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.
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 that desire, I bought 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:
“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.
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)…
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:
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.
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..!!
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.
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.
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.
Lunch near Swarghat. The Kadhi was awesome, Makki roties very tasty and dal was good.
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.
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.
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 doubt that 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.
Manali to Leh
Day 8: Start of the dream journey:
The day had arrived! Today I was going to ride The Highway. The road for which the bikers across the world yearn to drive on and very few actually make it. Manali Leh highway is about 475 km long, traversing some of the most difficult mountainous terrains. This road has bad patches, snow, streams, high altitude and treacherous mountain passes. Why was I going there? Why was I putting myself under all this stress of going through dangerous peaks ? Just to drive a bike for sometime! No. It was bigger than that. It was a long standing desire, a childhood dream.
I had visited Shimla & Kufri with family in nineties. During that trip, all along the road, I could see milestones depicting Leh (5xx kms). I was a kid who dreamed of going distances, see the world and explore the places. Leh was a place marked with a distance of more than 500 kms, as milestones of small country roads, it immediately caught my attention and it got ingrained. I was surprised that such seemingly narrow roads could also lead to any place 500 kms away. I thought then, that I must visit this place. It was later during graduation days, that I realized the true worth of Leh & Ladakh and its exalted place in the world of bikers. The desire to visit Leh and Ladakh kept becoming strong and stronger and led to this day, when I was able to start my dream journey.
I was told that even if you drive multiple times on Manali – Leh road, it’s the first drive which remains the most memorable. I wanted to fill my eyes with the beauty of this path, breathe in the fresh air, feel the cold and my heart & mind with its serenity. I did not want to miss any of it. I was excited! You say super excited..!!
I had good sleep. It was told that sleep would be hard to come by once I reach higher altitudes. Took some time to arrange all the luggage and petrol cans. Started riding at about 11am.
I remember, I was driving at cool 30-40 kph and all the traffic was overtaking me. But I never felt more content. I was going to achieve what I has always wished for. With all the uncertainties in mind I headed forth.
A view of the road leading to Rohtang. you can see the serpentine road, a small lake which is the origin of Beas river. A small settlement “Marhi”. I had my breakfast there and met few ppl who told me that last year in May end there was 6-8 feet snow all around here.
Beyond Marhi, small vehicles like passengers cars were not allowed that day due to rains leading to mud on the road all around. you might see a caravan of vehicles waiting on one side of road in the pic. The traffic was being allowed for about 15 mins from each side.
In such a muddy segment, my bike barely managed to scrape through while an Enfield ahead of me stopped about 15-20 times. I could get a glimpse of what to expect in coming days
Riding up the hills whenever I felt like the bike is giving away. The first thing I checked was which gear the bike was in. If it was 2nd gear, I felt relieved that I still has 1st gear and a further maneuver (removing air filter) with me to cross bigger problems lying ahead (read Tang-lang-la).
A group of 3 bikers coming back from Leh greeted me. Gave me first hand information of the condition of the route ahead: There is no road from Keylong to Sarchu and there is all mud from Sarchu to Tanglangla. (The truth is that weather changes so frequently on this route that what someone told you last day might not be the situation today. Sun is so strong here that whole muddy road gets dried in hours). So never fear by such information. What you are going to face would be unique and unrelated.
P.S. Removing air filter is not advisable. It was a wrong suggestion given to me by the mechanic in Manali. It did not help significantly. On the contrary it led to dust in the carburetor and reduced performance later on. All you need is to change fuel settings in the carburetor and the bike will take you anywhere motorable.
Rohtang Top: I found another group of 8-10 bikers coming from Leh and taking pics. I too tried to follow suit but felt the first bout of headache (AMS: acute mountain sickness). So immediately moved ahead to cross over to other side. But then the beauty of Rohtang had its way and made me stop about few hundred meters ahead and take a good look around.
Rohtang was the most beautiful of all the passes I crossed on this trip. Could not help but kept clicking pics.
Green, white, wind, cold. All combined made me emotional.
I had come ahead of the place from where day tourists took the U turn back to manali. I wished some one could take my pic here.As the Alchemist says: When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. A good Samaritan appeared and went back after taking 2 pictures.
As I started riding down from Rohtang to enter Chandra River valley, the road suddenly changed its contour. It almost vanished. It is one of the highlight of this highway. You would find excellent tarmac at one stretch and just after the corner it would suddenly change to dusty and muddy one. In the end you lower down your expectations to just find some hard surface to put the bike on. On the way down you find a right turn at Gramphu which is entry to Lahul Spiti Valley. The small road never gives you the glimpse of grandeur of the place it leads to.
There were some other un-identified diversions where I had to wait to confirm my way lest I had to come back few kilometers.
I had to register at Kokshar (the first police post on the stretch).
The road and the landscape make you feel right from the word “Go” that you had made a decision you would never regret.
Landslides are common at this stretch. While coming back, I had to wait here for about half an hour before BRO cleared to road again.
This is one sign board that makes you realise that after so much technological advances, developments, so many years since independence and so on, still there are place which are true to the sense “Remote”. Till date, I had only seen this pic in friends albums and how I wished all these years to click this photograph myself. A desire fulfilled. “Been there, done that”.
Crossed Keylong, Jispa and finally stayed at Darcha. At Darcha,I stayed in the tin-shed hutment. Charges: 100/-.
Was joined by one group of 8 bikers from Pune who used to run an adventure trip organising company. they were driving to Leh as their clients were to fly to Leh and wanted to ride their way to Manali.
You would find many people driving on this highway just to transport bikes from Manali to Leh and vice versa.
The food at the dhaba was ok. The sound of river flowing nearby was so high, it made me think all night that a hailstorm is there outside.
BTW Darcha was the second police check post I had to register. The benefit of these registrations is that in case I drive over a hill midway, my family would know which section of the road to look into.
Day 9: Bird’s eye view of Darcha settlement.
The day started at about 8am which was a bit early from my standards. But even then the sun was so strong that first time during the trip I used the sunscreen lotion. As I was applying the lotion, a truck was approaching from behind, and the road did not have enough space for both of us. I had to hurry and move the bike.
I felt like a makeup conscious guy who had put all road safety measures on stake.
On way to ZingZingBar:
Such streams are common on the way. The flow increases in size and strength as the day progresses. Early morning they are 1/4 to 1/5 of the size they reach by evening. thank God it was early in the day. This stream is known to had made crossing of trucks difficult later in the day. Darcha to Sarchu is the route which is filled with such obstacles and the coldest of the passes: Baralachala.
I had decided to cover only 80 kms in the day and enjoy the route to the max. The climb to Baralachala is about 27 kms from Darcha side and enroute you find so many titillating views. I had my camera around my neck all the time and frequent stops only to take pics were the order of the day.
Bernit from UK
A thermal engineer, self employed who had taken 2 months off only to do cycling in Himachal and Leh. He was already 3 weeks into it. Had been to shimla, dharamshala and was in the 4th day of Manali-leh journey which take about 11-12 days on a bicycle. And riding SOLO.
