I have been here in Ladakh for 3 days already but today was the first day I’ve actually managed to get out and do a bit of sight-seeing. This has been due to the inevitable bout of altitude sickness that has inflicted me these past few days like many people who travel here directly by aeroplane from Delhi, some ten and a half thousand feet beneath us. In fact, the last time I came here, shortly after I arrived I was ill in bed for almost two weeks, so I’m actually quite pleased with my recovery this time round.
I’m here to hook up with our Rivers team who have been traveling with a Ladakhi family across the mountains in Zanskar, to the south of the provincial capital Leh where I am staying at the moment. Unfortunately, they have been somewhat held up by bad weather and consequently our rendezvous has been set back by 5 days meaning that I will be waiting here in Leh for another few days before I set off to trek to the meeting point.
I’ve never been to Ladakh in the winter time before, an experiential short falling that I evidently share with much of the travelling community as I can report back that there is hardly a foreign soul to be seen anywhere around here right now. There are reasons for this of course. Ladakh’s summer tourist season is a short 3 to 4 month affair, due in the most part to the fact that the only two roads into the area, via Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, remain closed and impassable for much of the year. In winter the only way in is by plane so the number of foreign visitors declines drastically, especially of Ladakh’s backpacking community who prefer the cheaper routes in by road. Couple that with the fact that it’s very cold and that most of Leh’s guesthouses and cafes are closed and you are left with a travellers’ consensus opinion that this part of the Himalayas does not make a particularly enticing tourist destination at this time of the year.
Well, I have something to admit to you. Having now been out and about a little, I must say that this is most definitely a great time of the year to visit Ladakh, and that coming off-season will probably give you the most rewarding experience you could ever have up here. OK, it’s going to be a little harder than in the summer. If you turn up unannounced, you’ll probably have to knock on a few doors before you find a cheap guesthouse that will take you in, and don’t bargain for the smell of freshly baked croissants wafting past your window from Leh’s German bakery first thing every morning. However, what you can expect are beautiful snow dusted landscapes, quiet monasteries and beaming locals who appear genuinely pleased to see you braving the winter temperatures.
Being stuck in Leh is no bad thing for me, even if my favourite coffee shop is closed. Last time I came here I spent 2 months riding a motorcycle through this amazing landscape which is something I would heartily recommend to anyone who really wants to have a good look around this astonishing corner of India. Back then, I bought an old Royal Enfield Bullet from an American couple in Leh for about 400 dollars and promptly sold it at the end of my trip to a Swiss couple for exactly the same amount of money. During my 2 month adventure I managed to take a peek at most of Ladakh’s quieter corners including a myriad of local festivals, isolated glacial lakes and even a rare chance to see the Dalai Lama give teachings in the remote Nubra Valley, accessible only by negotiating a somewhat light headed drive over the infamous Khardung La pass, currently the highest motorable ‘road’ in the world at 18 380 ft.
Prior to that trip, I had never ridden a motorcycle before, so don’t think that you need to be an experienced rider to travel the Himalayas on a motorbike. Yes, the first few days in the saddle were scary, but then again it wouldn’t be such a rewarding challenge without a little fear to propel you along. In fact, I would say that of all the places to start riding a motorcycle in India, Ladakh is probably the safest due to the limited volume of traffic on the roads compared to the rest of the country. The main things to watch out for are sand and potholes in the road plus the occasional unbarriered extreme drop off you find flanking a few of the roads, all three problems being easily solved by just driving slowly. It’s important to plan your trips well too, measuring precise distances on maps before you set off since there are only a few petrol stations in Ladakh. You will need to carry extra fuel with you on your panniers, especially if you plan to explore Zanskar, which had no functioning refuelling station when I was there 3 years ago.
Many people who visit Ladakh by bike travel here from Delhi along the notorious Manali road which has become somewhat of a rite of passage for motorcyclists throughout India. It’s a tough two or three-day journey including no fewer than four over 16 000 ft passes, countless water crossings, glaciers and some stomach turning sections of high altitude sandy desert.
There is no way to describe in words the feelings you experience cruising down a deserted mountain road alone in the saddle flanked by some of the world’s tallest snow-capped peaks, wind in your hair, a huge smile plastered from ear to ear. For me, riding a motorbike rates as one of the best ways to move through a landscape briskly whilst remaining connected with it and as a photographer it is such a brilliant way to explore a remote environment like Ladakh, giving you the freedom to stop at will and check out every little unmapped road to nowhere you might discover. One day I pursued such a road that went on for absolutely ages. Determined to find out where it went, after nearly three hours I was about to turn back when the faint cry of a young lady on a distant ridge caught my attention and lead me to the end of the track, and her fantastically hospitable family farming cashmere goats at a sensational spot in the middle of nowhere.
I ended up staying there for 2 days, working with the family by day, and sleeping with them on the roof of their house under the stars by night. It was a truly memorable experience, the likes of which I would never have been gifted were it not for my trusted Enfield.
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This morning, I found myself sitting around in the hotel twiddling my fingers so I had a little root around in my laptop and to my surprise I found an old iView MediaPro catalogue file from that last trip to Ladakh. So, as an ode to my previous summer bike tour around these parts, here are a few pictures from that journey.
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