June 21, 2014

Leh Ladakh Solo Bike Ride Part 1 of 5 (Mumbai - Manali)

Mumbai-Leh-Delhi July 07 - July 29, 2012

I would count the days of this journey as some of the best days of my life. I made some very good and inspiring friends during this travel. I have realized that India is really the true beautiful place to be explored. During this journey, I went through some tough times, where I was helped by others. There were times when others were in trouble and I helped them out. The human spirit of brotherhood is something, which evidently came out of this trip. And not to forget I felt the true patriotism, when I saw Indian army soldiers manning this tough terrain.

Many of my friends had been in touch with me during this whole journey. Many of  them followed it diligently and asked me to write a travelogue. Some asked whether I had kept a diary.

I have tried my best to capture the journey through the photographs, which I took during the journey . I have tried to explain the situations in which I reached a particular place, what I saw there, how I felt and what I had experienced there. I hope I am able to take to you Ladakh as a vicarious rider. I hope I am able to do justice with the heaven that Ladakh is. The place is as beautiful and breathtaking as you can ever imagine.

The content here is first part of the five parts of my travelogue which covers my bike ride from Mumbai to Leh & Ladakh via Manali and back to Delhi. You can read other parts of the travelogue here:

Part 2: Manali - Leh

Part 3: Khardung-La & Nubra Valley

Part 4: Chang-La & Pangong Tso

Part 5: Leh - Manali - Delhi

I had been dreaming about a trip to Ladakh ever since I realised my passion about biking in 2000. I was in medical college, a graduate school, when I got my first bike (Hero Honda CD100). The bike was meant to be used for commuting from hostel to college but I ended up exploring most of the western Maharashtra on it. With time, thoughts started flying, and I began dreaming about riding in mountains, crossing tough passes but it was a bit ambitious for me. In 2004, I came to know of a bikers group “60kph” where members used to ride across India on bikes, mainly Enfields.

Driven by desire, I bough an Enfield the moment I started earning as a Doctor in 2005 and applied for club membership of 60kph. But as luck would have it, Ladakh (the Mecca of bikers) kept eluding me for one reason or another. A drastic change in career, from Doctor to Banker, kept me busy. Finally, it was 2012, when one year into new profession, some savings and three weeks in my kitty, I decided to wait no more and headed to Himalayas to fulfill a long held dream.

I was wary of the condition of rented bikes in Manali, so I decided to drive my own Yamaha FZ16 (nicknamed Saarthi) from Mumbai to Leh. It’s a 150cc, 12bhp bike which had been with me for over 3 years and has been a trusted companion. I had driven it from Delhi to Kolkata and back in 2010 and found it perfectly reliable. Tubeless tires in the bike was an added advantage which ensured that punctures won't be much of an hassle.

Day 1 - Day 10: Mumbai - Delhi - Manali - Leh

Day 1- Journey starts:

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Manali

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I couldn't agree more...!!

I made a promise to myself of not following any deadline, any timeline, or any over-exertion. Today I can say, I kept that promise except for that one time, while crossing Rohtang on my way back to Manali, but more about that later.

The day started at 11 am. I drove out to outcast skies in Mumbai. It started raining the moment I touched western expressway. Soon I had to change from my shoes to floaters. Poor shoes, they remained wet for next 2 days in my bag.


The ride was great for initial 200 odd kms. I had my first lunch at a dhaba, I so miss those meals now. I rested for free on the offered cots. I frequently compare Indian Dhabas to "Apple" showrooms, as I am told that at an Apple showroom no pushy salesperson asks you why you are there until you decide to approach them. The same happen at these roadside joints.

Somehow, as I neared Surat, these resting places became hard to find and the place was full of farce dhaba that are actually pricy restaurants in the veil of dhabas. I had to take a U-turn and come back two kms to rest for half an hour. It was a place run by a Bikaneri family and one guy told me that the way to Delhi from Surat is via Bikaner! That was an outrageous claim!

Most of the day was a smooth ride on the highways, blessed by the pleasant rain. The only hiccup came when the highway patrol threw me out of Vadodara-A'bad expressway and I had to retreat back 7 kms to take the old highway. I had no idea that the bikes were not allowed on the expressway.

