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Riding the World’s Most Dangerous Roads - Ricky Phoolka in the Himalayas

Ricky Phoolka, Designer, Creative Director, Photographer, Motorcycle adventure rider and good friend of Quad Lock just got back from the trip of a lifetime. Taking on some of the world’s most dangerous roads to the Himalayas in India.

Ricky's BMW 850 GSA was fitted with a few mods for a smoother journey through the rough terrain of the expedition:

  • Barkbusters to protect his hands
  • Quad Lock for navigation
  • An exhaust de-cat for more power
  • Heavy-duty off road tyres
We asked him to share his story so here goes… [11-minute read]
The Great Himalayas - Motorcycle Expedition (By Ricky Phoolka)

Riding a motorcycle through the Himalayas has long been a dream of mine. I have often imagined the majestic and remote landscapes I would pass through, the wonderful people I would meet, and the incredible sense of adventure I would experience. So, when I had the opportunity to take a motorcycle trip through the Indian Himalayas, I was ecstatic.

I had planned to ride and explore some of the remotest and most challenging routes in these mythical chains of mountains that evoke an isolated, preserved and timeless landscape. Nestled between the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges, Ladakh is one such place, sometimes called the 'Land of the Broken Moon', marveled for its moon-like landscapes.

The BMW R nineT Scrambler would have been my preferred motorcycle for this expedition, but BMW Motorrad arranged the 850 GSA, which was exciting however it needed a few mods to make take on the rough terrain and make it journey that much more enjoyable. The engine was powerful enough, and the taller suspension would allow me to traverse the off-road terrain. Considering I would be in fairly remote areas, the Quad Lock motorcycle mount with wireless charging capabilities was essential for my phone and GPS navigation. I installed the Barkbuster hand guards for unexpected spills, a de-cat on the exhaust to gain more power, and swapped the road tyres for off-road tyres for a better grip on the terrain.

Since it was already October, I was already racing against time. I was concerned about the notoriously unpredictable weather in the region, and sure enough, I would find out soon. It was a blessing that I had brought all my riding gear for hot and cold weather.

Road to the Himalayas - Patiala to Bariagarh

My journey began in Patiala, a city in southeastern Punjab. The sun rose on a long day of riding,  across the lush green fields of Punjab to the epic Himalayas. As I navigated the city's heavily clogged streets onto the highway, I was met with a labyrinth of cars, trucks, and honking horns that created a crazed symphony. I kept my senses peeled for potential dangers and remained vigilant as the traffic rules seemed nonexistent. As I grew accustomed to the organically chaotic rhythm of the traffic, I began to marvel at how effortlessly everything moved.

By mid-afternoon, I arrived at Dalhousie, a colourful hill town nestled in the Dhauladhar mountains. I wound the twisty roads through stunning views until, by nightfall, I made it to Bairagarh, the last stop before Sach Pass at 7050 feet. Here, the Chandrabhaga river connected me with Pangi Valley, and I could feel an exhilarating thrill as I neared my destination.

Ricky Phoolka

One of the world’s most dangerous roads - Sach Pass, Panji Valley

The next day I faced my biggest challenge yet, traversing the notorious Sach Pass, nestled high in the Himalayas at a dizzying 14500 feet. With my heart racing, I pushed on as the terrain changed from lush forests to bleak rocky mountains, and the air grew thin. I gulped down water mixed with ORS, conscious of acclimatizing to the extreme altitude and navigating the perilous Sach Pass.

The track rose sharply to the summit of the Pir Panjal Range, and I was stunned by the breathtaking views. On the other side of the Sach pass lay an entirely new range of mountain peaks capped with snow, their pristine beauty taking my breath away. I paused to take in the majestic landscape, my eyes tracing the winding track from above - I still had miles to go before I reached Killar.

My descent was treacherous, a narrow cliff face scattered with loose rocks and sand punctuated by thundering waterfalls. After crossing the Chenab River, I arrived in Killar, a small village at the edge of a deep gorge leading down to the Chadrabhaga (Chenab) river. Weary and discouraged after finding no lodging in Killar, I bravely pushed on towards Udaipur - another 74 kilometers away.

Things take unexpected turns - Killar - Udaipur

The track snaking along the Chenab river was a treacherous nightmare, the most harrowing journey of my life. The darkness descended swiftly as the sun seemed to vanish earlier than ever in the mountains. I was riding hard, but the cold was a relentless enemy, and it had been swallowing me in its black abyss for two hours when I saw the track ahead was wiped clean by titanic rocks. There was no way I could pass through; the boulders covering the road were gigantic, bigger than a small car. Udaipur was still 25km away.

Stranded in this moment, I had no option but to turn back towards Killar. On my journey back, not far from the landslide, I encountered two gentlemen on the side of the road who worked for the BRO, a road construction executive force in India that serves and is now a part of the Indian Armed Forces. They suggested I leave my bike with them and make my way to the next village called Tindi, about three kilometers away, where I could find shelter. They informed me that the landslide would be cleared by 9 am the following morning.

