to get started. This was it, somewhere off there in the distance lay the highest road in the world, and we were going to take our motorcycles there!
The next few days reminded us both why we had set off on such an adventure. The happiness that engulfs you is majestic. You start smiling without any reason. Stunning winding roads, a mix of tarmac and dirt led us up higher and higher, glancing down at the GPS as it continued to increase… 6000ft, 7500ft, 10000ft!
Wild camping was no problem in this area, the people were extremely welcoming. Everyone was fascinated by the bikes, it was as if two fighter jets arrived in their petrol station (I use the term ‘petrol station’ loosely) as we collected our 1.5-litre water bottles filled with what was quite possibly the lowest octane fuel known to man.
Like many others, we had read of Khardung La (or Khardung Pass), listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest motorable road in the world, claiming to be 18,380ft. With this set in our GPS, we ended up in the town of Leh. Situated at 11,562ft it is the gateway to the pass, the sound of Royal Enfield Bullets roaring through the street assured us we had arrived at the right place. Here we stayed at a hotel and got chatting with some very curious locals who were asking about our journey.
After a few beers they finally revealed that Khardung La wasn’t in fact the highest road in the world, with its claimed altitude being false, instead informing us of a lesser-known pass located some 120 miles to the east called Marsimik La on the border of India and China which actually took the title.
All roads leading to the Indian Borders are made by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation), an army outfit.
He explained that although the real reason behind the inflation to make a record-breaking pass might never be known, it could be safely assumed that Marsimik La is not hyped because it is built by the ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) and not the BRO.
When we parted ways he gave us a map along with the coordinates and cautioned us to “be careful” as many of the roads that led to the area were barely motorable. I felt like we’d been given a quest, every adventure motorcyclist’s dream!
The following day we proceeded up the road to Khardung La. Like many of the passes we had already crossed, there simply isn’t much road up there. The BRO has given up battling the onslaught of meltwater, and you’re left to contend with whatever remains of the road. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic ride, though we both noticed the air thinning out as we rapidly ascended from 11’000ft.
Finally, we came around the final corner, cheering to each other as we were met by a sign, informing us we had arrived at the highest motorable road in the world. We were also met by crowds, everywhere. Buses, cars, other motorcyclists, all lining up to have their photo taken in front of the sign. We also both couldn’t help but notice our GPS confirmed what the man had told us the previous night, indicating we were at 17,615ft, some 750’ short of what the sign claimed…
That afternoon we continued beyond the pass into the Nubra Valley where we proceeded to set up camp 30 miles from the border to Pakistan to plan our next move. We set up camp around an old disused army tent and came to the conclusion that with the coordinates and maps in hand, we would be fools to have come this far and not at least attempt to find the actual highest road. So began the next few days of real adventure riding. It was off-road most of the way trying to work out the best and safest way to get us within striking distance of the pass.
I remember the eve of attempting to summit the pass, we had set up our camp beside an inland lake, at about 13,900ft. It was one of the coldest nights of my life, I donned all of the shirts I had in my arsenal and wore all of my riding gear, staring at the top of my bright orange tent, filled with excitement for the next day. We woke early at about 4 am to load the bikes. After a short morning ride we found ourselves at the coordinates for the so-called turn-off.
We had both ridden past it twice despite noting the proximity on our GPS units – it was barely a track. From here on out the 20 mile-long road was rough. Large loose rocks launched the front wheel left and right aggressively as we tried to pick our lines through the rubble. We shortly came across a remote military post and were waved down by an armed guard with a gun slung over his back. We hadn’t been warned about this manned outpost and knew that this wasn’t going to be a straightforward exchange.
After quickly establishing the guard didn’t speak a word of English, he sent for his commander who spoke enough English for us to soon get his drift. “You are not allowed here” to which Brian and I both looked at each other with dismay. We weren’t going anywhere soon, this was going to be a hop off the bike, helmet removal job.
After the usual verbal struggle back and forth, he soon understood that we wanted to visit the pass but told us because it was located only two miles west of the ridgeline which formed the actual line of control, he couldn’t allow us to continue. Following much deliberation, he finally agreed to let us proceed, providing we had an escort. No problems we thought, we’ll follow the truck up. So we hopped back on the bikes and a few minutes later out came a junior soldier, and proceeded to try and climb onto the back of my BMW!
We laughed at the confusion, with Brian agreeing to take him on the KTM – with the Beemer having the power of a sewing machine at that altitude, compounded with the mismatched ECU it certainly wouldn’t have handled a pillion. As we set off for the final climb, it soon became apparent that from here on out it was going to be a mission to make the top. We should have taken the panniers off at the army outpost.
Low oxygen again meant less energy to handle the bike, which was soon reflected with all chatter ceasing on the intercoms as we focussed on combatting the dizziness, wrestling to keep the bikes upright. The last two miles were by no means a fair battle between mountain and machine. It was like they’d saved the most difficult incline until last – we both came to a stop to catch our breath, with the bike skidding backwards on the front brake as we tried to balance with both feet at a standstill. You could see the top, but in between were about four switchbacks which looked seriously nasty.
Brian went first, slipping the clutch as he rose up onto the pegs, flicking up rocks as he tried to gain traction for the final push, and I followed right behind, trying to mirror his every move. After what seemed like an eternity and some very near spills, we finally noticed the road plateau, and Brian let out an almighty cheer over the intercom as we came to a stop next to an old rusty sign, blown over on its side.
The ecstasy after the agony to reach the pass cannot be described in words, but on sight of the milestone, all the fatigue went away. We walked over to the sign and looked around us. I will never forget that moment. We didn’t stay up there for long as the dizzy spells continued to get worse, but it was one of the greatest feelings of achievement I have ever experienced.
On reflection, those weeks spent riding through the Himalayas were definitely the highlight of my adventure. I continued on toward London in the subsequent months, reinvigorated to reach the finish line in September 2014. 23,000 miles through 24 countries, it really was the adventure of a lifetime.
Problem is I’m already planning the next one! And yes, I did make it to the BMW factory in Munich and yes, they did reprogram my ECU free of charge. Following the five minute procedure, the bike ran the best it ever had for the final dash for the finish line! Oh the irony…
Want to ride in the Himalayas? here’s how you can…
While Dan’s trip was self-supported and he made his way to India overland from Australia, that doesn’t mean that you have to face a few month’s riding before you reach the world’s highest roads.
Swissair offers return flights to Delhi for roughly £480 (visit www.skyscanner.net) and at current prices, if you want to ride your own bike in the Himalayas, Motorfreight offers air freight from London to New Delhi costs from £995 for a BMW R1200GS sized motorcycle (visit www.motofreight.com for more information).
If you’d rather hire a bike, and be guided around the best roads in the world’s highest mountain range, Motorcycles and Mountains offer a number of Himalayan tours on Royal Enfield motorcycles, visit www.motorcyclesandmountains.com for more information.