It came to me in the middle of the night, as most great ideas do: I would take an India motorcycle trip, crossing from north to south. My route would take me from the mountains of Ladakh to the valleys of Kashmir, into bustling Rajasthan, over the Western Ghats, and through the wet jungles of the South – a total distance of more than 4,500 miles. I would ride “Ullu,” my 2009 Royal Enfield Machismo 350 with an ongoing tappet issue, and my budget would be only 30,000 rupees (about $360).
The Northern Portion of My India Motorcycle Trip:
Manali – Leh – Jammu and Kashmir – Dharamshala
The path to Ladakh is a playground of natural beauty. It is also vast, with no mechanics or petrol stations en route.
I waded through rivers that reached my waist in Nubra Valley and coasted down the 21‑hairpin Gata Loops at breathtaking speed. I reached the moonscape‑like peak of Wari La Pass, was snowed on at Khardung La, and raced a herd of wild horses as they thundered down More Plains. I rode through a canyon with a sparkling river running through the center and tackled the treacherous 17,586‑foot Chang La Pass. Ladakh was a dreamscape, and the surroundings changed drastically from fresh landslides to icy lakes to the legendary dunes of Pang. As far as an India motorcycle trip was concerned, I was in paradise.
The dirt road connecting Koksar to Kaza in Spiti Valley was a constant game of temporary fixes for Ullu: shoelaces through the wheel guard, a bungee cord around the exhaust pipe, and a snapped clutch lever repaired with duct tape. The terrain was a bone‑shaking challenge from start to end, and vehicles littered the boulder‑strewn paths in various states of breakdown.
Near the border of Pakistan, I steeled myself for two dangerous passes on National Highway 26 from Kashmir between Killar, Khajjiar, and Kishtwar. Both were closing soon due to forecasted snow, and I was determined to cross them off my list. The Cliffhanger was a tricky and dramatic ride on a road carved into a sheer cliff that’s 2,000 feet above the Chenab River.
Related Story from Ellie Cooper: Himalayan Cliffhanger | Riding India’s Death Road
Saach Pass, an endurance ride through deep forest to an ice‑slicked desolate mesa, was a mix of endless clutch control and precise handling on the downhills. With such tantalizing terrain to explore, it was difficult to leave the North, but the rest of India beckoned me.
Dharamshala – Amritsar – Pushkar – Jaisalmer – Jodhpur – Udaipur
I detoured into Pushkar to learn how to build a motorbike from scratch at my friend Mukesh’s garage. I spent a week drinking chai with a team of mechanics by the roadside, sharing communal meals on the garage floor, and learning how to replace clutch plates.
Every road from Punjab to Rajasthan was long and uneventful, but I was not so lucky when I started the next leg of my India motorcycle trip.
National Highway 11 toward Jaisalmer was a road of death, and the smell of various animals decomposing in the midday heat carried on the breeze. I saw mirages of great lakes that vanished as quickly as they appeared, and burnt‑out vehicles lay overturned in the sand. The desert can be a strange place.
The winter winds on the highway toyed with everyone on the road. I fought against a side wind that buffeted me back and forth with such velocity that I gasped for air under my helmet. Six high‑speed lorries – massive trucks in formation across two lanes – were inches away from my tires. On that road, it was suicidal to be so close to the edge with pushy trucks and a bullying wind, but I had no choice. I slowed my speed but started to be sucked under the gap between their wheels as my handlebar toggled ferociously with the pressure. I clipped the edge of the sand at 30 mph and went down.
I crawled on my hands and knees toward the bike a few meters from where I had landed on the concrete and hit the kill switch. Ullu received only a broken horn and a buckled wheel. My riding gear saved me from a worse fate, but I still had a dollop of whiplash and a mild concussion.
Jaisalmer was a beautiful place to recover. Determined to see deep desert, I rode out to catch the sunset, going until my wheels sank into endless sand. Later, as I lay back on Ullu’s seat and watched billions of stars in the inky‑black sky, I reflected on how India is not an easy place to ride, but it was worth every near‑miss.
Hoping for a bit of good fortune for the remainder of my India motorcycle trip, I sought out the Bullet Baba shrine on National Highway 65. It is one of 33 million Hindu deities and represents the legend of a local man who crashed into a tree and died and whose motorcycle found its way back to the crash site alone without keys or petrol. Locals flock to the site to ask for safe passage across India’s roads and offer whiskey in return. I visited the holy bike with a bottle stuffed into my backpack.
The final stop on my Rajasthan tour was Udaipur. I lazily wound through the undulating Aravalli hills of Kumbhalgarh in afternoon light and rode around the famous Rani Road at sunrise to see Rajasthan’s shining lakes. India was changing her look every few hundred miles, and I could not wait to see what the Western Ghats had to offer.
Udaipur – Mumbai – Pune – Goa – Ooty – Erivikulam – Munnar
I entered Mumbai in Western India like a child pretending to be a racer. I was in a tide of hundreds of motorcycles at rush hour, all revving their engines impatiently. Without any warning, signaling, or light change, true to their name, the Bullets sped forward, each one racing the next. On wash day, the air smelled like a bucket of soap suds, and the whole city was brightly decorated.
I headed immediately for Mahabaleshwar, a hill station with luxurious views of the stunning Sahyadri range. With less than 2 liters of petrol after the hills, I bounced along the descent on badly broken road surfaces, glad that I had reduced the air in my tires. I sputtered into Goa on Christmas Day through a blanket of freezing sea mist. My present to my trusty steed was a full service and a week off.
The roads into Munnar are on every Indian traveler’s bucket list. I chose to ride through five national parks, relishing the gorgeous blue Nilgiri hills on all sides. In beautiful Ooty, I raced down 36 consecutive hairpins on the addictive downhills of the accident‑prone Kalhatty Road. At one time, tourists were not permitted to ride it due to the complexity and danger of the epic turns.
I reached Munnar, where the oscillating route was full of seemingly endless tight corners and fast bends. It was some of the most perfect motorcycle riding I had ever experienced. Tea leaves were draped over the hills in a lime green patchwork quilt, knitted with care by whichever gods had imagined such a place.
The Western Ghats:
Munnar – Idukki – Kanyakumari
I dawdled through the coconut plantations of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, fingering the meager rupees left in my pocket and wondering if I would make it to the end. I was almost there, and it was probably because of the heat and fatigue at this point that I began to make mistakes.
I took a wrong turn and had to explain to a very confused ranger why I was riding illegally in a tiger reserve. Ullu’s ignition cable suddenly came loose in the middle of the jungle, but again I was fortunate; a local reattached it with his teeth for free. Another time, I stopped to admire the view and carelessly knocked my bike keys into a pile of rubbish many feet down, and the whole village came running to help. Eventually, a tiny man with a hooked stick five times as long as he was tall came running to the rescue, grinning from ear to ear.
It hit me hard when I got to Kerala and saw the sign for Kanyakumari – the city at the southernmost tip of India – that my journey would soon end. Little moments of the trip replayed in my mind, from the icy dreamland of the Himalayas to brightly decorated Rajasthan to the sublime colors of the South.
At the end of my India motorcycle trip, I sat atop Ullu and patted her tank, watching the sight I had been waiting for: the sun setting into the Arabian Sea. The next morning, sitting at the same spot, I watched the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal to the east.
Indian roads are a complex machine that operates on courage and trust, and I now understand the absurdity of them in their confusion and chaos. I learned that every breakdown is a chance for a new connection with a stranger; that many bike issues can be fixed with tin cans, rubber bands, or a mouthful of petrol; and that no matter how long the journey might take, there is always time for another chai.