We’ve carried out several expeditions to the Indian Himalyan region over the years and here’s some of the top tips for trip planning and preparation.
Time to go
The Himalayas are a high altitude destination affected by the monsoon seasons. A great time to visit is in the mid summer period around July – August as the snows in the mountain passes will have melted, there’s enough warmth in the day for comfortable riding and the rainfall is at a minimum. Outside of these time prepare for a somewhat colder experience! Local Indian riders are an incredibly hardy bunch and will ride in conditions that are daunting for many western travellers; consider what you’re capable of rather than what others round you are planning in terms of daily distance and average moving times.
Overall Kit and Equipment
Travelling light is alway right. Whilst you instinctively know that, doing without the creature comforts and travel luxuries you’re used to can be a wrench. It’s definitely possible to carry too much. As a rule of thumb if the gear doesn’t fulfil a really vital role; for safety and recovery, warmth and weather proofing or navigation then it needs to be put in the ‘luxury’ bracket and considered an extra weight. As a rule of thumb plan on using everything you’ve brought along and the only items you bring but don’t touch should be in your trauma med pack, your engine/tyre repair kit and survival/bivvy gear.
Because you’re likely to have to fly and travel into the Himalayas off your bike, bringing the full set of latest Gore tex riding gear will be a hassle. We’ve found that a lightweight and semi-casual set of riding kit suits most situations. There’s a lot of bike jeans on the market, teamed with a layering approach for the top half with cotton t-shirts, flannel shirts and a guernsey pullover you can keep the wind out and still not have to double up on your clothing. But resist the temptation to ditch the key safety clothing you need, as a minimum helmet gloves, boots and an armoured casual jacket and trousers will prevent the majority of injuries.
Daily Riding Planning
It’s all about the moving average you’re capable of sustaining over the long term. There’s always a chai stop or a sleeping platform (carry a good compressible sleeping bag!) along the road so you don’t have to stick to towns that are just too far away for comfort. If you know what your best speed over the ground is then you’re well set to plan ahead. Your moving average covers the stops you’ll take, how long they generally are, your average riding speed, and if you’re in a group then it’s based on the pace of the slowest. Leave a safety margin for road closures, accidents and unforeseen events and aim to be in your overnight location at least 45 mins before last light. Riding at night massively increases the objective danger on the roads and should be avoided as much as possible!
Last year, in the run-up to the football world cup, David Beckham and a couple of his mates decided to take a bike trip into the heart of the Amazon rainforest. 32 years as a footballer meant that David had never really embarked on any kind of adventure holiday. Of course, he had travelled the world, but nearly always in his professional capacity, and invariably on a tight schedule. This was to be the first time he would visit places where nobody knew his name.
For the trip, the boys didn’t ride the kind of BMW or Yamaha off-road bikes that one might have expected. Too obvious, and too Charlie and Ewan. Instead, they mounted themselves on modern, customised Triumph road bikes. Much cooler. And much more retro. The bikes were worked on both in the UK and Brazil and, in truth, the exercise involved taking bits off as much as putting bits on. An all over black paint job, the removal of mudguards, a custom exhaust and seat, and a new set of off-road tyres was all it took.
Despite the apparent unsuitability of the bikes, they held up well in even the toughest of conditions, demonstrating perhaps that modern Triumphs are just as rugged and dependable as their famous antecedents. Recently, Motolegends decided to make a replica of the Beckham bike and better yet, decided to give it away in a competition. This is their build story: They acquired a donor bike, a 2001 model, from a local ex-policeman. Even though it was over 10 years old, it had been meticulously looked after, and so presented an excellent starting point for the project. The build was actually incredibly simple, and although the end result is quite dramatic, the work is well within the scope of any budding , ‘bike-shed’ mechanic.
Part one was the strip-down. Off came the mudguards, the indicators, the rear grab rail, the exhaust, and so on. What was left was treated to a matt black paint job that included the wheels, fuel tank, engine casing, cylinder head and, handlebars on. The wheels were re-shod with Metzler Karoo 3s as per the original bike; rubber fork gaiters were added, the seat was re-trimmed, and a new rear mudguard and number plate holder was fabricated. The pièce de résistance, and the most expensive single part on the bike, was the Arrow exhaust. But it only comes in a metal finish, so it was sent off for a black ceramic coating. A bracket was fabricated, to allow it to hang correctly off the side of the bike.
