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The Golden Age of Motorcycling in the High Himalayas

I first travelled to Ladakh from Srinagar by air with a few friends three decades ago. There were only one or two flights a day landing at Leh airport in those days. Although Ladakh opened to foreign tourists in 1974 most of the people living in Srinagar have never crossed Zoji La Pass to go to Drass, let alone set foot on Leh or Zanskar. 

I was astonished as a youngster when Ghulam Muhammad, the man who ran Kashmir Bookshop in Srinagar, confided to me that he had sold books about Ladakh to a foreign tourist for thousands of rupees. Many years later, a man from Srinagar whom I met in London told me that he had accompanied the Hollywood filmmaker, Bob Rafelson, on a tour there. Rafelson was working on a film called Mountains of the Moon, about Richard Burton and John Speke’s expedition, in the name of Queen Victoria’s Empire, to locate the source of the Nile. 

When I was growing up in Srinagar, I would see small groups of Ladakhi men in traditional gear walking around the wholesale market known as Maharaj Gunj during the summer months and buying merchandise for their shops in Leh and Kargil. My great-uncle recounted stories about the men from Yarkand who, when he was young, stayed at a caravanserai in his neighbourhood and cooked some outlandish dishes. 

You can travel to Leh from Srinagar by road, a section of which remains snowbound for a good part of the year. We travelled back to Srinagar by road and met a few foreign tourists on the way who travelled on motorbikes. It looked like a big adventure to us. Not that our own trip was entirely trouble-free. Our taxi driver courted danger by driving so fast on the mountainous road that we had to tell him more than once to slow down. 

Together with one of my friends, I tried to explore Leh with the help of a guidebook that I carried in my travel bag, just like the foreign tourists who visited Kashmir. We learned about a local photographer who had taken breathtaking pictures for some foreign magazines and tried to seek him out, without any luck. I became so enamoured of the aromatic jasmine tea served in Chinese restaurants in Leh that I desperately tried to find it when I returned to Srinagar. A few months later, when roaming on foot through the bazaars of Delhi, I finally found some loose jasmine tea for sale in one of the shops. 

Emulating visitors from far-off countries, we browsed in the Leh market for trinkets. Kashmiri tourists in Leh caused some consternation among the locals in those days. Most of the Kashmiris in Leh were either working for a government department or a bank or were attached to the tourist trade. One of our acquaintances told us that it was a kind of punishment for him to be living at such a high altitude. Leh is more than 6000 ft higher than Srinagar. My travelling companion donned a Stetson and walked with a swagger through the bazaars of Leh. 

When I travelled from Srinagar to Ladakh again in 2018 with some other friends, I realised that Ladakh had now become a very popular destination for motorcyclists from all over India. Some of the motorcyclists looked like circus daredevils since they were streaming live videos

of their Himalayan journey to their followers on social media. The pillion riders held phones in their outstretched hands, filming their ride through the stunning landscape. Vloggers are usually thrilled to broadcast live their adventures on two wheels. It seemed as if they were straddling two worlds – one real, the other virtual – each made bearable by the possibility of escaping to the other. 

Peter Fonda, Denis Hopper and Jack Nicholson rode big motorbikes in the landmark counterculture film, Easy Rider. However, like those in Fonda’s earlier film, The Wild Angels, and the even earlier Marlon Brando vehicle, The Wild One (1953), the Himalayan bikers travel in gangs of more than a dozen, followed these days by a small truck to carry bikes in case any suffer a breakdown on route. 

During my second visit to Ladakh I met an American biker in Zanskar who claimed that this was the golden age of motorcycling in the High Himalayas. I even came across some European bikers whose bikes were fitted with British or Swiss number-plates. In fact, the Royal Enfield motorcycle company has named one of its Indian models ‘Himalayan’. An elder cousin of mine once handed me the keys to his Royal Enfield and invited me to take it for a spin. I was still in my early teens and found it very difficult to keep this fearsome machine upright. Many years later a guest in a hotel in London where I worked offered me the keys to his Harley Davidson. Knowing what a big beast it was, I politely declined. 

During our trip to Ladakh last summer we stayed in the Chhutuk Heights hotel, which is located at a bend of the river River Suru near Kargil. A cavalcade of motorcyclists arrived there in the evening for an overnight stay. They carried with them all the paraphernalia they needed – petrol cans, bungee leads and so on. Gone are the days when bikers like those in Easy Rider stashed money inside a plastic tube and hid it in their petrol tanks. Nowadays bikers use Paytm more often than cash. Incidentally, some of the foreign tourists visiting Srinagar in the 1980s left behind dog-eared copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the houseboats they stayed in. 

On the way to Leh, we also encountered one or two solo cyclists. Most motorcycles on the road have big engines so their riders don’t struggle to drive uphill at very high altitudes. It’s remarkable how these cyclists push their bikes in high gear up a steep slope. I was surprised to find a line of cyclists coming down Khadung-La Pass, which is a couple of thousand feet higher than Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. I wasn’t entirely sure if they had cycled to the summit before turning back to enjoy an effortless downhill ride, or whether they had transported their bikes in a van to the top. But in any case, you don’t need to cycle in the Himalayas to demonstrate your powers of endurance. These days, simply taking part in the Ladakh Marathon will test your strength to the limit.