This is the second installment of my Ladakh travelogue divided in five parts, which covers my bike ride from Mumbai to “Leh & Ladakh” via Manali and back to Delhi. You can read other parts of the travelogue here:
- Part 1: Mumbai to Manali
- Part 3: Khardung-La & Numbra Valley
- Part 4: Chang-La & Pangong Tso
- Part 5: Leh – Manali – Delhi
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.