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 and I realized that India is really a truly beautiful place to be explored.
During this journey, I went through some tough times, where I was helped by others. At times, others were in trouble and I helped them out. The human spirit of brotherhood is something, which evidently came out of this trip. Moreover, not to forget I felt the true patriotism when I saw Indian army soldiers manning this tough terrain.
Many of my friends were in continuous 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.
The current article is my attempt to let every reader see Ladakh from my eyes. The journey started from Mumbai on July 7, 2012. I travelled from Mumbai to Ladakh via Manali. I returned to Delhi and ended the trip on July 29, 2012.
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 for biking in the year 2000. I was in medical college, a graduate school, when I got my first bike (a Hero Honda CD100). The bike was meant to commute from hostel to college; however, I ended up exploring most of western Maharashtra on it. However, with time, my thoughts started flying, and I began dreaming about riding in the mountains and crossing tough passes. However, it was a bit ambitious for me.
In 2004, I came to know of a bikers group, 60kph, where the group members used to ride across India on bikes. However, all of them mainly had Royal Enfields. Driven by that desire, I bought an Enfield the moment I started earning as a doctor in 2005 and applied for the membership of the 60kph club.
However, as luck would have it, Ladakh (the Mecca of bikers) kept eluding me for one reason or another. A drastic change in career from a doctor to a banker kept me busy. Finally, it was the year 2012, when one year into the new profession with some savings, and three weeks in my kitty, I decided to wait no more and headed to the Himalayas to fulfil 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. Saarthi is a 150cc, 12bhp bike and has been with me for over 3 years. It 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 were an added advantage, which ensured that punctures would not be much of a hassle.
Mumbai – Delhi – Manali
Day 1- Journey starts (Mumbai to Gandhinagar):
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I could not agree more!
On this trip, I had made a promise to myself of not following any deadline, any timeline, or any over-exertion. Today I can say that I kept that promise; except for that one time while crossing Rohtang on my way back to Manali. However, more about that later.
The ride for the day started at 11 am. I drove out to outcast skies in Mumbai. It started raining the moment I touched the western expressway. Soon, I had to change from my sports shoes to floaters (sandals). Poor sports shoes; they remained wet for the next 2 days in my bag.
The ride was great for the initial 200 kilometres when I had my first lunch at a dhaba. I do miss those meals now when I had the sumptuous meals and then rested for free on the cots offered at the dhabas.
I frequently compare Indian highway dhabas to “Apple” showrooms. 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 happens at these roadside joints. You reach the dhaba, park your vehicle, lie on the cot, and rest. No one will come to disturb you until you approach them and ask them to prepare food.
However, as I neared Surat, these resting places became hard to find and I found that the road was full of farce dhabas that are actually pricy restaurants in the veil of highway-dhabas. I had to take a u-turn and come back two kilometres to find an authentic road-side dhaba to rest for half an hour. It was a place run by a Bikaneri family. Here one person told me that the way to Delhi from Surat is via Bikaner! That was an outrageous claim!
Today, most of the day was a smooth ride on the highways, blessed by the pleasant rain. The only hiccup came when the highway patrol asked me to leave the Vadodara-Ahmedabad expressway saying that it is forbidden for two-wheelers. I had to retreat back 7 kilometres to take the old highway to Ahmedabad. Naïve me! I had no idea that the bikes were not allowed on the expressway.
Later, on the Ahmedabad Gandhinagar highway, it became difficult to find the exit for Udaipur. I realized that I was going in the wrong direction when all the roads seemed to be heading towards Mehsana. I asked a few bystanders and I was amused when two people told me, that to go towards Udaipur, I had to take the exact opposite direction to the one I was headed to. Anyway, I followed the advice, and after confirming with some other persons after 2-3 kilometres, I was sure that finally, I was headed in the right direction to Udaipur.
Now, I was feeling hungry. Today, I had decided to give staying overnight at dhaba a shot. Therefore, I stopped at the first dhaba that I found.
I looked for the time; it was 1 AM and trip meter read something over 600 kilometers.
Day 2 (Gandhinagar to Kishangarh):
This place, just after Gandhinagar, is called Chandola. This dhaba served only Dal-Bhati. However, I was amazed when he asked me what I wanted for dinner. As if, I had any other option. Anyway, the guy (I forgot his name), who was from a village near Udaipur and was working at the dhaba to support his family at home, was a decent chap. He 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 that he did not take them.
Sleeping under open skies ensures you wake up at 6 AM without an alarm. However, I was fresh like anything and wanted to hit the road before the sun came up. Actually, I wanted to reach any town where I could get another pair of gloves before the sun started burning my hands. The usual time of the markets’ opening at 10 AM seemed eternities away.
On the road, I met the first biker who was going the opposite way, from Udaipur to Mehsana.
Finally, I could buy gloves at a place called Bichchiwara after Himmatnagar.
I was running out of cash and all of two ATMs in the town, and the one in the next village were out of order. Still, I felt happy to see ATMs everywhere. A sign of financial empowerment. Finally, I could get some cash at an ATM in Udaipur.
In Udaipur, I stood at a crossing with one way to Chittorgarh and another way to Beawer. I had been to both the routes in 2006-07 and I had found that the Beawer route was more scenic. Therefore, I headed straight for it. Being a solo rider gives you the freedom of changing/updating your plan anytime, and I love being a footloose/a free bird.
A lake on the Beawer route, from Udaipur to Ajmer:
I was very sad looking at this lake because it had changed entirely than what I had seen it earlier in the year 2006:
The day was turning out to be very hot. All the memories of my last trip on such a hot day in June 2010 from Varanasi to Agra as part of Kolkata to Delhi trip came alive. Then, I had to be admitted for 5 days in a hospital after suffering from a heat stroke. I decided to play safe this time. Therefore, I avoided driving in the hot sun and slept at a dhaba after Nathdwara (one of the marble hubs of India) for about 2 hours. I kept the promise of not overexerting.
The drive after that was smooth.
When I reached Kishangarh late in the evening, then I had some difficulty searching for a lodge. However, in the end, I could get a room.
At the lodge, I met a person, Surinder Singh Gujjar, who used to manufacture marble cutting machines. Over dinner, he told me many tricks about his trade. I love such interactions.
Day 3 (Kishangarh to Gurgaon):
Start at Kanji Guest House, Kishengarh.
Today was the day when I realised that this trip is going to leave me very disorderly when I wore the same shirt for the third consecutive day. A biker has to travel light, and clothes are the first thing to be cut down. Use and throw them. I lost two shirts on this trip. Therefore, I decided to buy shirts at ₹30/- per piece from Kurla station for the next ride.
The ride until Jaipur was good; however, after Jaipur, it was a mess. There were many diversions all along as the construction work was going on on the Delhi-Jaipur highway. The only respite was the overcast sky, which was in stark contrast to the hot sun the previous day. Moreover, today, it rained!
Today, on Jaipur-Delhi highway, I had one of the best lunch that I have ever eaten. It was very filling. Moreover, I loved the way they served it. I felt guilty when I could not finish the Saag.
I reached Gurgaon at about 4 PM. The moment I crossed Manesar and the city traffic started, I realised that I would not be able to enjoy being in the city. The next 36 hours were going to be a very long wait.
In Gurgaon, I met my college friends. I rested for one day and then, I started for Manali.
Day 5 (Gurgaon to Ropar):
I started from home for Manali, a bit late at about 11 AM. It had rained in Gurgaon in the morning, and the weather was very pleasant. Crossing Delhi traffic was boring. However, I noticed that the vehicles in Delhi move much faster than Mumbai. Soon, I crossed Karnal by-pass, and the blissful phase of playing hide and seek with rain started.
I lacked a few essentials like leather gloves, bike spares etc. that I bought in Karnal.
The whole day I found that the rain was chasing me. Whenever I drove, I overtook it. Whenever I halted, it caught up with me. Therefore, every rest/break meant that I had to drive for about half an hour in a pleasant drizzle. However, all hell broke loose in Ambala where the clouds decided to match their speed with me and for the next 25 kms, I had to drive in incessant rains.
Finally, I gave up and stayed at a petrol pump for 1.5 hrs. The result: my plans to reach Yol Camp to meet an old-time friend were shelved. I decided to head straight for Manali and stayed at Ropar.
The hotel manager at Ropar happily offered me a 50% discount.
Day 6 (Ropar to Manali):
The start of hills after Roopnagar/Ropar in Punjab.
My entire luggage was drenched the previous day. Therefore, today, I prayed to find a clear sky ahead. However, fate had other plans for me. 10 kms into the ride and I found myself wearing raincoat again.
