Conquering the Himalayas by bike
By Jude Toyat
Driven by a passion for riding, world traveller Deborah Dris did not think twice when Rahman Roslan, her photojournalist friend, invited her to join him and his friends on a trip up the Himalayas on the highest motorable road pass in the world – Khardung La.
The adventurous 26-year-old woman from Kuching said she had never expected to be tackling such an exciting journey after leaving her teaching job.
“After almost four years teaching history in a secondary school in rural mainland Penang, I decided it was time to look for new challenges,” said Deborah, who graduated with a double major in communication studies and anthropology from the University of Western Australia, and currently works with a social enterprise called Arus Academy in Bukit Mertajam.
After a five-hour direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi on September 14 and a one-hour flight from New Delhi to Leh the next day, she and her travelling partners would spend the first two days in Leh, the biggest town in the Northern Indian region of Ladakh, and the starting point of their road trip.
“The first two days in Leh was a bit of a struggle because we had to acclimatise to the high altitude,” said Deborah.
Leh is located at an altitude of 3, 524 metres (11, 562 ft).
“After the two days at Leh, we began our journey to Turtuk via Khardung La,” she said.
The top of Khardung La is 5, 602 metres (18, 380 ft). Compared to Mount Kinabalu, the top of Khardung La is about 1, 500 metres higher.
Altogether, there were 12 people on the trip along with two local guides.
“There were eight bikes – the others rode in a backup Jeep where we stored luggage that we could not carry on our bikes,” she said.
The last 10 kilometres of the road to Khardung La were rocky and off-road on both sides. Before making it to the pass, the left rearview mirror on her bike became dismantled in the last 400 metres, leaving her without one for the rest of the trip.
“But upon reaching the top of Khardung La, I could not believe I was standing there. I have seen it in pictures all the time and it was surreal to stand in front of the sign that says ‘Khardung La Top’ with the Buddhist Prayer Flags surrounding us. It was one of the most amazing moments during the trip,” she recalled.
Their stay at Turtuk, an Indian village at the border of Pakistan, would be another memorable highlight of their roadtrip. Turtuk used to be part of Pakistan before India captured the area in 1971. The people get their water supply from a stream that runs through the village.
“Before reaching Turtuk, our guide told us if we wanted crisps and chocolate, we needed to buy it from a military base on the way because there were no supermarkets or mini marts in Turtuk.”
The group stayed at the village for two nights where they swam in the icy cold Himalayan waters of the Shyok River.
“I think the water was definitely below zero degrees.”
From Turtuk, the group moved on to Sumoor, a village in the Leh district of Jammu and Kashmir, India to spend a night. After Sumoor, they headed to Pangong Tso, a lake shared by India and China.
“It was also where the last scene of the popular Bollywood movie ‘3 Idiots’ was filmed – where Kareena Kapoor rode a scooter on the sand to meet Aamir Khan,” she said.
After spending a night at Pangong Tso, their last day of riding on September 23 saw them heading back to Leh through Chang La, the third largest motorable road pass in the world at 17, 688 feet or 5, 391 metres.
“As we climbed the pass, it suddenly started snowing heavily on us. I could not believe it at first and thought it was just rain, but as I looked down at my black gloves, they were completely white.
“If you have never ridden in snow before, it was like riding through mud but 10 times more slippery. To add on, my motorbike decided to die on me halfway because it was too cold. I had to ride it on neutral all the way down,” she added.
Deborah said that prior to the trip, there was not much planning and everything was arranged by their guides.
“We only knew roughly the places we were going to ride to in our brief itinerary. The details were sorted out once we met out guides in Leh.”
Saurabh and Sachin, their two guides, were very friendly and according to Deborah, were also explorers who rode all over India when they weren’t working.
“They took care of us really well and made sure we were safe all the time,” said Deborah, adding that the team managed to get in contact with the guides through her friend who rode previously with some other group of Malaysian bikers.
On challenges she faced along the trip, Deborah said that the first challenge began before even starting their roadtrip.
“We checked in our helmets – due to airline regulations – and did not leave Kuala Lumpur on the same flight. So, we had to buy new helmets when we reached Leh.”
Although Deborah rides a scooter to work almost every day, she hardly gets the chance to ride a clutched bike as she does not own one.
“For me, it was only my second time in my life riding a clutched bike, so that was another challenge,” she said, although their guides were very helpful in making sure she received enough practice the day before the journey around Nubra Valley via Khardung La.
“After this trip, I am definitely saving money to buy a manual motorbike.”
After travelling to many parts of the world including Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Sydney, Perth, Mumbai, Seoul, Edinburgh, London, Lisbon, Rome, Venice, Madrid, Vienna, Salzburg, Zurich, Deborah said that the Himalayas was definitely her most adventurous trip.
On her tips for aspiring world travellers, Deborah said that to go to the Himalayas or any other challenging place, was to “just go for it”.
“Do not plan too long for it, do not think too much – just do it because trust me, you will regret it. Many of the things I have seen throughout the trip can only be remembered in my head.
“No matter how many photographs or videos I take, there is no way I can ever describe the amazing things I have encountered around me, in front of me and below me.
“After seeing the vast snow-capped mountain ranges and the sand dunes in Nubra Valley, I am amazed at how these two can co-exist within the same area.”