You would always find ppl on the way who inspire and motivate to by being live examples of courage and hardwork. Bernit is one to me. He was the first cyclist I came across on this highway and I was surprised. A place where engines leave you in lurch, it was inspiring to see ppl pumping muscles to conquer. Later on I met other Indians too cycling their way to Leh and a lot of couples as well but all the couples were foreigners.
The only Indian cyclists I met enroute. The situation became funny at the top. The sign board indicating the top was gone. I kept on driving ahead determined to stop only after reaching the top and suddenly the descent started. Surprised I stopped and saw Vamsi and Shashant there. After enquiring from a group coming from Leh, realized that I had just crossed the pass.
Bhaga river and the Chandra river originate at opposite sides of Baralacha La, the former flowing southwest and the latter flowing first southeast and then northwest to merge at Tandi (“The” petrol pump city)
On way down from Baralachala top
Travelling in month of July here, has its pros and cons. Pros: roads become motorable and passes remain always open. Cons: you dont get to see a lot of snow on the roads (though here it did). I could not see the wall of snow on sides of road which one finds in May and early June.
Such bridges are common place on this highway. The steel sheets are so loose, you fear they would come out the moment u ride on them. and gaps of about half a feet in between metal plates is very common. You have to leave everything to luck and drive ahead. A truck decided to skip the bridge and preferred to cross through the stream below.
On way to Sarchu
The terrain will not let you know when the serpentine hilly roads change to fearsome gorges, to vast plains or to the river beds. the uncertainty round the corner has its thrill. And the monsterous mountains on the sides reveal how trivial miniature man is in front of nature:
Soon, I reached Lingati plains just before Sarchu. The river bed suddenly leads you to vast plains and you feel unleashed. Open the helmet vizor, sing at top of your voice. wave at fellow travelers.
Met a European couple here and got this pic clicked:
Vamsi and Shashant were neck to neck with me on this day. they were cycling really fast. From Baralachala top to Sarchu (about 45km) we covered at the same time. Thanks Shashant Kumar for taking these photos:
I was really jubilant at that time. Thanks Shashant Kumar again for this pic below. Took 4 attempts to get this one.
The camps you see in the pic above, are the proprietary camps of some adventure sports firms. You may get one for 1000-1500/- per night. But my travel mantra is save on everything except petrol (and of course mineral water).
Day 9 ended at Sarchu. Another check post to register. Himachal Pradesh ended here I officially entered Ladakh in J&K. I halted at 3pm. Could have managed to Pang which was about 70 kms ahead but that would have involved magnificiant Gata Loops, Nakeela and Lachungala passes. And I did not want to waste such terrain in the fading lights.
Also the kind of AMS attack I had next morning (Day 10) proved that staying at Sarchu was a good decision. At Pang the situation would have been worse.
Spent the evening chatting with new found friends Vamsi Ayyagari and Shashant Kumar and roamed around the place.
Met three different groups of ppl at dhaba:
- Two guys from Delhi who had hired only one enfield and the pillon had to carry the heavy backpack. Still they were enjoying. cool guys. But definitely could have improvised.
- A group in Fortuner who had travelled from Leh to Sarchu in just 7 hours while it was going to take a full day ride for me next day. They informed me about all the sand lying in Moore plains where their SUV got stuck. And was it true? I found the bitter truth the next day and it proved to be my worst driving experience till date.
- One lone guy travelling on Yamaha FZ-16 (same as my bike: Saarthi). But his bike was giving problems. The spark plug was not working well. He bough a plug from someone who was on his way back from Leh. This guy again got this same problem next day where I helped him and later he was the only one who helped in my worst time to the trip where literally fear had gripped me (I must have told this to a number of you: riding my way up Tang-lang-la). More about that later.
The adventure started even before I touched my bike. The enemy of mountain bikers: AMS. I woke up with severe headache. Was not able to walk in a straight line. Could not concentrate on what I was doing. I had only read about this in books but was experiencing it for the first time. I came out of the hotel/Dhaba and saw Vamsi Ayyagarii and Shashant Kumar packing their cycles (they used to start early and travel till afternoon each day). I decided to rest a bit more and slept for one more hour. Ordered breakfast. but the moment I had one bite of aloo paratha, I felt like throwing up. So could not eat. Thought of complications of AMS started coming in mind. The first step advised is to start immediate descent. BUT the place I was in “Sarchu”: going back meant crossing Baralachala which itself is tough to cross in such situation and going ahead had the mighty Tanglangla (the second highest pass in world after the Khardungla). “Aage kuan peeche khai”. I decided to move ahead. I took a tablet of paracetamol and decided to borrow other medicine from the cyclist friends when I catch them on the way.
The common sense took a beating and I did not buy chocolates and whatever I had I finished soon. I was driving while being conscious of the fact that I was not in my full senses. But sometimes you have to rely on your guts and this was one such time for me. Anyway I started my journey for this final leg to Leh.
Met Vamsi and Shashant about 15 kms ahead. They had finished their stock of Dimox (anti AMS medicine) but I could get some precious chocolates from them. While cossing some BRO (Border Roads Organization) workers lumbering along the way, I suddenly noticed a milestone which said the start of GATA LOOPS. I was exhilarated. All the sickness vanished and I was back in business. AMS was gone for now.
There are said to 21 loops here as per the sign boards. I tried to count them initially but the loops kept on coming one after another and I realised it was better if I focussed on road rather than commit some silly mistake keeping count in mind. I could not count 21 and took the board on face value. If any one had counted please confirm.
Feeling at top of the world..
he third pass on the Manali-Leh highway. The most underestimated of all passes. Sometimes not even counted as one. As you barely come down from nakeela that the ascent to bigger brother Lachungla starts. Halted at Whisky Nullah on way to Lachungla and ate some more chocolates. I was surviving only on chocolates now. Then I saw this guy:
He was from Maharashtra and was travelling at a Hero Honda CD 100SS. It took me by surprise as I was questioning the ability of my Yamaha and Naveen, my friend at ICICI, doubted his Pular 180. The guy was coming back form Leh after doing Srinagar-Leh and crossing Khardung-La and now after conquering Tanglang-la and lachung-la. Sometime, ppl prove that it is not your resources but your courage that decides your fate. Salute.!!
Whisky Nullah is a small tented settlement (Infact, I found only one tent here). It is an important stop over for cyclists who usually halt here for night after starting the day from Sarchu. Gata Loops and Nakeela is admirable feat for cyclists in one day.
Truely speaking, while researching for this trip I did not even come to know of this place. Everyone was talking only about Darcha, Sarchu and Pang. When you have a 15bhp engine revving under you, you don’t think much about few kms in distance, few meters in altitude. You just fill in the gas, revv up the bike and zoom.. But for cyclists, it is much tougher a preparation. Vamsi Ayyagari and Shashant Kumar told me that it took them 4 months to prepare for the ride. Continuous gymming, swimming among other things. The route map they had detailed everything about the changing altitude apart from usual distances. I take a bow.