30 kms into the ride and I saw the hills. It was the first sight of all the bliss that the world has to offer to travellers esp. bikers.
I had faced one problem while riding solo initially. I never felt like stopping the bike and taking a photograph. It was only the endless drive that pleased me. Therefore, it felt irritating whenever I thought of taking photographs. (Ladakh changed my opinion).
I was running short of cash and the search for an ATM ended at a place called Swarghat in Himachal. It feels empowering to find ATMs in small places.
I had lunch near Swarghat. The Kadhi was awesome, the Makki roties very tasty and the dal was good.
As I rode ahead, the dhabas with cots, which were my favourite resting places became rare. I felt tired and thought of relaxing for some time. However, after half an hour of searching for a proper dhaba, I could not find one. Therefore, I finally decided to be the real “me” and made this roadside railing a pleasant cot.
With the Beas river flowing below, the sound of running water, and the cool breeze, it felt like heaven. I slept for half an hour here. 🙂
I reached Manali at about 7 PM. Hotel Chaman welcomed me. All one needs after such a long tiring drive is a hot water bath and a sound sleep. I got both.
At the hotel, I got to know about the new permits required for crossing Rohtang (though they never checked at Rohtang whether I had the permits).
The next day with the planned servicing of the bike, getting the permits, and some essentials (most importantly, the spare petrol cans), was going to be a busy day for sure.
Day 7 (Manali):
I started the day by searching for a bike mechanic. I found one, which had good reviews online.
At the workshop, the moment the chain-set was opened, I was stunned. The chain-set was in a very poor condition. It would have ditched me on my to Rohtang; leave apart surviving until Leh. The last 6 days had indeed been rough for the bike. Anyway, I got the faulty parts replaced, and the rest of the bike tuned up.
At the workshop, I got some tricks to ramp up bike performance uphill. One of them: remove the air filter altogether and let the engine get direct air. I was amazed at these performance tweaks.
After a lot of technical stuff, I said enough for now and I thought of exploring the city.
The Lonely Planet India guide has been my constant companion for the last 6 years and it has always come handy. The only issue is that in 2012, the is prices have increased by almost 50% since the edition of the book that I carry (2006). Nevertheless, it serves as a good measure of inflation.
I had lunch at Johnson’s café. I ordered the famous “trout” of Manali. However, for someone novice like me, any fish would have passed for trout. However, the preparation was tasty.
Next, I headed to old Manali. I visited the Tibet Kitchen. I ordered the recommended veg momos, which lived up to expectations.
At Tibet Kitchen, I met Chetan who had left his home in Hyderabad when he was 14 years old. He worked in Varanasi for a few years and thereafter, keep visiting different cities, doing restaurant jobs, staying for about a month or so at a place, and then shifting to next place. He could tell me about his experiences in most of the Indian states. Moreover, he was only 19 years old! Life never stops surprising me!
In the evening, for the first time on this trip, I used the DSLR. The cloud covered peaks are always an amazing sight.
Thereafter, I went to another old section of the city, Vashisth.
At Vashisth, I searched for a bakery shop called Superbake. However, I found it after crossing the same street four times, only to be told that they have stopped bakery business there and continue it in their main shop in the Manali city. At the main shop of Superbake, I did not get a good experience.
It is a tough job to try out all the recommended food in a city. You have all but only one stomach. I missed Ramky, my MBA batchmate here who is a gastronome.
As the day started coming to an end, the excitement started getting adulterated with anxiety. I was feeling nervous about what lied ahead. This trip was a big project for me. However, thanks to Gagan, my MBBS batchmate who is now a Major in the Indian army, I had worked out the options to eventualities. Friends come handy and old friends, always. Even though the last time we saw each other was 3 years back.
So, guys, the moment has arrived. A few things still needed to be worked out. Like, how to fit two plastic cans carrying 5-litres of extra fuel each on my already stuffed Saarthi. God, this is the only time I miss the Enfield that I had for two years (2005-2007). That bike could carry your home on it and there would still be space for more.
Anyway, I managed somehow. I had to manage.
I doubted that I would get internet access before Leh. Therefore, that was an end to my regular Facebook updates to my friends. One thing I must admit that until now, Facebook did not let me feel for a single moment that I was riding solo.
Manali – Leh
Day 8 (Manali to Darcha): 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.
The 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? Is it just to drive a bike for some time?
No! It was bigger than that. It was a long-standing desire, a childhood dream.
During the nineties, I had visited Shimla & Kufri with my family. During that trip, all along the road, I could see the milestones depicting Leh (5xx kms). At that time, I was a kid who dreamed of going distances, to see the world, and explore places. Leh was a place marked with a distance of more than 500 kms on the milestones of small country roads. It immediately caught my attention and it got ingrained in my memory. I was surprised that such seemingly narrow roads could also lead to any place 500 kms away. It was then that I thought, I must visit this place.
In addition, 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 is the first drive, which remains the most memorable. Therefore, 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 a good sleep. I was told that sleep would be hard to come by once I reach higher altitudes.
In the morning, I took some time to arrange all the luggage and petrol cans. I started riding at about 11 AM.
I remember that I was driving at a cool 30-40 kmph, and all the traffic was overtaking me. However, I had never felt more content. I was going to achieve what I had always wished for.
With all the uncertainties in mind, I headed forth.
A view of the road leading to the Rohtang pass. You can see the serpentine road, a small lake that is the origin of Beas River. A small settlement “Marhi”. I had my breakfast there and met a few people who told me that last year in May-end, there was 6-8 feet snow all-around at this place.
Beyond Marhi, small vehicles like passenger cars were not allowed that day as rains had led to mud on the road all around. You might see a caravan of vehicles waiting on one side of the road in the pic. The traffic was being allowed for about 15 minutes 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. Now, I could get a glimpse of what to expect in the coming days.
While riding uphill, whenever I felt like the bike is giving away, the first thing I checked was the gear the bike was in. If it was second gear, then I felt relieved that I still have the first gear and a further manoeuvre (removing air filter) with me to cross the bigger problems lying ahead (read Tanglang la).
A group of three bikers coming back from Leh greeted me. They gave me the firsthand information on the condition of the route ahead. There is no road from Keylong to Sarchu and there is all mud from Sarchu to Tanglang la.
However, the truth is that the weather changes so frequently on this route that what someone told you last day, might not be the situation today. The sun shines so strong here that a completely muddy road is dried within hours. So, never fear such information. What you are going to face would be unique and unrelated.
P.S. Removing the 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 carburettor of the bike and reduced its performance later on. All you need is to change the fuel settings in the carburettor and the bike will take you anywhere that is motorable.
Rohtang Top: I found another group of 8-10 bikers coming from Leh and taking pics. I too tried to follow suit; however, I felt the first bout of headache (AMS: acute mountain sickness). Therefore, I immediately moved ahead to cross over to the other side. However, then the beauty of Rohtang had its way and it made me stop about a few hundred meters ahead and take a good look around the place.
Rohtang pass was the most beautiful of all the passes that I crossed on this trip. I could not help but keep clicking pics.
Green, white, wind, and cold. All of them combined made me emotional.
However, I had come ahead of the point from where the day tourists take a U-turn to go back to Manali. I wished someone could take my pic here. As the Alchemist says: when you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. A Good Samaritan appeared and went back after taking two pictures of me.
As I started riding down from Rohtang to enter the Chandra River valley, the road suddenly changed its contour. The road almost vanished. It is one of the highlights of this highway. You would find excellent tarmac at one stretch and just after the corner, it would suddenly change to a 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 the entry to the Spiti Valley. This small road never gives you a glimpse of the grandeur of the place that it leads to. There were some other unidentified diversions where I had to wait to confirm my way lest I had to come back a few kilometres.
I had to register at Kokshar (the first police post on the stretch).
In the Chandra River Valley.
On my way to Tandi.
This road and the landscape make you feel right from the word “Go” that by coming here, you have made a decision that you would never regret.
Driving along Chandra River.
Landslides are common at this stretch. While coming back from Leh, I had to wait here for about half an hour before the Border Roads Organization (BRO) cleared the road again.
“The” Petrol Pump at Tandi.
This is one signboard that makes you realise that after so many technological advances, developments, and so many years since independence, still, there are places, which are truly remote. Until date, I had only seen this pic in friends’ albums and I had wished all these years to click this photograph myself. Today, a desire is fulfilled. “Been there, done that”.
I crossed Keylong and Jispa, and finally, I stayed at Darcha. I stayed in the tin-shed hutment. Charges: 100/-.
Soon, I was joined by a group of eight bikers from Pune who ran an adventure trip organising company. They were driving to Leh, as their clients were flying to Leh and wanted to ride their way from Leh to Manali. You would find many people driving on this highway just to transport the bikes from Manali to Leh and vice versa.
