The Himalayan Odyssey
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Transcript of The Himalayan Odyssey
THE HIGH WAY
Riding the best road in
the world on a Royal
DELHI MANALI LEH SPITI KINNAUR DELHI
2 0 0 62 0 0 5
by gordon may
photographs by harsh man rai
T he Himalayan Odyssey is a magni cent two-week challenge that tests riders and their Royal En eld motorcycles as they tackle some of the most staggeringly beautiful yet demanding roads on the planet.
Organised and led by the Royal En eld company who have produced the famous Bullet motorcycle in India since 1955, the Odyssey aims to develop participants con dence as well as their riding and mechanical skills. Having successfully completed the Odyssey, it is hoped that the veterans will go on to undertake further long-distance adventures on their machines, whether that be in small groups or solo.
The Odyssey route is not set in stone it varies from year to year, especially on the return from Leh, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir but many highlights, such as the famed Baralacha La, Tanglang La and Khardung-La passes and the beautiful Spiti Valley, are perennial favourites.
Each year Royal En eld makes just 50 places available on this Himalayan Odyssey. The main requirement is that the rider not only rides, but also owns a Royal En eld motorcycle. And what more eminently suitable or more appealing bike could there be for the purpose? The Bullet is robust, well-balanced and easily controlled in all conditions. Combined with its heritage as the longest-running motorcycle in the world in constant production, its ne classic lines and an exhaust note to die for, there could be no better way for a motorcycle fan to explore the mountains of North India.
This adventure of a lifetime is officially launched in the shadow of one of Indias great monuments: the huge war
memorial of India Gate in the heart of New Delhi. Odyssey participants, guides and support crew find themselves surrounded by dignitaries, senior company managers, members of the press and television crews. Under the heat of a sizzling sun speeches are made and prayers offered for a safe return. Then comes the time for action: motorcycle engines erupt into life and the journey north begins.
The sound and sensation of so many single-cylinder, thumping engines leaving the capital is spine tingling. Pedestrians and motorists stop and stare as the cavalcade thunders past. Once clear of the busy city streets, the riders join the Grand Trunk Road, one of South Asias oldest and longest major roads, to do battle with the trucks, buses and myriad other road users.
Day one ends at the stunning city of Chandigarh, renowned worldwide for its Le Corbusier architecture and innovative urban planning. Here the riders get to know each other, talk over and revel in the highlights of their journeys start. In the hotel car park, factory mechanics undertake any early running repairs.
Onwards from Chandigarh the roads remain fast but traffic does begin to thin. Already, riding partnerships have begun to form, with motorcyclists grouping into pairs or small teams and Royal Enfield dealerships provide welcome refreshment stops at intervals along long stretches of open highway. With darkness fast approaching the Odyssey riders reach Manali, an important hill station nestled in the Himalayan foothills and a popular tourist attraction.
Departing from Manali the following morning marks a second phase of the adventure. The heat of the plains is left behind as motorcycles wend and weave their way ever upwards through heavily scented pine forests to meet bare, rocky mountains. For many riders this part of the trip brings a new experience riding a motorcycle in the quiet, free from busy highways and cities. This is an ideal time to take photographs and absorb the silence and sense of utter peace.
It is also a time to contemplate the
Massed riders depart from India Gate, New Delhi, Himalayan Odyssey 2009.Close formation riding is employed around large cities to ensure participants dont get lost.
group enjoys dinner round a roaring campfire and a night under canvas. The rest of the team is led to a hotel in the town and the comforts of a nearby restaurant. As Keylong features on the return journey the two parties swap around so no one misses out on the magic of a night under the stars in this most beautiful spot.
After so many miles the next day begins with a mass petrol stop. Tandi, on the outskirts of Keylong, is the only official fuel station on the route to Leh, which lies 385 km away. Riders fill their tanks to the brim and many place an order for the support crew to carry a few extra litres for them. Ahead lies the most difficult climb to date: the towering Baralacha La Pass at 4890m where herds of Ibex and Blue Sheep can sometimes be seen on the barren pastures alongside the pass.
