June 22, 2014

Leh Ladakh Solo Bike Ride Part 3 of 5 (Khardung-La and Nubra Valley)

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

Part 1: Mumbai - Manali

Part 2: Manali - Leh

Part 4: Chang-La & Pangong Tso

 Part 5: Leh - Manali - Delhi

Day 11:


The day was planned as a rest day to let the body and bike recuperate. I had also chalked the day to manage the permits and other formalities.

I woke up at 10 am and started for the permits office. It took about 30 minutes to get all permits done. The next job was to get the bike in order. The airport road in Leh has many bike mechanics and I found one specialist for Yamaha and Pulsar. He clarified to me that the hilly terrain only needs some adjustments of carburetor and nothing else.

He did some minor changes in bike settings and charged me 100 Rs. However, it was definitely worth much more, if I could avoid the Tanglang-la type of incidents in future. In addition, I had to ride over the Khardung-la (highest motorable pass) the very next day.

Those little changes in the bike settings by the bike expert had an amazing impact. I did not face any issues crossing Khardungla (the highest pass), Changla (the third highest pass) and on my way back Tanglangla (second highest pass). My bike evoked so much confidence in me that, come what may, crossing any hurdle would not be any issue now. However, more about specific instances later.


I visited a shop to get the air pressure checked in tires, but finding no attendant, I tried my hand at it. The pressure in the air tank was so high that within 5 seconds of applying the nozzle to the tire, the previously mended punctures in the tire started leaking (another instance of self-inflicted problems). The tube-less tire punctures can cost you about Rs 100 per puncture if you get it repaired by mechanic. However, if you do it yourself, it takes about 1 minute and the cost is about Rs. 5-7. This was a lesson that I had learnt the hard way on my ride to Kolkata in 2010 and since then I had never let any mechanic fleece me. I came back to my hotel in Leh and mended the puncture.

Day 12:

I had planned 3 day ride to Nubra Valley. Nubra Valley is the region beyond Khardungla which consists of two river valleys: one along Nubra/Siachin river which leads you to Siachin glacier ahead and another along Shyok river which going ahead crosses into Pakistan. (read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nubra_Valley)

So the first challenge to tackle was Khardungla. The morning was beautiful and spirits running high. AMS was gone. Tibetan food energizing. So I moved to the next part of this journey.

"Tank full, bottle full" had become my demand statement at petrol pumps (remember, I was carrying 2 five liter additional fuel bottles with me). Finally ready with all the stock, I let Saarthi roll. The initial stretch through Leh and few outskirt villages was deceptive. I could hardly believe that through these small street lanes monstrous military caravans pass to reach the highest battleground of the world "Siachin glacier".


Crossed Leh and headed for Khardungla Top (K-Top) and was greeted by the first landslide of the journey:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley

However, the BRO was working full swing and repaired the road in about half an hour and my journey continued. The ride was tough but with bike and biker in new spirits, the road seemed surmountable.  
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley
The road up to Khardungla from Leh.

It takes you from Leh, at 3500m altitude, to Khardungla top at 5602m. Lucky for being in hills for quite sometime now. I felt ok with the altitude. Later on I met ppl who had to be treated with oxygen at military hospital atop Khardungla.

but the relief was short as after 20 mins my situation was far from good and I was again driving short of full senses.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley

Khardungla Top: Felt lucky and blessed to be here.

Only issue was, there were too many ppl feeling lucky and blessed. Almost 80-100. Also feeling lucky was a communication tower, a 24 hrs running diesel generator, nauseating diesel smell and innumerable coal tar drums. No wonder ppl talk about vanishing glaciers covering this pass in the past.

Still it was the high point of the journey.

Just like Rohtang, a lot of ppl come to K-top to go back to Leh. So when you cross/reach here during noon you find hordes of tourists coming up, but the situation changes as the day passes. When returning 3 days later, I was the only tourist at K-top around 6pm.
Descent from Khardungla: 

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley

By the time I was done at K-top, headache had started again. I was driving very slow. I remember meeting a tourist coming up from Nubra side whose bike was not starting. I asked in very feeble voice, "Do you need any help?" He replied in an equally faint voice, "No, I think I am ok. I have a friend up there, so I believe I'll manage." :) Men get tired but spirits don’t die here!!

