Julian Challis Heads To India To Ride Some Of The Most Amazing Roads In The Himalayas India
Our route is entirely blocked. Facing us is a huge, brightly coloured truck, its wheels a foot deep in the fast-running water.
The driver’s door is wide open but he’s nowhere to be seen and the Italian passenger, who has hitched a lift with him, isn’t entirely sure where he has gone or when he might return. Behind the truck, a line of 4x4s and other similar vehicles sit patiently, occasionally tooting their horns just to show willing.
Tour left, an enormous and angry river thunders past, it’s murky brown water crashing over treacherous rapids. To the right is a boulder field around a hundred metres wide, the huge rocks having broken free from the enormous cliffs that tower above us.
At times it’s easy to imagine that we are halfway through a mountain section of the Dakar Rally. But this is the Spiti Valley and, although it’s almost impossible to imagine, we are riding the main road between Kaza and Sisu in the Indian Himalayas, and it is one of the most incredible roads on earth.
The trip had started a dozen or so days earlier and marked my second foray into the Himachal Pradesh region of India.
Having persuaded Nico, a fellow Bristol TRF member to join me, we’d left a decidedly chilly Heathrow Airport on Friday morning for an overnight flight to Delhi, a journey not entirely improved by a stop over in Bahrain and the delights of arguably the most deserted and silent Irish bar ever created.
Landing at Indira Gandhi International at 6:30 AM didn’t find us the chirpiest travellers, and picking a cab driver who seemed to know little of the geography of Delhi certainly didn’t help…
Refreshed after an early check in and long sleep, we forgo the tourist delights of Delhi and head for the Social. This quirky bar, overlooking a vast and oddly green lake in the Hauz Khas district, has a selection of delicious food and cocktails, which while away the afternoon in an entirely acceptable way.
The following day starts stupidly early as we have a long and, at times death-defying, taxi ride up to Manali.
As I’ve witnessed the horrors and wonders of Indian traffic before, I’m slightly less alarmed than Nico as we dodge everything from feral cows to oncoming vehicles on our side of dual carriageways.
A mere 14 hours later, and with a driver who clearly could do with a Red Bull or seven, we arrive at our hotel just before 11 and, after a swift beer, bed beckons.
In the morning, there’s a chance to catch up with our fellow travelers, the first to sign up for Ride Expeditions new tour of the Spiti Valley.
Alongside Nico and myself is Ali, a massage company owner from Australia, Garry, a fellow Aussie who appears to own his own brewery, Bruce, who’s an architect from Washington DC and finally Chris, a returning British ex-pat who’s spent much of his life on boats or in the Caribbean.
With the introductions done, it’s time to ride the bikes for the first time, but with the weather looking more like Ipswich than India, it’s waterproofs for all except Chris, who’s elected to do much of the tour on a chunky looking Suzuki Jeep with Ramu, our travelling mechanic.
Bruce and Garry have opted to ride the Royal Enfield Himalayan, while the rest of us, including sweep rider Topi and company owner Toby, are on the more tried and tested 500 Classics.
The day passes quickly as we tour around the local area, stopping briefly for lunch and to dry out at Nagar Castle. Nobody mentions it, but you can see everyone is hoping that this weather doesn’t stay for the entire ten-day tour.
The evening meal is at Johnson Lodge, a wonderful restaurant serving delicious trout plucked from the rivers that surround the town. Amid the conversations, Bruce’s revelation that he is experimenting with rinsible pants marks a level of intimacy we are not expecting…
Bright and early the next day, it’s time to set off on the adventure proper. With the truck loaded up with our kit and a selection of spares and fuel, we head south towards Kullu, retracing our mildly terrifying taxi ride two nights before.
In the light it’s not much better, the heavy rain having caused an alarming amount of landslides that threaten to engulf the road.
Crossing the vast bridge into the town is made all the more interesting by the propensity of cows that seem drawn by the views of the river – it’s a theme that proves to continue throughout the tour.