The food at the dhaba was ok. The sound of the Bhaga River flowing nearby was so high that it made me think all night that a hailstorm is there outside.
Darcha was the second police check post that I had to register. The benefit of these registrations is that in case I drive over a hill on my way, then my family would know which section of the road to search for me.
Day 9 (Darcha to Sarchu):
Bird’s eye view of Darcha settlement.
The day started at about 8 AM, which was a bit early from my standards. However, even then the sun was so strong that the first time during the trip, I used sunscreen lotion. When I was applying sunscreen lotion, a truck approached from behind. The road did not have enough space for both of us. Therefore, I had to hurry and move the bike. At that point in time, I felt like a makeup conscious person who had put all road safety measures on stake.
On way to ZingZingBar:
Such streams are common on the way. The water flow increases in size and strength as the day progresses. Early in the morning, the streams are 1/4 to 1/5 of the size they reach by evening. Thank God, it was early in the day. This is because this stream is known to have made the crossing of even the trucks difficult in the second half of 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 today and enjoy the route to the maximum.
The climb to the Baralachala pass is about 27 kms from the Darcha side and on the route, you find so many titillating views. I had kept my camera hung around my neck all the time. Frequent stops solely to take pics were the order of the day.
The peak shown above is NOT Baralachala top. Still, this is one of my favourite pics, which finds a place in my flipbook.
On the way to Baralachala pass.
The above pic is of Bernit from the UK. He is 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 the trip. He had been to Shimla, Dharamshala, and was on the 4th day of Manali-Leh journey, which takes about 11-12 days on a bicycle. Moreover, he was riding SOLO! You would always find people on the way who inspire and motivate you by being live examples of courage and hard work. Bernit is one such person to me.
Bernit was the first cyclist that I came across on this highway and I was surprised. At a place where powerful engines leave you in a lurch, it was inspiring to see people pumping muscles to conquer the terrain. Later on, I met Indians as well, who were cycling their way to Leh, and many other couples also. However, all the couples were foreigners.
On the way to Baralachala pass. You can see Zingzingbar settlement in the pic above.
Vamsi Ayyagari and Shashant Kumar at Baralachala top. The only Indian cyclists I met on the route.
The situation became funny at Baralachala top. The signboard indicating the top of the pass was gone. Therefore, I kept on driving ahead. I was determined to stop only after reaching the top, and suddenly, I noticed that the descent had started. Surprised, I stopped and saw Vamsi and Shashant there. After enquiring from a group coming from Leh, I 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 initially southeast and then northwest to merge at Tandi (“The” petrol pump city).
On way down from Baralachala top
Travelling in the month of July on Manali Leh Highway has its pros and cons. The pros: the roads become motorable and the passes remain always open. The cons: you do not get to see a lot of snow on the roads (though here it did). I could not see the walls of snow on the sides of the road, which one finds in the months of May and early June.
Going ahead, I was welcomed by some of the frailest bridges I had ever come across:
Such bridges are commonplace on this highway. The steel sheets are so loose that you fear that they would come out the moment you ride on them. Moreover, the gaps of about half a feet between the metal plates are very common. You have to leave everything to the luck and drive ahead. A truck decided to skip the bridge and preferred to cross through the stream below.
On way to Sarchu
Another sudden change of terrain. Sometimes, driving alone through such roads gave me goosebumps.
The terrain will not let you know when the serpentine hilly roads change to fearsome gorges, and then to vast plains or to the riverbeds. The uncertainty around the corner has its thrill. Moreover, the monstrous mountains on the sides reveal how trivial and miniature the man is in front of nature:
Soon, I reached Lingati plains just before Sarchu. The riverbed here suddenly leads you to vast plains and you feel unleashed. You open the helmet visor and sing at the top of your voice. You cannot help but wave at fellow travellers. I 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 fast. From Baralachala top to Sarchu, we covered about 45 km in 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. It took four 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 ₹1,000-1,500/- per night. However, my travel mantra is to save on everything except petrol (and of course drinkable water).
Day 9 ended at Sarchu. Another check post to register. Himachal Pradesh ended here and I officially entered in Ladakh, a part of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
I called it a day at 3 PM. I could have managed to go to Pang, which was about 70 km ahead; however, that would have involved crossing the magnificent Gata Loops, Nakeela, and Lachungala pass. I did not want to waste such an adventurous part of the terrain in the fading lights. Moreover, the kind of AMS attack that I had the next morning (Day 10), proved that staying at Sarchu was a good decision. At Pang, my situation would have been worse.
I spent the evening chatting with the newfound friends, Vamsi Ayyagari and Shashant Kumar and roamed around the place.
I met three different groups of people at dhaba:
- Two people from Delhi who had hired only one Enfield. The pillion rider had to carry the heavy backpack. Still, they were enjoying it. Cool guys! However, definitely they could have improvised.
- A group in a Fortuner car who had travelled from Leh to Sarchu in just 7 hours while it was going to take a full day ride for me the next day. They informed me about all the loose sand lying in Moore plains where their SUV was stuck. Was it true? I found the bitter truth the next day, and it proved to be my worst driving experience until now.
- One lone person travelling on Yamaha FZ-16 (the same bike as my Saarthi). However, his bike was giving problems. The spark plug of his bike was not working well. He bought a plug from someone who was on his way back from Leh. This guy again got the same problem the next day where I helped him. Later, he was the only one who helped in my worst time of the trip when literally fear had gripped me (I must have told this to a number of you: riding my way up Tanglang-la). More about that later.
Day 10 (Sarchu to Leh):
Today, the adventure started even before I touched my bike. The enemy of mountain bikers: acute mountain sickness (AMS) attacked me. I woke up with a severe headache. I was not able to walk in a straight line. I could not concentrate on what I was doing. Until now, I had only read about AMS in books; however, I was experiencing it for the first time.
I came out of the dhaba and saw that Vamsi Ayyagarii and Shashant Kumar were packing their cycles. They used to start early and travel until the afternoon each day.
I decided to rest a bit more and therefore, slept for one more hour. I ordered breakfast. However, the moment I took one bite of aloo paratha, I felt like throwing up. I could not eat. The thought of complications of AMS started flooding in mind.
During AMS, the first step that is advised is to start an immediate descent. However, considering the place I was in, at Sarchu; going back meant crossing Baralachala, which itself is tough to cross in such a situation. In addition, going ahead meant crossing the mighty Tanglangla, the second-highest pass in the world after Khardungla. It was “Aage kuan peeche khai”. Nevertheless, 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. Common sense took a beating. I did not buy chocolates from the dhaba. Whatever chocolates I had, I finished them soon.
Now, I was driving while being conscious of the fact that I was not in my full senses. However, sometimes, you have to rely on your guts, and this was one such time for me. Anyway, in such a condition, I started the final leg of my journey to Leh.
I met Vamsi and Shashant about 15 km ahead. They had finished their stock of Diamox (an anti-AMS medicine); however, I could get some precious chocolates from them.
While crossing some BRO (Border Roads Organization) workers lumbering on 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. The AMS was gone for now.
At Gata Loops, there are said to 21 loops as per the signboards. I tried to count them initially. However, the loops kept on coming one after another, and I realised that it was better that I focus on the road instead of committing some silly mistake trying to keep the counting in mind. I could not count to 21 and took the signboard on the face value. If anyone had counted all the loops, then please confirm their actual number.
Feeling at top of the world:
Nakee-la: The third pass on the Manali-Leh highway. The most underestimated of all the passes. Sometimes, it is not even counted as a pass.
You barely come down from Nakeela that the ascent to its bigger brother, Lachungla, starts.
I halted at Whisky Nullah on the way to Lachungla and ate some more chocolates. I was surviving only on chocolates now. Then, I saw this person:
He was from Maharashtra and was travelling at a Hero Honda CD 100SS. I was surprised as I was questioning the ability of my Yamaha and Naveen, my friend at ICICI, doubted his Pulsar 180 whether these bikes can take us to Ladakh. Whereas, this person was coming back from Leh after doing Srinagar-Leh highway and crossing Khardung-La, and has now reached here by conquering Tanglang-la and Lachung-la. Sometimes, people prove that it is not your resources but your courage that decides your fate. Salute!
Whisky Nullah is a small tented settlement. In fact, I found only one tent here. It is an important stopover for the cyclists who usually halt here for the night after starting the day at Sarchu. Gata Loops and Nakeela are an admirable feat for cyclists in one day.
