June 22, 2014

Leh Ladakh Solo Bike Ride Part 4 of 5 (Chang-La and Pangong Tso)


This is fourth of my five parts travelogue which covers my bike ride from Mumbai to Leh & Ladakh via Manali and back to Delhi. Please read other parts here:

Part 1: Mumbai - Manali

Part 2: Manali - Leh

Part 3: Khardung-La & Nubra Valley

Part 5: Leh - Manali - Delhi

Day 15:

The sun seems to rise very early here. However hard I tried I could never sleep beyond 6:30am here however tired I was. Still I was on holidays. So got out of bed only at 8.

I had learned to put all things of frequent use in bungee nets atop the packed luggage. So I had stopped unpacking the whole luggage for night stay now. Therefore getting ready for start of day’s ride was smooth and easy.
Got the cash at an ATM where a few soldiers from Haryana spotted the bike. First thing they asked me was: Has ICICI sponsored this trip for you? It was not. And I never did try for it. The guidance I had got in the past was to avoid sponsors as then you lose the freedom of being spontaneous on journeys and end up meeting deadlines to finish the trip as per the schedule agreed upon.
"Tank full, bottle full" had become my pet statement at petrol pumps. I stopped at a mechanic shop to get air pressure checked, but ended up checking it myself when the owner just threw the pressure gauge towards me:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

After driving for about 40km on Leh-Manali highway till Karu, I took diversion to left for Changla and Pangong. Another check post to register and I moved ahead. The milestones here were a bit confusing and I had to rectify my route sometimes to be on right track. The road was as beautiful as you could imagine:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Just after this last stretch of plains, the ascent for Changla pass started. I had the stories of difficulties faced by the Mumbai biker whom I met yesterday at Khalsar, fresh in my mind. Anyway, let's face what comes along the way.
I saw a very scenic village in the valley is "Shakti". Dorji, my host in Leh, belonged to Shakti. It was almost the most idyllic place which I had drawn on painting in schools. A hut with moutains in background, fields and streams nearby, clouds in the sky.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I could not stop myself from halting the ascent and clicking snaps time and again.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake 
The ascent to Changla is one of the most remarkable after Baralachala (from Darcha/Manali side). One feels daunted by the revelation of challenge as one looks at tiny shapes of vehicles moving near top of hills in distance. Would Saarthi and I be able to do it? I did not have a clue.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Finally reached the top without any hassles. Saarthi had started scaling heights where seemingly bigger bikes have been faltering. The scene here was not very different from Khardung-La top. though the snow at the top seemed a bit more than Khardung-La

Reaching the top was refreshing. The breeze was soothing cold. And the thrill of entering into changthang plateau where Gaurav Jani had filmed "Riding solo to the top of the world" was great.

The top had a temple dedicated to Changla Baba. Did i visit it? No.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
Now I had been to all of the world's 3 highest motorable passes. The only one remaining is Marsimik-La which is higher than Khardung-la but is not motorable. Bikers are allowed at their own risk. ("At your own risk" becomes so common to hear from authorities here that it starts seeming as "No risk").
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

After 2 weeks into this journey and more than one week into the hills, cautions of spending limited time at high passes started seeming trivial now.

I have realized now, come what may and whatever u do to avoid it, you are going to face AMS. Try enjoying Ladakh with this headache or don't visit here at all.
I spent some time here and started to descent to Changthang:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Landscapes opening with such picturesque valley is any bikers delight. The terrain kept on becoming more and more beautiful as the day progressed and I approached Pangong.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

While descending from Changla, while crossing a manageable stream I interacted with Mithun Bhattcharya and Probir Sarkar who later in the day, at Pangong lake, became good friends. Those guys were traveling on a Honda Unicorn. Loved their experiences of ascent to Changla. Unicorn was barely moving on the road and the BRO cautionary boards saying "Please go slow" were frequent on the way. The way Probir exclaimed, "Bhai aur kitna slow..!!" was hilarious.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

A frozen lake on the way:

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

This region has been declared a wildlife sanctuary. The lakes, grasslands and marshy conditions breed a lot of wildlife which you can see on the way. The grasslands also support the locals who survive on cattle.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

This beautiful small stream in pic above, later on gained strength and went on to cut the valley and form a very deep gorge. Terrain became too tough to build road along edge of gorge. The road took a diversion from the river soon and I clicked my most favourite pic on this journey:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

The board above reads: “The Land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best of friends and fiercest of enemies would want to visit us”.

