Tales from the LA Riders Motorcycle Club High-Altitude Expedition

Sept. 14, 2020

I meet the leaders of LA Riders at Coffee Culture In Leh to discuss joining their motorcycle club expedition.

The club director introduces himself as “Cheetah” and explains that the “LA” in LA Riders is the local word for “pass,” meaning they ride motorcycles through the world’s highest altitude passes.

In two days they will embark on a weeklong trip through a route no traveler has ever crossed in the legendary Zanskar region of the Himalayas.

Cheetah says it will be 80 percent off-road riding at altitudes reaching 17,500 feet, followed by camping and live music in the mountains each night.  

Sounds kickass. Only problem is I have no experience off-roading.

I tell him, “I’m in.”

Altitude: 11,562

We meet up early in downtown Leh. Thirteen riders are there for the trip, mostly on Royal Enfield Bullets and Himalayans.

Ten Maruti Suzuki “Gypsy” SUVs line up with staff loading tents, cooking supplies and live music gear.

A large LA Riders banner frames the start line. Local media shows up and Cheetah delivers the world’s all-time most honest press statement: “We have no insurance at all,” he says. “Riders, if you die it’s not our responsibility, okay?”

We nod.

(Cheetah, center, delivering his press statement alongside LA Riders leaders Tani, in local dress, and Singge, in vest)

The bikes and Gypsys are lined up and ready to ride out. A TV reporter woman notices I’m the only foreigner in the group and asks for a quick interview and ride on my bike. Sure thing.

There’s just female rider in the group. Her name is Kaydee and her style is ninja fierce. “More girls should ride on the front of bikes, not the back,” Kaydee tells the media, pointing out the seat removed from the back of her Enfield.

(Kaydee interviews with JK 24/7 news in front of her bike)

After the interviews, we ride for several hours en route to our first campsite. Our convoy is rolling through a valley lined with massive pyramid rocks and it looks like that scene from Mad Max where the bad guys get stuck.

I have my Patagonia down jacket tied sloppily to the back seat of my bike. I hit some rocks and it falls loose, getting sucked into the chain and making a crazy “puff” sound as the bike jars to a halt.

I assume my bike is fucked, until four young guys in the Gypsy behind jump out with knives and cut the jacket from the chain. I’m back on the road and reach camp that evening minus one jacket.

Altitude 16,590

We spend the second day riding up steep and rocky roads made by bulldozers that sit nearby after just carving up the mountainsides.

Laborers cheer from their roadside camps as we become the first bikers to reach the Himalayan vantage point from this route.

We stop and witness unreal mountaintops around us and have no words to describe them, so we create categories: “Gangsta’ Shit,” “Heavy Metal,” and “Death Metal.”

Cheetah, Tani, and Singge, the leaders of LA Riders, are all amped up. They tie up flags and make Buddhist chants to commemorate the occasion.

(The road to Singgey La)

We camp that night in a high altitude site and drink whisky and local wine, which comes in a two-liter sprite bottle, looks like skim milk, and taste terrible.

“Mmm, it’s good,” I tell people.

Two young guys, Ilyas and Sonam from Acoustive Ladakh, are playing some soothing local music, followed by covers of Guns N’ Roses, John Denver, and Pink Floyd. There’s a fire made of dried yak shit, which is warm and somehow doesn’t smell like yak shit.

Everyone gets smashed and I wake up in my tent with a killer headache. I locate my medical kit and pop two Diamox altitude sickness pills, plus two 400 mg Ibuprofen tablets.

I’m ready to ride.

“You already know about alchemy. It is about penetrating to the soul of the world and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you.”

— The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

DAY 3 – Phugtal Monastery
Altitude – ?

It’s morning and we’re zigzagging up big, sandy mountainsides dotted with bright tangerine brush. The sand is so thick it sucks in the rear tire of the bike, causing spins and sandstorms that make all riders vanish into dust.

I fall off my bike on a sandy descent and this guy named Captain Naveen who is a championship dirt bike rider gives me some pointers. “When you ride, don’t use the brakes or clutch, just ride and surf the sand,” he says.

