Big mountains, thundering rivers, rugged roads, and at night, the distant glaciers set aglow by the stars: for pure adventure motorcycling, you cannot beat the many back roads of Himachal Pradesh for authentic freewheeling adventures. For me, the idea of riding over the Chanshal Pass to the little known villages of Dodra and Kwar, sited on opposite sides of the Rupin river, had been like an itch you can’t scratch. What makes this ride special was that for centuries the only way to reach Dodra-Kwar was a multi-day walk; either on the traditional shepherd’s trail from the Sangla valley over the Rupin pass; or to follow the Rupin river upstream from the road head at Naitwar in Uttarakhand. In 2009, a road was finally built to Dodra-Kwar from Rohru in Himachal that loops through thick woods of rhododendron, deodar and Himalayan birch, waterfalls and fast-flowing streams. Over all this towers the Chanshal range—the barrier to the Rupin valley and Dodra-Kwar for so many years—and the eponymous pass at 12,600 feet high that grudgingly allows access beyond. To ride your motorcycle here is to feel like a pioneer.
This amazing road through the Pangi Valley in Himachal is accessible in September - October, when the roaring nullahs become fordable and when rock fall from the formidable cliffs stabilize after the monsoons. Starting from Tandi, 100 kms from Manali on the Leh route, the road follows the Chandra-Bhaga river till the town of Killar, from where one road continues to Doda and Kishtwar in Jammu and Kashmir, and the other takes a spectacular ascent to Sach Pass before descending to Chamba.
From Tandi to Udaipur, the Chandra-Bhaga cuts a wide swathe, providing rich farming land on its banks. From Udaipur onwards where Pangi actually begins, for a 100 kms the road clings to the side of a vertiginous gorge. At Killar, the road to Sach Pass crosses over the river and ascends rapidly, first through cool, dense forests of walnut, pine and Himalayan birch-Bhojpatra- before abruptly bursting out into a scree strewn landscape thrusting skywards.
For a motorcycling adventure, this road has few parallels. The views are fantastic but the road is tough and it will take eight hours to ride a 100 kms; there are virtually no dhabas on this road from Udaipur to Killar and no petrol pumps till you cross over Sach Pass deep into Chamba. Ill-prepared motorcycles will break down and so will their riders, but for those who finish this ride, the experience will resonate with a soul satisfying fullness for many years to come.
The Mughal Road is a historic summer route much beloved of the Mughal Emperors, most famously Akbar and his son Jahangir, to reach the salubrious climes of Kashmir as long ago as the 16th century. Today, the same road serves as an alternative to the Jammu-Srinagar NH1A connecting Jammu region to the Kashmir valley.
Officially reopened as recently as 2009, this ancient route was, and still is, a much lesser traversed route. It proves to be as much a treat as a challenge for motorcyclists with diverse places of attraction including several Mughal architectural monuments, untouched forests, lush green meadows, lakes and waterfalls—the natural beauty that Kashmir is renowned for.
Starting from Jammu, the roads can be chaotic as you navigate through Akhnoor-Sunderbani-Rojouri to reach the town of Buffliaz where the Mughal Road begins. Immediately after, the ascent begins, bringing with it a fascinating view around each corner. A 12-km stretch of the road passes through the pristine Hirapur Wildlife Sanctuary, home to a wide biodiversity and a few endangered species. At Dubjan and Pir Ki Galli, the rolling meadows are a mesmerizing sight and a far cry from the more commercialized Gulmarg. Pir Ki Galli, also the highest point on the Mughal Road at 11,500ft gets its name from Saint Sheikh Karim who is believed to have meditated and been buried in the meadows. Legend has it that the Mughal Emperors Shahjahan and Aurangzeb would break for the day, to pay their respects to the revered saint. That and the magical 360 degree view of the Pir Panjal range is sufficient reason for anyone to pull over and breathe in the surroundings.
Don’t let the relatively shorter distance of 84 km from Buffliaz to Shopian trick you into assuming the time taken to traverse this distance. If you travel like I do, living and experiencing everything the road has to offer, the Mughal Road can take an entire day of riding--and if time isn’t a barrier, one could take over three days admiring everything it has to offer.
The journey from Lachen to Gurdongmar Lake demands an early morning start—a little before dawn when everything in the horizon is still lost in the darkness and a magnificent sky is still dotted with stars. If you focus really hard, one can see the road ahead, meandering up towards the sky and through the clouds.
The journey to the holy Gurdongmar Lake, the third highest fresh water lake in Asia takes you from an altitude of 8,000ft to 17,100ft within a span of less than 65 kms. Lachen is located in North Sikkim, 120 kms north of Gangtok. A halt at Lachen is a must when making the journey to the lake to acclimatize before the steep ascent.
The journey began with unpaved, jarring roads that become twice as difficult to ride under the dark sky. The road kept throwing one hairpin turn after another as we kept searching the sky in search of some light. When the sun finally dawned from behind the snow clad peaks, the sky was lit maroon, the peaks like mountains of gold, the wind became warmer, the rivers swifter and the flora of the entire valley brilliantly coloured as if sprayed with rainbow dust.
30 kms from Lachen, at 13000ft, the quaint little town of Thangu offers the only respite for your hunger. A single dhaba offers tea and Maggi but more importantly a warm earthen furnace to warm oneself. As you continue to gain altitude, the lush green forests give way to smaller trees and bushes before turning into a barren landscape. Barring the presence of the Indian Army and a few shepherds, there is no human habitation whatsoever. It is difficult to not reminisce about Ladakh every few moments.
At 16000ft, just before our destination a new surprise awaited us. After riding through what was little more than dirt and rock, the road suddenly turned into a perfect tarmac surrounded by snow-clad mountains (once again reminding us of More Plains, Ladakh) in all directions before ending at Gurdongmar.
Finally at Gurdongmar Lake, virgin blue, nestled amidst a crown of icy peaks, adorned by fluttering prayer flags, there was beauty which was visible and there was a reverence deeply felt.
I love remote places and the Pangi valley was on my bucket list for a very long time. In November 2015, I had no idea I would not only get a chance to see Pangi, but also experience it when no one else dares to venture on this road as Sach Pass gets closed for the season. We even got lucky and managed to escape when it started snowing in Pangi. Our journey crossed the infamously dangerous patch of road via Kishtwar and we even experienced the lesser known parts of Kashmir.