Slicing through the busy streets of Kullu, it’s the usual slalom around
every type of vehicle and livestock, from overloaded rickshaws groaning under the weight of concrete blocks or mangy looking dogs nonchalantly meandering through the traffic.
Lunch is at a roadside dhaba and to the horror of Nico, a confirmed meat eater who at times could struggle to be any more Italian, it’s the first of many vegetarian eateries on the tour. “If this goes on for too long, I will bite a cow,” he informs Toby as we down the lentil dhal and cauliflower curry.
Soon after lunch, we travel through a two-mile-long tunnel, which seems to have accumulated Northern India’s supply of fine dust. With no lighting in the dark expanse, I’m somewhat regretting fitting my super-dark race visor as I squint through the gloom.
Once out, we hang a left off the main road south and away from the traffic. Immediately, the scenery takes an upward lift as we follow a step valley up to a bridge and then switch back to follow on the other side.
After negotiating another bustling hillside town, the valley steadily becomes more wooded and like Wales.
The road climbs up through cool forestry, with the hairpins becoming more challenging every minute as the track turns from blacktop to something much more like an enduro track. Bruce and Ali have little off-road experience, so it’s proving a tad more challenging for them.
As we squeeze past a bulldozer repairing the track, Ali gets caught in a deep rut and slides off her Enfield and, seconds later, our Washington correspondent has done the same.
Topi, Nico and I have resorted to standing on the rear pegs of the Classics to soften the ride, but it’s a bit of a stretch, so a compromise of left foot on the back and right foot on the front pegs just about works.
It’s good enough to take us to the final part of the climb up to our first overnight stop, the Raja, a simple guesthouse perched over a precipitous drop. We dump the bikes and within a few moments cool beers and hot pakoras arrive – perfect.
Well I say perfect, but I need to qualify that. The shower in the guesthouse is the more traditional bucket and jug Indian version – no problem, though not that easy. Once done, I realise that the towels are in the bedroom, I streak in before darting back into the bathroom to dry off.
Or at least I would have done, had my feet not slipped out and thrown me about a metre in the air before dumping me on the floor like a sack of sh… stones. My elbow has taken a massive hit, it feels like I’ve broken my wrist and my hip is killing me – my first injury and it’s not even a bike incident!
After dinner, it’s only early, so as the others take to their beds, Nico and I walk up the hill, sit on the road among the fireflies and spend an hour or so watching stars and chatting.
In the morning, it’s an early start for all and we are off and away by 9 am. The track climbs to a rather beautiful temple at the very top of the ridge before dropping back down.
The endure riders in the group are all thinking how awesome it would be on a proper off-road bike. Garry is keeping stood up for most of the time on his Himalayan, but Bruce seems glued to the saddle like the rider on a remote-controlled bike toy. The scenery is stunning, though much of it is still draped in the morning clouds.
As we round a corner, the traffic has backed up, so we squeeze past to the front to investigate the delay and it’s immediately obvious that we’ll need to wait.
The overnight rain has caused a landslide over the narrow road and, as we watch, a battered yellow earthmover is shovelling the large stones and soil out of the way to open the road.
Within a surprisingly short time, the route is cleared, so after letting a massive and brightly decorated lorry through, we dart through on the bikes, passing a bus full of smiling locals.
The road to the valley floor is epic, sweeping ever down through endless switchbacks. Nico and Ali are developing an on-bike romance and they belt off into the distance like some Royal Enfield-riding Bonnie and Clyde.
We regroup at the bottom of the valley as a 4×4 goes past with a man sat casually on the roof rack. After some fresh chapattis and chai, we head on to the main road, following the side of a deep valley.
The road is lined with hundreds of auto repair shops and looking at the state of the road, it’s easy to see why. The danger is brought into sharp focus when we realise that the massive crowd of people peering down towards the river are looking at a car that has just left the road and plummeted to almost certain destruction.
