Motorcycle Journey: Ladakh, Zanskar & Kashmir
The three L'equipee videos reviewed below have elicited comment because it seems usual for five fashionable young French women to travel by motorcycle through the rugged and remote Indian Himalaya. However, the attention on this apparent anomaly distracts from the fact that the videos are very informative, well produced and these bikers have interesting things to say. The L'equipee bikers can easily foot it with the more predictable gizzled middle-age dads, riders who seem to be the core of the adventure biker demographic. Sure, they get altitude sickness, have the odd spill, it's cold and it looks very tough; but you'd be some kind of Rambo to breeze through this rugged terrain.
The L'equipee riders in these three videos also choose a longer and more original route than is usually taken. The more predictable path through the Ladakh Himalaya is to hire a bike in Manali (Himachal Pradesh), barrel over the treacherous Rhotang Pass - meaning pile of corpses - take a couple of days to get to the Ladakhi capital Leh, and then head north for a selfie by the road sign marking worlds highest drivable road, known as the Khardungla pass (5359 meters above sea level).
The L'equipee bikers initially follow this usual path to Leh, but then they take a detour south into the rough and remote Zanskar Valley - an area better known for advanced high altitude trekking and mountaineering. Next they head to Muslim Kashmir, where they travel through the trouble filled region along the Pakistan border and then along the Kishtwar-Kailash valley. This last section really does look like the most hairy and dangerous road on the planet - as this video here shows. Finally the riders cross the extremely difficult Sach pass to end up back on the Indian side of the Himalaya near where they started. It is a very difficult and heroic journey.
The trip is undertaken on Royal Enfield motorcycles, which are an Indian made bike originally designed in Britain. These bikes have changed little since the 1950s; they look great and add an element of style to any Himalayan journey. Enfield's have a bit of a reputation for unreliability - although fortunately more recent models are much better. So if you are travelling in this region avoid the old bikes. Because Enfields are so ubiquitous in India, it is easy to get them repaired at a roadside stop - although there aren't many of these up in desolate and mountainous Ladakh.
For part one of the video series the L'equipee bikers head north from Manali, cross the Rhotang La and traverse the barren, dry and sparsely populated plateau. Along the way they encounter landslides, dangerous cliff edge roads (with trucks!) and plenty of dusty but dramatic landscapes. After the first night a couple of them start to suffer from altitude sickness, not life endangering but it makes riding difficult. They spend a second night at a camp - these are set up along the roadside for truckers, bikers and travelling foreigners. Finally, for this video segment, they head on past some lakes to the Ladakhi capital Leh.
All three videos include footage from the road intercut with rider interviews narrating the challenges, obstacles and observations from the trip.
In part two they travel from Leh and down into the remote Zanskar valley. The Zanskar is a bit of a diversion from the main route - it is a rough, poorly maintained gravel road winding it's way down a sometimes narrow valley. Here horses run free, the small buddhist settlements are isolated and poor. They stay a night in the dramatic mountain settlement of Rangdum, then head south to the road-head at Padum. There they must turn around and go back the way they came.
At some points the Zanskar roads are more like rivers, with tricky looking flooded crossings; spills and crashes are almost inevitable. At some points it is very cold and the bikers find they are not as well equipped as they could be.
In the third video the bikers cross the treacherous, muddy Zoji La pass to the greener Kashmir valley. High on the steep mountain ridge there seems to be a dangerous traffic jam. They then head down the valley from Srinagar to Kishtwar. This is a Muslim region and the riders are treated like celebrities. Although this a male world, the locals seem surprised but friendly and welcoming to these female riders.
From here they travel through the most remote section of the trip, along narrow the roads cut from sheer cliffs and across the misty and rocky Sach pass. Some of these roads make your stomach churn when you seen the drop to the river far below. One rider correctly speculates that these could be the toughest roads on the planet. Not many bikers ride through here - although there is another video here.
For a small group riding through extremely remote and rugged mountains, these three videos are a real triumph of home-made travel documentary making. You learn a lot about the trip, the terrain, people and what it takes to make this kind of journey. While you can see from the video that it is incredibly hard, this is not the focus of the story. Rather, you get a sense of the riders and the different worlds they pass through. Doing this trip would be an achievement for anyone. Doing it and also managing to turn it into such an excellent visual story is even better.
For those considering a trip to this part of the world, make sure you plan the trip carefully. It is very remote, facilities are minimal and a lot of things can go wrong. Don't underestimate the conditions.
Fortunately there are a quite a few useful guides to motorcycling in Ladakh. One recent and extremely detailed guide is by Nikhil Chandra on Wander Wisdom. This gives info on everything from what to pack to what kind of bike to ride - plus all the costs. There is also a useful list of important extras - like inner tubes etc - that you should take for any repairs on the road.
These Top 10 Tips for Planning Motorcycle Trip to Leh & Ladakh by Fazil Abbis are also useful.
There are also numerous motorbike tour companies which do trips through Ladakh as well, although not many doing the full route in the L'equipee videos above. The advantages of going on a tour is that everything is organised for you and you are less likely to run into mechanical and other issues. The disadvantages is you are tied down to a particular schedule and it is likely to cost more. Whether you like to travel in a larger group or alone is really a matter of preference, time and money.