By 10:30 our permits were ready and our stomachs were full so we set off towards the highest motorable pass in India. To say I was nervous would belittle the immense anxiety I had for whatever the day would bring.
I had been driving a 120cc Honda Win back in Ha Noi, and this 350cc Royal Enfield was monstrous in comparison; at least three times the weight and two and a half times the size. With every new bike, it takes an adjustment period to get used to both its sensitivity when changing gears and finding the sweet spot of the clutch. Even as a fairly new “biker” I was nervous that this adjustment period was about to happen while climbing up Khardung La, a difficult ride even for the most experienced featuring a combination of rough road conditions and high altitudes.
Luckily this anxiety only fueled my immeasurable excitement for adventure. Let’s just say I was having all the feelings, and they were all strong. As the instigator of this ride, I only let my excitement be known to my girl gang, sweeping my anxiety off to the side to avoid anyone else’s anxiety levels to rise. I already didn’t know if they were going to hate me after this trip.
Only time would tell?
Before being allowed to commence our ascent up Khardung La Pass, we were going to pass a few police checkpoints. This was a point of concern for me, as I, idiotically left my drivers license back in Vietnam. Eleanor, my trusty passenger and good friend, had never driven a manual motorcycle before and planned to learn whilst on this motorcycle trip in the Himalayas- that is what being a badass really is. Anyway, back to my point, although I didn’t have my license it was only possible for me to drive the first day, through all these police checks. The plan I dreamt up the night before? I had a photo of my license sent to me last minute from my lovely partner Coly, and I planned to lie. Yup, I’m not proud of it but I planned to lie unapologetically and declare my wallet had been stolen, showing them the photo evidence I do actually have a license. Would it work? There was only one way to find out.
We reached the first check point after rounding a rather treacherous, steep, unpaved corner. With my heart already racing due to the early dwindling road conditions, we showed the officer our paperwork and our passports and he proceeded to look up at us and back down to our paperwork many times. With my heart pounding, he eventually handed them back and told us to have a nice trip. Well that was easy.
The wide zig zagged road rapidly became narrow, steep, and rocky (yes, still zig zagging). The morning had been quiet without many other drivers on the road and it wasn’t until we reached the unpaved road that we were rudely welcomed by big trucks, stray boulders, and various other traffic including a female cyclist who must’ve started in the early hours of the morning. Besides from a few of Eleanor’s “woohooos” from the back of our bike, we were silent. Silence was the only thing that kept me from screaming out of fear. Even with the brisk air, I was sweating. Mollie was driving behind us, and I wondered if she felt similarly.
Nearing the top, the traffic got more congested due to trucks and workers trying to clear away the rock slides that had overtook the roads during the evening. I didn’t want to stop the bike because I still hadn’t figured out that sweet spot of the clutch and there were a lot of cars, trucks, bikes, and cyclists behind me. The inevitable happened, and we stopped on a wet, rocky, steep incline. A small river from the snow melting on the mountain above flowed under our Royal Enfield and off the cliff a few feet to our left. Little did we know that this would be the first of many, more demanding, technical river crossings. In this moment I realized the importance of having a heavy bike on these roads; it would be very difficult for any river to take us with it. Trying to start the bike again, we stalled. And stalled. And stalled again. There was a rather large rock keeping us in our place and it felt like we were going to be stuck there forever. It wasn’t until a man in the car behind us got out to give us a very necessary push that we were able to gain momentum over the rock and pass the frenzy of workers and trucks.
We reached the top of Khardung La Pass and parked near the vibrant yellow sign marking the highest point. Every muscle in my body ached from how tense I was the entire ride up the mountain. That was the most mentally and maybe physically difficult thing I had ever done, but we were up and my worries faded as rapidly as they came that morning. In my mind we had just conquered the hardest part of our trip. I was elated.
Mollie and Steph parked a couple meters away from us which should have answered my next question. “How are you guys?” I muttered with energy fueled by adrenaline. I could tell by the look on their faces: not well.
In all fairness, we were currently at 18,380 ft and we found out Steph had been feeling slight altitude sickness from the ascent. Acute altitude sickness in combination with a bumpy, stressful drive probably wasn’t the best blend and definitely not what the doctors would have prescribed. After the obligatory photo and a nice stretch, we prepared to leave the top to avoid the rest of us getting altitude sickness and for Steph to seek refuge at a lower elevation.
Before getting back to our ride, we watched as the solo female cyclist we passed earlier made it to the top of the pass and held her bike above her head to get a photo in the same place we took one moments before. All I could think was, “Damn, women are amazing”.
Wincing while I became aware of a blister that had developed on my hand due to my nervous grip, we took off down the other side en route to Diskit. High on life with the challenging part behind us, Eleanor and I were beaming, singing Beyonce and deliberating over what to name our motorcycle. It had to be after a strong woman, of course, to add to our girl biker gang, an oddity on these mountain roads. After naming many appropriate options, we ultimately chose Gloria after Gloria Allred. Before our trip to India, our Hanoi family watched Seeing Allred and fell in love with protagonist who has fought continuously for human rights. Eleanor and I agreed we needed to name our bike after a fighter to keep us safe throughout this trip and we thanked Gloria for getting us to the top of Khardung-la unscathed.
When we reached the second police check, at a lower elevation, we decided to take a long break, each drinking two or three chai teas and scarfing down multiple packets of chips. Here we were able to recuperate and discuss our emotions of the difficult task we were faced with earlier that day. After realizing how badass we really are for doing that, we came to an agreement that even though it was testing, no one wanted to kill me just yet for making them do this trip.
A successful police check (no questions about my license) and a few more hours weaving around the winding roads, we ended up in our desired destination ready to knock on doors for accommodation.
We were weirdly (conveniently?) greeting by a man who wanted to help us find a place to stay, suggesting to us what price we should pay for each place he brought us to. It was as if he was expecting us. The first homestay he led us to would let us four stay in one room for 1,600 rupees and wouldn’t let us bargain down. The room was average, with no view. The nice man we met declared that was too high and we could find cheaper, leading us to the next homestay. This one had a TV and wifi, surprisingly, so we stayed there for about 1,200 rupees and ate dinner there.
To watch the sunset before watching England in the world cup, we climbed to the large buddha that watched over the town foregrounding the beautiful, white monastery tucked in the face of the mountain. Fascinatingly, this monastery was visited by the Dalai Lama only a few days later. Happy to be walking and not sitting on the bike, I quickly found difficulties with this hike as it look a lot of energy trying to keep up with the speedy Eleanor. It was clear I hadn’t fully acclimated yet. When we reached the top, I simply sat and basked in the beautiful quietness of the Himalayas while fending off my nausea and headache.
We ended the day just as it began, with happy bellies and a giddy sense of excitement for how the next segment of ride would turn out.
With day one done and four more days on the road, there were many unknowns coming our way and we were eager to find out what they might be but weary of the hardships that may arise. We set our alarms early so we could face whatever the next day brought and still have time in the afternoon to explore our next destination: Turtuk.