Towards the end of the day, we turn back off the main road and cut up the side of the valley along a deeply rutted and stony track.
The Classics bounce and slip their way over the obstacles with a Terminator-style determination, and at the rear, Chris is powering the Suzuki truck with the enthusiasm of a Finnish rally driver.
When we finally reach the top and the village of Sarahan, we’re all hot and sweaty and happy to trade the bikes for seats overlooking the climb we’ve just made.
Before dinner, there’s time for a wander round the tiny village Bruce and Chris head for the Temple, while Nico entrusts his face to a cheery barber who does a great job converting his now homeless-bum beard into something a bit smarter.
He wants to charge £1.50 but Nico manages to haggle him up to £3.
While we are out, leaving the lights on and windows open has converted our room to a moth and beetle sanctuary, but in a truly bizarre moment, Garry turns into a psychopathic insect killer. “It’s somewhere between an FI flag-waver and Zorro,” he shouts as he smashes his towel around our room, raining death on the winged residents.
8 am and we’re on the bikes again, breakfast lightened by Bruce mistaking the serving bowl of cornflakes for his own bowl and thus consuming around a kilo of cereal.
We follow the route back down and continue along the valley. The road is carved deep into the rock and we travel through astounding and intensely worrying undercuts.
The worry is truly cranked up as we pass a rock the size of a house that has recently broken off and fallen onto the road, bringing with it a tree that is probably over two hundred years old.
Approaching a massive hydroelectric damn, we cut off to the right to follow another valley. The road initially climbs slowly before turning into an incredible series of hairpins to climb the precipitous valley walls on the way to Chitkul, far up in the mountains.
The protection on the side of the road is limited and, for bikes, non-existent thanks to the massive gaps guarding the sheer drop. It’s hard work on a motorcycle, so we can only marvel at the British cyclists that we pass on the way to the top.
We lunch at Chitkul where a steady stream of Mo-Mos, delicious little filled dumplings and noodles, arrive. After the main, Toby has clearly inadvertently ordered about twenty oversize crumpets for dessert as the bloody things keep arriving until the table is covered.
Remounting a tad fuller than intended, the road continues up through stunning woodland with crystal clear streams and rivers. We stop only for an entirely pointless and over-official border check, where an aging policeman emerges from a garden shed to check all our passports and record our number plates.
While we wait and take photos of the beautiful scenery, Nico and Ali spend the time throwing each other into a stream and fighting like primary school kids.
After reaching the turn round point an hour or so later, we pass through the same checkpoint, but the official has now gone home – his rope barrier coiled neatly to one side of the border.
Retracing our steps to the dam at the main road, we press on to our next stop at Kalpa. The road follows the river for mile after mile, varying between billiard table smooth tarmac and grapefruit sized boulders.
At one point, we pass through a construction site where families of workers are quite literally making gravel. From the teenagers to the pensioners, the roads are lined with dusty faced locals hitting larger rocks to make them into smaller rocks.
It’s a sobering sight that enforces that this is a country at times struggling to move forward into the same world as the West.
We exit the main road to climb up to our hotel, the Kinner Vil-la, where we have a day stopover to sort the next set of visas. The hotel owner, a jolly man with more than an air of Basil Fawlty, greets us from what seems to be a slight haze of afternoon drinking.
Ever the polite travelers, we join him in a pre-prandial beer. After eating, Mr Fawlty sets up an altar fire on the terrace and we sink more Kingfisher under the stars.
The rest day passes quickly. We have to head into town to get the permits, and Bruce uses the journey down to work on his hairpin technique and try to avoid either heading for oncoming traffic (a regular feature this far), or near stalling on exits from questionable gear selection.
It’s definitely improving, so by the time we’ve fought through the Indian bureaucracy to get the required paperwork, his progress back up is much more effective. Mine is nearly marred by disaster as a small cow decides to have some sort of spasm as I pass it. The beast’s horns miss me by millimetres as Garry behind is convinced I’m going down.
