This blog was contributed by Bruce Jenkins. His website can be found here.
The Nomadic Knights converged on the only roadside café we’d seen that morning. Thanks to the media hype about Kashmir, we’d had the road to ourselves, save for a few Army trucks and locals. This lack of passing traffic meant the café owner’s eyes lit up when he saw us rock up.
Like all roadside eateries, the kitchen was basic. Through the unglassed window with its rough sawn leaner, we could see him grind the cardiman to make our Chai. After the tea was served, he tempted us with freshly made samosas. Maybe it was because we were high in the mountains, or maybe because we were a stone’s throw from the Kashmiri troubles, but they were the best samosas I’ve ever tasted. And this little shack, just minutes from the border between Kashmir and The Kashmir Valley, had just become an honorary member of the ‘Best Restaurant’ division of the Knights’ club.
It was Day 9 of the 14 day ‘Roof of India’ motorcycle adventure ride with Nomadic Knights. The previous day had been the most challenging of the trip, although you’d never guess it from the demeanour of the owner and tour leader, Alex Pirie. He’d stayed unflappable as we were forced to turn back midway between Kaylong and Ishtari, because of a landslide that had washed the road into the river valley below. Time for Plan B, arrived at after backtracking and more Chai. This took a while to unfold. We needed to avoid Kashmir Valley, but get to Leh. Although we ended up missing a couple of potential highlights of the trip, we had a huge day of adventure, at altitude. Because of Alex’s knowledge of the area, we ended the day feeling like we’d accomplished something.
Until then, the trip had gone without a hitch, although the taxi ride from Chandigarh to Narkanda had been… exciting. First up had been learning to cope with our bikes – and, even more important, with Indian traffic, which Alex referred to as ‘bonkers’. We were glad of the practice the next day, as we negotiated narrow, roads, weaving our way through trucks, buses and sacred cows. Our destination, the vegetarian Hotel Hot Spring in Tatapani, was a riverside haven, with vegetarian food, its own hot spring, and a masseur who worked wonders on our shoulders and glutes.
After another overnight stop in Manali, we headed for Keylong via the Rohtang Pass. Or, in English, the Ground of Corpses. The name references the danger of crossing the pass, and number of people who lost their lives during its construction. Although there’s a tunnel under construction, the pass is still currently the gateway to Keylong from Manali for the few months (May-September) that it’s open.
Rohtang Pass is listed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, and it was easy to see why. Despite being prone to landslides, and in places only as wide as an average family car, the route is a main pathway for trucks, military vehicles and buses. Some passages have minimal traction, which results in bottlenecks that make the Auckland motorway look like the Autobahn. At times, the muddy, rocky road conditions made it hard to stay upright, but zig-zagging through congested traffic, and the vast rocky vistas as we rode to the 3979 summit, were our rewards. Once over the Summit, the fog, mist and rain seemed to magically disappear and we were treated to a spectacular view of the Spiti Valley.
That day, as usual, we had a lunch and chai tea stop at a roadside café. And, as usual, the food was delicious: a spoon from each of three or four big pots bubbling on the stove, rice and as much freshly made naan as you could eat. The flavours were surprisingly mellow (much more so than any ‘mild’ dish at an Indian restaurant in New Zealand). As for the chai, it always had fresh cardiman added, there was always a sludge of secret spices left in the bottom of the pot after it was strained into our cups, and it was always served with a smile. Our chai in the isolated and picturesque dhaba at the Kashmir border, though, remained the yardstick by which to judge all others.
We paused in Leh for a well-deserved rest stop. At 3500m altitude, and surrounded by majestic mountains, it is beautiful. One day wasn’t long enough to do the place justice, especially with the best shopping for ethnic clothes and jewelry I’ve encountered. However, we left with our batteries – and our tastebuds – revived.
From Leh, we rode to Sarchu, taking in the Tanglang La Pass at 5328m, Lachalang la at 5056 and Nakee La at 4739: a distance of 260km over largely tarmac roads, but with its fair share of broken metal and narrow passes. The Chai tasted pretty good at that altitude, but, as always, we pressed on after drinking it, to our campsite at Sarchu (4250m) where Alex boiled up a pot of chicken over a campfire.
I had, by now, become very attached to my Royal Enfield Himalayan, the bike of choice for this kind of riding. Yes, they are heavy and no, they don’t have the performance of a modern Japanese adventure bike, but they handled the conditions on the trip remarkably well. At 6’4” (193cm), I did find them small for my frame, so I had my own seat made, which raised the height by about 7cm and made the world of difference. Apart from one puncture, the bike never let me down. I looked forward to every hour on it. Which was just as well, because we had to re-negotiate the Rohtang Pass to get back to our start/finish point at Narkanda.
After a wet ride on the final day, we arrived at Narkanda tired but proud to have completed what is renowned as one of the world’s great motorbike adventures. Alex had been a brilliant guide: funny, laid back but authoritative when he needed to be. Our last Chai tea had been one of the best, because we were cold, wet and miserable. Now, was finally time for something a little stronger.