Motorcycling Ladakh in India's Himalayas brings you over the world's highest motorable passes and through the heart of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Outfitter MotoDiscovery, a 30-year-old company known for its two-wheel adventures in some of the planet's most remote places, uses a route scouted by the late Patrick Moffat, pioneer of Himalayan motorcycle touring. And it provides the perfect bike – a 500cc Indian-made Enfield Bullet, simple, reliable, and perfect for negotiating hairpin curves and on- and off-road conditions. The 17-day trip begins in Delhi and continues into the foothills north of the city, over passes up to 18,000 feet high and into lush valleys.
"You're riding under these saturated blue skies, surrounded by dry, copper-colored rock," says MotoDiscovery founder Skip Mascorro. "To be there on a motorcycle is such a feeling of openness."
Riders arrive in Delhi, where MotoDiscovery picks them up and drives them six hours to Parwanoo, a hilly industrial enclave in the Shivalik Range. The next morning, the newly formed gang rides into the foothills toward the throwback hippie enclave of Manali, a two-day ride away through cannabis outcroppings and over lush hillsides. Adventure tourism is booming here because of easy access to surrounding high peaks, great rafting, and paragliding. Participants sleep at the tranquil, family-run Mayflower Hotel, and use the layover day to visit Tibetan refugee camps and markets.
Out of Manali, a narrow road winds through a gorgeous green valley to Keylong. Riders have to thread through dense traffic, outbound Indian holidaymakers, pack animals, and market traders. "When a bus or car breaks down, it stops everything," says Mascorro. "And breakdowns are frequent." Once clear of the mayhem, bikers climb beyond the tree line on what Mascorro calls "the most beautiful alpine road on Earth," ascending a 13,000-foot pass with views of snowy summits and the Chandra River.
High-altitude riding in the barren, dry-as-the-moon Himalaya requires dexterity and concentration, especially on occasional sandy stretches. On day six of their trip, bikers roll from 16,000-foot Baralacha-la down to Sarchu before climbing 21 tight switchbacks toward 16,600-foot Lachulung-la, en route to Tso Kar Lake. Civilization here is little more than the occasional group of nomads, but nights are spent in luxury tent camps, where hosts dole out curries, lentils, and hot tea with honey.
The ride out from Tso Kar Lake climbs Taglang-la, the world's second-highest motorable pass, en route to Leh, medieval capital of Ladakh and center of Tibetan Buddhism. A layover allows time to explore monasteries like Shey, forged from the rocky promontory on which it stands, and an overnight excursion leads to the tiny monastery town of Lamayuru by way of 112 hairpin turns known as hanger loops.
"It's pretty magical," says Mascorro. "It's probably more authentic than Tibet itself, because Leh hasn't been persecuted by the Chinese."
Far from winding down, the trip gets serious on day 12, when riders climb 18,450-foot Khardung-la, the highest motorable pass in the world. The statistics are quickly subsumed by views of the Tibetan Himalaya to the north, the Karakoram Range, and mighty K2. The road is little used, except by Indian military convoys heading to and from Kashmir. Bikers spend the night in Nubra in order to ride the pass again before returning to Leh and heading back to Delhi on planes that barely fly higher than passes they were just cycling.
More information: MotoDiscovery's 17-day tour – June 29 to July 15, 2013 – includes bike, rooms, and meals for $5,389.