Truly speaking, while researching for this trip, I did not even come to know of this place. Every resource that I had read only talked about Darcha, Sarchu, and Pang. When you have a 15bhp engine revving under you, you do not think much about a few kilometers in distance or a few meters in altitude. You just fill in the gas, rev up the bike, and zoom ahead.
However, for the cyclists, it is a much tougher preparation. Vamsi Ayyagari and Shashant Kumar told me that it took them four months to prepare for this ride. Continuous gym and swimming among other things. The route map that they had detailed everything about the changing altitude apart from the usual measure of distances. I take a bow to that level of detail.
By the way, I was feeling hungry and I ate many chocolates here. I met a few college students who were riding from Leh to Manali only to bring the bikes left by tourists in Leh, back to Manali. I would love to do this job 🙂
At all these passes, you invariably find Tibetan 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. However, the high altitude soon makes you realize your fragility; remember AMS!
So here, I was. I started the day in fragile health and I had crossed Gata Loops, Nakeela, and Lachungla. Now, I wanted to have lunch and a bit of rest at Pang. Therefore, I started my descent.
The moment you descend from Lachungla, you see a small stream that starts flowing on your right. As you move ahead, the frail stream converts into a bustling river. The huge mountains from both sides converge on the road and you get ready to enter the Gorges of Pang.
The road is full of potholes. Better to say that there is no road, but only loose gravel. The wind is stopped by the mountains on the sides. The sheer silence becomes deafening. The sun suddenly starts feeling very hot, and the wait to reach Pang becomes never-ending. All in all, it is a fearsome stretch.
I did not feel like stopping mid-way to Pang; however, the thirst was killing me. Moreover, the moment I stopped, I realised that two other SUVs had also followed suit. In addition, it became one of the few places where I got my picture clicked. The person driving the Endeavour car liked the fact that I was riding from Mumbai. He shook hands with me, hugged, photographed, video-filmed me and then, went singing the song “Bombay se aaya mera dost.”
On tough mountain roads, it is a bike, which beats all four wheels. It is only at smoother stretches that multi-lac machines prove their worth by overtaking two-wheels.
I had lunch at Pang, which by now had become a routine of vegetable Maggi with tea. Maggi here costs twice of what it is available in the inhabited world. However, I feel blessed by the mere fact that it is available. By now, I had stopped negotiating on prices. The maximum that I paid for a water bottle on this trip was ₹35/- a liter. However, that was not at Pang. At Pang, the water bottle cost me ₹25/-.
There is an army transit camp at Pang. In the past, one had to register here before crossing Pang. However, this time, it was a free passage for tourists.
The drive from pang started with a very steep ascent where Saarthi had to put in a lot of power just to keep us moving. However, the moment we turned a corner, there was the most magnificent of the stretches on this blessed path: the Moore plains (also called More plains):
Moore plains is a plateau at about 4,700m above sea level. You would never anticipate its arrival on the route. This is because, just before you enter Moore plains, you are busy negotiating the 5 km steep climb that starts at Pang.
At Moore plains, the gravel turned into a nicely laid tarmac, and suddenly, I found myself accelerating Saarthi and singing songs aloud. Low lying hills, open grasslands, and soothing gushes of wind. It made me forget all the problems I had faced until now, and I let myself relax. Driving at such places, any time beats the meditation for me.
Moore plains were one of the places where I missed bringing my own tent. Had it been the case, I would have pitched the tent and stayed here itself.
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 Moore Plains itself. This is because, the ascent to Tanglang-la is supposed to be very tough and the fuel meters of most of the bikes show empty reading, the moment they cross Debring (another tented settlement at the base of Tanglang-la) to start the ascent of Tanglang-la. The advice I well headed to. However, did that save/reduce my troubles while tackling the toughest challenge that nature had to throw at me on this path: Hell No! Nevertheless, more about that later.
Remember, yesterday, I was told about the road being very bad in Moore plains by friends coming back from Leh whose SUV got stuck in sand here. By this time, riding on the well-paved road, I had forgotten their warning and was fully engrossed in riding the best stretch of my life, which lasted about 15 odd kms. However, the moment the tarmac ended, all hell broke loose.
There was nothing called road ahead of me. It was only the tyre marks on the grassland that I was driving on. Moreover, I realised that when there are multiple loaded trucks traversing “the kachcha road”, they mince the gravel/earth into the fine sand. This sand is so fine that even the slightest blow of wind lifts it off the ground and it feels like a sand storm all around.
Have you ever been the cause of your own trouble? I have been in the past, which was due to my foolishness. However, here the situation was different. I was facing tailwinds, which in normal days are good for biking. But, now, Saarthi was throwing dirt in the air and the tailwind was putting all that dirt in front of me.
Was it enough to be named trouble? It was. Because 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.
At this time, an evening tea was welcome; however, this place, which was dustier than any I had ever been to, was not giving me the kind of relaxation I wanted. In addition, with Tanglang-la being only 20 km ahead, I cut the break short and moved ahead.
On my way, I met the FZ16 friend who had shared the accommodation with me at Sarchu. His bike was again giving him trouble. He was standing among many BRO workers with everyone looking at his bike. His luck was good that one of the workers knew a bit about the bikes, and he was willing to help. However, the FZ guy did not have the toolkit. He was from the northeast and I remembered my carefree MBA batchmate “KC” from IIFT here.
This was the first instance when I opened my entire luggage to help someone. I did that a few more times later on this trip. Finally, the sparkplug and the filters of his bike were opened up and the bike seemed to come to life but it died again. I remembered the trick of air filter removal told by the mechanic in Manali. I asked him to apply the same and it worked for him. I felt happy being the Good Samaritan.
I started packing the stuff. However, the time I spent here to help, had again precipitated the headache. I hurried and started riding towards Tanglang-la pass to negotiate it at the earliest and reach Leh, which is a good 2,000m below the level of Tanglangla. I was happy that Saarthi did not have any problem until now when I was standing at the doorstep to the last challenge.
Sixteen out of a total of 20 km to the Tanglangla top from Debring were done somehow. Shifting gears, high acceleration, excessive clutch usage; however, the petrol was not burning in the engine.
For the 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 try experiencing it standing at 5,000m height with the bike no longer able to move ahead and that f***ing headache. I was not at all in a good mood. The only solution that I knew was to use the Manali trick of removing the air filter or to drag the bike four kilometres to top.
The air filter in Yamaha FZ is under the driver’s seat, which is not like an Enfield, where it is in one of the side chambers. This meant that I had to again remove all luggage, remove the air filter, and then repack it. It meant a lot of exertion at a place where I was finding it difficult to breathe.
The help came in the form of the same friend from the northeast on Yamaha FZ. He helped me to unpack the luggage rapidly. I opened all the bolts of the air filter and lost a few of the bolts in the haste. However, now, fearing for my life, I cared the least about some silly metal bolts. The only target was to somehow reach the top of Tanglang-la. My neatly packed, waterproofed luggage was in shambles now. Nevertheless, with the help at hand, we put everything back. Luckily, Saarthi started.
However, every 10m that we covered was like winning a battle. A few oil tankers (trucks) overtook me. They were themselves struggling at the steep climb of Tanglang-la and could offer little help to me.
I managed to cover further three kilometres when Saarthi said the final “NO”. It will not start. The ignition will not burn the fuel. Thanks to Yamaha, I could not even kick start it. This bike comes only with an electric start mechanism. Now, the remaining distance seemed like an eternity. As had been the rule always for humankind, the muscle power is the power of last resort. I dragged the loaded bike to the top of Tanglang la.
The top of Tanglang La was a deserted place with only a temple, a few fluttering prayer flags, and the snow-capped peaks nearby. It could have been a good place to spend some time. However, now, I was gripped with exhaustion, anxiety, and fear. I took some pics quickly as a memory of this day.
After that, I literally ran away from this place. I never had taken such a fast descent in my entire journey. Only when the milestones indicated that I had descended about 2,000ft that I relaxed and felt relieved.
Soon, I was at Pateso, where one friend offered me Diamox and I accepted it thinking to take this pill only if the situation does not improve.
From Patseo to Upshi:
Thereafter, I drove along beautiful ravines with green and magenta colours. As per the Lonely Planet guide, these are evidence of tectonic forces still shaping the Himalayas. The ride from Patseo to Upshi and further to Leh was a smooth one where bikes start picking up speed once again.
While entering the Indus Valley, the emotions that I felt were exactly opposite of what I got when I entered mountains four days back, in Himachal when I left the plains just after Ropar. Today, it seemed more like a mission is accomplished.
I registered at the J&K police check post at Upshi.