BTW, I was feeling hungry and ate a lot of chocolates here and met few college students who were riding from leh to manali only in order to bring bikes left by tourists in Leh back to Manali. i would love to do their job 🙂
At all these passes, you invariably find tibettan coloured flags of prayer and small pieces of stone stacked on top of each other. The wind blowing at high speed, fluttering flags, cold weather and the sense of achievement, all leave you high spirited. I never felt like leaving these places. BUT the high altitude soon makes you realize your fragility.
So here, I was. Started the day in tough health, crossed Gata Loops, Nakeela and Lachungla. Now wanted to have lunch and a bit of rest at Pang. And I started the descent. The moment you descend from lachungla, you see a small stream start flowing on your right. As you move ahead the frail stream gets converted into bustling river. The road gets huge mountains converging from both sides and you get ready to enter Gorges of Pang
The road is full of potholes. Better to say there is no road only loose gravel. The wind gets stopped by the mountains on the side. The sheer silence becomes deafening. Sun suddenly starts feeling very hot and the wait to pang becomes never ending. All in all a fearsome stretch.
I did not feel like stopping mid way but the thirst was killing me. And the moment I stopped, I realised two other SUVs also followed suit. And it also became one of a few place where I got my pic clicked. The guy driving the Endeavour, liked the fact that I was riding from Mumbai. He shook hands, hugged, photographed, video-filmed and went singing “Bombay se aaya mera dost..”
On tough mountain roads, it is the bike which beats all fourwheels. It is only at smoother stretches that multi-lac machines prove their worth by overtaking 2wheels.
I had lunch (invariably it is vegetable maggi with tea) at Pang. Maggi here costs twice of what it is available in the inhabited world. I feel blessed mere by the fact that it is available. I stopped negotiating prices. The max I paid for a water bottle was Rs. 35/- a liter. (but that was not at Pang. Pang cost me 25/-). There is an army transit camp at Pang and earlier one had to register before crossing Pang. But this time it was free passage.
The drive from pang started with very steep ascent where Saarthi had to put in lot of power just to keep us moving. And the moment I turned a corner, there it was the most magnificent of the stretches on this blessed path: Moory plains (also called More plains):
It is plateau at about 4700m above sea level. you would never anticipate its arrival on the route and just before you enter More plains you are busy negotiating the 5 km steep climb that starts at Pang. The gravel turned into nicely laid tarmac and suddenly I found myself accelerating and singing. Low lying hills, open grasslands and soothening gushes of wind. I forgot all the problems i faced till now and let myself relax. Driving at such places beats meditation for me.
I was advised by an old time friend about getting the tank filled up (remember I was carrying 2 cans of spare petrol) on the More Plains itself as the ascent to Tanglang-la is supposed to be tough and gas meters of most bikes show empty reading, the moment they cross Debring (another tented settlement at base of tanglang-la). An advice I well headed to. But did that save/reduce my troubles while tackling the toughest challenge nature had to through at me on this path: Hell No.!! But more about that later.
Remember, I was told about road being very bad in More plains, yesterday by friends coming back from Leh whose SUV got stuck in sand here. By this time I had forgotten their warning and was engrossed in riding the best stretch of my life which lasted about 15 odd kms. And the moment that tarmac ended. All hell broke loose. There was nothing called road ahead of me. It was only tyre marks on grassland I was driving on. And I realised, when there are multiple loaded trucks traversing “the kachcha road” they mince the gravel/earth into sand. And sand is so fine that even slightest blow of wind lifts it off ground and it feels like sand storm all around.
Have you even been the cause of your own trouble? I have been in past but that was my foolishness. But here situation was different. I was facing tailwinds which in normal days is good for biking but here Saarthi was throwing dirt in air and the tailwind was putting all that dirt in front of me. but was it enough to be named trouble? It was. Coz the dirt was so much that it blocked my vision. I could not see the path ahead… All my clothes, my luggage, my camera cover were all covered in dust.
At many places Saarthi felt like giving up but somehow we both survived the path and reached Debring.
An evening tea was welcome but the place which was more dusty than any I have ever been to, was not giving me the kind of relaxation I wanted. And with Tanglang-la being only 20 km ahead, i cut the break short and moved ahead. I met the FZ16 friend who had shared the accomodation with me at Sarchu. His bike was again troubling him and he was standing among a lot of BRO contract workers with everyone looking at his bike. His good luck that one of the worker knew a bit about bikes and was willing to help but the FZ guy did not have the toolkit. (He was from northeast and I remembered my carefree MBA batchmate “KC” from IIFT here).This was the first instance of I opening my entire luggage to help someone (I did that few more times later). Finally, the sparkplug and filters were opened up and bike seemed to be coming to life but again died. I remembered the trick of airfilter removal told by mechanic in manali. I asked him to apply the same and it worked for him. Happy being the good samaritan, I started packing the stuff. But the time I stayed there to help, had again precipitated the headache. I hurried and started towards the pass so as to negotiate it asap and reach Leh which is at good 2000m below the Tanglangla.
I was happy that Saarthi did not have any problem till now and I was at the doorstep to the last challenge. 16 out of total 20 kms to tanglangla top from Debring, were done somehow. Shifting gears, high acceleration, excessive clutch usage but the petrol was not burning in the engine. First time I faced myself that low oxygen levels can cause problems. It was different while reading about it in books, blogs (or in a travelogue like this one), but standing at 5000m height with Saarthi no longer able to move ahead and that f***ing headache. I was not in a good mood. Only solution I knew was to use Manali trick or drag the bike 4 km to top.
Air filter in Yamaha FZ is under the driver’s seat (not like Enfiled, where it is in one of the side chambers). This meant, I had to again remove all luggage and repack it. It meant a lot of exertion in a place where I was finding difficult to breathe. Help came in form of the same friend on FZ. He helped me unpack. I opened all the bolts of air filter and lost a few in the haste. But I cared the least. Only target was to reach the top.
My neatly packed, waterproofed gear was in shambles now. But with help at hand, we put everything back. Luckily the bike started. But every 10m covered was like winning a battle. A few oil tankers overtook me. They were themselves struggling at the steep climb and could offer little help.
I managed to cover further 3 kms when Saarthi said “NO”. It won’t start. Ignition won’t burn the fuel. Thanks Yamaha, I could not even kick start it (this bike comes only with electric start). And the remaining distance seemed like eternity.
As had been the rule always: Muscle power is the power of last resort. Dragged the loaded bike to the top.
It was a deserted place with a temple, fluttering prayer flags, snow-capped peaks nearby. All in all, it could have been a good place to spend some time. But I was gripped by exhaustion, anxiety and fear. Took some snaps as memorabilia. I literally ran away from this place. Never had such fast descent in my entire journey. Only when the milestones indicated that I had descended 2000ft, I felt relieved.