In the morning, suitably refreshed we drop back down to the valley floor and swiftly head towards the first checkpoint. As we hand in our paperwork, less organised tourists without the relevant forms are being turned away, and as it is Sunday, will be unable to get the permits until the following day.
With a hint of schadenfreude, we fire up the Enfields and leave them behind.
The road is sweeping and fast, allowing us to press on and drift the Classics a tad. Ali picks up a puncture on the fast going, but Topi swaps bikes mends the puncture and joins us again all within twenty minutes.
The trees have all but disappeared now and the scenery is much more rugged. We stop at a roadside café for noodles and soup before our route starts to climb up a stunning road that has been blasted from the valley walls.
Our destination is Nako, a remote village set high in the mountains. It’s a truly jaw-dropping place, a green jewel set into the barren landscape. We drop our bags in the plush yurts at our campsite that overlooks the tiny settlement.
Down in the village, the people are midway through harvesting peas from their immaculately prepared terraces. Garry asks to see if he can lift the bags that the locals are carrying down into the village but quickly stops when he realizes that the 40kg or so may wreck his back.
The village itself is like a step back in time, almost medieval, with tiny streets, cattle living under the family homes and smiling children playing in between the ancient houses. In the centre, there is a large lake stocked with fish, with neat allotments around the outside completing the self-sufficient look.
But if there is one thing that makes this place really stand out, it’s the complete absence of litter, a plague that all of the Asian subcontinents seem unable to resist. Nako is a truly magical place, and as we eat dinner in an immaculate canteen, before sitting round a fire pit under the vast sky, we wish we had more time here.
With a short day of just under 70 miles to ride, there’s a chance for a bit more exploring before jumping back on the bikes. We climb for another hour or so before dropping down a series of around fifty hairpins.
The cows that roam the roads in the lower country have been replaced with wandering donkeys, which brings an interesting twist to negotiating near-death curves over huge drops.
When we eventually reach the valley floor the road is unexpectedly good, and we make swift progress. The road is lined with road gangs working on the near-continuous repairs to the tarmac.
And again its families toiling away in the hot sun, young babies temporarily stored in JCB buckets at the side of the road, while mothers move massive masonry into place. India is, if nothing else, an equal opportunities employer.
We reach the official checkpoint into Spiti Valley, and we’re all a bit excited to reach the place we’ve been heading for. That enthusiasm is soon tempered by the overly officious border guards waving rifles at us and telling us to delete any photos we might have taken.
Once through we hit the throttles and press on to Tapo, a large town built around an ancient monastery.
An elderly Irish lady sat alongside us at lunch helpfully informs us the building is 126,000 years old, an impressive figure that would place it at the start of the late Pleistocene era when mammoths roamed the earth.
Her guide corrects her to a more believable 1,026 years.
To celebrate the monastery, I buy prayer flags for all the bikes, but Bruce turns them down, explaining, “I’m just not an early adopter”. The afternoon brings a gradual drop down to an enormous alluvial plane around a mile wide, the vast thundering river extending over the entire valley floor.
A gentle climb brings us to Kaza, a large town sitting above the flood plain where we are due to stay for two days.
With the electric out for the afternoon, we take a trip into the town, purchasing travel essentials of washing powder, rum and crisps. Nico also invests another 10 rupees in an extremely thorough shoeshine – last of the big spenders right there.
Although the next day is a rest day, we take the bikes out at around 11 am for a trip up to the highest village in the world, which naturally is supported by the highest post office where the obligatory postcards are posted.
We eat a weird lunch of cheese, peanut butter and mustard sandwiches while Nico makes a spirited attempt to climb the rest of the hill on the trusty Classic, his return greeted by rapturous applause from the ubiquitous Japanese tourists. The local kids aren’t interested; they are busy selling fossils for a quid a time to the eager visitors.