On Ahemdabad Gandhinagar highway, it became difficult to find the exit turn for Udaipur. I realized that I was going in the wrong direction, when all the roads seemed to be heading to Mehsana. I asked few bystanders. I was amused when two guys told me, that I had to go in exactly opposite direction for Udaipur. Anyway, I followed the advice given by these two guys and after confirming with some other persons after 2-3 kms, I was sure that finally I was headed in the right direction to Udaipur.

I was feeling hungry and had decided to give staying overnight at dhaba a shot, so stopped at the first dhaba that I found. And when I looked for time, it was 1 AM and tripmeter read something over 600 kms. 


leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai gandhinagar Delhi Manali

Day 2 - This place, just after Gandhinagar, is called Chandola. The dhaba served only Dal-Bhati. But I was again amazed when he asked me what I want for dinner.

Any way the guy (I forgot his name), who was from a village near udaipur and was working here to support his family at home, was a decent chap who agreed to look after "Saarthi" while I slept at the cot right next to it. Still I lost my cotton gloves at night ( I am sure, he did not take them).
 
Sleeping under open skies ensures you wake up at 6am without an alarm, but I was fresh like anything and wanted to hit road before sun came up (actually wanted to reach some town where I could get another pair of gloves before sun started burning my hands. Usual time of markets opening at 10 seemed eternities away).

Met the first biker on road, though he was going from Udaipur to Mehsana.

Finally, could buy gloves at a place called Bichchiwara after Himmatnagar. Was running out of cash and all of 2 ATMs in the town and one in the next village were out of order (still felt happy to see ATMs everywhere- financial empowerment).

Finally could get cash at Udaipur.

Now stood at a crossing- one to Chittorgarh and another to Beawer. Had been to both the routes in 2006-07 and had found Beawer one more scenic, headed straight for it... (being a solo rider gives you the freedom of changing/updating your plan anytime.. and I love it- being footloose/freebird)...
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Beawar Delhi Manali 
A lake on the beawer route to Ajmer. I was sad looking at the lake as it was an entirely different scenario earlier (2006). See below: 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai beawer Delhi Manali

The day turned out to be very hot. All the memories of my last trip at such hot day in June 2010 from Varanasi to Agra as part of Kolkata to Delhi, came alive. I had to get admitted for 5 days in a hospital after that. Decided to play safe this time and slept at a Dhaba after Nathdwara (one of marble hubs of India) for about 2 hours.

Kept the promise of not overexerting. Drive after that was smooth.

Had difficulty searching for a lodge in Kishengarh but at the end could get a room. Met one guy Surinder Singh Gujjar, who used to manufacture marble cutting machines. Over dinner, he told me almost entire stuff about his trade. I love such interactions..

Day 3: Start at Kanji Guest House, Kishengarh. 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Kishengarh Delhi Manali

The first day when I realised that the trip is going to leave me a lot disorderly when wore the same shirt for third consecutive day. A biker has to travel light and clothes are the first thing to be cut down. Use and throw. I lost 2 shirts in this trip. Gonna buy shirts Rs. 30/- a piece from Kurla station for next ride.

Ride till Jaipur was good but after Jaipur, it was a mess with diversions all along as construction work was going on Delhi-Jaipur stretch. Only respite was the overcast sky in stark contrast to the previous day. And it rained..!!
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Manali

One of the best lunch I had ever had. On Jaipur-Delhi highway. It was very filling and loved the way the they served it, I felt guilty when I could not finish the Saag.

I reached Gurgaon at about 4PM. The moment I crossed Manesar and the city traffic started, I realised that I would not be able to enjoy being here and next 36 hours are going to be a long wait.

Met college friends, rested for one day and started for Manali.

Day 5: Started from home a bit late for Manali, at about 11 am. It had rained in Gurgaon and weather was very pleasant. Crossing Delhi traffic was boring but somehow vehicles move here much faster than Mumbai. Soon I crossed Karnal Bypass and blissful ride while playing hide and seek with rain started.

I lacked few essentials which I bought in Karnal (leather gloves, bike spares etc.).