Soon I was at Pateso, where one friend offered me Diamox and I accepted it thinking to take this pill only if situation did not improve.
I drove along beautiful ravines with green and magenta colors. As per Lonely Planet, these are evidences of tectonic forces still shaping Himalayas. The ride from Patseo to Upshi and Leh was a smooth one where bikes start picking up speed once again.
While entering Indus Valley, the feeling was exactly opposite of what I got when I entered mountains four days back, in Himachal, leaving plains just after Ropar. Now it seemed more like mission accomplished.
I registered at J&K police check post at Upshi.It had started getting dark once I crossed Karu and I had decided not to drive after sunset on this trip. After enquiring, I came to know that the road till Leh (about 35km) is a straight highway without any tough stretches.
So drove till Leh and reached the guesthouse suggested by one of old time friend at around 8:30pm. Driving from Upshi to Leh was more of a relief and unwinding of a hard day.
At guesthouse, loved the hot water bath after 3 days of rugged driving. There was no roaming service for cell phone. So used the STD/PCO service after many-many years. Familiar queues outside PCO booths made me remember graduation days.
All in all a memorable day came to an end. Had the home food made by the family running the guesthouse as dinner. The sleep came the moment I hit the bed.
Leh – Khardung La – Nubra Valley – Panamik – Turthuk – Leh
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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!! 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.
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.
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.
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:
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 🙂
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
Karakoram range in PoK:
The first line of mountains belongs to India and the hills beyond that is PoK territory. One of the high point of my journey.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Leh – Changla – Pangong Tso – Leh
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Met Jugnu, a local, tending to his herd:
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:
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:
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.
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 🙂
Did I taste the water? You bet I did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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 🙂
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.
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 🙁
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:
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:)
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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!
Leh to Manali to Delhi
I was running a day short. I had to take sufficient rest. I had to buy souvenirs for friends. And it all was going to take time.
The night sleep was one of the best. I am habituated to hills now. Asked the host about possible options of souvenirs and the time markets open. I was told that I might even get a few shops open at 8 am. And I reached the market at dot 8. Only that shopkeepers were yet to arrive.
Tried my luck. Roamed around a lot and then around and around. Leh will confuse you with its countless one ways. I was never able to reach a place from same route twice.
Finally after checking at numerous shops, after outright rejection by a local standing outside a shop, of any possibility of finding the things I wanted, i still entered the shop and gosh! I found what I wanted. But not before the clock had hit 10:30.
Souvenirs were done. I was travelling alone but had to buy memorabilia for a whole bunch of ppl. But that’s how life is.
Still did not find anything for myself. I wanted those coffee mugs imprinted Khardung-La. And the statement made by the soldier at Changla, remained a fact. I could not get them in Leh market. Disappointed, I headed for the hotel and checked out.
Loaded the bike for one final time in Leh and started the return journey. I could have come back via Srinagar but the fact that Tanglang-la had posed a challenge, was constantly in my mind. Saarthi and I were more prepared now and I wanted to do the fight once more. Let me see whether it was something lacking in me & Saarthi or just a bad mechanic in Manali who made things difficult for me. There was no other way of checking out but to go and stand at Tanglang-la again. And that was exactly what I did. I started the bike and headed for Manali.
Would do Srinagar-Leh some other time.
I went to medical store and bought essential medicines. The famous petrol pump had too much of rush. I decided to give it a skip and moved ahead planning to get a fill on the way to Karu. 5 kms and I get a pump only to be told that no petrol. Frustration was getting to my nerves. $#*@$#. There was one more pump ahead but I couldn’t risk going ahead and returning 10 km, just in case. I headed back to Leh and finally got the “Tank full, bottle full”.
Now the ride had started in real sense. It was past noon. I was taking the ride very slowly.
Reached Karu. found an army shop but no Khardungla coffee mugs. The soldier here told me about the mobile shop, the army truck. I lunged and finally got it. Ordered a set of tea cups for home and 3 large coffee cups. All Khardungla brand. One was for me, another for Naveen and one just in case I suffer another fall (I am a risk manager).
One thing was always going to be at back of my mind this point onwards. I had this whole load of crockery on my bike. I COULD NOT AFFORD A FALL. This cautiousness might have spoilt the spontaneity of things but it also increased my safety instincts. And I was safe there onwards.
Came upshi, first police post enroute Manali. The cop asked whether I had had my lunch. I was moved. Ppl are very friendly here. I am gonna miss it.
Came the gorges:
I was riding with care. Came a caravan of army trucks. 19 of them. I took the bike to road side. I saluted all of them. Each one of them. Patriotism fills ones heart in these lands. I was getting emotional. I did not want to leave. I did not want to put an end to this trip. If biking could pay me, I would never visit any city, any office again. But the fact as of now is: it is my job in Mumbai that made this dream trip of me possible. And I need to do that a bit more to fulfill more dreams. Guy there are bigger trips coming. Let the imagination fly and engines roar.
Came Rumtse. A week back, I was standing breathless at this place, just after Tanglang-la experience. The place seemed calm and serene this time. There were tourists heading for Leh. I paid little heed to them. My target lied ahead of me.
The milestones read: Tanglangla ahead.
Never had I been more cautious and anxious riding a road than very now at my ascent to this pass. Filled with self doubts, high on adrenaline, I kept moving ahead. Slow and steady, Saarthi kept its pace. The landscape was awesome. I had paid little attention to it last time. Now was the time to appreciate it.
It was a lot greener than I thought. Snow capped peaks were as beautiful as a Ladakh trademark. It was late afternoon and traffic was scanty even from Manali-Leh highway perspective. I could find a few ppl driving down the pass but I was the only one going up. Rarely had I found a pass where I could not see vehicles, however few they may be, guiding my way, moving kilometer ahead of me, very near to the distant top, screaming out loud the challenge lying ahead. It sometimes made me go sinking in the heart.
But now it was something different. Cautiousness confounded with nostalgia. I knew once i crossed this pass, it would be official closure of my rendezvous with Ladakh. But one had to move on. I took a lot of “look over your shoulder” snaps.
The snow capped peaks kept on coming closer. Saarthi was holding on like a brave companion. Not a sign of fatigue. Moved we on..
This pic was taken looking back on way to Tanglangla. I tried counting the loops I had just crossed, I failed. I tried counting the mountain ranges I have crossed, I failed. Only thing I could count on was the contentment in my heart. And it was plenty.
The road in this pic speaks for itself: is it good or bad?
It is far far good by any standards here. you find something hard to put your tyres on and you are done. There is nothing better than finding the vehicle keep going ahead here. I dread the sand. I dread the mud. I fear the slush. And I am told i must fear the snow. (I drove on snow at changla and Khardungla a bit, but that was no way enough to call an experience. I am still a novice in driving over snow).