Final touches involved moving the rear brake master cylinder to a new location, as the rear brake positioning couldn’t have been at all convenient on the original bikes. Discrete indicators were then fitted front and back. On the Amazon bikes there were no rear indicators; just front ones. The end result is a bike that somehow seems more than the sum of its parts. There are hugely complicated and intricate builds out there that sometimes fail to hit the spot. With the baffle removed, the bike sounds far better than a Bonneville has any right to. Being lighter than the original, it handles well, and the Metzeler tyres give a purposeful look, without any real detrimental effect as far as rideabilty and comfort are concerned. This bike is simplicity itself, yet has an undeniable wow factor to it.
Finding the best minimalist adventure bike is a perennial source of debate and argument amongst the adventure motorcycling fraternity. Deciding what bike to buy is also one of the most common reasons to research online for help, advice and information. We’ve put together a list of the most important factors to consider whilst choosing your perfect bike, and a guide on some of the best and most popular minimalist adventure motorcycles out there.
Minimalist. We’ll consider bikes up to around 590cc as ‘minimalist’. These bikes will offer few comforts or concessions to long distances on the tarmac. They’ll generally be enduro focussed and likely to have engines around 400cc.
Very minimalist bikes appeal to the true overland traveller as they can be easily lifted and moved over obstacles, return great MPG and are generally easy to repair.
Deciding Factors. There are some pretty key requirements for a minimalist adventure motorcycle; here are the top ones.
Weight. Lighter bikes are easier to ride, particularly off road in the wet, and easier to lift (or manhandle onto a vehicle if need be). There’s also a trade off with a great MPG return – useful for long distances between fill ups and for saving money.
Luggage. Because the engines are smaller there is a need to pack light and scrutinise the kit taken much more carefully. The bikes are often designed for a solo rider with no equipment so care must be taken to keep the overall weight on the frame and luggage points to a minimum.
Here’s some of our recommended lightweight adventure motorcycles for minimalist overland travel.
The definitive lightweight adventure motorcycle of the nineties. Still out there as the cheap option. Production stopped in 1999 and the model was superseded by the DRZ400.
• Simple engine and ease of access for maintenance
• Light weight makes for good off road ability
• Plenty of spares available worldwide.
• Getting a bit long in the tooth – may be high mileage and heavily used.
The 398cc single in the DRZ400 is well balanced for a mix of off road ability and some on road power. With a few refinements it can be made to carry gear and rider in comfort.
• Robust, reliable and easy to work on
• Plentiful spares available
• Limited road power
• Tank range of 100 miles on standard tank.
A great all rounder with a bias towards enthusiastic off road use. Virtually indestructible with a great reputation for reliability these bikes have a loyal following and deservedly so. With some modifications they can be made more capable for long distance but not all will appreciate the lack of comfort or refinement.
In adventure motorcycling terms there is a (very) small group of true middleweight ‘all rounder’ motorcycles that are ready for the adventure rider. It’s the combination of a larger engine size and a greater power coupled with a relatively light frame and fairing that works. It’s a good mix for off road – up to a point – and fine on the road for long distances and riding comfort whilst on the tarmac.
Middleweight in this market segment is probably around 700 – 850cc. The engine designs vary but many are versions of v-twin or parallel twin layouts.
Here’s some of the main factors to consider;
If the bike is too heavy (mostly caused by being designed for predominantly on road use) then it’ll handle poorly off road. The centre of gravity is likely to be high and possibly over the front; limiting agility and responsiveness and making for an uncomfortable trip on the dirt. A high weight also reduces MPG figures and can stress a frame when it’s loaded with overland gear and fuel.
The power to weight ration should be the driving factor in a middleweight bike choice. If you’re in the business of trading off road capability for on road ability then you will want a punchy engine that can manage sustained high speeds for long distance work.
This is a critical area. There are many contenders for the middleweight adventure motorcycle segment but only a few are genuinely worthy of consideration. To be in this list the bike must be able to go off road properly. Many look like they could do but few actually cut the mustard once on the dirt. Road biased set ups will generally have limited ground clearance and soft suspension. Whilst this can be changed with a set of TKCs and an adjustment to the fork preload it won’t be enough to get a road bike into the ball park and competing with a Dakar design.
Here’s a list of some of the best true middleweight adventure motorcycles out there:
Released in 2013 as an upgrade to the F800GS model, the ‘Adventure’ F800GS comes with 798cc in a parallel twin making a claimed 85bhp @ 7500rpm.
• 24 litre underseat tank increases range and lowers the centre of gravity.
• Massive amount of touring accessories available.
• Expensive BMW premium.
• Still relatively heavy at 230KG.
