ROOF OF INDIA DAY 6: KEYLONG TO ISHTYARI
23 July, 2019
I’m up early for a 7am start. The sky is blue, and the rising sun illuminates the clouds on the peaks of the mountains surrounding us. Prayer flags above our heads are waving gently in the breeze and the hotel owner is chanting and carrying billowing incense, “wishing peace to the whole world”. Up here, even this seems possible.
The word ‘extreme’ is in the title of this incredible adventure in the Himalayas and it’s there for a reason. It turns out to be one tough day, but that’s part of the reason we ride. We take the road less travelled.
All starts beautifully with narrow tarmac roads weaving through vast, lush valleys, villages coming to life, and waves and smiles all round. It’s 50kms to Udaipur, a small village and the last place to buy chai and snacks until tomorrow afternoon. Now the roads become ones made for adventure bikes; rough tracks, water crossings, sand, mud and rocks are our constants now. Progress is steady, but probably 20kms on average.
The group is stopped as the BRO (Border Road Organisation) are making a bridge. Six concrete pipes and a JCB digger are making a river crossing a dry one. This is good news as there was heavy snow this year and the melt water has made small rivers into deep, fast flowing torrents that could easily unseat you and send your bike down over the edge. The result is no oil painting, but it works, and we’re the first over after a two-hour delay.
Then, we start riding along the tracks cut out of the cliff edges. You catch glimpses out of the corner of your eye to the river below, and it’s a long way down. This river flows into Pakistan. The views are vast and stunning. Progress is steady. We’re camping out in the wild tonight, up on a ledge near a remote village. It’s beautiful. The plan is to get there before dark – some of us do.
The tracks have now become very rocky and sandy, not thick, sticky sand but fine and billowy. Take the wrong edge on a corner, make a sudden change of direction, or just have a bit of bad luck and you will be off! Riding in sand is a mixture of technique, smooth and aggressive riding, stabbing your foot to correct a slide, and luck. It’s like this for the last 70kms of the day.
My wrists are beginning to ache, I’ve just eaten my last Werther’s Original and the group is getting spread out. We need to enter Kashmir; the border crossing is deep inside a valley. The formalities are swift, and we continue, climbing now. It’s brilliantly steep with switchbacks, rocks, and more sand. We stop at the top and just laugh. Laughing has several meanings.
Now it’s another 10kms to our tents. Four of these are up off the track. I’ve never been happier to see tents in my life. With taking photos, I’ve lost track of where I am in the group. Andy, Tony and I have been riding together for the last two hours or so. We make the total of bikes to arrive at the tents up to five: twelve more to arrive.
There is an hour and a half of light remaining. This is not a place to ride in the dark. From our position, we can see far down the valley and the faint outline of the track, appearing and disappearing as it follows the contours. As dusk falls… four lights, then another group, then more. It takes 30 minutes for the riders to arrive. The last ones arrive in complete darkness. Elation, relief and exhaustion. Nearly fourteen hours to travel 160kms. There are lots of stories for the campfire.