Finally we did I. Kudos to Saarthi for it. Didn’t let me feel any trouble at all. Seemed a ride smoother than ever and Tanglangla, a pass as simple as any other. I believe that to dispel certain notions one has to face it head on. Here we were, standing atop.
A rare moment when the wind here had stopped. Rarely noticed the flags so steady. They look and feel the best when fluttering. It was cold and the wind started blowing soon. There were two other bikers atop. Both ladakhis, riding on an averger. Were happy to see me crossing this pass in afternoon. At last they found some company (I am habituated to being a loner, got the nickname “Solo Man” on this trip. Thanks Probir for that). Plans were made to halt together for the night. They insisted for Sarchu. I was keen on Pang and not making it tough for Saarthi as well. We could not come to a consensus.
We helped each other taking pics. Offered them water which they politely declined. In a way I felt happy. Resources are precious here. Took some sips and started exploring the top.
The milestone cast at the top of the pass:
Distances mentioned here are from Manali. poor “Nakeela”. Ppl don’t even consider it a pass. Baralach-la is the coldest, Tanglang-la the toughest and Rohtang the diciest and the most beautiful.
This is the descent towards Manali. Moore Plains await you ahead.
I could see the road which was my nemesis last time (on the mountains to the left). But this time everything seemed under control. How man depends on machines was evident.
The land here was barren. 8 months of snow in a year is bound to kill anything on slopes. I desperately wish I could visit this place in May/early June when snow is aplenty and this road shows you its fiercest of colours.
I started the descent soon afterwards. Ladakhi friends caught up soon and overtook me. I like to descend slow and this time with souvenirs at the back, I had to drive carefully. Do we call it blessing in disguise? I don’t know.
I could hardly find any vegetation on these slopes. Few streams crossed the way but none of them was challenging, a few troubled us a bit though. BRO was on its way working to make a double lane road here. Ppl were working diligently. They command respect.
Finished the descent and was about to reach Debring when I took this pic. Debring is the most dusty settlement on this route. It lies just at the start of Moore plains from Leh side. Moore plains are now divided into two types by the kind of road they have. The one towards Leh (near Debring) has no road at all. You drive through a foot deep sand. The sand so fine which takes off to air behind you and if you are unlucky one facing tailwinds, you are up for trouble as it would block you vision. And a near zero visibility here guarantees a fall.
And the other half towards Manali (near Pang), is a biker’s dream. You feel like getting rewarded for all the effort you had just put in. Nicely laid tarmac. Drive the way you want.
The valley to the right takes you to Tso Kar and further to Tso Moriri (the one which I had the permit but missed). One can start from Leh, go to Tso Moriri via chumthang and return to Manali-Leh highway at this place thus bypassing Tanglangla and straightway head for Manali.
I was still on the tough dusty track. The path had improved a lot since I last crossed it about a week back on my way to Leh. BRO is really quick in its job.
I met a lot of truckers and bikers headed for Leh on the way. Each anxious and enquiring about the road ahead. A group of bikers was anxious as now their bikes had started loosing power (low oxygen). A problem which was trite to me by now . I empathized with them and advised to take things easy as they come along and told about the mechanic who put Saarthi in the best condition in Leh. They seemed frustrated. But I couldn’t help it. You have to face it all once you decide to cross Rohtang. Now in Moore plains, turning back is not an option.
The BRO contract worker at Moore plains:
I forgot his name. His presence here has an interesting story behind it. He was posted here, all alone on this stretch of road, far from any worker’s camp.
Reason: the road here was so bad that you end up driving more off the road. The previous evening two bikers got stuck here in the sand crossing from the right side of road and after the best of efforts their bikes gave way. BRO workers had to rescue them, drag their bikes out of sand and push to their camps. They hosted the bikers for the night and bode them goodbye in the morning.
His job was to make sure that no one goes off road here from the right side again.
My decision here was bad but the luck was good. I took off-road on the right side and thanks Saarthi could come out of the sand by some good hard effort. The moment I was out of sand, he approached me. Reprimanding me for not paying attention to his constant hollers warning me and guiding me to the left. I offered my apologies considering the good intentions the guy had. But when you are fighting the terrain here, you put your full focus on the road and rarely pay heed to anything else. I could not have heard his voice even if he shouted at jet decibels.
The only thing he asked me was “Water”. Luckily I had 2 bottles with me. He could have it to his fill. The guy was from Jharkhand. Hired as a contract worker for 4 months and 10 days @ 14000/- per month. Food was free but it was very basic diet. The living conditions and the loneliness was killing him and he was regretting his decision. But he was stuck. No respite in sight. Had to serve the contract period.
Offering him water made me feel good. Bode adieu and I moved ahead.
By this time I was out of the dusty tracks and moving soothingly at the tarmac. To my surprise, Saarthi was not accelerating beyond 70kph. I believed it to be due to low oxygen levels.
I had never accelerated beyond 60kph in last week hence 70kph was more than enough for me as of now. Unbothered, I moved ahead. The ride at this stretch of plains is a welcome relief.
First sight of Pang:
This site has a temporary settlement which is here for about 4 months a year. There is a camp of defense services as well. One may find some medical help at Pang in case you get over-adventurous and try driving to Pang from Manali all in one day.
You can see that from Moore plains I had to descend to reach Pang. But it is interesting to see the journey in the reverse. While coming from Manali, one reaches Pang and readies oneself for Moore plains. At pang, One has the expectation that he would have to go uphill first and then descend at the other side to reach moore plains (just like Saurabh Kulkarni). The moment one scales the height he is welcomed with vast plain starting right at top of mountain. Result is a mix of surprise and relief.
My stay at Pang:
I reached Pang when there was still some light in the sky. I had decided not to overexert myself. Sarchu, though was about 80 km from here, involved 2 passes: Lachungla and Nakeela, and Gata Loops. I wanted to enjoy them again during daylight. So the decision was made to put stay at Pang.
The Ladakhi friends whom I had met at Tanglang-la top were left behind at Debring. They had overtaken me during descent. When I reached Debring, I saw their bike at one of the dhabas there. I did not feel like resting at Debring and moved ahead. They passed through Pang about half an hour later. Guys were still upbeat to reach Sarchu and moved on. I doubt what can be so urgent that one misses out the beauty of this track in night. Covering more kilometers can be a fun at highways on mainland, never at this road.
Why did I choose this tent in particular? The simple reason: I was hooked to tibetan food by now. Momos being the favourite. I moment I reached Pang, a lot of owners came running requesting to stay at their tent. My simple question to all of them: who would prepare momos for dinner? I knew it is difficult to cook it at this altitude and given scarce resources. Only one guy dared with caveat that it would be veg momos only, and won the competition. Took order of 2 plates from me.
Other tents at Pang:
You can see the typical structure of the tent in this pic. The dome in the front serves as kitchen and sitting arena for the restaurant. The portion in the back has a number of beds lined up. You choose one and put your luggage near it.