A very capable top-of-the-range adventure motorcycle. Powerful and capable off road and equally impressive on road, it’s a good all rounder that minimises the compromises common to this market segment. You get what you pay for; and in this case you certainly do pay for it!
A classic middleweight design; 799cc, 215kg wet weight and plenty of real world power with 94bhp @ 9400rpm. In line three cylinder engine produces plenty of low down torque as well.
• Great power – able to be used on and off road.
• Off road handling is very good. Low centre of gravity and high agility.
• Spare and parts availability likely to be limited outside US and EU.
• Short screen and (relatively) small tank at 19litres.
A great all round option. The Triumph Tiger 800XC handles on and off road with the best of them. Triumph has taken on board the lessons of the big trailie era and in the 800XC has made a real tiger off road.
The original Africa Twin was based on the Paris-Dakar NXR750 rally bike. Produced between 1989 and 2003, the Africa Twin was an adventure stalwart. Combining legendary Honda reliability with a 742cc v-twin design it had loads of useable power and great ability off road.
• Build quality and parts availability.
• Close to perfect balance of power, weight and dirt riding credibility.
• Now out of production, also not sold in the US.
• Heavy and slow compared to the latest generation.
As close as the last two decades have come to the holy grail of middleweight adventure hero – this is the bike you would choose for an overland expedition.
Finding the best lightweight adventure bike is a perennial source of debate and argument amongst the adventure motorcycling fraternity. Deciding what bike to buy is also one of the most common reasons to research online for help, advice and information. We’ve put together a list of the most important factors to consider whilst choosing your perfect bike, and a guide on some of the best and most popular motorcycles out there.
Adventure. Everyone has their own definition of ‘adventure’. For some they will spend most of the time on packed dirt tracks, fire breaks and desert; perhaps with the odd stretch of tarmac thrown in to connect the trip together. Others will spend 90% of the journey on tarmac, only venturing on the occasional foray off road. Most riders will fall somewhere in the middle, looking for the best adventure orientated dual sport machine for them and the kind of riding they do.
Riding. There may also be a delta between the kind of riding people want to do and the kind of riding they actually do. Adventure motorcycling’s ultimate vision is all about heading off into the distance on that trip of a lifetime around the world, ready for all the challenges ahead. The most common riding we actually do is either a regular commute or longer weekend trips at best. In the US or Europe most of the miles are done on tarmac.
Lightweight. We’ll consider bikes up to around 600cc as ‘lightweight’. There are lots of other designs that change the weight, power and appeal of these dual sport motorcycles but the outstanding design component is that they’ll all be enduro styled and able to carry a rider and equipment for a couple of day’s riding on and off road.
Deciding Factors. There are some pretty key requirements for a lightweight adventure motorcycle; here are the top ones.
Weight. ‘Light is might’ and ‘Light is right’. No two ways about it. There is nothing like the amount of sheer pain and effort of riding a bike that is too heavy to pick up, overloaded with gear and fuel in a challenging off road context. Lighter bikes are easier to ride, particularly off road in the wet, and easier to lift (or manhandle onto a vehicle if need be). There’s also a trade off with a better MPG return – useful for long distances between fill ups and for saving money.
Reliability. Once you’re on the road you’ll be happier with a more reliable bike because you rely on it. Any machine that’s solid, easy to work on and with a plentiful supply of spares will be better than an exotic bike with major electrical problems. The truth is that adventure motorcycles get exposed to a lot of wear and tear and the elements. They will break down at some point.
The aim is to reduce the number of times or impact of this when it does happen. Bikes that are easy to work on will make it possible for you to not only repair if need be but also stay ahead of trouble; with regular servicing and replacing of worn parts.
The amount of power needed to go round the world is much less than the amount of power most dual sport bikes make. A healthy, lean power-to-weight ratio is the holy grail. Useable and agile power will get you through tricky off road sections, over obstacles and even out of trouble around other vehicles on the roads. The top end of the engine power bands will help with long distance cruising in comfort and overall road ability. Too small an engine and you may get trapped between trucks or around other road users, too big an engine and the bike is going to be overweight and handle badly when you do get off road.
Engine. The engine design will affect the amount of power that you can put through the tyres in different situations. In general most adventure bikes favour a variation of one – three cyclinders, usually offset or opposed to produce more torque lower down the rpm range. This helps with low speed control and handling in off road situations.
The bike’s frame needs to be strong enough to take the weight of at least the rider, a full load of equipment and spare pack fuel as well as the possibility of a pillion passenger.
