The Himalayan Odyssey takes you through some amazing sights and challenging roads.
Royal Enfield invited the MotorBeam team to attend one of their most celebrated and challenging adventures, the Himalayan Odyssey 2013. This was the 10th year of the Odyssey so Royal Enfield decided to take things up a notch by taking 100 riders for the trip and organizing a special reunion at 11,562-feet, in the beautiful town of Leh, at the midpoint of the Odyssey. As always this brilliant adventure was flagged off in Delhi, then went thumping up into the mountains making multiple stops on the way to the reunion in Leh and then came thumping back down completing a full circle, ending back in Delhi. On the way many hurdles were braved, from almost non-existent roads, to massive stream crossings, to big landslides; but to soothe the senses, always at the ready, were the sheer breath taking views of the majestic Himalayas, some amazing stretches of tarmac and of course the rhythmic and relentless thump of Royal Enfields.
MotorBeam joined the action at Leh for the ‘highest’ Royal Enfield Reunion and to ride in the second leg of the Odyssey. The reunion was a big affair with over 120 attendees in the lap of snow clad mountains and was big on views, big on action, big on energy and big on celebration. It started at about noon with a stage set up in the centre of the venue with the DJ setting the mood with some grooving tracks and a big screen showing videos and clips from earlier events like Odyssey, Rider mania and other reunions. Many events and competitions were organized like slow racing, fastest disassemble and reassemble of bikes and the hugely popular arm wrestling competition. The party went on till late at night when the winners of the competitions were announced.
The parking lot was awash with a lot of very interesting Royal Enfields, some immaculate old Bullets to very well modified newer bikes for the difficult adventure that is the Odyssey. Finally we were allotted the bike we would be using for the Himalayan Odyssey, a sparkling new Thunderbird 500. This meant only one thing, exploring the town of Leh and its surroundings as well as getting to know our ‘bird before we set off the next day. The town of Leh has very rustic beauty and is a typical Tibetan style town with the Gompa or Shey Monastery perched on a hill above the town. But it has all the modern amenities and luxuries like an airport, good hotels and cafes along with traditional Tibetan stuff. The road leading to state capital of Sri Nagar is an exceptional piece of tarmac with great views and has the famous ‘Magnetic Hill’ on the way.
The sun rose the next morning to the loud roar of 100 Royal Enfields thumping into life, soothing our mild altitude sickness as well as the hangover of some of the party animals from last night’s reunion. After a hearty breakfast and a briefing from our team leaders we set off from the town of Leh down the picturesque road to our lake side camp in Tso Kar, the ‘Tso’ meaning lake in Tibetan and ‘Kar’ being the name of the lake. The roads are a mix of decent tarmac to broken surfaces and are not really challenging. We made our way through amazing views of rivers and beautiful patches of green against the backdrop of brown of the barren old sandy mountains with the intense royal blue of the open sky.
A small snack break and regroup at the town of Rumtse at 14000-feet is done after which we set off to cross the second highest motor able road in the world, Taglang La (‘La’ meaning ‘Pass’) at 17,582-feet. This is second only to the Khardung La, which at 18,379-feet, is the highest motor able road in the world. The road leading up the mountain to the Taglang Pass is one hell of a riding experience with good tarmac surface and brilliant corners with bone chilling cold and some snow scattered about to give company. The top of the pass is amazing with not much more than a small temple, the typical Tibetan flags and breath taking views. As it is not advisable to stay for an extended period of time at such high altitude we set off quickly. We rode down and at a special flat piece of land we lined up for the Himalayan Odyssey official picture and then made our way off-road on a dusty and sandy path to our campsite 3 kms away from the main road. Riding on this surface is a lot of fun trying to keep a decent pace while keeping the bike from slipping under one’s seat.
The camp site is very beautiful with the Lake Kar another 3 kms away. The pristine blue water looks divine and so do the surrounding hills behind which the sun slowly sets. The night sky at this remote spot looks like nothing that anyone has ever seen before when they raised their heads to the heavens. A small corner of the horizon, where the sun set a couple of hours ago, is lit up with a magical royal blue against the black of the rest of the sky above and the mountains below. The stars, galaxies, the moon and shooting stars fill up the sky from one horizon to another and leaves one mesmerized. After a very comforting hot soup and dinner everyone drifted off to sleep as the temperatures dipped well below comfort levels, even under layers of warm clothes.
Next morning after thawing frozen fingers, toes and noses, luggage was packed, both petrol tanks and tummies were fueled up and we set of to the long ride to the town of Keylong which lay 230 kms away and 6000-feet lower. Just a few kms later we crossed the beautiful More plains which is a massive area of flat ground on the mountain at an altitude of about 14,000-feet. At the end of that came a beautiful valley with a river and amazing rock formations on the barren mountain sides. Then the descent to the town of Pang began which was an amazing road with many hairpin turns and decent tarmac and grand views.