Having no other possibilities, I left my motorcycle with them, shouldering my backpack, and trudged across the other side of the landslide. Out of nowhere, a car drove upslope, and I was lucky enough for the driver to give me a lift to Tindi. At last, I found only one local eatery where I ate and got to know the owner, who graciously offered me accommodation at his home

I had excitedly gathered my motorcycle the following morning and was ready to take on the 96 km journey to Jispa when calamity struck. Just two kilometers from Tandi, I heard an ominous pop. Glancing down, I noticed a massive cut across my back tyre. I felt my heart drop; the tyre was clearly irreparably damaged. I could hardly believe it - so much for the start of my journey! A million thoughts raced through my head as I weighed up my options. One thing that seemed clear was that I had to get the bike to Udaipur first, but with no phone coverage in the area and no way of getting new tyres, what could I do?

The best bet would be to ride 22km on the damaged tyre, which would be slow but hopefully safe. I luckily found a phone signal on the way and reached out to the company I had bought the tyres from. They informed me they could ship me two new tyres in two days - I was relieved! Now the mission was to get the bike to Manali in time. After a grueling 5km ride, I managed to find a truck driver who agreed to transport the bike. What would happen next?

Ricky Phoolka

The waiting game - Manali

The two days I had expected would soon be a whole week of waiting. My heart sank as my plans of reaching Ladakh started to fade away with the closing days of the season. An endless cycle of failed attempts to wait for my tyres' delivery halted my progress and left me exhausted with no motivation or hope.

Finally, after taking matters into my own hands and tracking down the tyres, I was able to get them delivered, only to be met with the news that all the roads leading to Ladakh were closed due to the recent snowfall. Taking a chance, I steeled myself and rode towards Jispa, clinging onto a brittle thread of hope.

Road to Zanskar - Jispa to Shinkula Pass

The following day at Jispa, a dense fog had settled over the mountains, and the roads were still blocked. I was beyond desperate as I rode to the Darcha checkpoint, where I prayed for a miracle and waited out the day. Suddenly, at 3:30 pm, a faint whisper of hope breezed through as the checkpoint opened. The sky was now a dark shade of black, filling me with trepidation; with darkness looming, the odds of my journey succeeding were slim.

My heart raced as I rode up the treacherous Shinkula Pass at 16,615 ft. The air was thinner than paper, and I felt my lungs were about to burst. The temperature had plummeted to -4 to -7 degrees, and snowflakes pelted me, but my gore-tex jacket and gloves kept me warm.

As soon as I descended on the other side of the pass, it became clear that this would be my most formidable challenge. The off road tracks had turned into slick black ice, and it felt like I was on an ice rink with no breaks. With each icy turn, I was seized with fear; one wrong move and I could easily fall off a cliff edge. My survival depended on keeping my focus amidst the chaos; each second demanded extreme caution, but if I remained determined, there was a chance of reaching Zanskar.

Ricky Phoolka

The ancient Himalayan Kingdom - Zanskar valley

The sub-zero winter had stretched its icy fingers over the land, holding it in a steely grip. Unrelenting snowflakes blanketed the mountain roads, but I forged onwards, unafraid - for I was on a quest, chasing my dream of exploring the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Zanskar.

As I rode through the Kurgiakh Valley of Zanskar and up to the Gumbok Rangan precipice, which reached the dizzying height of 5320m, I was almost sure that I had stepped into another world. Though the journey seemed treacherous and lengthy, it was full of beauty and wonder. The landscape was beyond my wildest dreams.

I spotted a small shelter where I had a hot cup of tea, the darkness descended quickly and unknown of the dangers that lay ahead, so I decided to camp there for the night. Amidst the semi-desert atmosphere of Zanskar, five rivers cut through - Henle, Khurna, Sandbar, Zanskar, and Suru - all feeding into the mighty Indus River. Zanskar's age-old traditions and customs were so captivating that a feeling of antique wonder filled the air.

As I rode through Purne, Padum, and Rangdum, I marvelled at the timelessness of this valley's culture. The snow-capped mountains layered in the hazy horizon were a beautiful contrast to the stone villages and ancient monasteries that dotted the landscape. I felt like I had stepped back into history, where life moved at a stiller pace than in modern times. But it was atop the Pensila Pass where I truly felt awestruck, looking out upon the Drang-Drung Glacier surrounded by some of the earth's most magnificent scenery.

Rough terrain, high altitude, challenging road conditions, and long drives - all add to Zanskar's remoteness and desolation. With each careful step through deep ravines and every treacherous turn around snow-covered mountains, my heart raced with adrenaline. Yet, uncontrollable bliss radiated from me for witnessing its divine, ethereal allure.