It had started getting dark when I crossed Karu. I had decided not to drive after sunset on this trip. However, after enquiring from the locals, I came to know that the road until Leh (about 35km) was a straight highway without any tough stretches. Therefore, I drove until Leh and reached the guesthouse suggested by one of my old-time friends at around 8:30 PM. Driving from Upshi to Leh was more like a relief and an unwinding after a hard day.
At the guesthouse, I loved the hot water bath after three days of rugged driving.
In Leh, there was no roaming service on my cell phone. Therefore, I used the STD/PCO service after many years. The familiar queues outside PCO booths made me remember my graduation days (the early 2000s).
All in all, a memorable day ended. I 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
Day 11 (Leh):
Today was planned as a rest day to let the body and bike recuperate. I had also planned it as the day to get the required permits and other preparations. I woke up at 10 AM and started for the permits’ office. It took me about 30 minutes to get all permits.
The next job was to get the bike in order. The airport road in Leh has many bike mechanics. I found one specialist for Yamaha and Pulsar. He clarified to me that the hilly terrain only needs some adjustments of the carburettor and nothing else needs to be done to the bike. He did some minor changes in bike settings and charged me ₹100 for it. However, ₹100 was nothing, if I could avoid the Tanglang-la type of incidents in the future. Moreover, I had to ride over the Khardung-la (highest motorable pass) the very next day.
The little changes in the bike settings by the mechanic had an amazing impact. I did not face any issues crossing Khardungla (the highest pass), Changla (the third-highest pass), and while crossing Tanglangla (second highest pass), on my way back to Manali. My bike evoked so much confidence in me that, come what may, crossing any hurdle would not be an issue now. However, more about the specific instances later.
I visited a shop to get the air pressure checked in the tires. However, I did not find any attendant there. Therefore, I decided to try my hands at it. The pressure in the air tank was so high that within five seconds of applying the nozzle to the tire, the previously mended punctures in the tire started leaking; another instance of self-inflicted problems.
The tubeless tire punctures can cost you about ₹100 per puncture if you get it repaired by a mechanic. However, if you do it yourself, it takes about one minute to repair, and the cost is about ₹5-7/-. This was a lesson that I had learned the hard way on my ride to Kolkata in 2010. Since then, I had never let any mechanic fleece me. I came back to my hotel in Leh and mended the puncture on my own.
Day 12 (Leh to Panamik):
I had planned a 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 the Siachin glacier and another valley along Shyok River which going ahead, crosses into Pakistan. Therefore, the first challenge to tackle now was Khardungla.
The morning was beautiful and the spirits ran high. The AMS was gone and the Tibetan food energizing. So, I started for the next part of this journey, the Nubra Valley.
“Tank full, bottle full” had become my demand statement at the 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 of the journey through Leh and a few villages on the outskirts was deceptive. I could hardly believe that through these small street lanes, monstrous military caravans pass to reach the highest battleground of the world, the “Siachin glacier”.
The moment, I crossed Leh and headed for the Khardungla Top (K-Top), I was greeted by the first landslide of the journey:
However, the BRO was working at full swing. It repaired the road in about half an hour and my journey continued. The ride ahead was tough; however, the bike and biker were in the high spirits. The road now seemed surmountable.
The road up to Khardungla from Leh.
It takes you from Leh, at 3,500m altitude to Khardungla top at 5,602m. Lucky for being in hills for quite some time now, I felt ok with the altitude. Later on, I met people who had to be treated with oxygen at military hospital atop Khardungla. However, the relief was short, as after 20 minutes, my situation was far from good and I was again driving short of my full senses.
I felt lucky and blessed to be at the Khardung-la top. The only issue was that there were too many people 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 that people talk about vanishing glaciers covering this pass in the past. Still, it was the high point of the journey.
Just like Rohtang, many people come to K-top to go back to Leh. Therefore, when you cross/reach here at noon, you find hordes of tourists coming up. However, the situation changes as the day passes. While returning from Nubra Valley, 3 days later, I was the only tourist at K-top around 6 pm.
Descent from Khardungla:
By the time I was done at K-top, the headache had started again. I was driving very slowly.
On my way, I met a foreigner coming up from the Nubra Valley side whose bike was not starting. I asked in a 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 do not die Ladakh!
The descent from K-top gave me the opportunity to drive along with the snow in real sense. The northern side of the 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 at least until North Pallu before heading back to Leh. The north side of the pass is more beautiful than the south/Leh side of the pass. In the pic above the small tower visible near the left edge where the road cuts the border, is at Khardungla.
I had only a few chocolates as breakfast, so I was feeling very hungry by the time I descended about 15 km. At North Pallu, I had Maggi and tea. However, still, I was not in the best of spirits. Anyway, I moved ahead.
The moment you see the Khardung village, you realize why Nubra Valley is known as the “valley of flowers”. Here, the villages are like an oasis in the desert. Vegetations are in patches formed by streams descending from the melting glaciers at the top. The 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 in the shade for about half an hour. In addition, I had to take a crocin. The cool breeze was amazing. After a power nap, I was ready to explore Nubra.
On the way down from Khardungla, I had crossed a military caravan on my way. After North Pullu, I found all the vehicles (there were 13 of them) parked in a lineup. I got a good chance to interact and photograph them. Every soldier recognized the solo rider who had overtaken all of them.
Soon thereafter, I continued my solo journey ahead. The next stop was Khalsar.
Khalsar is the place where the road bifurcates. One going to Siachin along Nubra/Siachin River leading to Sumur and Panamik; Panamik being the last place up to where tourists are allowed. Therefore, in a sense, the northernmost point of India for non-J&K locals. The other road leads to Diskit, Hundur, and Turthuk along the Shyok river which further flows into Pakistan.
I headed for Panamik. I had decided to spend the first night there. The road was beautiful. Almost the whole stretch was along a riverbed, barring 2-3 km of hilly road.
Pleasant stretches like these make riding in the “valley of flowers” an utmost pleasure.
People visit Panamik for hot springs; however, I was there for this natural beauty and the river Nubra. I miss the time I spent here. Later on, I spent a few hours on the banks of the river and I could not stop myself from collecting souvenirs.
It was my bad luck that I had my first fall of this trip on the short curvaceous stretch in the hills. 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, and the other who is about to fall.”
I crossed Panamik in the search of any police post so that I can ensure what was the furthest extent to which I was allowed on this road. After going about 3 km ahead of Panamik, I found a police post without policemen. The locals told me that it was the last permitted point and I returned to Panamik.
Two guesthouses in Panamik, which claimed to be affiliated with the Ministry of Wildlife had locks on their doors. Finally, I decided to stay at the “Bangka Guesthouse”. The stay was comfortable. The tariff was ₹400/- for a very beautiful room.
The moment I met “Ondu”, the caretaker, the first thing I asked him was the way to river. He told me about a shortcut. However, after half an hour of wandering on that route, I realised that I would not be able to reach the river and find a suitable place for spending time. Therefore, I came back to the main road and started walking towards the end of the village.
On the way, I noticed that people in the village here direct the water flowing downhill through different canals. These small canals run across the fields, across one’s gardens, houses, schools, offices everywhere. People get all their water supply right from these canals of glacial water at their doorstep.
I had to walk about 4-5 km to reach Nubra river outside the village:
The river was very captivating. I never felt like going back to the village. I had this same feeling once in the past when I had visited the Taj early in the morning in 2010.
I felt like staying here on the riverbank and in the Panamik village for a long time. The fact that people from abroad travel to India especially to visit such far-flung places and I, despite being a resident, had never thought about visiting such a beautiful place on Indian soil. I myself do not know when I would be able to visit Panamik again. Coming to Leh itself would be a great task but crossing Khardungla, and coming 150 km northwards to this place again may or may not be possible. Everything around and my thoughts were making me go emotional.
At dinner, I was introduced to other tourists at the hotel, three girls and one guy. Three Israelite and one Swede. The girl from Sweden was with her Israelite boyfriend. However, what I found the most surprising was that the other two girls were travelling together on this world tour. The first thought I had was: could two Indian girls travel to Israel like this.
Upon further interaction, I came to know that none of them was a hotshot professional. Most of them were just out of the compulsory military service and were yet to start their university education. Gosh, some places in the world really pay you well to fulfil your dreams and desires.
I had a good informative time playing cards with them. I learned a new card game as well. Thus, another tiring day came to an end 🙂
Day 13 (Panamik to Turtuk):
While leaving Leh, I had assumed that along the Shyok River, Hunder is the last point where tourists are permitted. Therefore, I had earlier planned to go only until Hunder, see the sand dunes and head back to Leh. However, Ondu, the owner of the guesthouse at Panamik, told me that now the tourist permit allows travel until Turtuk, which is very near to Pakistan border.