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: khardungla nubra valley 
Descent from K-top gave me the opportunity to drive along snow in real sense. The northern side of mountain range was totally snow clad. I believe everyone visiting Khardungla only for the sake of being at the top must cross over and move atleast till North Pallu before heading back to Leh. North side is more beautiful than the southern/Leh side of the pass. In the pic above the small tower visible near the left edge where road cuts the border, is at Khardungla.
I had only a few chocolates as breakfast, so was feeling very hungry by the time I descended 15 odd kms. At North Pallu, I had maggi and tea but still was not in best of spirits. Any way moved ahead. 
Village Khardung: 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley 
The moment you see khardung, you realize why Nubra Valley is known as "valley of flowers". Here villages are like oasis in desert. Vegetation are in patches formed by streams descending from melting glaciers at the top. Colours: green, yellow and violet are in plenty.
By the time I reached Khardung, I was dead tired. I found some trees on the roadside having dense shade. I parked the bike on the road, jumped over the small boundary wall and rested myself under in the shade for about half an hour. Had to take a crocin. The cool breeze was amazing. After a power nap, I was ready to explore Nubra.
I had crossed a military caravan on my way down from Khardungla. After North pullu I found all the vehicles (there were 13 of them) stalled in a lineup. got a good chance to interact and photograph them. Everyone recognized the solo rider who had overtaken them.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

Soon, I continued my solo journey ahead. Next stop was Khalsar.Khalsar is the place where road bifurcates. One going to Siachin along Nubra/Siachin river leading to Sumur and Panamik (Panamik being the place where tourists are allowed upto. So in a sense the northernmost point of India for non-J&K locals). The other road leads to Diskit, Hundur and Turthuk along Shyok river which later flows into Pakistan.
I headed for Panamik. Had decided to spend the first night there. The road was beautiful. Almost whole stretch was along the riverbed barring 2-3 km of hilly road. 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley panamik leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley panamik leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley panamik

The pleasant stretches like these make riding in “valley of flowers” an utmost pleasure. Ppl visit Panamik for hot springs but I was there for this natural beauty and the river Nubra. I miss the time I spent here. Later on I spent few hours on the banks of this river and could not stop myself from collecting Souvenirs. 
My bad luck that I had my first fall of the trip on that short curvaceous stretch. Anyway a trip is never complete without a fall. As Shashant Kumar would say,"There are only two types of bikers: one who had already fallen, another who is about to fall."
I crossed Panamik in search of any police post so that I can ensure the furthest I was allowed on this road. After moving about 3 km ahead, found a police post without policemen. Locals told me that was the last permitted point and I returned to Panamik. 

Two guest houses claiming to be affiliated with Ministry of Wildlife had locks on the door. 
Finally decided to stay at "Bangka Guesthouse". The stay was comfy.The tariff was Rs. 400/- for a very beautiful room. The moment I met "Ondu" the caretaker, first thing I asked him was the way to river. he told me about a shortcut but after half an hour on that route I found out that I would not be able to reach the bank and find suitable place for spending time. 
I came back to the main road and started walking towards the end of village. On the way I noticed that ppl here direct the water flowing downhill through different canals and such small canals run across fields, one's gardens, houses, schools, offices everywhere. Ppl get all the water supply right from these canals at their doorstep.

i had to walk about 4-5 kms to reach Nubra river outside the village:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley panamik 
The river was captivating. I never felt like going back to village. I had the same feeling once in past when I visited Taj early in the morning in 2010.

I felt like staying here and in Panamik for long. The fact that people from abroad travel to India specially to visit such far flung places and I being a resident had never thought about visiting such beautiful place on Indian soil. I myself don't know when I would be able to visit Panamik again. Coming to leh itself would be a great task but crossing Khardungla, coming 150 km northward to this place again may or may not be possible. Everything was making me go emotional.
At dinner time got introduced to other tourists at hotel. Three girls and one guy. Three Israelite and a Swede. The girl from Sweden was with her Israelite bf whereas the most surprising was that other two girls were traveling together on this world tour. First thought I had was: could I imagine the same with Indians traveling to Israel.

Upon further interaction, I came to know that none of them was some hotshot professional. Most were just out of compulsory military service and yet to start university education. Gosh, some places in the world, really pay you well to fulfill your dreams and desires.

Had good informative time playing cards with them. Learnt a new card game as well. Another tiring day came to an end :)
Day 13: 
I had earlier planned to go only till Hunder, see the sand dunes and head back to Leh assuming that Hunder is the last point where tourists are permitted. Ondu, at Panamik, told me that now traveling permit is allowed till Turtuk which is very near to Pak border and ppl can see Pakistani Karakoram range. That itself was enough to make me visit that place which was about 80 km ahead of Hunder. As I had made a habit of always carrying spare petrol, fuel was not going to be an issue. 

Riding solo gives you the luxury of following your heart while travelling which is something I love.


Each morning getting headache was a routine by now and this day was no exception.