I was in no mood to unload the bike, but the tent owner made me unload everything citing safety a reason. He helped me and I asked him to take due care. The moment I mentioned crockery in luggage, he told me that he knew what it would be. He was right with his first guess.
Morten and Laos from Denmark: (It was fairly dark out there when I took this pic but the 1600 ISO is playing its role to the full).
I had just reached Pang when I heard the words: Do you speak english? “Yes, I do”, I replied and turned to see who it was. I saw Morten standing there pointing towards their bikes. He asked me about a puncture kit. I asked him which bike. It was an Enfield and a fazer. He said, “the one exactly like your bike”. I could cool his nerves by saying,”Don’t worry. I have everything”.
After settling the luggage and selecting the bed. I came out to find that they were staying in the tent next to me and waiting for me to be free. I immediately got the puncture kit out so that we may rectify the bike today itself and they would not have to wait for me in the morning as I had made leisurely sleep in morning a routine by now.
They had hired the bikes in Manali and drove to Leh. The guy in Manali had overcharged them as Rs. 3000/- a day for both the bikes. Novices, they agreed and reached Leh, but could not roam around much as Laos got stomach upset the day they reached there. They went to Tso Moriri for a festival and again were fleeced for a night stay: Rs. 2500/- a night for a tent stay. They were further perturbed when I told them about my stay of Rs. 150/- a night for tent stay at Pangong Tso. They were determined to renegotiate the bikes rentals in Manali as they had not paid the full amount. As per them, everyone in Leh, they told about bikes rentals, laughed at them. Both were very innocent. Quite a contrast to the Isrealises I met in Panamik in Nubra Valley.
They travelled from Tso Moriri to Tso Kar and then straight to Moore Plains and Pang. They were waiting in Pang for 4 hours waiting for someone to fix the flat tyre. Locals had tried everything from rubber plugins to fevi-quick, but to no avail. My landing at pang was a God sent help for them. The puncture was fixed in about 2 minutes and the hard part of filling air with foot pump remained. “You have 2 guys for that”, replied Morten. Soon the bike was in perfect condition and they immediately left for the test ride.
The pic above is the moment they came back from the test ride, beaming with happiness and relief.
I spent some time with them chatting. Their tent owner (who did not speak english) who had tried to invite me to his tent for stay but refrained when I asked about momos, now approached me and requested that I tell these foreigners that if they wanted momos, he would make it for them. I translated it for him but to my surprise Morten and Laos had not had this tibetan dish till now and could not guess it even after my useless attempts to explain this dish to them. Anyway I invited them to have dinner with me and taste momos.
We discussed everything under the sun. Politics, defense, history, philosophy, travel stories and lot more. They were impressed by Indian defense establishment and wanted to know whom would India side for if US and China come out in open against each other. They felt diffident that their country of 5 mn populaton could not defend itself and needs to depend on others like NATO. Denmark try playing its part by sending volunteers to areas like Afghanistan.
The momos arrived and we all had to “our heart’s full”. They liked it and regretted not having it in Leh.
By this time their tent owner had wooed a touring group of 7-8 ppl for stay and Morten was getting anxious about lot of ppl and very few mattresses inside the tent. They asked permission and ran inside the tent to reserve their beds before everything got occupied. Poor chaps.
The sleep I had in Pang was the best I had on this whole trip. AMS? what is that?
Day 18: Start at Pang:
This group was from Maharashtra from the Marathwada region. The fact that I had been to Ambejogai (medical college in that region) was a great icebreaker and my knowledge of Marathi was icing on the cake. Guys were pretty chilled out, carrying a music system being run by bike batteries. One of them had seen my buying souvenirs at Karu and added that reference. As usual any group takes a lot of time to start its journey and I moved ahead of them.
Morten and Laos were in a hurry. They wanted to start the journey ahead of me and retain the lead. I being at the back ensured that they would get help in case their bike acts funny again.
The owner had kept the crockery with his personal belongings and handed it over safely to me 🙂
The ride started well. The route between Pang and Lachungla, if you remember, seemed one of the most haunted one. Few trucks were ahead of me and the dusty tracks were making it difficult to drive. Luckily trucks at this stretch don’t compete with you and give you side at the first possible opportunity. But the kind of path this is, such opportunities don’t come frequently.
The goosebumpy road gave way to the hilltop at Lachungla. The prayer flats are always fascinating wherever you go. The soothening rewards after the tough times to reach at tops.
I met some tourists heading for Leh. I had realised that the one week, I stayed at Leh, had led to a lot of improvement on the track and the highway is going to improve everyday going ahead. I concluded that the best time to see the ferocity here, ends with June.
From Lachungla to Whisky Nulla to Nakeela to Gata Loops everything looked very familier now. Did not feel like stopping the ride and taking pics.
Reached Sarchu. Halted at the same hotel where I had stayed for night on way to Leh and had suffered severe attack of AMS. The owner barely recognised me. Life moves on.
Had lunch and rode ahead. Registered at Sarchu check post after negotiating one of the toughest streams just at edge of Sarchu settlement. Lingti plains to Killing Sarai to Bharatpur everything went past in a jiffy. The stretch from Darcha to Sarchu, 80kms, which I had taken a full day to cover on my way to Leh was crossed in barely 3 hours today.
I had found this pass as the coldest one and it was still maintaining that reputation.
There were a lot of tourist this time around, both Indians as well as foreigners. The Indian family left its car at the road and moved ahead to explore the snow. I liked the idea but had other plans. Wanted to reach Manali by day end so that I could cover up for the day I was running short and spend sometime at home too.
On my way down from Baralachala, a 29 km stretch, I crossed Zingzingbar and other such small settlements. I was recognizing the places where I had halted on my way to leh to take snaps. Everything was feeling nostalgic. God! would it ever be possible that I would turn back and head back to Leh. But this was not to happen and I kept moving towards Darcha.
The track between Sarchu and Darcha is the most tough in terms of streams and the pic above indicates just one of those. I was lucky that it was early afternoon and these streams were not in their full flow and I could negotiate them without much trouble.
From Darcha to Jispa to Keylong in Himachal, the route here was a lot greener than back in Ladakh region which I had left behind when I crossed Sarchu. Villages were frequent now and traffic a bit more. Came Tandi and the famous lone petrol pump. I had the bottles full so no need of a fill. I moved ahead.
The moment I started on the road along chandra river in the valley, I was stunned to hear a blasting sound. The cloud of dirt was sky high…a landslide!!
Later came to know that double laning of the road is under progress and the blast was done by BRO as an attempt to widen the road. It took over half an hour for bulldozers to clear the path.
It was already past 5pm and I was about 100km away from Manali. I had to cross Rohtang to reach the city and it was obvious that I was running late and this loss of time here was going to cost me dear.
The ride to Khoksar was without much events but I was under duress to reach Khoksar on time lest the police closes the route up Rohtang for night. I reach Khoksar at about 6:45pm and was happy that the police was very cool about me going up the pass at this hour (I came to know later that the pass is open 24*7).