Could not stop myself leaving the road and experience the natural beauty here. The water flowing in such streams with small patches of soft grass is just the setting I needed to relax.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Met Ashwini on the way. The navy commander, who was on a short trip to Ladakh. Landed in Leh the day before, hired a bike and headed for Pangong lake. The pic is taken by Ashwini. It's his bike in foreground:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Felt like spending some more time at this place. Ashwini was waiting as he wanted to stay together in journey here onwards. Asked him to move ahead and wait at pangong. One doesn’t come to such place everyday and I wanted to have a heartful of it.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Met Jugnu, a local, tending to his herd:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Jugnu was impressed by the bike. The one thing everyone notices about Saarthi is the mighty rear tyre. And Jugnu was no different. He was a very shy model but learnt soon.
Another instance of terrain changing at the blink of an eye. Ladakh is dicey to say the least:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake 
First sight of the Mightly Pangong Lake. 130kms long. 40 km in India rest in China controlled Tibet. Highest salt water lake in the world:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I reached Pangong at about 6pm. There were very few tourist at the site at that time. A lot of ppl make pangong a one day trip. Hire a taxi from Leh reach here in about 4 hours. Spend some time and leave by early afternoon to avoid getting stuck in the streams flowing across the road, before they gain in size and momentum. I might have told you before that the speed at which glaciers melt gains pace as the day progresses. before noon the current is about 1/4th of what it becomes by 5-6 pm. But then, an effortless ride is no ride at all, as I believe.
By the time I reached Pangong, the time was ripe for those streams to show me their full force. there were 5-6 of them after I crossed Thangse and entered the sanctuary zone. And two-three of them were real blinders. I had to stop to guess the best possible end of the stream to cross, whether on the road or few meters off the road. But then there were times you trust your luck and just plunge. Luckily I did not fall in any of these and escaped to survive another day.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Reaching Pangong was accompanied with a sense of pride. There it was, the most beautiful place in the world right in front of me. The magnanimous, vast, serene... One falls short of words to describe the feeling you get when the lake dawns upon you. You wanna touch the water. You wanna drive along it. You wanna breathe the cool air. I did all that and much more :)
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Did I taste the water? You bet I did.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I had read earlier that there are some place where only the lucky one get a chance to visit. As we say about Ajmer Sharif, "Dargah pe wo hi aate hain, jinhe Khwaja bulate hain". I was getting the same feeling here. It was my calling that I got a chance to be here, touch mighty Pangong.
Finally Saarthi also got a chance to have our own group pic! This bike had lived up to the challenge and had gained a lot of respect from me.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

There were a few tented hotels right at the place where you reach the lake. I was advised not to stay there by some friends at Sarchu on Manali-Leh Highway. So one thing was clear that I was going to drive a bit along the lake. Ashwini was feeling tired and wanted to arrange the accommodation at the earliest. So politely conveyed my intentions to him and we parted ways. I wanted to explore a bit and moved on. It was one of the best few kilometers of my life.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

It was getting a bit dark & cold and a perfect mix of settings for a memorable ride was getting prepared. But I was divided between the riding and photography. So decided that this would be my last pic before I take off road and let Saarthi also feel the moment.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I left the road. Drove in sand. Reached the lake again. Saw Mithun Bhattcharya and Probir Sarkar at the lake. These guys have nicknamed me as "Solo Man" and I loved the new name.

I offered them the chocolates I had. (I put all the wrappers in my pocket. Didn’t feel like putting anything there which might spoil the beauty here).
Chatting was gaining momentum. Probir Sarkar told me how he convinced his wife to permit him vising Leh with Mithun Bhattcharya, by showing her "Riding Solo to Top of The World".

It was during one of those discussions that Probir pointed out to the sky and asked me to capture the moment. Thanks DSLR and 1600 ISO, i could click this pic without a tripod.
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

An attempt to capture the last rays of sun. Thanks 1600 ISO. I found such moments which completely mesmerized me, aplenty here. God, I miss these days now!!
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso laken

Mithun was traveling to Ladakh for the third time. Each time on a different bike. All 150 cc. I remembered once on Fazer, This time on Unicorn. I forgot the third one. He has the passion. Unicorn with 2 hunky guys. I salute them :)
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I wanted to ride further but Mithun and Probir convinced me to halt and stay with them for night. I couldnt refuse. We went to the hotel and were relieved to find one tent unoccupied. The deal was done with host for Rs. 150/-. I could see a familier bike parked: a red enfield. I hollered, "Ashwini". He replied back from the tent next to mine. So finally, it was a evening to be spent with friends.