I came out of the valley of Nubra river and took turn along Shyok river. Next targets were Diskit, Hunder and then Turtuk. 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

The pic above is the road at river bed of Shyok. It was about 5 km long stretch where you could speed to the max. I revved up the bike and made Saarthi feel the relaxation of plains.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley 
On the right, you see the Nubra/Siachin river valley leading to Siachin glacier and on the left, Shyok river valley. The combined Nubra Valley separates Indian Ladakh range from Pakistani Karakoram ranges. Yesterday, I had gone about 35km inside the Nubra river valley and was to go about 130 km today along Shyok river. 
I bypassed Diskit and headed straight for Hunder. Hunder is famous for its sand dunes. As per Lonely Planet, if you ignore the snow clad mountains in the background, you can easily mistake these to be in Sahara desert.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Hunder

I had never been to Sahara or Thar desert so cound not compare. But the sand dunes looked beautiful. It felt as if the sand once trapped in this valley would never be able to escape courtesy high mountain walls lining the valley.

There is a famous camal safari among the sand dunes at Hunder. But as I was already riding my camel since last 13 days, the safari at Hunder was hardly of any interest to me. And I lunged ahead
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

The ride of the day was through heavily guarded military terrain where signs of "Photography prohibited" were frequent. I did not clicked anything for almost whole of the day. Would not able to describe what all I saw on the way.

"Home away from home" was a frequent slogan at multiple military transit camps.

The mountains were getting higher and higher, the road rough and more curvy. And bridges more and more frail. "one vehicle at a time and max speed of 5kph" was the norm.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk 
The pic above is of a milestone near Turtuk. I was surprised to see distance of Pakistani cities.
Had to register again at a police post during the final leg of the journey. The road was shouldering the Shyok river and prosperous villages with good crops were on the way. I was almost at the end of journey (4 km from Turtuk) when I reached this: 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

This was a tough one. Suddenly realized that the bridge on the road was gone and the monstrous stream was actually the path that I had to cross. The surface to drive on was loose stones. Water was freezing cold. And distance about 100m. There was no way I could have crossed it without putting me feet in water and getting the only pair of shoes I had dripping wet. The only respite was that it was end of the journey and I could afford to dry the shoes overnight.
I took my chances. Had to literally walk sitting atop Saarthi with feet in water. The worst stream I found at the fag end of journey, the furthest I had to come. This is called bad luck.
Rode through the village Turtuk which was sitting atop the slope before deciding about the hotel. The village ended soon with the board stating tourists not allowed beyond this point (Visible in the pic). The place was witnessing live landslide. If you see discerningly, you would notice the falling rocks with rising dust on the slope.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

The village location was such that I could not drive to the part which had most guesthouses. Only way there was by a foot bridge over a stream. It required me to park Saarthi on other side of village. So decided to skip staying in the village and came back to halt at a roadside guest house.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

The stream of water running through Turtuk which can be crossed only over foot bridge to enter the major part of village with markets and hotels. the source of water is glaciers melting above leading to water being ice cold.
The village Turtuk, as per locals which I could not verify, allegedly did not belong to India at the time of independence. The border was about 20-25 km towards India from this village. In 1971, the resultant line of control shifted and Turtuk and further 10-15 km became Indian territory. I couldn't even imagine the hardship one goes when you nationality changes in one go and one has to leave all social relations behind. 

This village is told to be connected by PoK by more shortcuts than one and now army has permanent posts out there to check infiltration and smuggling.
I spent time with one guy who worked as a teacher in local school. He told me a lot of first hand account of Kargil war here. Turtuk was under direct enemy fire at time of Kargil war. It took a lot of casualites to free the posts occupied by infiltrators. Names of countless martyrs were ingrained. One could only imagine what would have been the scene at this very place about a decade back. And I am sitting peacefully here now. I felt lucky that India has one of the strongest defense establishment in the world (A fact which many foreigners, esp. Europeans discussed with me).
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

Karakoram range in PoK: 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Turtuk

The first line of mountains belongs to India and the hills beyond that is PoK territory. One of the high point of my journey.
Day 14:

I had decided to enjoy the drive back to Leh this day (206 kms). Nothing else nothing more. Yesterday, the broken bridge which I had to cross at day end had made my shoes totally wet which got dried a bit overnight. Now I did not want to suffer the same fate right at start of journey. Decided to cross the stream barefoot.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

It is advised that while crossing such streams barefoot, one should not ride the bike but walk along it as any slippage might lead to foot injuries. I tried following the same. Tied my shoes to luggage, started the bike and entered the stream. Hardly did I wade through 10m that I faced bigger problem. The stream was strong which had already eroded everything except large stones which too were not fixed. the bike was not getting enough friction to move ahead and the tyres were skidding (It needed more weight atop the bike). I was standing dumb with hardly 1/10th of my way into the water.