Moreover, Ondu told me that people can see Pakistani Karakoram range from Turtuk. This was enough to make me visit Turtuk, which was about 80 km ahead of Hunder. As I had made a habit of always carrying spare petrol in Ladakh, the amount of 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 a headache was a routine by now and this day was no exception.
I came out of the valley of Nubra River and took the turn along the Shyok River. The next targets were Diskit, Hunder, and then Turtuk.
The pic above is the road at the riverbed of Shyok. It is about a 5 km long stretch where you can speed to the maximum. I revved up the bike and made Saarthi feel the relaxation of plains.
On the right, you see the Nubra/Siachin River valley leading to Siachin glacier and on the left, the Shyok River valley. The combined Nubra Valley separates the Indian Ladakh range from the Pakistani Karakoram ranges. Yesterday, I had gone about 35km inside the Nubra river valley and today, I had planned to go about 130 km along the Shyok River.
I bypassed Diskit and headed straight for Hunder. Hunder is famous for its sand dunes. As per the Lonely Planet’s India Guide, if you ignore the snow-clad mountains in the background, you can easily mistake these dunes to be in the Sahara desert.
I had never been to Sahara or the Thar Desert so I could not compare. However, the sand dunes looked beautiful. It felt as if the sand once trapped in this valley would never be able to escape due to the high mountain walls along the valley.
There is a famous camel safari among the sand dunes at Hunder. However, as I was already riding my camel for the last 13 days, therefore, the safari at Hunder was not of any interest to me. Therefore, I moved ahead.
Today’s ride was through heavily guarded military terrain where signs of “Photography prohibited” were very frequent. I did not click anything for almost the whole of the day. I would not able to describe what all I saw on the way. “Home away from home” was a frequent slogan at all the military transit camps.
As Saarthi and I moved ahead, the mountains got higher, the road rougher and curvier, and the bridges frailer. “One vehicle at a time and max speed of 5kph” was the norm on all the bridges.
The pic below is of a milestone near Turtuk. I was surprised to see the distance of Pakistani cities.
I had to register again at a police post during the final leg of the journey.
The road was shouldering the Shyok River and the prosperous villages with good crops were all along the way. I was almost at the end of the journey (4 km from Turtuk) when I reached this:
This was a tough challenge. Suddenly, I realized that the bridge on the road was broken and the monstrous stream was actually the path that I had to cross. The surface to drive was loose stones. The water was freezing cold and the distance was about 100m. There was no way that I could cross it without putting my feet in the water and making the only pair of shoes that I had dripping wet. The only respite was that it was the end of the day’s journey and I could afford to dry the shoes overnight.
I took my chances. I had to literally walk sitting atop Saarthi with my feet in the water. The worst stream I found was at the fag end of the journey; the furthest I had to come. This is called bad luck.
I rode through the village Turtuk that was sitting atop the slope before I chose the hotel to stay. The village ended soon with a signboard stating that tourists were not allowed beyond this point (Visible in the pic below). The place was witnessing a live landslide. If you see closely, you would notice the falling rocks with rising dust on the slope in the pic.
The village’s location was such that I could not drive to the part, which had the most guesthouses. The only way to reach there was by a footbridge over a stream. It required me to park Saarthi on the other side of the village. Therefore, I decided to skip staying in the village and came back to stay at a roadside guesthouse.
The stream of water running through Turtuk, which had to be crossed using the foot overbridge to enter the major part of the village with the market and the hotels. The source of the water is glaciers melting above, which leads to the 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 along with further 10-15 km of the area became an Indian Territory. I could not even imagine the hardship one goes through when your nationality changes in a moment and one has to leave all the social relations behind.
This village is told to be connected by the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) by many shortcuts and now the army has permanent posts here to check infiltration and smuggling.
I spent some time with a person who worked as a teacher in the local school. He told me a lot of firsthand accounts of the Kargil war here.
Turtuk was under direct enemy fire at the time of the Kargil war. It took many casualties 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 where I am sitting peacefully now. I felt lucky that India has one of the strongest defence establishments in the world, a fact that many foreigners, esp. Europeans discussed it with me on this trip.
The Karakoram range in PoK:
The first line of mountains belongs to India and the hills beyond that is PoK territory. One of the high points of my journey.
Day 14 (Turtuk to Leh):
I had decided to enjoy the drive back to Leh this day (206 km). Nothing less nothing more.
Yesterday, the broken bridge, which I had to cross at day end had made my shoes totally wet; however, these were dried a bit overnight. Now, I did not want to suffer the same fate again today, right at the start of the journey. Therefore, I decided to cross the stream barefoot.
It is advised that while crossing such streams barefoot, one should not ride the bike but walk along with it. Because any slippage might lead to foot injuries.
I tried to follow the advice. I tied my shoes to the luggage, started the bike, and entered the stream. Hardly did I wade through 10m that I faced a bigger problem. The stream was strong, which had already eroded everything except large stones that were not fixed in the ground. The bike was not getting enough friction to move ahead and as a result, the tyres were skidding. The bike needed more weight on top of it.
Now, I was standing dumb with hardly 1/10th of my way into the water. Therefore, I decided to forget all the good advice and tried riding the bike. I was lucky that I did not step on something sharp or much uneven to lead to any significant problem. The first hurdle of the day was crossed. Yee…! 🙂
Once you drive in Ladakh, you cannot 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. Therefore, I 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 of the tourists go back to Leh from Hunder and very few go further to Turtuk. Therefore, most of this route is desolate. You might end up driving for hours without anyone coming from either end of the road.
The other thing that I noticed was that the barren mountains here in Ladakh are in sharp contrast to Himachal Pradesh where you would find thick forests lining the slopes. It is because the melting glaciers cause erosion. It is good to know this as a fact. However, what could be the extent of this erosion 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 the thoughts of earthquakes. The situation in terrains like this had been disastrous in a few earthquakes in the recent past. No wonder that the earthquake in PoK in 2005-06 caused so many 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 the rain, is anybody’s guess.
I reached Hunder, the city of sand dunes in the afternoon.
These white-coloured “Chortens” in the above pic are Ladakh’s keynote architecture. However, 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. However, they look beautiful.
Just after Diskit, the sight of this vast juncture of the merger of Nubra and Shyok River meant that my stay in the Nubra valley had come to an end. Soon, I would be heading to the Khardung-la and crossing over to Leh.
I would miss Panamik and the time spent on the Nubra bank more than anything else. Would it be possible to come back to this place and spend maybe a few days/weeks here? I do not know. However, as far as I know myself, you never know.
Now, it was time to rev up Saarthi and let it loose. I love crossing these tarmac roads on riverbeds.
I had lunch at Khalsar. A big plateful of Chow Mein, which I could have never finished and I did not even try to. It gave me stomach upset later. However, such problems are common for travellers and the benefit of being a doctor is that you are not bothered by them. You manage them and move ahead in life.
At lunch, I met a person whom I mistook as defence personnel because he was dressed in olive greens. However, he turned out to be a fellow biker from Mumbai. He had been to Pangong Lake just a day back riding his Thunderbird. His story of hardships while crossing Chang-la, the 3rd highest motorable pass of the world, on the way from Leh to Pangong Lake was terrifying.
His bike gave up just five km 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 the same point again. This time, he came back to Leh, about 80km back. He got the bike repaired in Leh and then in the third attempt, he could successfully cross Changla.
Was I worried? I believe not. Because in the past 3 days, Saarthi had proven its calibre. However, still, it is not over until it is over.
Now, it was the time to start the ascent to Khardung-La.
The way to the Khardung-La pass.
I found the route from the 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. However, to experience driving through walls of snow about 10 ft. high on both sides of the road, I will have to wait a bit more.
I was the only tourist doing the ascent. The 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 existing for the sake of it. The locals told me that you are lucky if you ever find fuel there. Therefore, the ultimate source of fuel even for the places up to 200 km deep into the Nubra valley is Leh. Life is not easy in Ladakh. In contrast, there are four petrol pumps from govt. companies competing with each other, all within 100m near my home in Mumbai.)
I reached the Khardung La pass at about 6 PM:
I was the only tourist at the top at that time. It was in sharp contrast to what I had experienced 2 days back at this same place. The diesel generator was still on. However, barring that, it was very calm and serene.
After 14 days of journey, I was more acclimatized to high altitude than ever. Therefore, despite being at the top of the pass for a considerable amount of time, I did not feel the slightest of AMS trouble. Finally, I had nailed it.
This board felt meaningless now when there was hardly any snow near it. Though, I would love to visit here again and feel the real threat of an avalanche.