And so, the dawn breaks on the day we’ve been travelling for. We saddle up at eight and cross the river to the other side of the valley and the entrance to the final stage of our journey.
A brief slice through deep ravines and gorges and we’re into the Spiti Valley that we’ve been waiting for – and boy does it deliver. Sweeping roads take us steadily ever higher into rugged and stunning scenery, as the river crashes along below we continue upwards towards the snowline and ever more challenging roads.
On our arrival at the top of the pass, we’re greeted by a huge Buddhist shrine bedecked in prayer flags as a herd of camera-savvy Yak oblige us with selfie opportunities.
The road drops down quickly to the valley floor, but the scenery does not let up. Cliffs covered in vegetation and scattered with awesome waterfalls tower above us like we’re in Middle Earth as we follow the road north.
The road has everything from soft sand to sweeping gravel roads; water splashes to entire sections that disappear under the course of an actual river.
We paddle, muscle and splash our way through, the grins never leaving our faces. Garry and Bruce have the advantage on the Himalayans of better suspension, but all the bikes and rider tackle the terrain with the same dogged determination they’ve shown throughout.
The climb out of the valley comes almost too soon, but the appearance of herds of wild horses makes a fitting exit video. As we finally hit the main road at 5 o’clock we know we’ve shared something special today.
Our evening is spent in Sisu, the combination of cold beer and hot food is the only thing we need to celebrate our achievement. The following day we will return to Manali over the Rohtang Pass but no matter how epic that road might be, it’s not going to be able to compete.
Spiti Valley has to be one of the best routes in the world and riding it on these bikes with the team from Ride Expeditions has been a moment that will stay with us forever.
Want To Ride This
When To Go
In the winter, much of this terrain is made inhospitable by snow, so you want to visit in the summer months, after the monsoons in July and before the cold starts in late September. The terrain is beautiful and epic, with landscapes so vast it’s difficult to comprehend.
How To Get There
If you fancy going on the same tour as Julian, it’s an easy process. Ride Expeditions sort everything out from the moment you arrive in India, so all you need to book are your flights to New Delhi, which are around £600 from London. Check out www.rideexpeditions.com for more information.
Shop around on the flights but don’t be tempted to go with multiple transfers just to save a few bucks – it’s a false economy if you arrive in India and your riding kit is in Thailand! You’ll need to get an e-Tourist visa for India, which can be processed online a few weeks before you travel and costs around £60.
There’s a long taxi ride from Delhi to Manali to start the tour, or you can opt to fly to Kullu, just an hour away from Manali. Either way Ride Expeditions will organise the taxis from either Delhi or the airport in Kullu.
Food And Lodging
As this is an all-inclusive tour, you don’t have to worry about sorting accommodation or food, all you pay for is your evening beers. The tour stops at a variety of places from bespoke camping to family run hotels all with good food and comfortable beds.
If you chose to go solo, the hotels can vary from fairly basic to pretty good, but in the remote locations then don’t expect five star luxuries. Food is good, but mostly vegetarian and nothing like as spicy as Indian food outside India.
Roads And Biking
So, the roads in India are extremely variable, ranging from freeway smooth to Dakar Rally rocky, all of which can be within the same mile.
The traffic is also extremely unpredictable with all roads shared by vehicles, people and livestock. Speeds are thus fairly modest, a pace which is ideally suited to the Royal Enfields.
The Classics hark back to the fifties in everything from looks to performance, a good thing when
there is often a 500m drop to the side of the road…
Outside the towns, traffic is relatively light but the roads demand a ‘proactive’ approach to overtaking!
This is not a ride for a novice, but one of the party, Ali, had only been riding for two years and neither she nor Bruce had ridden any amount of off-road.
Again, if you decide to take on this ride without the help of a tour operator, be extremely careful where you hire bikes from, and be entirely sure you have sufficient experience to take on this type of terrain.