Ricky Phoolka

'Land of the Broken Moon' - Ladakh

As I rode into Kargil, I instantly noticed the bustling streets and the passing traffic. It felt like a gateway back to civilisation; in some sense, I had already begun to miss the simplicity of life in Zanskar. After resting for the night, I took off on the Srinagar-Leh highway, passing through some of the most remarkable landscapes I had ever seen. The Namika La Pass stood at 12,139 ft, and Fotu La Pass was 13,478 ft high. The terrain changed every few kilometers providing a unique perspective of the majestic landscapes with each turn.

Eventually, I arrived in Lamayuru – home to a renowned Buddhist monastery and intriguing moon-like landscapes. Capturing these photos filled me with immense joy; however, I knew it was time to move on if I wanted to reach Leh before nightfall. The next 120 kms brought even more breathtaking views as I made my way across snow-capped mountains, desert routes surrounded by mountains and steep paths with hairpin curves that tested my nerve.

At last, I made it to Leh – the largest city of Ladakh – where I spent the next two days obtaining inner-line permits for foreigners who wished to explore the region. With the paperwork done, it was time to settle into the city and explore.

Ricky Phoolka

Into the nearly forgotten ‘Shangri La’ Nubra Valley

Nubra is 125 kilometres from Leh, and the journey is through one of the most inhospitable terrains. To get to Nubra, I had to ride across the mighty Khardungla. The road carried me over dizzying heights and icy winds. The incredible mountain pass was an enormous obstacle to my progress, with its 18,379 ft. of vertigo-inducing dirt and gravel. I shivered with cold and thin air, but no relief was in sight. I had to push on.

Khardung La is the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra valley; its altitude of 18,380 feet makes it one of the highest motorable roads in the world. Recently, BRO constructed a new road at 19,024 feet at Umling La Pass in Ladakh, now the world's highest motorable road.

On the other side of the pass is the Nubra valley, a nearly forgotten 'Shangri La', home to double humpback camels, dunes, scenic panoramas, and monasteries, Nubra Valley, is the northernmost part of Ladakh. Once on the trading route that connected eastern Tibet with Turkistan via the famous Karakoram Pass, it has a unique geography of mountains, rivers, desert and land!

I was on the edge of thrill and excitement riding from the world's highest motorable pass down to the Nubra valley's dunes along the Shyok River. I rode up to the Turtuk, a tiny little village located at the end of Ladakh, towards the India - Pakistan border and back to Hunder, where I spent the night in a hotel.

The next day the weather had turned, and I could see colossal sand storms that engulfed the mountains. Snow had been relentless, blanketing the region in a white cocoon. Despite the difficult conditions, four people had attempted to cross the Kardungla Pass, the world's highest motorable road, only to perish in a jeep. Tension was high as the news spread throughout the region. Khardung La The pass was closed.

It was apparent I needed to make my way back, or I could end up stuck in Ladakh until April next year. The road to Manali was already closed, so my only option was to ride through Kashmir, but it depended on whether the passes were still open.

The following day I heard rumours of a brief opening of the treacherous Khardungla pass, open only to those with chains attached to their vehicles. Undeterred, I headed for the North Pullu checkpoint and was stopped by a military checkpoint. With no other option, I loaded my bike onto a truck to traverse the pass. Though I had ridden this road before, it appeared entirely alien: a fresh layer of snow had settled on its surface, making it super slippery and treacherous. As we descended the steep slopes, I gripped the sides of the truck tightly, my heart racing with dread. Finally, after four hours, we arrived at Leh, and with a sigh of relief, I stepped off the truck.

Ricky Phoolka

The Race to Kashmir - Leh to Kashmir

There was no time to waste. After a nerve-wracking night in Leh, I grabbed my gear and began my ride towards Srinagar. But at the Kargil checkpoint, I was told that the Zozila pass was closed and no vehicles were allowed to go beyond that point. With no choice but to find some accommodation, I returned to a hotel and waited for news of the pass being opened. Miraculously, the news came the next day, and I quickly got ready for the journey ahead.

The icy roads of Zojila pass were daunting. The white-capped mountains eclipsed my path as I rode along, adrenaline pulsing through my veins. I encountered an inexplicable traffic jam. Cars and trucks lined up along both sides, making it a tight squeeze through the slippery roads. After hours of waiting, I made it across Zozila pass into snow-covered Kashmir.

My toughest trial wasn't behind me yet as I endured an exhausting 12-hour ride from Srinagar to Patiala—the longest of my entire trip—but I persevered and eventually made it back.

Ricky Phoolka

An unforgettable experience

The journey there and back teaches you about the country, and you experience a lot. It's inspiring in many ways. The physical challenges of the trip were extreme, not least due to the thin air at the high altitudes that I was riding through. But the feeling of elation at reaching the summit of a particularly strenuous mountain pass more than made up for it. As I rode along the winding roads, I felt a real sense of achievement, a feeling of freedom, and a strong connection with the landscape that surrounded me.

The expedition was an unforgettable experience, filled with spectacular scenery, a sense of adventure, and wonderful people. It was truly an adventure of a lifetime, and I am so grateful to have been able to experience it.

If you want to see more incredible content from Ricky, check out his Instagram below!

Instagram @ricky.phoolka

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