How to travel Northern India - like a boss

The motorbike rental shops are popping up like mushrooms everywhere in Manali and Leh - it has become increasingly popular to ride bikes through the mountains and over some of the roughest roads in India. The majority of the bikers are Indian tourist, but also foreigners know how to find their way to bike riding in India.

Both the Indians as foreigners come in groups, book tours and plan for their trip months in advance. They come with support vehicles, mechanics and even paramedics.

So I decided to rent a bike in Manali. Bought a biker jacket, some boots, and ninja-turtle knee and elbow protection pads locally and off I go. On my own.

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Everyone I met along the way was eye balling me “YOU ON YOUR OWN?”, and the group of Alaskan riders even calling me “Wonder Woman” - the moral of this story is, if I can do it, so can you!

Below I give my best, first hand advice on how to survive on India’s trickiest roads - and enjoy the ride..

Don’t let anyone discourage you

People have a tendency to project their own fears on you. Riding a motorbike on your own into Zanskar Valley is apparently one of those things that the locals fear (or don’t understand why on earth you would do such a thing).

The funny thing is that while everybody tried to talk me out of it when I was considering going into Zanskar on my bike - as soon as I just took off and went, I got all the support in the world. The people walking along the road with their herds were waving and smiling at me, while shouting “JULLEY!!” (Which means “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” in Ladakhi.

Very helpful little word.) Some even flagged me down, just to shake my hand, ask me where I was from and pat me on the back for my braveness to face Zanskar alone.

I was even called “Hero”, “Strong woman” and “Very, very, very brave”. What they didn’t know was that I was absolutely shitting myself with every river crossing and along the narrow rocky roads where I was just riding along the edges of steep drops..

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Essential gear

If you can, I would recommend bringing a proper motorbike jacket from home. But if you come fully unprepared like me, then don’t worry. For 2000 rupees you buy a leather jacket in a place like Manali or Leh and off you go.

Because these jackets don’t have any protection pads -and you’ll be riding in jeans-, it is worth getting knee and elbow pads (you never know). They will set you down some 1200 rupees.

Some leather boots you will find between 1500 and 2000 rupees on the local bazaar, a pair of leather gloves (500 rupees) and to finish it off, a piece of cloth which will protect your nose and mouth from all the dust that will be coming your way (100 rupees). So there you go - an entire motorbike outfit for under 6000 rupees (some 75 euro). Not bad!

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Choose the right bike

Life in India is easy. They’ll only have Royal Enfield motorbikes. KTM is an upcoming brand, but with 250cc motorbikes, you can hardly call that a motorbike. By far the most common bike is the 500 cc Royal Enfield “Bullet”.

The advantage of this bike is that any bike shop will have spare parts for it and mechanics who know how to fix it. Disadvantages are plentiful: it’s hard to steer, has hardly any ground clearance, almost no indicators (your speed.. and that’s it) and it slurps fuel like a thirsty camel.

Moreover, it’s a city bike and not meant for offroad crazy adventures. That doesn’t seem to stop most Indian motorbike travellers though - about 90% of them ride on Bullets.

The better alternative is the 410cc Royal Enfield Himalayan. It’s lighter, higher and much more suitable for offroad riding. This bike comes with several weak points as well and it mostly depends on whether you ride a 2017 or 2018 model and how the previous ‘owner’ treated the bike.

Only seconds before I was about to set off from Manali we noticed that there were major cracks in the swing arm of the bike. Within a 100 kilometres or so I would have probably lost my entire back wheel if I’d taken the bike at that point.

Spare parts for the Himalayan being harder to get, the part had to come all the way from Kullu and it took a mere 6 hours before it was fixed and I could finally set off. The swing arm is a weak point of the bike though (as are the brakes and gearbox..) so check it thorougly!!

Rental prices for an Himalayan are around 1400 - 1500 rupees per day, including helmet, spare parts and tools.

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Road conditions

It’s quit pointless to write anything regarding road conditions - as they are changing day-by-day. There are continuous road works going on, especially surrounding the plenty military bases in the area, and there are continuous land slides, road blockages and roads just crumbling underneath your wheels.

I rode over gravelly roads, sandy roads, rocky roads, roads with only large boulders on them, wet roads, roads which were not even visible underneath the brown, thundering river flowing over them, and even - even beautifully black, two-lane, newly paved roads.

This is Ladakh. You will find all these types of roads when you get a motorbike out here.

But I was mostly mortified when I had to do river crossings. Especially when the water wasn’t clear and you had absolutely no idea how deep it was and whether there would be big rocks hidden underneath that would launch you off the edge of the cliff.

When I left Manali, I had information that 20 kilometers after the town Serchu, there was a big glacier runoff river. So I had to make sure I would cross that point early morning, when runoff would be low. Got it. I will just stay the night in Serchu and leave early morning, no probs.

Little informational error.

The river wasn’t 20 kilometers after Serchu, but 20 kilometers before Serchu. So I reached around 14:00 hours, when the river was at full blown proportions. I took at least 10 minutes just looking at it and pondering my options. I had to cross it.

Like a mantra I was going over and over in my head - trust the bike - trust the bike - trust the bike. So I set off, full gas, no stopping and somehow managed to plough through it without any incidents.

I did a little victory dance on my motorbike on the other side of the river and pumping with adrenaline I sped off. So I didn’t take any picture of the river crossing, but I managed to get a picture from other bikers who -I have to say- crossed it at a lower stage of the river, because the water came up to my knees when I crossed it (obviously). But it gives a pretty good impression..

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Fuel - Fuel - Fuel

Gas stations are somewhat of a rarity in Ladakh. In the sense that they are nowhere to be found. Only the main places in the area, such as Manali (Himachal Pradesh), Leh, Diskit (Nubra valley), Kargil (Suru Valley), Padum (Zanskar Valley - very unreliable supply though) and Srinagar (Kashmir) will have a gas station.

That will leave you without any gas station easily for 500 kilometres on end so it is essential to bring jerry cans of fuel. If you are very much in need of fuel, ask the locals. I’ve been given fuel from generators and cars by locals, who are usually very willing to try and help you out. Most of them asked me the same price as the petrol station and refused my offer to pay them extra!

I got into a lot of fuel problems in Zanskar and one of the reasons for that was that -besides that the petrol station in Padum was out of petrol for days-, was that one of my jerrycans of petrol had come flying off the bike.

The elastic rope which I had used to tie it to the bike got burned through by the heat of the exhaust, so there went 5 litres of precious fuel flying into Zanskar Valley.

Sadness!

Watch out! A Donkey!

In addition to the condition of the road itself, brace yourself to encounter cows, yak, horses, goats and/or donkeys around each blind corner. When you get closer to Jammu/Himachal Pradesh, the road is also occupied by herds of waterbuffalo (who are seriously daunting when you find yourself stuck in the middle of their herd) and troops of monkeys.

The cattle owners generally will try to move them to one side of the road for you, but not always successfully so more than often you will be surrounded by them. And believe me, they are not afraid to give you (and your motorbike) a push when they feel you are in their way!

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All in all, it was my first time traveling abroad on a motorbike, and I loved every minute of it. The freedom, the riding but probably mostly the troubles I had with the bike which led me to meet the most amazing people.

People that took me on entire journeys to find fuel and people that took me into their homes when my motorbike broke down. So don’t be afraid - rent that bike and head off on a wild adventure!!