Even though the Odyssey takes place early in the summer season it is not unusual to see snow begin to fall as riders reach the summit. Sheets of thick ice cake the walls of blasted rock that edge the road. Many riders stop to take in the stunning vision that is the emerald green expanse of Suraj Tal lake, a sacred body of water. The air is thin here and the cold bitter so all but the most hardy quickly remount their Enfields and head down the other side.
A pattern of pre-determined rendezvous at tea stops is established which allow Odyssey riders to rest and warm up. These stops also provide a safety net as the group waits for the last biker and the support vehicles, which are always sweeping the tail, to arrive. All of the gypsy encampments, with their gaily-coloured tents, are seasonal. The teashop owners, faces wizened by years in the mountains, live in them in the summer but move to
first major challenge that lies ahead the 4000m Rohtang Pass. The ascent up this pass, notorious for its sudden changes in weather, is slow. Riders have to tackle sharp narrow bends in the cratered, muddy road or navigate their way round the jeeps and small buses of tourists who are heading to or returning from the snow.
At the top of the pass riders encounter roadsides packed with revellers as well as food and gift stalls. Few motorcyclists choose to stop among the ferried-in tourists though, preferring to tackle the exhilarating descent where all other traffic has disappeared. Snow and ice-melt streams cascade across the rutted, shingle-covered road. Riders weave from side to side as they endeavour to pick the most suitable line. Those riding this terrain for the first time find this a wholly liberating experience. When everyone assembles at a lunchtime rendezvous point there have been just a couple of minor tumbles.
This is when the true value of the organised Himalayan Odyssey is seen. Participants watch out for each other, offering advice and support. The factory-appointed group leaders offer guidance on motorcycling best practice and in case of any incident, support vehicles with trained mechanics and a doctor are on hand to remedy any damage done along the way.
A long days ride ends at Keylong where the party splits in two. One half of the
clockwise, from top: Overlooking the Beas river en route to Manali; prayer and blessings for a safe ride at Manali; riders encounter fog at Rohtang; a few riders on the de-scent to Koksar; mounting up after a tea break at Darcha; a serene-faced villager looks over the parked Bullets; and the early morning view from the camp at Tandi.
the warmth of low altitude towns for the winter.
Todays stop is Bharatpur. Riders, sipping sweet milky tea, look up as more bikes arrive at these stops. They wave to their companions and often get up to inspect the new arrivals machine, offer encouragement or share an experience.
After another steep climb, the Odyssey arrives at the summer camp of Sarchu, just
a few metres off the side of the Manali-Leh Highway, where they have food and drinks served to them in a large marquee. It is here that Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can affect some riders. Again, the Royal Enfield doctor is on hand with medication and advice.
Departing Sarchu is a considerable exercise in logistics. Snow and ice needs to be removed from bikes before they
can be started up. Those with smaller petrol tanks form a long queue to top up from the large drum of fuel collected the previous morning. By now the riders are truly working together as a team. Several help pump fuel, a couple work on the maintenance of friends bikes while another larger group form a chain to load the luggage truck.
A spectacular days ride lies ahead. First up are the stunning Gata Loops, a series of 21 tight hairpin bends that climb up the side of a rocky mountain. Riders whoop with joy as they lean their Royal Enfields well into the corners. The More Plains come next. In the middle of the day, the bikers slide and bounce across this rocky, sandy wilderness.
The last great mountain pass lies ahead. This is Tanglang La at 5,359m, the second highest motorable mountain pass in India.
clockwise, from left: Water crossing before Pang; the 2009 trip was the coldest Himalayan Odyssey to date. Baralacha La was closed shortly after our motorcycles descended from the pass due to unseasonably heavy snowfall; exploring the Pangi Valley on the 2007 trip; some of 2008s riders head off-piste on Sarchu plains.
The only place large enough for a group photo - the More plains. Himalayan Odyssey 2009.
Naturally the ascent is steep, with bikes often ri