The weather was very clear and sunny in chandra valley but I could see clouds at Rohtang top:
I was anxious about getting stuck at the top in rough weather but wanted to take this risk to experience some other firsts of my life. And when I saw the vehicles coming from the top, it gave a sign of relief that the top was still motorable.
Still on my way to Rohtang and it started to get dark and cold. A bit of drizzle had also started but as I had the rain gear on and the luggage properly water proofed so it was not an issue unless it gained momentum and made me put my camera also under polybags (the camera hung around my neck for the entire time since I left Manali about 10 days back). But everything seemed under control as of now. Just then I saw a truck turned turtle on the side slope. I immediately realised the foolishness of ppl who try to underestimate mother nature and the challenges it may pose.
I wanted to take pics of that truck but better sense prevailed and I decided to keep on my way and cross the pass as early as possible. I reached Rohtang top at about 8pm.
I was to drive through a cloud from here on. I realised that the Manali valley was under very bad weather conditions and was completely covered with cloud/fog and the descent was not going to be easy. Staying at Marhi was one option but it was still some kilometers away and that formidable slushy stretch was standing midway.
I stopped at the top for sometime and few bikers also stopped fearing I might had some problem. Ppl are helpful at such stretches. A nod of assurance from me and they continued ahead. I could find a few youngsters at the top who probably were from Manali (no luggage on bikes). Without paying attention I started the descent. The restaurants at the top were all deserted.
I had switched on my cell phone in anticipation of getting the network on my way down from Rohtang.
Hardly I had negotiated a few turns in the descent that it started raining. I had to park the bike on the side to open polybags to secure my camera. The rain picked up momentum, and I was finding it difficult to work properly, just then the phone started ringing in the waist pouch. I was highly irritated. A few trucks found me blocking the route and were blowing horns like crazy. The call got disconnected and I was still not done with camera packing and the phone started ringing once again. I was literally swearing. (Sorry Herry Dhawan, one of the calls was from you though you had no idea what situation I was in at that time). I decided not to touch the phone till I reach manali. It was dark and cold and the rain showed no signs of abating. I continued on the journey.
Then came that bad slushy stretch of about 100-150 meters. Police allows vehicles from one side only to cross at a time here. But now there was no sign of any cop. I parked Saarthi on the side among the line of trucks as the caravan from down below started its ascent. There was no idea how much time we might have to wait here. Fellow drivers told that if everything went smooth then we may move in half an hour but if any vehicle from below got stuck then we would be on our own throughout night. Gosh!!
A tata ace was trying its best to ride up the hill and its engine gave way just near us and even the brakes could not stop it from rolling back. The truck behind it came to screeching halt. I was amazed at the speed with which everyone besides me ran to stop the Ace and pushed it up lest it blocked the road. Lucky we were and soon the descent started. But the rain had other plans. No sight of any respite. And the fog, it was getting denser.
Came Marhi and the trucks decided to stop, I asked one driver why. He replied that it would be denser fog down the valley and it won’t be safe for him to drive. so he would start next morning. I asked what should I do. He advised that if I wished I could move ahead as the road is broad and smooth and I may be able to reach below at snails pace. Just then a truck overtook us. I felt it like an omen and decided to continue my journey.
But the light of hope did not last long as the driver of that truck stopped soon. Reason: zero visibility. Everyone wanted someone else to be at front to guide the way. I decided to move ahead come what may. And the moment I started, the truck driver also started driving right behind me. Headlight of two vehicles made the road a bit visible but by no means sufficient. It was first time that I turned torchbearer to a truck. Like an ant helping the elephant.
Just few meters down an SUV stood parked with a family inside it. I asked the reason. It was again the same: “Bhai sahab, kuch dikhe to gaadi chalaaon na”.
I had started to rely on Saarthi to take me through each situation and this one was no different. I left them behind and continued on. I could barely see one edge of the road and I was to follow that. I could make out whether I was on hill side or valley side of the road. Being on valley side gave me goosebumps thinking about the deep valley present just next to me which was not visible now but I had seen its extent on my way up about 10 days back.
Slowly I kept on going. Came Kothi and some other villages. After long waits I could reach the altitude where I came out of the cloud and the visibility improved. but still I could not increase the speed. Remember, I always go slow downhill and this time I had breakables too. “Blessing in disguise”.
Finally reached the city. Looking back over the shoulder and sighting milestones of “Leh – xxx kms” were nostalgic. I stopped at the first hotel I came across and called the receptionist guy out on the road itself and started negotiating at price straightway. He said, “Sir, please at least see the room first”. To hell with seeing the room, you tell whether you have food and hot water or not? yes I do, was the reply. The deal settled at Rs. 400/-
The hotel was good. I was in the worst situation possible. A hot water bath never seemed so relaxing. It was about 10pm when I reached here. Lucky I was that nothing went bad today.
Manali-Leh was finally over for me.
I dont know how much justice this pic does to explain the situation last night. This cloud line could be reached in 8-10 kms while the total distance between Manali and Rohtang is about 50km.
I started at around 11am, after having breakfast at the hotel. I had plans to visit my graduation friend (Arun Sharma) at Yol Camp. If you remember, on my way to Manali from Delhi on day 5 I had plans to visit him but the heavy rains at Ambala had washed off those plans and I had to stay at Ropar. Now, I did not want to miss the chance and decide to meet him after 3 long years.
Drive was uneventful till Mandi. This was also across hills but the differences were huge. The slopes were covered with not even grass but with dense trees. The road was double lane and traffic more than any other road I had seen in last 10 days. There was some Sikh festival going on, everyone was headed on bikes to Manikaran gurdwara.
I had lunch at Mandi and started on way to Kangra. The ascent was almost like the ones I had traversed in recent days. Going uphill, cut across the hill top and descend on the other side. Typical structure of the passes but the altitude here was 1000m above sea level in sharp contrast to minimum 5000m on the route I had been to.
It was a pleasant ride till I reached Palanpur. That was about 5pm. And after that I entered.
Kangra Valley and all hell broke loose. It was raining and raining cats and dogs. I could barely drive for 5 minutes and I had to wait for half an hour for rain to stop. It was repeated so many times that I got very irritated and one time started regretting my decision to head for this place.
Last 30 odd kilometers from Palampur to Yol camp were the worst patch and it took me more than 3 hours to cover this. All in heavy rain. I don’t know what happens at Cherrapunji but Kangra Valley must not be far behind. And I was later told that Yol camp is not far behind other such places in the amount of rain it gets. True, I had never seen such rain, Mumbai is not even a comparable match.
Finally after all the natural calamities, I reached Yol. All drenched with water. The army camp was situated at a hill top and the roads were at such slopes that they would match the road to Khardungla. After multiple phone calls to my friend, Arun, I could reach his place, that too at 8:30 pm. Truely speaking, I just wanted to hit the sack straight away. But Arun told me that he had plans for a dinner outside. I had no plans to open the luggage but had to now. Got ready as soon as I could and had one of the nicest food I had had in days. Thanks Arun for that. Met Bhabhiji for the first time. I had not attended their marriage.
