They say everything looks better from inside a motorcycle helmet. Road trips make no exception. With unpredictable conditions and danger lurking behind every turn, there are a few iconic drives in the world that are simply brutal and nerve-wracking. In their case, extreme is an understatement. And it is precisely the challenge of beating the odds that makes them so appealing to some.
Their narrow mountain passes, vast sands, arid plains and hairpin turns take your physical and mental endurance to the limit. The rewards are plentiful, though. By the mud-smudged window of a bus, at the wheel of a 4X4 or, even better, on a motorcycle tour, the unbelievable scenery and countless surprises along the way will give you the adventure of a lifetime. So brace yourself, because here come the craziest, most extreme road trips in the world, guaranteed to send shivers down your spine!
Manali-Leh Highway, India
Drive through high-mountain passes and arid plains, pass by glacial melts cascading over tall cliffs and staggering views of snow-capped mountains. This is the Manali-Leh Highway, a high-altitude road winding from Manali in the Himachal Pradesh Region all the way to Leh in Ladakh. Stretching for 490 km (304 miles), it is one of the world’s highest motorcycle roads, cutting through the Indian Himalayas at an average height of 3,000 meters (9,850 ft) and reaching a maximum altitude of 5,420 m (17.782 ft).
Touring the Manali-Leh Highway is something every rider dreams of, a holy pilgrimage some may call it. It usually takes two to three days to cover the distance, be it on a bus, 4X4 or motorbike, and you can spend the first night in the town of Keylong. If you push yourself, the tour can be completed in as little as one day. Please be advised that the altitude can be extremely harsh on the body, and going too fast up and down the roof of the world increases the chances of getting altitude sickness.
The Manali-Leh Highway is not a beginner-friendly tour. The unpredictable weather of the Himalayas and the traffic demand prior adventure motorcycle touring experience. Due to the abundance of snow it receives most of the year, the highway is only open for roughly four months in summer, from June to mid-October.
Guoliang Tunnel Road, China
Mesmerizing yet frightening at the same time, definitely not for the claustrophobic, the Guoliang Tunnel cuts through the rocky Taihang Mountains in the Hunan Province, deep in the heart of China.
In the 1970s, a handful of villagers, 13 to be more precise, used 4,000 hammers and 12 tons of steel to carve this road into the rocks. It took them five years to complete, and in 1977 the tunnel was officially opened to traffic, connecting the isolated village of Guoliang to the rest of the world.
Around 4 meters (13 ft) wide and 5 meters (16 ft) high, this one-way tunnel has no less than 30 “windows” that open up to the stunning mountain scenery and gorges beneath. You will pass from warming mountain sun to cool shade, and please try not to get distracted by the view. After all, they call it “the road that does not forgive mistakes” for a reason.
Canning Stock Route, Australia
In Western Australia, the Canning Stock Route is one of the world’s most isolated public roads. Running 1,820 km (1,130 miles) from Wiluna to Hall’s Creek in the Kimberley Region, it is the longest and most remote stock route on Earth too. An iconic 4WD journey, it is also the ultimate off-road motorbike tour.
The legendary route crosses four deserts – the Gibson, Great Sandy, Little Sandy and the Tanami. It passes gorges and oak forests, historic wells and rock-art sites that date back tens of thousands of years. It also offers the chance to meet and mingle with the inhabitants of these wild and rugged lands, the Ngurrara, Tjurabalan, Martu and Birriliburu tribes, the true custodians of the route.
Beginning from either side, Canning Stock Route takes at least 15-18 days to complete. There are five spots along the way with fuel and supplies, but for the most of the journey, it will be only you and the Australian red sand dunes. Proper planning is essential and prior desert driving experience is mandatory. Off-road motorcycling experience will come in handy, as there are some 800 sandhills to cross. Best time to go is during the cooler months, between May and September. In addition, a permit is required to enter the grounds of one of the least inhabited places on the planet.
Originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway, the 2,142 kilometers (1,330 miles) that run from Chengdu in Sichuan to Lhasa in Tibet make are among the world’s riskiest. At the same time, this wild and rugged high-elevation highway is an excellent chance to explore Tibet as it once was, on a bus, a 4X4 or an adventure motorcycle tour.
Passing 14 mountains with heights ranging between 4,000 and 5,000 meters (13,000-16,400 ft), this road trip takes 15 days or more to complete if you’re not in a hurry. Taking your time does have its perks, as the roof of the world is revealed before your eyes – snow-capped peaks, vast arid plains, deep gorges, glacial lakes, remote villages and Tibetan temples.
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is as charming as it is treacherous. It is deemed one of the most dangerous roads in the world, landslides and avalanches being a common hazard. Oxygen is scarce, half the amount at sea level and altitude sickness can strike at any given moment.
Karakoram Highway, Pakistan and China
A centuries-old trail that was once part of the famous Silk Road network of trading routes, the Karakoram Highway holds a few records of its own. It is the world’s highest altitude international paved road. On the Pakistani side, the Khunjerab National Park is one of the last remaining strongholds where the elusive snow leopard still roams free. Plus, the road goes through the Khunjerab Pass, the highest international border crossing on Earth, 4,690 m (15,400 ft) above sea level.
A total of 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) take buses, 4WD vehicles and motorcycles from Abbottabad in Pakistan all the way to Kashgar in China. The highway passes through the majestic Karakoram Mountain Range, offering stunning views of the mighty Himalayas’ highest summits, as well as the world’s second tallest mountain, K2.
Best time to go is spring, between May and June, and early autumn, between September and October. Parts of the road are closed during winter due to snowfall. In case of heavy rainfall, please note that parts of the road can be closed in summer too.
North Yungas Road a.k.a. the Death Road, Bolivia
El Camino de la Muerte, North Yungas Road or simply the Death Road, can make even the bravest riders have second thoughts. The road runs for 80 km (50 miles) from La Paz to Coroico in Yungas region, a popular starting point for other adventure trips in the Bolivian Amazon.
In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank called it the “world’s most dangerous road,” and an estimated 200-300 people die on this narrow road each year. This doesn’t stop thrill-seekers, though. The road is a tourist attraction, and is particularly appealing to mountain bikers, offering a 64-kilometer (40 miles) stretch of spectacular downhill riding. And where mountain bikers go down, adventure motorcycle tours go up.
Built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners during the Chaco War, the Death Road, as it has come to be known as, cuts through the steep terrain. Bound by cliffs on one side and flanked by 600-meter (2,000 ft) drop-offs on the other, most of the road is only 3.2 meters wide (10 ft), which is about the size of a single vehicle. A bike or motorcycle are more useful here than a 4X4, especially when a bus is coming from the opposite direction. It’s best to avoid the rainy season between mid-December to early March. However, bad weather can kick in at any time and heavy rainfall leads to mudslides, tumbling stone and waterfalls forming over the sheer cliffs.
Did these ‘insane’ road trips spark your curiosity? Did they make you want to hop on your bike and set off into the unknown? Now is as good a time as any to put your stamina to the test and quench your adrenaline thirst!
Would you like to go off-the-beaten path and into the wild? Go to BookMotorcycleTours.com and choose an extreme motorcycle tour guaranteed to widen your horizon.
This article was written by Octavia Drughi, a passionate mountaineer, rock climber and adventure addict who likes to take it slow and enjoy the view.