Four women, two Royal Enfields, and one barely planned trip around the Himalayas.
It was the second week in July; hard pressed for time and left with minimal budget options, we hired a driver to take the four of us from Pushkar to Delhi airport, navigating the chaotic roadways in the middle of the night. At 3 am we found a spot in the airport to uncomfortably sleep under an absurdly efficient air conditioner while we waited to board our 8 am plane to Leh.
Refusing sleep, I observed from a birds-eye view a sight I have been fascinated with seeing ever since I learned about them: The Himalayas. The only airport in the Ladakh area is located in Leh and belongs to the army. After being stuck in a car and then an airport for the previous 14 hrs, the fresh air and beautiful surroundings practically smacked us in the face as we descended out of the plane. Despite temptation, we abided the strict advise not to take photographs until we left the airport.
The four of us, Mollie, Eleanor, Steph, and myself welcomed the cool breeze that surrounded us as we walked out into a sea of taxi drivers fishing for their next patrons. Leh has become a ‘tourist’ destination since it is now easily accessible by plane and many busses. Taking a plane is likely the safest option since mountain roads can be difficult for busses to traverse. The only thing we needed to be mindful of was altitude sickness since we had gone from Delhi (728 ft in elevation) to Leh (11,562 ft) in an hour and a half plane ride. The voice on the plane’s loudspeaker, our accommodation’s owners, and the internet all advise that after taking the flight we let our bodies acclimate for at least 24 hours before doing anything strenuous. Running on little sleep, we embraced this lack of physical activity and took a long, 4-hour nap immediately after our arrival.
We had eight days till my flight back to Delhi and no plan other than to bask in the brisk air we’ve been missing in Ha Noi, and to explore the beautiful landscape the Himalayas offer in every direction. Over a couple orders of the best Momos on the planet, I selfishly sputtered out the suggestion of hiring motorcycles and touring around the Ladakh area on our own. Bad ass or just ignorant to the potential risks of driving a motorcycle on the unpaved Himalayas roads, I’m not sure, but the others didn’t shoot down the idea. Another option was to hire a car and a driver; expensive but we would still have the freedom to choose where we went. Lastly, we could take a bus to the other tourist destinations in the area and cut off most of our freedom to roam the less explored.
After letting the momos sit in our happy bellies, we walked slowly (remember no strenuous activity) and confidently door to door asking every place that rented motorcycles their prices and advice. Just past the end of the street, we spotted the Bullet Café around the corner foregrounding a monastery on a hill. Oddly named because they didn’t have much for sale or even a toilet, but they did have motorcycles to rent. Four women, unaccompanied by men, we thought we’d be given trouble, or at least questions of our ability. To the contrary, the men at Bullet Café did nothing of the sort, in fact, I believe they really convinced us this was the right choice, dulling our concerns. By the time we left their shop after test driving the available 350cc Royal Enfields, we had decided that instead of just doing a three day trip and taking a bus to Pyangong Lake, we were going to do a five day trip and include all the places we wanted to see. This included some more less travelled roads, which meant more exploration to us.
Despite our already bought data plans, our phones didn’t work in all of Ladakh without wifi. “How are we going to find places to stay?” says the group millennials who use their phones for everything. “Just show up in the town and knock on people’s doors” they said. It’ll be fine they said… And well, it seemed like the only option unless we wanted to spend a fortune on the accommodations in the area that had wifi and a website. Moreover, not having a place to sleep at night didn’t bind us to making it to any town just in case we got into any motorcycle trouble along the way. We were essentially free to whatever the trip would bring our way. Without service, the only reason we would use our phones was for the downloaded maps.me to keep us on track and, of course, to take photos. Mollie especially didn’t mind this since she was already on a social media cleanse and now we too were happily forced to talk to each other instead of using our phones.
The only thing standing in our ways from setting off with the wind in our hair was the requirement of a permit. It was now the late afternoon and the place that grants these permits was closed for the evening. They opened the next morning at 10am so the generous guys at the Bullet Café finished all the necessary paperwork and raced there in the morning to make sure we could have an earlyish start. The rules of traveling on a motorcycle in the Ladakh area: you have to have a valid driver’s license (although I left mine in Ha Noi by accident), you have to be traveling with at least one other foreigner- permits are not given to individuals (not sure this rule makes sense, because if you’re with an Indian passport holder who doesn’t need a permit, but you yourself need a permit, you need to find another foreigner to get this permit with, and thirdly, we needed a written declaration that the bikes belonged to us and therefore were not stolen. There were going to be checkpoints along the way and if we didn’t have the necessary permits, we would not be allowed on our way.
That night we packed very few items in a couple of backpacks. Eleanor and I had one bag and Mollie and Steph to another. The rest of our stuff we planned to leave at the homestay we were at because we booked another night there for when we returned from our adventure.