Whole day I found rain was chasing me. Whenever I drove I overtook it. Whenever I halted, it caught up. So every rest/break meant I had to drive for about half an hour in pleasant drizzle. But all hell broke loose in Ambala where the rain decided to match speed with me and for 25 kms I drove in incessant rains before I gave up and stayed at a petrol pump for 1.5 hrs. Result: plans to reach Yol Camp to meet old time friend shelved. Finally decided to head straight for Manali and stayed at Ropar. The hotel manager there happily offered 50% discount.

Day 6: Start of hills after Roopnagar/Ropar in Punjab.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Roopnagar Ropar Manali

All my luggage was drenched last day and I prayed to find clear sky ahead. But fate had other plans. 10kms into the ride and I found myself wearing raincoat again. 30kms in to the ride and hills started. First sight of all the bliss the world has to offer to travelers esp. bikers.

Riding solo had one problem initially, I never felt like stopping the bike and taking a photograph. It was only the endless drive that pleased me (Ladakh changed this opinion of mine). So it felt irritating whenever I thought of taking snaps. Was running short on cash and search for an ATM ended at a place Swarghat in Himachal. Feels empowered to find ATMs at small places.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Roopnagar Ropar Manali

Lunch near Swarghat. The Kadhi was awesome, Makki roties very tasty and dal was good
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Roopnagar Ropar Manali

As I rode ahead, dhabas with cots which were my favorite resting places became rare. I felt tired and thought of relaxing. But after half an hour of searching for proper dhaba, I couldn't find any. I finally decided to be the real "I" and the made this road side railing a pleasant cot. with Beas flowing below, running water sound and the cool breeze, it was heaven. Slept for half an hour here. :)

Reached Manali at about 7 PM. Hotel Chaman welcomed me. All one needs after such a ride is a hot water bath and a sound sleep. I got both. Got to know about new permits required for crossing Rohtang (though they never checked there whether I had it). Next day with planned bike service and permits and some essentials (most important spare petrol cans), was sure going to be a busy day.

Day 7:

Started the day by searching for a bike mechanic and found one which had got good reviews online. The moment chain-set was opened, I was stunned. It would have ditched me by rohtang, leave apart surviving till Leh. Last 6 days had indeed been rough for the bike. Anyway got faulty parts replaced, rest tuned up. Got some tricks to ramp up bike performance uphills. One being - remove the air filter altogether and let engine get direct air. I am amazed.

Enough of technical stuff for now. Thought of exploring the city. Lonely Planet India guide has been my companion since last 6 years and it has always come handy. Only thing is prices have increased by almost 50% since my edition (2006). A good measure of inflation

Had lunch at Johnson's cafe- the famous "trout". But for someone novice like me, any fish would have passed as trout. But the preparation was tasty.

Next headed to old Manali. Visited Tibet kitchen- had the recommended veg momos which lived up to expectations. Met Chetan there who had left home in hyderabad when 14 years old. Worked in Varanasi for few years and thence keep visiting different cities. Doing restaurant jobs, staying for about a month or so at a place and then to next place. Could tell about most off Indian states. All of 19 years old.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Manali

And for the first time used the dslr. Cloud covered Peaks are an amazing sight.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: Mumbai Delhi Manali

Went to another old section of the city- Vashisth. Kept on searching for a bakery shop "superbake". Found it after crossing the same street for four times, only to be told that they have stopped bakery biz there and only continue it in main Manali. (didn't get the good experience in the main shop)

It's a tough job to try all the recommended food in a city. You have all but only one abdo. Missed Ramky (my MBA batchmate) here.

As the day started coming to an end, excitement started getting adulterated with anxiety. But thanks Gagan, my MBBS batchmate, now a Major in Indian army, options to eventualities were worked out. Friends do come handy. And old friends always. Even though last time you saw each other was 3 years back.

So guys, the moment had arrived. Few things still needed to be worked out. Like how to fit-in 2 plastic cans carrying 5 liters of extra fuel each on my already stuffed Yamaha. God this is the only time I miss my Enfield. That bike could carry your home and there would still be space for more. Anyway managed somehow. I had to manage.

I doubted I would get internet access before Leh. So it was an end to my regular Facebook updates.One thing I admit, Facebook didn't let me feel for a single moment that I was riding solo.