I just spent several days riding in the Indian Himalayas and I only have one word to describe it - Ohmygod! The mountains and scenery were fantastic, and as good as the scenery was, the roads were just as terrible!
I left Delhi after I recuperated from a nasty bacterial infection that laid me up in bed for 36 hours. I assume it was bacterial since Immodium did nothing to help, but when I took a dose of Cipro it cleared right up in a couple of hours. The day after being sick I had to run around to complete the arrangements for shipping my bike to Istanbul and get a plane ticket for me. I was a little weak from the sickness, but I managed to get everything taken care of, allowing me to get out of the city and head for the mountains.
I left Delhi early the next morning to beat the traffic and heat. The first part of the ride to Shimla was flat and boring. But near the end of the ride I entered the Himalaya foothills and things got exciting quickly. The road was twisty and narrow and very steep. The slow moving traffic and overtaking trucks added excitement to the spectacular scenery, but they didn't allow my gaze to wander from the road for long.
It was in Shimla that I had the first mishap of my trip. Shimla is a confusing place, built on the ridges of 7 hills, with streets winding in all directions through the hills. I was having a hard time getting my bearings in this maze. At one point I stopped to look around, and decided I needed to turn around. There was no traffic coming towards me so I started a u-turn. Of course, there was a silent moped passing me on the right at that moment and as I started to turn I hit his rear tire and my bike and I tumbled in the street. Why didn't he use his horn - they toot at everything in India?! I felt like the accident was my fault since I was doing the u-turn, but the moped rider acted like it was his fault. Regardless, he didn't go down, and I wasn't hurt so we picked up my bike and I moved on, a little shaken and my saddlebag a little tweaked, but no other damage.
Shimla is a very nice town, high enough in the mountains at 6,000 feet to be cool this time of year. The temperature was about 75 degrees during the day and about 55 in the evening. Shimla was the British summer capital so the architecture in the town is colonial and very different than other parts of historic India. I enjoyed walking on the mall and taking in the 360 degree scenery.
The next day I headed through the mountains to Manali. Manali is another nice mountain town. It reminds me of Ouray, Colorado - a picturesque town nestled amongst the towering rocky mountains. I stayed in a character-filled hotel with a fireplace and balcony overlooking the mountains, for about $8 a night.
Coincidentally, also staying at my hotel that night was an expedition of Indian adventure riders. They are attempting to set a world record by riding the 5 highest motorable passes within 24 hours, on Indian TVS motorcycles. These guys had a wealth of knowledge about the area and the roads and they gave me invaluable advice about my ride, as well as souvenirs and t-shirts from their expedition. Thanks guys, it was great meeting up with you! If you want to read more about their record attempt check out their web page at www.OutThere-Adventurers.com. There may even be pictures of me on their site.
I got up early the next morning to begin my difficult ride from Manali to Leh. This road is famous for its scenery and challenging terrain. And as I found out, deservedly so. The road out of Manali quickly climbs innumerable switchbacks to the first "low" pass at 13,500 feet. After that it winds through the mountains with towering peaks and hanging glaciers and waterfalls on all sides. The road surface is a mix of patched concrete, gravel, dirt, and rocks. Every once in a while there are rocky stream crossings with rushing water whose depth is difficult to determine. I just picked what looked like a good line through the water and hoped there weren't too many submerged rocks to upset my path!
On top of the challenging terrain, this road is a major throughway used by trucks and cars. I constantly came upon traffic jams where trucks coming downhill met trucks going uphill without enough space to pass. The trucks would jockey around for many minutes until one of them could get by. Usually there was a line of vehicles waiting in both directions. Luckily on the bike I could often wind my way between or around the lines and get through these jams. But it was still a lot of work with my heavy bike at those altitudes. Through all this my speed average was about 15 miles an hour!
But the scenery I passed through made up for all the work. Being from Colorado I've ridden in some fantastic mountains, but this ride went on for miles, above treeline with granite peaks towering many thousand feet above. These mountains rivaled and perhaps surpassed any I've seen in the Andes, Alaska, or Colorado. Every corner brought another gasp from me at the amazing scenery that was revealed.
The second pass I crossed on this day was at 16,500 feet. This is the highest pass I've crossed on my motorcycles, exceeding the 15,500 foot pass I crossed in the Andes. At these altitudes the bike and I were out of breath. I was lightheaded and several times I nearly dropped the bike as I jockeyed for position to climb a hill or cross a stream. But I knew that if I dropped the bike I wouldn't have the energy to pick it up again. Luckily I managed to keep it upright - I'm not sure how.
The ride from Manali to Leh usually takes 2 or 3 days. The only stop between the towns is the tent camp Sarchu in a bowl at about 14,000 feet. Sarchu is just a bunch of canvas tents with cots that rent for about $3 a night. The wind constantly blows across the bowl and it gets very cold when the sun goes down.
That evening I got a tent and started to unload my gear, but at that altitude I barely had the energy to walk from my bike to the tent! I managed to get everything unloaded and then I lay down on my cot to try to catch my breath.
Sometime during the evening I started to develop symptoms of altitude sickness. I had ascended from 6,000 feet in Manali to 14,000 feet at Sarchu in about 11 hours. This was too quick for my body to adjust. I developed a severe headache, lighthead, body aches, nausea, elevated heartrate, and even a fever. I was too lightheaded and sick to sleep. I started to worry that if I continued on to Leh I would have to cross even higher passes that would keep me at a high altitude for several more days. I know that the only safe thing to do for altitude sickness is to get down to a lower altitude. I decided that it would not be safe or smart for me to continue on to Leh. So the next morning instead of heading even higher, I retraced my route back to Manali. I was sorry to not get to Leh, but on the plus side, I got to see all that fabulous scenery again, in the reverse direction!
I felt better as I kept getting lower. On the way down I met several bikers, including my friends from the expedition. They all lifted my spirits and reassured me that I did the right thing by descending. By that evening I was back at my hotel in Manali feeling much better. The next day all symptoms of the high altitude were gone.
I spent another couple of days in Manali enjoying the atmosphere and the cool weather. After Manali I'm headed back to Delhi to crate the bike and ship it to Istanbul. As you might guess, I'm not anxious to get back in the city with its crazy traffic and extreme heat. I think I'll hang out here where it's cool for as long as possible. I'll let you know how the ride back to Delhi and the shipping goes in the next report.