That is Leh. The photo is taken on my way down from the Khardung La pass:
The descent took me almost 2-2.5 hrs. I realised that I drive faster uphill whereas, on the downhill, I need to be more cautious.
There was no one at South Pallu to register me out of Nubra. Somehow, I felt that the Himachal Pradesh police is more active and prompt than the J&K police. However, that might be because the J&K police work under the shadow of the Indian Army. That is debatable and I am not going for that.
After 3 days in Nubra valley and experiencing the beautiful memorable moments especially in Panamik, I was headed back to 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 until Turtuk. Somehow, not stopping at tourist hotspots of Diskit & Hunder, and going all way until the Line of Control (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
Day 15 (Leh to Pangong Lake:
The sun seems to rise very early in Ladakh. However hard I tried, I could never sleep beyond 6:30 AM here; however tired I was. Still, I was on holiday. Therefore, I got out of bed only at 8 AM.
I had learned to put all things of regular use in the bungee nets on the top of the packed luggage. As a result, now, I had stopped unpacking the luggage for the night stay. Therefore, getting ready for the start of the day’s ride had become very smooth and easy.
I got the cash at an ATM where a few soldiers from Haryana spotted the bike. The first thing they asked me was whether ICICI had sponsored this trip for me. It was not. Moreover, I never tried for sponsorship. The guidance I had got in the past was to avoid sponsors. This is because, in a sponsored ride, you lose the freedom of being spontaneous on the journey and you end up chasing deadlines to finish the trip as per the agreed schedule.
“Tank full, bottle full” had become my pet statement at petrol pumps. Next, I stopped at a mechanic shop to get the air pressure checked. However, I ended up checking it myself when the owner just threw the pressure gauge towards me:
After driving for about 40 km on the Leh-Manali highway until Karu, I took a diversion to the left for Changla and Pangong Lake. I registered my details at one more check post and moved ahead.
I found that the milestones in this part of Ladakh were a bit confusing. As a result, I had to rectify my route a few times to be on the right track. The road was as beautiful as you could imagine:
Just after this last stretch of plains, the ascent for Changla pass started. The stories of the difficulties faced by the Mumbai biker whom I met yesterday at Khalsar, were fresh in my mind. Anyway, I decided to face what comes along the way.
I saw a very scenic village in the valley, “Shakti”. Dorji, my host in Leh, belonged to Shakti. It was almost the most idyllic place, which I, as a kid, had drawn on the paintings in the school. A hut with mountains in the background, the fields, streams nearby, and clouds in the sky.
I could not stop myself from halting the ascent and clicking snaps time and again.
The ascent to Changla is one of the most remarkable after the ascent of Baralachala pass from Darcha/Manali side. One feels daunted by the revelation of the challenge as one looks at tiny shapes of vehicles moving near the top of hills in the distance. Would Saarthi and I be able to do it? I did not have a clue.
Finally, I reached the top without any hassles. Now, Saarthi had started scaling heights where seemingly bigger bikes had been faltering.
The scene at the Changla pass was not very different from the Khardung-La top. However, the snow here seemed a bit more than Khardung-La.
Reaching the Chang-la top was refreshing. The breeze was soothing cold. In addition, the thrill of entering into Changthang plateau where Gaurav Jani had filmed “Riding solo to the top of the world” was great.
The Changla top had a temple dedicated to Changla Baba. However, I did not visit it.
Now, I had been to all the three highest motorable passes of the world. The only one remaining is Marsimik-La, which is higher than Khardung-la but is not motorable. Bikers are allowed at their own risk. The phrase “At your own risk” becomes so common to hear from authorities in Ladakh that it starts seeming as “No risk”.
After 2 weeks into this journey and more than one week into the hills, the cautions of spending limited time at high passes had started seeming trivial now. I have realized that now, come what may, and whatever u do to avoid it, you are going to face AMS. You should try to enjoy Ladakh with this headache or you do not visit here at all.
I spent some time at the Changla pass and then started the descent to Changthang:
Landscapes opening with such a picturesque valley is any biker’s delight. The terrain kept on becoming more and more beautiful as the day progressed and I approached Pangong Lake.
On my way down from the Changla pass, while crossing a manageable stream, I interacted with Mithun Bhattcharya and Probir Sarkar who later in the day, at Pangong Lake, became my good friends. They were travelling on a Honda Unicorn. I loved their experience of the ascent of Changla Pass. Their Honda Unicorn was barely moving on the road and they could see many BRO’s cautionary signboards saying, “Please go slow”. The way Probir complained, “Bhai aur kitna slow”, was hilarious!
A frozen lake on the way to Pangong Lake:
This region has been declared a wildlife sanctuary. The lakes, grasslands, and marshy conditions breed a lot of wildlife, which you can see on the way. The grasslands also support the locals who survive on cattle.
This beautiful small stream in the pic above, later on, gained strength, went on to cut the valley, and form a very deep gorge. The terrain became too tough to build a road along the edge of the gorge. Therefore, the road took a diversion from the river soon and then, 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”.
I could not stop myself from 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.
I met Ashwini on the way. He is a commander in the Indian Navy and was on a short trip to Ladakh. He had landed in Leh the day before; hired a bike and headed straight for the Pangong Lake. This below pic is taken by Ashwini. It is his bike in the foreground:
I felt like spending some more time at this place. Ashwini was waiting, as he wanted to stay together in the journey here onwards. I asked him to move ahead and wait for me at Pangong Lake. One does not come to such a place every day and I wanted to have a heartful of it.
Soon, I 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 learned soon.
The below pic shows another instance of terrain changing in the blink of an eye. Ladakh is very dicey, to say the least:
The first sight of the Mighty Pangong Lake. It is 130 km long. 40 km is in India, and the rest in the China-controlled Tibet. It is the highest salt-water lake in the world:
I reached Pangong Lake at about 6 pm.
There were very few tourists at the lake at that time. Many people make Pangong a one-day trip. They hire a taxi from Leh, reach here in about 4 hours, spend some time and then leave by early afternoon. This is to avoid being stuck in the streams flowing across the road before they gain in size and momentum. I must have told you earlier that the speed at which the glaciers melt gains pace as the day progresses. Before noon, the current is about 1/4th of what it becomes by 5-6 pm. However, I believe that an effortless ride is no ride at all.
When I reached Pangong, the time was ripe for these streams to show me their full force. There were 5-6 of them after I crossed Thangse and entered the sanctuary zone. Moreover, two-three streams were real blinders. I had to stop to guess the best possible end of the stream to cross; whether on the road or a few meters off the road. However, even after checking carefully, there were times when you had to just trust your luck and take a plunge. Luckily, I did not fall in any of the streams and escaped to survive another day.
Reaching Pangong Lake brought with it a sense of pride. There it was; the most beautiful place in the world right in front of me. The magnanimous, vast, and serene. One falls short of words to describe the feeling you get when the lake dawns upon you. You want to touch the water. You want to drive alongside it. You want to 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 places where only the lucky ones 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 and touch the mighty Pangong Tso.
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 in front of you when you reach the lake. I was advised not to stay in these tents 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. Therefore, I politely conveyed my intentions to him and we parted our ways. I wanted to explore a bit and therefore, I moved on. It was a drive for the best few kilometres of my life.
It was getting a bit dark. It was cold. Therefore, a perfect mix of settings for a memorable ride was getting prepared. However, I was being divided between riding the bike or taking photographs. Therefore, I decided that this would be my last pic before I move off-road and let Saarthi also feel this memorable part of our drive.
I left the road and started driving in the sand. Soon, I reached the lakeshore again. Then, I saw Mithun Bhattcharya and Probir Sarkar at the lake. These guys have nicknamed me as “Solo Man”. I loved the new name. I offered them the chocolates that I had. I had put all the wrappers in my pocket. I did not feel like putting any such thing there, which might spoil the beauty of Pangong Lake.
Chatting between newfound friends was gaining momentum. Probir Sarkar told me how he convinced his wife to permit him to visit Leh with Mithun Bhattcharya by showing her the movie “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 to DSLR and 1,600 ISO, I could click this pic without a tripod.
An attempt to capture the last rays of the Sun. Thanks, 1,600 ISO. I found a lot of such moments here, which completely mesmerized me. God, I miss these days now!
Mithun was travelling to Ladakh for the third time. Each time on a different bike. All were 150 cc bikes. I remember that once he travelled on a Fazer; this time, he is on a Unicorn. I forgot the name of the bike he used on the third trip. He has a passion for biking. Travelling on a Honda Unicorn with two hunky guys. I salute them 🙂
I wanted to ride further but Mithun and Probir convinced me to halt and stay with them for the night. I could not refuse them. We went to the tented hotel where they had booked the space. We were relieved to find one tent unoccupied. The deal was done with the host for ₹150/-.