A small regroup and snacks break later we set off again and the road twisted and turned through the most beautiful formations of rock and sand formed against the barren hilly landscape. We crossed our second major pass, the Lachung La which is at a height of about 16,600 feet. After some hard riding came the most anticipated piece of road on this whole trip, the Ghata Loops. This stretch of road has 21 hard hairpin turns one after the other on the hill side and takes you almost 1600 feet lower in a matter of just a few kms. The surrounding harsh rocky hills look simply magnificent. After climbing down, the scenery suddenly becomes softer with more green and less rock. The mountains change colour from the sandy beige to red and grey with the white of snow scattered over them.
A lunch break and regroup later we set off again through picturesque snow clad terrain to the town of Sarchu. On the way was an amazing lake called the Surya Tal. From Sarchu we entered Himachal Pradesh crossing another pass, the Barcha La and descended a long way down on a surprisingly wonderful narrow road with lot of greenery to the town of Jispa. We encountered a couple of water crossings on the way where water was rushing off the road with broken road surface below and stones making it a bit tricky, but the Thunderbird 500 held its ground very well and it did not really break into a sweat. The rest of the road to Keylong, our stop for the night, was a delight as it became wider, the surface improved vastly and we made a quick dash to finally complete our gruelling 10 hour ride culminating in a town with hot baths and beds. The beautiful sunset from the hotel balcony put a cherry on top of a truly amazing day. The trip from 16,000-feet to 10,000-feet through the heart of Kashmir had put us in awe. The sheer variety of terrain was mind boggling, from sandy plains to rocky mountains, snow capped peaks to picturesque valleys. We had seen the best of Mother Nature the state of Kashmir had to offer.
The next morning after breakfast and fuelling a general feeling of excitement prevailed in the group as we were briefed about the day, and were told that it would be one of the toughest days of the Odyssey with a whole day of riding on practically no roads, in place of which would be a selection of rocks, mud, slush and lot of water crossings. We set off and immediately encountered a few water crossings. With the experience from the day before, these ones were dealt with more easily. Just as we were settling into the groove, the convoy was stopped in its tracks by a phenomenon that we had been pretty lucky not to encounter till now – landslides. The road was blocked but the Army and Border Road Organization (BRO) diggers were chewing through the wall of earth and boulders and the road was cleared in half an hour. We set off again and within a matter of 5 kms another landslide stood in the way. Being smaller, we were off again in 15 minutes and turned off the main highway to the aforementioned ‘no road’ road.
From here on the whole way to Kaza was a dirt track with stones and often boulders on the surface and the chances of landslides and major water crossings was many folds higher. We set off at a cautious pace and a little while later came the first major challenge, a proper big stream crossing with a proper river gushing over the road with nothing but big boulders underneath to drive on. We inched across one at a time making way through the rocks trying not to lose momentum, grip and our nerve. But almost everyone fared well and made it across. Not even a kilometer further, suddenly, the convoy came to a screeching halt, yet again.
A big truck was perched at a spot where the earth had given way below it on the valley side. Apparently the road at the spot was being repaired and the truck was instructed to stop till the work was completed. But the impatient driver just decided to ignore that and drove on. As soon as he reached the spot, the road started falling apart underneath, the truck slipped about a bit and got stuck against the mountain on one side and a big hole on the other. Luckily the front and back wheels still had stable ground underneath them with most of the road in between gone. We were stranded and the worst part was two of our three leaders along with five more participants had overtaken the truck and were on the other side. As the connecting road between Kaza and Chandigarh had been completely closed down there was no way out for the seven people ahead but to come back via the same route. After a wait of 3 hours it was finally decided that the rest of the convoy would go back to the main road and go to Manali via Rohtang Pass and the ones stuck ahead would continue to Kaza and return to Manali as soon as this road block was cleared. So the rest of us turned back going through the same road. We joined the main road and gunned it down via the Rohtang pass towards Manali.
This road is quite a pleasure to ride on, with some decent patches, some rough patches as well as a little slush. With a lot of riding under the belt, we could ride faster and better with the Thunderbird 500 delivering good punch as well as stability to tackle the roads. The road after the Rohtang pass though is a beauty with wide and smooth tarmac with a lot of twists and turns and hairpins all in a scenic lush green setting. Finally after a tiring 10 hour day, we finally reached the Manali hotel. Due to cancellation of two destinations and 7 riders being stranded due to the road block on the road to Kaza, we had 4 days to spend in Manali; which wasn’t a bad thing as there is no shortage of things to do in this popular and part Hippy hill station! Two days later the rest of the riders returned all safe and sound who, as it turned out, had quite an adventure. There was no electricity in Kaza and neither was there a decent place to stay. So just some food, some sleeping bags and hope of getting confirmed news of the road clearing up kept them going.
Two more days later it was finally time to leave Manali to the next destination, Narkanda. Everyone was visually lazier and slower during the breakfast, luggage loading and briefing due to the extended break! But as soon as we got on the bikes, all that disappeared as we made a quick dash down the mountain to Kulu and there on took the road to Narkanda. Now something else that hadn’t affected us during the trip till now had begun and it was a big one. Rain! Massive rain! And the biking gear provided by Royal Enfield was more of a rain absorbent rather than repellent. So basically we were soaking wet. And it was cold! But never the less we soldiered on. The roads were not very bad but the next major regroup point was Jhalori Pass which had only slushy roads going up as well as coming down. So, all the precious training and bravery was put to the test as we rode on km after km on slush, twisting and turning narrow roads on inclines. It was tough but a lot of fun. However the problem was the bike, which was jerking at small throttle inputs. It knocked and jerked when the throttle was closed slightly and then when the throttle was opened there was a delay after which it suddenly leapt ahead, making it a bit difficult to ride here.
