The Highest Road: Manali to Keylong

Apr 6, 2014 by     No Comments    Posted under: adventure, Discover, Motorcycle adventures, travel essays


Switchbacks to Sarchu

Today was one of the best days of my life.  My sense of accomplishment, wonder and awe at what we did is huge.  Rain, fog, dirt, rocks, mud, mist, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, water crossings, wind and sun.  We had it all.  It may have been only 125km, but it was 125km of terrain that cannot be done justice by words.

The highlight for me came shortly after we had crested the highest point of the day, Rohtang La at just under 13,000 feet (4000m).  As we descended the skies cleared, and an endless series of switchbacks stretched out below us, with immense mountains rising from the opposite side of the valley.  The sight was arresting, especially in comparison to the very short and misty visibility of the mornings’ climb up the mountain.

Prior to that the day had been challenging (probably an understatement), yet I really did enjoy it.  We left Manali in the rain, and with slippery roads and a fogged up helmet had some early trepidation.  But as we ascended into the clouds all focus was on the road.  It was probably good that the fog shrouded the hills, so to avoid distraction by the precipices the lay off the side of the road.  Occasionally there would be a glimpse of a valley below, but as we climbed the fog became thicker, at time visibility down to around 30 feet.  The road was steep, muddy in parts, narrow, and with the occasionally frightening Tata truck barreling and slipping downwards towards us.  Our trusty Enfields allowed us to slip by the long line of cars at one point, ending in THE corner.  A hair pin bend, with deep and slippery mud.  In many countries of the world normal vehicles would not attempt such a road, but here they were.  A combi van spun its wheels madly, yet still made progress due to the horde of Indians pushing it.  It took several attempts, and finally made it onto solid soil.

With such a long line of traffic, there was a lot of waiting, yelling and encouragement.  One creative entrepreneur had set up a hot dog stand.  Food, however, could not have been further from my mind.  As I lined up for my mud run I stalled.  An Indian helper came to my support, steadied the bike and off I went – revving hard, sliding, slipping, climbing, and being bucked off the saddle as I launched thru the mud with rocks hidden underneath.  Safely out the other end, I laughed out loud with a sense of achievement.  Never before would I have imagined I could ride up something like that, certainly not as I learnt to ride a motorbike on the pristine, dry roads of Orange County, California in the several months prior.

Towards the top of the hill we stopped at a tea and Chinese food tent – bizarre.  Surrounded by cloud we sipped chai tea and laughed amongst ourselves about the mud challenge.  Will opted for the corn cob waller beside the road, who was not amused when he was presented with an Amex card for payment.

There was more challenging riding that day, but it all paled in comparison to the mud corner.

The descent down the switchbacks was unreal.  The sun out, I just cruised at my own pace, stopping occasionally either by choice or force.  Twice a shepherd with his donkeys crossed in front of me, and a few other times just to take in some waterfalls and enjoy the majesty of the Himalayas.

Lunch was at the bottom of the valley in a stone shed, the sense of danger earlier making the food taste even better.

The afternoon brought our first deeper water crossing.  Even Mike, our leader, dabbed and bobbed as his steel steed tried to buck him off as the wheels bashed against boulders hidden 2 feet below the surface of the water.  I had to dab at the start of my run, but made it through the remaining 100m of water, once again feeling like I had conquered something that is not on a normal day’s agenda.  Remember, these are 499cc Royal Enfields, designed in 1951, not your modern 250cc dirt bike.

The remaining 50km to Keylong was rough dirt road, but most of it highly enjoyable.  More water crossings, occasional mud, and the ever present and threatening trucks.  With even saw some cyclists, pedaling up the endless hills.  Once I was stopped dead in the road by an angry looking yak.  The people took on a different look – a mix of hill tribes, Tibetan and Nepalese.  Darker, rounder faces, split by beaming smiles.  All afternoon kids smiled and waved at as as we passed thru villages, their joy in their simples lives magical.  A day unlike any before, and not many since.  The road we traveled on is only open 4 months of the year, and impassable at all other times.  The scenery beautiful, spectacular, and at times frightening with its scale.

Towards the end of the day I was getting tired and irritable, almost like the end of a hard day of skiing.  The hotel was a welcome sight.  Dusk came, and we sat looking across a green high meadow, with a massive cloud-plumed mountain behind it.  Glaciers flowed down the craggy edges, and the world took on the orange hues of sunset.  Magnificent!

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