I take Naveen’s advice and don’t fall again.

(I call this one ‘Mount Death Metal’)

Late afternoon we park our bikes to trek to Phugtal Monastery, which turns out to be more deadly than the moto ride.

It’s an hour-long catwalk on cliffs set high above the Zanskar River: Buddhist Gangsta’ Shit. The path is just a six inches wide in places and Cheetah and the boys jog across briskly, as I lag behind.

Next we cross a bridge made of local sticks that puts the bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to shame. Man, Indian guys can’t even go an hour without cheating death. Death Junkies.

Finally we reach the Phugtal Monastery, which is built around a massive meditation cave that have been visited by monks for 2,500 years.

(Me at the Phugtal Moastery with ancient meditation cave seen at top)

Altitude 16,580

Day 4 is all Death Metal with 20 glacial river and waterfall crossings, plus every hardcore off-road element: sand, mud, gravel and steep inclines of jagged stone.

I manage the water on my Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc which is built like a tank. The prince of a local village is riding with us today and doesn’t fare so well, tipping and falling underneath his Thunderbird 350cc in the middle of a big river. He gets up and makes it across with some help from the crew.

(Lalit crossing like a boss, followed by the prince, set to Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’.)

A guy from Delhi named Shared, whose been riding a Himalayan with no prior off-road experience reaches Shinku La pass first, followed by me and Cheetah. Everyone else is either pushing a bike, picking up a tipped bike, or being pushed up the incline.

We’re too cold and wet to enjoy the glacial lake below the summit, so we snap a few pics and ride down the backside of the mountain, attempting to beat the setting sun.

(On my bike at Shinku La pass, 16,580 ft.)

Altitude 15,912

Day 5 was supposed to be the last day but Cheetah announces there will be a Day 6. Fuck. We ride somewhere I can’t remember.

I have Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” playing in my head for hours thanks to a Russian girl named Vera who turned me onto the song a few weeks back.

So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game

I mentally pause the song to curse the endless rocks beneath my tires. They’ve been jarring my wrist and spine a hundred times a minute for the past five days. I yell out from under my helmet, “Die fuckers!”

We’re riding at 15,000 feet and my shoes and pants are soaked from more water crossings and no waterproof gear. I’m shivering as I just have a T-shirt under my replica Superdry army jacket, because my bike ate my Patagonia jacket on Day 1.

Just before sunset I tap out and give my keys to a young kid named Stanzin in the Gypsy behind. It’s my first time riding in the Gypsy which is available for tired and injured riders. I take off my wet shoes, eat some chocolate, and smoke a cigarette with the guys.

(This is the bike, this is the road, enjoy the ride)

A couple hours later it’s dark and our Gypsy headlights die on a cliff-side, winding mountain road with no guardrails. The driver keeps going in the dark, cursing in Ladakhi and flicking his fingers in the air to punctuate each curse.

Now it’s pitch black and freezing. Stanzin riding my bike ahead crashes on a bumpy spot and just misses falling off the cliff to certain death.

The guys fix the Gypsy lights; we smoke a joint and finally reach the small mountain settlement of Pang. We all gather around a wood stove in a small restaurant, eat some Veg Thali and pass out in the backroom under some blankets.

Altitude 17,582

In the morning I check with the kid and he’s fine. My bike has a broken headlight, a missing rear view mirror, and won’t shift down into second gear. I’m ready to ride again.

We’re cruising along the Manali-Leh highway, which has big stretches of desert and massive canyons. It’s sunny but cold, so we all stop on the side and lie on the asphalt to absorb its heat like a bunch of biker lizards.

We reach Taglangla, the world’s third highest road at 17,582 feet, click some photos, and then begin our long and curvy descent back to Leh.

Everyone is tired but must face one last indignity: the coronavirus checkpoint, where they stick long swabs up our noses, tickling our brains. We just cheated death a hundred times. No one is worried about coronavirus.

We form a “Rolling Thunder” convoy and ride into Leh 23 vehicles deep with LA Riders flags flying high on the backs. Heavy Metal shit.

I head back to my hotel and have my first shower in a week.

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