At the top of Jhalori pass it was freezing cold and being wet made it even worse. Lot of snacks and hot tea was consumed for the hour we were there. We left again and after getting down the pass, the roads improved and we pushed on at a decent pace towards Narkanda. The final few kms consisted of a major highway so the roads were fabulous and apt to test the high speed cruising ability of the Thunderbird 500. And the motorcycle delivered again! The 500 has good punch and cruises very well. The biggest surprise on this twisting road was the handling and stability through turns. The 500 was a lot of fun to throw around corners at good speeds. But as it has been till now, the sound was always a disappointment. It, by no measure, sounds anything like a Royal Enfield. It just does not have that soft rhythmic bassy beat which is still present in even the other new bikes like the Classic 350 or the Standard. The Thunderbird 500 sounds like any other run of the mill 150cc commuter bike. But it got us to Narkanda well in time and finally we got a chance to be dry, warm and relax. A special mention of this hill station has to be made as, though not very popular, it is very beautiful and with fog and rain it was even more special.
Next day was the last for mountain riding and our stop was the industrial town of Parwanoo. The ride again in rain was a scenic one and we crossed popular hill station of Chail and made our way down the mountains to be greeted by overcrowded picnic spots, misbehaved crowds and motorists for the last 30 odd kms to our destination. Here the organizers decided to have a small get together for all riders and have an open session to answer everyone’s queries, doubts and have a general discussion about the trip. The Royal Enfield heads found it amusing to dodge questions and suggestions and at the same time make fun of participants who tried to participate, which was quite a disappointment. So the media teams present too never got around to asking questions or making suggestions.
The next morning was the last day of riding with almost 290 kms from Parwanoo to Delhi. The road was a good one being the NH1 and we did good speeds only to be slowed down by bad traffic, jams and accidents. Luckily none from our convoy had any sort of bad luck. The other major discomfort though was the heat!! And then we entered Delhi. From the freezing temperatures of the Himalayas we had descended into the dizzying heat of Delhi. No rain, no clouds, just heat and the riding gear which had dried up was now making us sweat, transforming us into a piece of dehydrated meat. Finally we reached the resort after the long ride. A party had been arranged at the lawns of the resort where certificates were distributed to everybody. The Odyssey had come to an end and was celebrated with enthusiasm.
Coming to the bike we used, the Thunderbird 500, it is no doubt a very good cruiser and it is tough and was quite reliable during the whole trip with no major breakdowns. The massive 21-litre tank offers great range. The power and torque is good and is definitely an improvement over the 350cc Thunderbird. But Royal Enfield decided to introduce more electronics which makes the bike less than perfect. The electronic fuel gauge and other meters are extremely temperamental and unreliable. Another major problem is the Electronic Fuel Injection which just hasn’t been optimised, making the bike very jerky at low speeds as well as situations where delicate throttle control is required like slush, sand and water crossings. The footpeg placement is not very comfortable. Pushing them a little forward will make the riding position much better. The rear view mirrors are appalling in quality and are not positioned well. So all you see are your own arms and as soon as you go over the smallest of bumps, they change their position and then you can’t see anything! The vibrations are quite high and false neutrals are still a big issue. All the Thunderbird 500s suffered from these same problems. But the biggest problem is the bike no longer seems to have the Royal Enfield soul and the feel that one associates with them. The looks, the sound and the general riding characteristics renders it quite mundane. It no longer has that old world charm and does not feel special to ride. It is a very capable bike, with good high speed stability, decent comfort and good handling but it does not evoke the same emotion that any Royal Enfield rider will tell you about.
The riding gear from Royal Enfield is also something we got to test during the Odyssey. We were provided with riding jacket, trousers, gloves and boots. All the gear is very good quality but there are a few design flaws. The trousers for example have knee protectors that keep slipping down onto the shin making riding uncomfortable. The boots, though good, are basically just sports/superbike riding boots with Royal Enfield branding. So changing gears of a Royal Enfield is next to impossible with tow and heel action because the movement of the foot is restricted by the design. So the false neutral problem too is accentuated by this. The gloves are good though, but the most important problem of all the gear, including boots, is that it does not offer any rain protection. Opposite to that, the thick fabric inside absorbs all the water and leaves everything soaking wet which does not dry for days. And everything being so bulky, wearing rain coats on top of the gear makes riding very uncomfortable. So it is better to choose other options that are cheaper and more purpose built.
The Himalayan Odyssey is a real adventure and it tests oneself on many levels. It shows you places that are just unbelievably beautiful, gives you thrills on a bike like nothing else and makes you a much better rider as well. The Odyssey is something that all bikers should experience once because it is that special.