Luggage attachment points on the frame, panniers options and positioning of the exhaust system affects this. Think about what kind of luggage you want early on and plan ahead.
Extras to consider
Fuel tank – can you fit an aftermarket one to increase range?
Handlebar risers – are there risers available to aid control when stood up?
Screen and wind protection – is it sufficient for you?
Storage and luggage – how much do you really need?
Kick start – peace of mind when the electric start fails!
Having read this far you’ve hopefully got an idea of what to look for – and what might suit you and your style of riding. Here’s a compilation of some of the best lightweight bikes available:
KTM 690 Enduro
The KTM middleweight entry to the Dakar Rally from 2008 – 2010. Class leading power to weight ratio and a bulletproof single cylinder 654cc engine. KTM have designed this bike and it’s engine to fit at the upper end of the lightweight adventure motorcycle group (hence it’s included here).
• Lightweight overall and excellent power
• Excellent off road ability
• Limited long range comfort and protection
• Not many equipment options for hard panniers
A hard core option for dedicated trail riding and off road adventure. Few compromises made to long distance ability. Lots of power makes it a popular hypermotard model for street use rather than a true ’round the world’ option. KTM build may indicate high maintenance and can suffer from electrical gremlins with the speedo cabling. For short trips off road it’s hard to beat.
Honda’s virtually unchanged answer to the lightweight adventure market has been part of their long running XR production series since 1993.
• Great off road
• Reliable, easy to maintain engine.
• Limited comforts on road
• Fewer equipment options.
Lots of owners upgrade the tank and seat .
It’s noted for excellent useable power off road and has a more dirt capable focus than it’s nearest competition (KLR and DR series). It probably suffers slightly as a trade off once on the road with a weaker frame and fewer hard luggage options.
Andy and Emilie recently rode a Royal Enfield motorcycle from Delhi, India to Yangon, Myanmar, passing through Nepal and Bhutan along the way. This made them the first foreigners to cross independently and under their own steam from India into Myanmar in several decades.
The seven week, 6,500 km odyssey took them through high mountains and dense jungle and across some of the dodgiest regions and worst roads that the world has to offer. Having finally made it safe and sound back to Yangon, below they tell us five big lessons that they learned from the trip.
1. Maybe that insane trip idea is actually possible
The idea of picking up my old motorcycle in Delhi and riding it through India, Nepal and Bhutan back to our current home in Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma if you prefer) was something I suggested to my girlfriend as a joke one day on the train to Mandalay. But then we started fantasising about just how cool it might be and the image became a little hard to get rid of. So just how crazy an idea was this?
Pretty crazy, as it turned out – first and foremost because the border between India and Myanmar is closed to foreigners. Second, the route would have to pass through some of India’s dodgiest states in the country’s restive northeast. Plus there’s the unpredictable road conditions in the Himalayas, which looked to be some of the most challenging in the world. Then came the innumerable red tape involved in transporting a motorcycle across five international borders. And finally the small matter that it’s actually illegal to ride a bike in Yangon.
It was quite understandable, therefore, that we couldn’t find evidence of any independent travellers who’d driven this route previously. But just the names of the places that the route would take us through – Kathmandu, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nagaland – were enough to convince us that we should give it a shot. And so it was that a few weeks later we found ourselves on a flight to India, not quite believing what we were about to try and do.
2. The places with the roughest reputations might surprise you
Our route took us through India’s restive north-east, a bunch of states practically cut off from the rest of the country where a smorgasbord of tribes live in remote hills and jungles and bear little or no resemblance to the rest of the nation in terms of language, religion or look. Many wonder how they ever got attached to India and are actively fighting to reverse the situation. This struggle for their own homelands has made Nagaland and Manipur two of India’s most dangerous states. Regular skirmishes between army and rebels, frequent bombings and a general feeling of lawlessness prevail. Criminal gangs allegedly smuggle drugs and guns in from Burma and highway robbery is an all too common occurrence.
As we crossed into Nagaland, bouncing over an old iron bridge and signing in at a rickety military check-post before being allowed to proceed, it was immediately clear that we were entering a different world. There was an instant deterioration of the roads, thatched huts replaced the brick houses of Assam, and military roadblocks and patrols made us feel that we were entering occupied territory. The stunning beauty of the lush green hills swathed in mist could only temporarily divert us from an overall feeling of eeriness and unease due to those tales we’d heard of rebels, drug traffickers and rogue Indian army units that were apparently somewhere out there.
