Ladakh is big, bold and beautiful. It is a stunningly sublime landscape pitched high in India’s Himalayas that boasts the largest peaks on Earth, majestic Buddhist monasteries unrealistically perched on dizzying cliff sides, and an indigenous people with hearts that match the grandeur of their mountains. But it can also spank if you let your guard down. Ladakh will not be tamed. In fact, it is Ladakh that tames you. Let’s start with a most critical fact. Unless you are planning to ride there from Delhi via Srinagar or Manali, like most visitors to the region you will be deposited via airliner in its capital, Leh. Leh sits at an elevation of 11,570 feet (3,500 meters). This is more than double the elevation of Denver and on par with some of the highest mountains in the Rockies or the Alps. If you’re like most people, you will not feel very different when you step off the plane. But as soon as you command your body to do anything strenuous – climb stairs for instance – you will understand. The lack of oxygen is very palpable. And if you are very unlucky (and forgot to take your altitude sickness medicine), you may find your first 36 hours to be an intensely miserable affair. Think intense headaches, endless nausea and hours in bed. Now before you close your laptop muttering something to the effect of “f— that s—“, there is a flipside to the misery. With the proper precautions – taking Diamox for 2-3 days prior to arriving, for instance – this potentially experience-ruining side effect can be mitigated. And once you’ve crossed this bridge, your new universe of exploration awaits you. Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let the fun begin. Leh, your landing point, feels like an outpost on the fringes of civilization. Its desert periphery teems with military bases given its proximity to Pakistan and China but its center is all charm. Its epicenter – the imposing 16th Leh Palace – dominates the skyline from its rocky promontory and fixes a point in time when the Kingdom of Ladakh held sway over the entirety of the southern Himalayas. The place swells over the summer months with tourists and trekkers from around the world giving the town an exotic cosmopolitan buzz all its own. But when the roads close to the outside world in October, Leh reverts to its bleak, isolated, insular self. Most exploration itineraries for Ladakh use a hub and spoke approach, that is an excursion to the northwest and a return to Leh, then a ride to the north and back to Leh, and then finally a run to the southeast before heading back to Leh for the last and final time. The first spoke and the easiest ride by far is the trip up to Lamayuru followed by a short stint to Temisgam. Three and a half hours on National Highway 1 from Leh and you arrive at one of the most magical villages on earth. It is home to the 900 year old Tibetan Buddhist Lamayuru Monastery, the oldest and largest in the entire region and home to 150 Buddhist monks. Dusk spent on a hotel terrace provides a spectacle of cinematic quality as the setting sun plays over the architectural details of the monastery painting it yellow, then orange and finally a purple hue that contrasts against the deep blue sky and the mighty mountains in the backdrop. The next morning ‘ease in’ ride brings us to the lush Temisgam valley, its verdant pastoral calm only interrupted by the soaring heights of the 20,000 foot peaks in the distance and the lofty perch of the Temisgam Monastery. The ride up to this sacred place provides an iconic view of the winding, cliff’s edge road ascending to the site: the monastery occupies the middle ground and the jagged peaks of the Ladakh Range jut skyward in the distance. The first retreat to Leh for a night provides an opportunity to plan the next spoke of the journey – the ascent over the Kardung-La Pass. The gradual 7,000-foot climb from Leh begins almost immediately upon breaching city limits. Endless hairpin bends characterize the profile of the ride and the terrain evolves as we move toward the heavens: pavement and vegetation ultimately give way to gravel, snow and a rocky landscape. 3-5 hours later, depending on the flow of military and tourist vehicles jostling for space on the narrow road, you are deposited on the Top of the World – the highest motorable pass on the planet. At an elevation of 18,400 feet above sea level, we are a mere 1,600 feet below the altitude of Everest Base Camp. Especially early in the riding season when patches of snow still mottle the road and massive snow banks line our path, there is an enormous sense of satisfaction in having reached this foreboding and inhospitable place. As with all five of the 17,000+ passes we conquer during this ride, vigilance is necessary. While trekkers have ample time to acclimatize during their very gradual ascent, bikers need to heed the fact that the oxygen levels up here are half of what they are at sea level and spending any more than 15-20 minutes at the top can invite the effects of altitude sickness – a perilous proposition when a motorbike is the only way down. Safely on the north side of the range and nestled in the Nubra Valley, the next couple of nights bring the small towns of Hunder and Sumur, literal oases in the mountain desert nudged up against the sacred Indus River. This region of stunningly dramatic beauty is home to wild horses that graze in the deep green meadows that straddle the river, is a base for mountain treks & river rafting and the exploration of nomadic herder settlements in the high valleys. The ascent over the Chang-la Pass on the way back to Leh might seem a more laid back prospect: its elevation tops out at a mere 17,858 feet (5,360 meters). Surprise! The mostly unpaved serpentine route is more challenging but also a great deal of fun. After a final recharge back in Leh, the third and final segment of this adventure brings us southeast, to the lake region of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri. This area instills a sense of the austere like no other area in Ladakh: a desert landscape situated high upon the Tibetan Plateau – townless and almost devoid of any traces of civilization except for a few scattered military bases and the distant specks of nomadic herders and their flocks sprinkled upon the mountainsides. Of course, it is these distinctive, almost otherworldly features that bring us here, a place like nothing we have seen before. Tso Kar, the great salt lake that becomes a surreal salt flat in the spring time, is a mere teaser to tide you over until you have traveled further south across open plains to reach Tso Moriri. With only the small town-slash-military base of Karzok to blemish its otherwise pristine shoreline, you can only stand mesmerized in the evening as you soak in the sublime beauty of this deep blue lake as a setting sun casts its evening orange hue on the snowcapped peaks. At this point, only the mighty 17,500 foot Tang-la pass stands between you and your flight back to lesser elevations. Adventure is a word that is bandied about these days with little to tether it to its roots. If you are looking for the purest distillation of adventure, it isn’t too hard to find. Just point your front wheel toward Ladakh.