So decided to forget all good advices and tried riding the bike. Was lucky that I did not step on something sharp or much uneven to lead to any significant problem. First hurdle was crossed. Yee..!! :)
Once you drive in Ladakh, you can not but admire the job BRO has done. One such example of tackling the tough terrain:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

Today on my way to Hunder, I decided to shoot a bit more than yesterday and avoided only the specific places where instructions of photography being prohibited, were displayed.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

The route was very beautiful. One thing I noticed was that, most ppl go back to Leh from Hunder and very few head further to Turtuk. So most of this route is desolate. you might end up driving for hours without anyone coming from either side. Other thing, barren mountains here which are in sharp contrast to Himachal where you would find thick forests lining the slopes. 
The melting glaciers cause erosion. Good to know as a fact. But what could be the extent of it, was glaring in front of me here. The mass of debris so huge that even a minor tremor here would have buried me alive.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

Whenever I looked up and saw the mountain slope of eroded debris, my mind always drifted to thoughts of earthquakes. Situation in terrains like these had been disastrous in a few earthquakes in recent past. No wonder 2005-06 earthquake in Pok caused so much casualties.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

Jai ho BRO ki. How much effort would have been needed to keep the road motorable in light of such obstacles which might block the road at slightest of rain, is anybody's guess.
I reached Hunder, the city of sand dunes in afternoon. 

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Hunder
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Hunder
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Hunder
 leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley Hunder

These white colored "Chortens" are the Ladakh's keynote architecture. But an atheist like me who did not visit a single monastery despite the long stay here, may or may not able to fully appreciate it. But they look beautiful.
Just after Diskit, this sight of this vast juncture of merger of Nubra and Shyok river meant that my stay in Nubra vally had come to an end. And soon I would be heading to The Khardung-la and crossing over to Leh.
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley

I would miss Panamik and the time spent on Nubra bank more than anything else. Would it be possible to come back to this place and spend may be few days/weeks here? Don’t know. But as far as I know myself, you never know.

But now it was time to revv up Saarthi and let it get loose. I love crossing these tarmac roads on river beds.
I had lunch at Khalsar. A big plateful of chowmein which I could have never finished and I did not even try to (it gave me stomach upset later. but such stuff is common for travelers and the benefit of being a doc is that you are not bothered it and you manage).

I met a guy whom I mistook as defense personnel (he was dressed in olive greens) but later turned out to be a fellow biker from Mumbai. He had been to Pangong lake just a day back riding his thunderbird. And his story of hardships crossing Chang-la (the 3rd highest motorable pass of world on way from Leh to Pangong lake) was terrifying. His bike gave up just 5 kms from the top and he had to come back to Karu (about 40 km downhill) to get it repaired. He tried another time just to get stuck at same point again. This time he came back to Leh (about 80km back). Got the bike repaired in Leh and then in third attempt could successfully negotiate Changla.

Was I worried? I believe not as in the past 3 days Saarthi had proven its caliber. But still it's not over until it's over.
Now was the time to start the ascent to Khardung-La:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla

The way to K-top. I found the route from Nubra valley to the top far more beautiful than the one from Leh. Riding on snow clad mountains was my dream before starting this journey and this stretch gave me a glimpse of the same. Though to experience driving through walls of snow about 10 ft high on both sides of road.. I will have to wait for that a bit more.
I was the only tourist doing the ascent. Rest of the vehicles accompanying me were transport trucks toying between Leh and Nubra. Nubra valley has only one petrol pump at Diskit and I could see that it was only for the sake of it. Local told me that you are lucky if you ever find fuel there. So ultimate source of fuel till about 200 km deep into Nubra valley is Leh. Life is not easy at this place. (There are 4 petrol pumps from PSU OMCs competing with each other all within 100ms of my stay in Mumbai.)
I reach K-Top at about 6 PM:
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla

I was the only tourist at the top at about 6pm. It was a sharp contrast to what I experienced 2 days back at the same place. The diesel generator was still on but barring that it was very calm and serene. And after 14 days of the journey, i was more acclimatized than ever and despite being at top for a considerable time, not the slightest of AMS trouble. Finally i had nailed it. 
leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla

This board felt meaningless now when there was hardly any snow near it. Though would love to visit here again and feel the real threat of an Avalanche. 
That's Leh. Photo taken on my way down from K-top: 

leh ladakh solo bike trip ride: nubra valley khardungla

Descent took almost 2-2.5 hrs. I drive faster uphill. There was no one at south pullu to register me out of Nubra. Somehow I felt HP police is more active and prompt than J&K police. But that might be because J&K police works under the shadow of Indian Army. But that is debatable and I am not going for that.

So after 3 days in Nubra valley and experiencing the beautiful memorable moments especially in Panamik, I was headed back for Leh. What lied ahead of me was Pangong lake. And I could not wait for the morning to come.

Dorji, owner of Samnet guesthouse, and his family were elated to know that I went till Turtuk. Somehow not stopping at tourist hotspots of Diskit & Hunder, and going all way till LoC made them think that I was different. I was treated with a nice tibetan dinner with the family. I was loving this journey by this time.