Arun had become an expert car driver and when I compare that to me who had never been behind a four wheeler’s steering, he is a genius. Liked the nice restaurant, the company, the chat and the memories.
Arun and I, both are very poor at the art of ordering food. We usually eat whatever is offered and Bhabhiji took charge from here on. The food was good. Only after ordering the non-veg soup that I realised that my company was strictly veg. Though they had no issues with I having non veg food, I refrained from it.
The sleep I had was good but was frequently interrupted by the incessant rains lashing oneverything outside. Thank God, my bike was parked under a shed.
I was worried lest I lose another day because of the weather here or I suffer a fall in the mud all along the path.
I woke up leisurely at 9am. I had asked Arun to have breakfast kept at the dining table in the guest accomodation. Did not want the food chap to disturb my sleep. But the morning tea guy did not take instructions seriously and woke me up for brief period at about 6am. Though it did not matter much and I was fresh and ready for the ride.
Met Arun at his office: The pathology lab at Military Hospital there. He is a post grad now and ranked a Major in Indian Army. Never felt that colleagues are now at senior positions. Feels good to see ppl grow.
After lots of talks remembering the deeds of grad days and bidding adieu to both of my hosts, I started on the route to Delhi.
It seems there are multiple routes to reach chandigarh from there and everyone I asked, told me some different route. Finally I reached a temple, a diety which is revered by millions and it seemed all the millions had decided to visit this place at this very day. It was such a mad rush on the roads, I could barely drive.
Soon I was out of Himachal and plains welcomed me. The bike was not getting acceleration beyond 70 kph. I had never got a chance to speed up so much except once in Moore Plains during this whole trip. In Moore plains I dismissed it thinking low oxygen effect but now it really seemed a problem.
At plains, if I drive at 70kph, It becomes very monotonous and boring and time consuming. I would never be able to reach any place in time. I tried reversing the changes done by mechanic in Leh but to no avail. I visited Yamaha agency in Una but to no respite. I kept driving at that seemingly snail’s pace.
Reached Ropar only to find that there is no Yamaha agency there. Saw another mechanic who said there was some problem with “Acceleration Coil”. Now what the hell is that? Whatever that is, I decided to reach Delhi slow and steady, however late it might be in night and get the bike transported to Mumbai. I knew a good mechanic in Mumbai whom I could trust. So moved I on.
It was about 6pm when I bypassed chandigarh and Mohali. The speed cap of 70kph was killing me but I decided to kill time by listening to music. Gosh! I realised I had never used earphones and music throughout this trip. I never drove without them in past. This trip was really different. I was so engrossed in driving that I did not feel the need of music till now.
Informed home that would reach after 12am. But fate had something else in mind.
I was driving steadily and it had become dark. The speed now was seeming comfortable looking at night drive situation and suddenly I felt as if the bike got caught in neutral gear. Engine lost all the thrust, Clutch and accelerator stopped having any impact. I knew something was seriously wrong.
I had guessed that the only reason could be NO CHAIN in the bike. I was nearing a highway town. The moment bike came to a halt and i tried to feel the chain but the hand met with hollow spaces. The chain was gone and Saarthi was helpless.
It was about 9pm and I was lucky that it happened near a town. I dragged Saarthi to a nearby dhaba and enquired about any mechanic there. Now started the chain of good samaritans I met at this place callled “Nilokheri” just before Karnal. The guy I met first on Dhaba and enquired about mechanic immediately made a call to the person he knew was a mechanic and explained my situation to him. He guided me to his shop and I literally ran to the shop dragging Saarthi with me. But the owner who was very polite to his friend was not so polite to me. He clarified that he is the owner and as the mechanic boy had left he can’t help me. “Come in the morning” was the sermon. Aghast, I asked him about some spare parts shop so that I could repair it myself if I get the spare chain. He was kind enough to guide me.
The shop was nearby and was about to close for the day. I requested him to give me spare chain which he immediately did but only to find out that Saarthi is designed for a chain size which is longer that for any other bike. He showed me many chains and I kept “window trying” them on Saarthi. Finally I found one which I thought would fit in. I paid him 400/-.
A guy, seemingly friend of shop owner, asked me how was I going to fit the chain. I would find some way out, was my reply. He told me about a four wheeler repair shop at other side of highway and said that a guy there would help me with tools and fitting the chain. He introduced himself as owner of that shop. He informed his mechanic about me and asked me to go to his shop with the newly bought chain. I was moved by the help ppl were offering me here.
I reached his shop, took out tools that were required. The guy there taught me how to open the chain link without breaking it. We were all set but realised that this new chain was short by about 4 inches. I was feeling devastated. What could be done now?
The only option was to go back to the highway and search my older chain if I could find it lying on the road. That was a long stretch of about 2 kms. But the survival instincts developed at ladakh told me to go and search. Soon I was on the highway with the headlights of on coming vehicles and the flash light of my phone acting as my guiding lamps.
A walk of 2 kms and hearty attempts but the chain was not to be found. I was stuck for night at Nilokheri.
There was a hotel there that charged me 700/- bucks. My costliest stay till now in this trip.
I checked out and went straight to the spare parts shop. The guy brought a spare chain piece of about 6 inches and handed over to me. I went to the mechanic and got it set. Finally thought bike was ready. Hardly I rode 200m that it stopped. everything looked fine. Enough petrol was there, no issues with the chain. I changed the spark plug. but multiple attempts wont start the bike. Went back to mechanic and after waiting for my turn for about 15 mins, just thought of checking it again and Saarthi started up without any trouble.
Now I wanted to reach home without any further trouble.
I was asked about bike papers for the first time on the trip after panipat. The cop gave me advice to travel in a group on such trips. I accepted whole heartedly even though I knew I would hardly follow it.
Reached Delhi and the killing metro traffic with consistent jams welcomed me. I wanted to go back to hills. I missed the mountains. I missed Ladakh. I missed panamik, I missed Pangong. I would go back for sure.
Reached home at about 4pm. Mom welcomed me at the gate.
The trip was finally over and Saarthi was to get some well deserved rest.
Day 22 & 23:
Stayed at home. Ate home food, met friends, bought sweets for officemates and reached New Delhi railway station. The security guy singled me out based on metal scans of my luggage for enquiry. The bag contained all the toolkit, foot pump and lots of such metal. He was finally convinced and let me go. And I boarded the train to Mumbai leaving Saarthi behind for it to catch me up in Mumbai sometime later. Saarthi was to cover that distance in a transport.
The speed cap and engine stoppage problem was due to the dust that entered the carburetor on my air filter removal trick while going up Tanglangla. Don’t repeat this guys.
After so many days and millions of dollar worth of experiences later this trip finally draws a closure. And I rest to take on something new, something different and definitely something bigger.
Till then “bon voyage”.