The food was ok. The lady made egg curry for night which I was allergic to. So I contented with the dal which was not one of the greatest I had. But the company made the simplest of the food look the best cuisine in the world.

The hosts had stored countless cartons of Maggi. I took a pic for of it for Sriram Balakrishanan (my office colleague). His claim of ppl here stocking Maggi for a month had been proven true.

It was after multiple attempts of auto shoot, training the host lady to take a pic that i could get the below pic. Probir also tried hard to shoot us inside the hotel but nothing worked perfectly.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

We went for a stroll at the lake after dinner. It was so dark that we could only hear the splashes of water. Could not see it. The wind blowing fast... I miss it :(
Day 16: 

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

That is the glimpse of my accommodation. Right at Pangong lake. The blue tent at extreme right was mine for the night.

The night was very cold and windy. And it was my first night ever in a tent. It seemed multiple times that the tent would give way but somehow it stood its ground. It was so cold at night that the drinking water in bottle was chilled by 2am. The tent was a cozy one. As it was my first experience in a tent, the first thing I noticed was: however hard you try to find a leveled surface to pitch a tent, it would never be perfect. For someone like me who likes sleeping on hard flat surface, it was not easy. It took me about 3-4 hours before I could find sleep. And the cold was impressive. The only time I took my hand out of the quilt, it almost froze within minutes.
The sun was rising and I did not want to miss shooting this beauty. Countless exposures of the lake were taken:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Water was crystal clear. More clear than the mineral water I have seen. It demanded appreciation and I am never shy of praising the beauty:)
 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Finally the sun came out of hiding. Though the hide & seek it played with clouds, still eluded the moment when I could capture its refections on the water. I had to wait a bit more.

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake  leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Finally the hide and seek between clouds gave me the moment when I could capture some rays off the water. One of the pics I like the most:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

Everyone was getting ready for the day. Mithun Bhattcharya and Ashwini bought petrol at Rs. 100/- a liter here. Ashwini just wanted to be sure to reach Leh without hassles but Mithun had different plans.

I told you about Marsimik La, the highest pass in the world which is non motorable but army allows bikers to travel "at their own risk". It is only 40km from Pangong. Mithun and Probir had taken permit for Marsimik La as well, just in case they might feel like going there. It’s a routine to get permits over & above your plans. I had taken permit for Tso Moriri, just in case I feel like going there. Though I never visited it but Mithun was upbeat on plans to visit Marsimik La. Probir was not feeling well due to AMS. They both had come to Leh via Srinagar which does not take you through much higher altitudes. Changla was the highest they had been in this trip. And the night at Pangong accentuated the headache. So Probir decided to stay put at hotel while Mithun went to cover Marsimik La.

Similar was the situation with Ashwini. He had landed in Leh just the day before and straightway headed for Pangong. Not enough acclimatization. I had to offer medicines to both Probir and Ashwini.

Problems of Ashwini did not stop with AMS. The moment Ashwini and I got ready to head back to Leh, the first thing he noticed was that his Enfield had a flat tyre. I had the complete kit to repair puncture of tubeless tyre but not the tubed ones. So it was inevitable that I would return to Leh, solo. Enquiries at few other hotels took me to the one who had some bit of tools to mend the puncture but he needed some adhesive to fix the puncture. just on a random note I asked him about fevi-quick doing the job. The answer was affirmative. How glad I was hearing that!! I had bought a fevi-quick tube near Karnal on day 5. Never knew it would come to use after so many days and at such a secluded place and that too to a random friend on the way.
Happy and content I headed for Leh.. a Solo
A pic just before the start of the journey to Leh. Time to say goodbye to Pangong. I would go back for sure. And Marsimik-La and Tso Moriri would definitely be on radar that time.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I had read in a photography book that while traveling, one should keep looking back frequently. Coz in our quest you move ahead we miss a lot of beautiful compositions over our shoulders. One of the many look back over your shoulder moments:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake 
I had spotted this view the previous day while going to Pangong but kept on driving ahead in search for a better composition only to realise that I had come too far ahead and the pic could no longer be composed giving the full view of the valley. I had decided to take this pic while coming back and I kept the promise to myself.
A stream when you are about to reach Changla:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