Things were not made easier by the confused, hard stares of the few people we passed, seemingly shocked to see outsiders, and the fact that a lot of the men had locally-made rifles slung casually over their shoulders. First impressions can be deceptive though and in fact the next days brought us into contact with some of the most open, hospitable, and good-humoured people we’d met on our journey. On the way to Kohima, we were treated to the most abysmal jungle “road” of the trip which ended up defeating us but almost immediately we were taken in by an old couple and their daughter in a tiny hilltop village. They dried our clothes around the open fire and insisted on cooking us a hearty meal while urging us to “write a letter to the King of England” once we got home, drawing his attention to the cause of Naga independence.
As we continued on towards Manipur’s state capital of Imphal, which had just been bombed four times in as many weeks, we were suddenly surrounded by the town’s local biker gang, the Royal Riders, who had heard about our trip and ridden out to the city limits to escort us in. They made us feel right at home though our nerves were not completely calmed as it also happened to be Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, which involves an all-night blitz of fireworks that left us never quite sure whether the last huge bang was just another Roman candle being let off or rather a home made bomb exploding.
3. Those best laid plans…
We would never have started the trip if we’d insisted on being sure that it was feasible before setting out. And from day one we realised we needed to throw a lot of the planning that we had done out of the window. It was a great reminder that not all of the knowledge you need is available through Google. The condition of a road, the availability of a mechanic, the temperament of a border guard, the safety of an area, these are all things you only find out by extreme proximity, which means embracing uncertainty but also allows the journey to remain mysterious and to unfurl and evolve each day, with you never quite knowing what’s going to happen next.
Our route was soon out of the window as roads which had been said to exist turned out to be washed away. The timetable also got binned pretty fast as we had failed to anticipate that, for example:
The road through the Himalayan foothills from Kathmandu to the border that they said had just been finished would actually turn into a goat track half way along.
The steering, battery, clutch and suspension of our bike would all fail on successive days, and then the exhaust would fall off.
The yummy though slightly fishy dish from the market in Kathmandu would turn out to be riddled with some particularly nasty bacteria that would oblige me to spend the next three days in bed.
We had lots of good delays too though, such as the irresistible smaller, rougher road that led up to an old monastery and just begged to be explored, that inviting river we were riding alongside in southern Nepal which lured us in for an afternoon dip, and the wonderful people all the way along from Delhi to Rangoon who insisted we sit down and have tea with them while explaining what on earth we thought we were doing. Our conclusion: always allow at least twice the time you think you’ll need!
4. You’re probably worrying about the wrong things before the trip
We had sat fretting about getting hijacked and robbed, feeling we’d be sitting ducks as two lone westerners riding through some of the remotest parts of South Asia. As it happened though, never once did we even actually feel genuinely threatened. We worried that the border crossings would involve interminable questions and delays and that we probably had only a 50-50 chance of actually getting through to Myanmar. In reality we were greeted with friendly smiles, a little curiosity, and all-in-all a pretty efficient and fast service and not once were we fingered for a bribe.
What we should have worried about instead was road conditions. Sure we expected lots of potholes, but we were not quite prepared for the extent of knee-deep water-logged mud and roads made entirely out of fist-size loose rocks, the lack of bridges across rivers and the rockfalls that occur in the mountains with surprising frequency. When the road got better we were instead faced with a heady mix of brightly painted trucks, rickety buses, speeding cars and weaving motorcycles to contend with, united in a desire to get wherever they were going as quickly as possible with scant regard for the laws of physics or the basic tenets of road safety. And finally there were the dogs, goats, yaks, pigs, and odd camel who were ever keen to assert their right of way.
5. Visit Bhutan once in your life
India, Nepal and Myanmar are all wonderful, fascinating, beautiful countries that we can’t recommend highly enough. But our passage through Bhutan was simply magical. The country strictly controls tourism and we had spent several months organising to drive our motorcycle through the country – doing it alone is an absolute no-no as all travellers must be supervised and have their itinerary pre-approved. We were greeted by a tiny Himalayan kingdom of less than a million people sandwiched between China and India.
It’s the home of the concept of Gross National Happiness, a place where no tree can be cut down nor any animal killed, where tobacco is banned, where all buildings are built in the traditional style and decorated with ejaculating phalluses in reverence to a certain “Divine Madman” and where there’s a national park dedicated to the protection of the yeti. We spent ten days or so winding our way through this spectacularly beautiful and pristine wonderland of soaring snow-capped peaks, hidden green valleys and magnificent fortresses and monasteries, topped by colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind. We ended up totally enthralled by the natural splendour, openness of spirit and deep cultural reverence that permeate this land and its people. Go there.