I had met Mithun and Probir for the first time at this stream yesterday. Though I had crossed it easily today, I found a few who faced a lot of trouble negotiating it. One guy with a pillon did the cardinal mistake of not surveying the stream before driving through. He had hardly gone two meters into it that the bike got stuck. Both the riders had to get down in flowing water. I pitied them for getting their shoes wet when the driving for the whole day was ahead of them. Big mistake, it kills your feet.
On my way to Chang-La:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

At chang-la again:

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: changla pangong tso lake

This time at Chang-La, I did something which I had missed throughout this trip: accepting complimentary tea from Indian Army. Army Tea is being offered at almost all the passes as well as other places of tourist interest. It was there deep down in Nubra valley near Turtuk also. Somehow never felt like having it. But here went into the shed and had a cup of black tea. One needs to wash the cup afterwards though which I happily did. The same shed serves as a place to showcase and sell souvenirs.

I became interested in these souvenirs after I saw the hotel lady at Pangong lake serving us tea in cups imprinted with different passes and lakes of Ladakh. I liked them and upon enquiry found the source, these army outlets. But to my disappointment, the coffee mugs esp. the ones of Khardung-la fame were not in stock. I asked alternate outlets and was told about a mobile outlet (in a truck) in Karu. Also mentioned was that I won’t get them in Leh market.

Content after the tea and my little talk with the soldier I headed downwards. The road was bumpy & slushy and given my habit of slow descent, I was thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Rode a bit and found a group of bikers including Arun Gowda headed for Pangong (all Enfields) halted on road side. They signed for help and I stopped. Was told about the flat tyre in one of the bikes. The guys were from Bangalore and had already changed the punctured tube with a spare one. Only thing needed was an air pump. I had one but it was packed deep in the luggage. But I had become quite helpful by now. “No issues”, I said.

Opened up the luggage. Every bit of it. Took the pump out and handed it over to eager souls. They immediately got down to the job. Sat there and started talking with the rest. Interacted with Arun Gowda who was there with inspiration/motivation from one of his special friends. Another guy who had to take help of army medics at Khardung-la.

Meanwhile the hard effort of pumping air for about half an hour yielded nothing and the tyre was still flat. I started having doubts on my foot pump.
An SUV stopped at their request and it offered them a battery operated pump. The SUV was carrying three foreigners to Pangong Lake. Two men and a women. All of them were traveling independently. I love it when I find ppl venturing out alone to fulfill their dreams. The girl was from Austria. She was amazed at the diversity she was part of. All three travelers of their group were from different countries and the driver was a Nepalese and they were driving in a fifth country, India. I asked her, if it was here first visit to India. She surprised me by saying that it was her second visit to Ladakh in back to back years. She had been here last year and found Ladakh and Pangong lake so beautiful that she had to come back again the very next year. Salute!! And here I was, missing this heaven while staying all my life, right next to it :(
The battery operated pump also count not help the guys. Finally, it was the concluded that the spare tube was not ok. (poor chaps. Guys always check the spares well before the trip). Two of them decided to ride to the pass taking the tube alongside and seek help from Army mechanic there. I decided to head my way to Leh.
Accepting their thanks and handing over my email id to Arun for a probable facebook friendship request, I moved ahead (a request he sent, as soon as he landed in bangalore. Their experience of camping and playing sports at pangong were great)

Ride was slow and smooth till Karu. Registered myself out of Changthang at the police post and started searching about the mobile souvenir shop. Could not find it anywhere. Decided to try my luck in Leh market. Meanwhile was feeling hungry and started searching for tibetan food at Karu.

Found a shop and ordered "Thupka". It turned out to be noodles mixed with momos. Infact most of tibetan dishes are varieties of noodles and momos stuff among other things. Infact I did not like Thupka that much. I sorted out the momos and ate them. They were made of mutton and made good. Did not take long to cover rest of the way to Leh.
As Karu to leh is the stretch on Manali Leh highway, saw bikers coming afresh from Manali. I felt nostalgic. About a week back i was a rookie headed for hills and now seemed like I have matured a bit. But it’s always a tradeoff and my maturity also sounded the bells that my trip is now over and I need to head back after a day of rest in Leh.
Dorji welcomed me at Samnet. Got a hot water bath and straightway hit the bed at 5pm. Rested for about 4 hours and went out to make some phone calls. In the meanwhile realised that i was running a day short in the trip.
I had not spent any day extra anywhere neither lost time on mishaps. So it was faulty calculations from the start. Anyway the hard fact was that I was a day short and I had to do something about it.
Had dinner with Dorji and family and had a good sleep!