At the hotel, I saw a familiar bike parked there, a red Enfield. I hollered, “Ashwini” and a response came from the tent next to mine. So, finally, now, it was an evening to be spent with many friends.
The food at the hotel for dinner was ok. The lady made egg curry for the night. I am allergic to eggs. Therefore, I contented with the daal. It was not one of the greatest daal that I had. However, the company of friends 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 of it for Sriram Balakrishanan, my office colleague in Mumbai. His claim of people in Ladakh stocking Maggi for a month turned out to be true.
It was after multiple attempts of using auto shoot and training the host lady to take a pic that I could get the below pic. Probir also tried hard to click a pic of us inside the hotel; however, nothing worked perfectly.
We went for a stroll to the lake after dinner. It was so dark that we could only hear the splashes of water. I could not see it. The wind was blowing fast. I miss being there now 🙁
Day 16 (Pangong Lake to Leh):
This is a glimpse of my accommodation at the Pangong lake. It was right at the lake. I had slept in the blue tent at extreme right.
The night was very cold, and windy. Moreover, it was my first night ever in a tent. At night, many times, it seemed that the tent would give way. However, somehow, it stood its ground. It was so cold at night that the drinking water in the bottle was ice cold by 2 am.
The tent was a cosy one. As it was my first experience in a tent, the first thing I learned was that however hard you try to find a level surface to pitch the tent, it would never be perfect. For someone like me who likes sleeping on a hard and flat surface, it was not an easy night. It took me about 3-4 hours before I could find sleep. Moreover, the cold was intense. The only time I took my hand out of the quilt, it almost froze within minutes.
Soon, the sun starting rising and I did not want to miss capturing this beauty. I took countless photographs of the lake:
The water was crystal clear. More clear than the water in the mineral water bottle. It demanded appreciation and I am never shy of praising the beauty 🙂
Finally, the Sun came out of its hiding. However, still, it played hide & seek among the clouds and eluded the moment when I could capture its reflections on the water. I had to wait a bit more.
Finally, during the Sun’s hide and seek between the clouds, it gave me the moment when I could capture some rays off the water. This is one of the pics that I like the most:
Everyone was getting ready for the day. Mithun Bhattcharya and Ashwini bought petrol at ₹100/- per litre here. Ashwini just wanted to be sure to reach Leh without any hassles; however, Mithun had different plans.
I told you earlier about Marsimik La. The highest pass in the world that is non-motorable. However, the army allows bikers to travel “at their own risk”. It is only 40 km from Pangong Lake.
Mithun and Probir had taken the permit to visit Marsimik La as well, just in case they might feel like going there. It is 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.
Mithun was upbeat on his plans to visit Marsimik La. However, 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 pass that they had been on this trip. In addition, the night at Pangong Lake accentuated the headache. Therefore, Probir decided to stay put at the hotel while Mithun went to cover Marsimik La pass.
The situation with Ashwini was similar. He had landed in Leh just the day before and straightway headed for Pangong Lake. It was not sufficient acclimatization. I had to offer medicines to both Probir and Ashwini.
The 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 the puncture of the tubeless tyres; however, it was not made for the tubed tyres. Therefore, it was inevitable that I would have to return to Leh, a solo.
Enquiries at a few other hotels guided me to the one person who had some tools to mend the puncture; however, he needed some adhesive to fix the puncture. Just on a random note, I asked him whether a Feviquick would do the job. He said. “Yes”. How glad I was hearing that! I had bought a Feviquick tube near Karnal on day 5 of this trip. I never knew that it would come handy after so many days 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. It was time to say goodbye to Pangong Lake. I would go back to the lake for sure. Moreover, Marsimik-La and Tso Moriri would definitely be on the itinerary at that time.
I had read in a photography book that while travelling, one should keep looking back frequently. This is because, in our quest to move ahead, we miss many beautiful compositions over our shoulders. The pic below is taken in one of the many “look back over your shoulder” moments:
I had spotted this view the previous day while going to Pangong Lake; however, I kept on driving ahead in the search for a better composition. After going further, I had realised that I had come too far ahead and now, the pic giving the full view of the valley could no longer be composed. Therefore, I had decided to take this pic while coming back and now, 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 crossed it easily today; however, I found a few people who faced a lot of trouble crossing it.
One guy with a pillion did the biggest mistake of not surveying the stream before driving through. He had hardly gone two meters into the stream and his bike was stuck. Both the riders had to get down in ice-cold flowing water. I pitied them for getting their shoes wet at a time when driving for the whole day was remaining. It was a big mistake. It hurts your feet.
On my way to Chang-La:
Once again, at Chang-la:
This time at Chang-La, I did something, which I had missed throughout this trip. I accepted complimentary tea from the Indian Army.
The Army Tea is offered at almost all the passes, as well as, on other places of tourist interest in Ladakh. It was there deep down in Nubra valley near Turtuk also. Somehow, I never felt like having it. However, here, at Chang-La, I 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 also serves as a place to display and sell souvenirs.
I had become interested in these souvenirs after I saw the hotel lady at Pangong Lake serving us tea in cups that had prints of different mountain passes and lakes of Ladakh. I liked the cups and upon enquiry, I found the source of these cups; these army outlets. However, to my disappointment, the large coffee mugs esp. the ones with the picture of Khardung-la were not in stock at the army outlet at Chang-la. I asked for alternate outlets and I was informed about a mobile outlet, a truck, in Karu. I was also told that I would not get these cups in the Leh market.
Content after the tea and my little talk with the soldier, I started the descent from Chang-la. The road was bumpy and slushy. However, due to my habit of riding slowly on the descent, I was thoroughly enjoying this ride.
After a bit of riding, I found a group of bikers including Arun Gowda headed for Pangong (all Enfields), who had halted on the roadside. They signalled for help and I stopped. The guys were from Bangalore. They told me that one of their bikes had a flat tyre. They had already changed the punctured tube and replaced it with a new one. However, the only thing they needed now, was an air pump.
I had an air pump. However, it was packed deep inside the luggage. Nevertheless, I had become quite helpful by now on this trip. “No issues”, I said. I opened up the luggage. Every bit of it. I took the pump out and handed it over to eager souls. They immediately got down to the job of filling the air in the tyre. I sat there and started talking with the rest of them.
I interacted with Arun Gowda who had come to Ladakh by getting inspiration and motivation from one of his special friends. There was another guy in the group, who had to take the help of army medics at Khardung-la. He was put on oxygen on top of Khardung La pass.
Meanwhile, the hard effort of pumping air for about half an hour yielded nothing and the tyre was still flat. I had started having doubts about my foot pump. Soon, we saw an SUV going to Chang-la. They requested the SUV to stop. The driver of the SUV gave them a battery-operated air pump.
The SUV was carrying three foreigners to Pangong Lake. Two men and one woman. All of them were travelling independently. I love it when I find people venturing out alone to fulfil their dreams. The woman was from Austria. She was amazed at the diversity she was part of. All three travellers in her group were from different countries. In addition, the driver of the SUV was a Nepalese. Moreover, they were driving in a fifth country, India.
I asked her if it was her first visit to India. She surprised me by saying that it was her second visit to Ladakh in consecutive 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. She deserved a salute! In comparison, I had been missing this heaven while staying right next to it all my life. 🙁
The battery-operated pump also could not help the guys. Finally, they concluded that the spare tube was not ok. Poor chaps! Friends, always check the spares well before the trip.
Two persons from the group decided to ride to the Changla pass taking the tube with them and seek help from the Army mechanic there.
I decided to proceed on my way to Leh. I accepted their thanks and handed over my email id to Arun for a probable Facebook friendship request and I moved ahead. He sent a friendship request as soon as he landed in Bangalore. I saw in his picture that the group had a great experience of camping and playing sports at Pangong Lake.
The ride from Chang La was slow and smooth until Karu. I registered myself out of Changthang at the police check post and started searching for the mobile souvenir shop. I could not find it. Therefore, I decided to try my luck in the Leh market.
Meanwhile, I was feeling hungry and started looking for Tibetan food at Karu. I found a restaurant and ordered “Thupka”. It turned out to be noodles mixed with momos. In fact, most Tibetan dishes are varieties of noodles and momos stuffed among other things.
Unfortunately, I did not like Thupka a lot. I took out the momos and ate them separately. They were made of mutton and were delicious. Thereafter, it did not take long to cover the rest of the way to Leh.
Karu to Leh road is the stretch on Manali Leh highway. I saw many bikers coming afresh from Manali. I felt nostalgic. About a week back, I was a rookie headed for hills and now it seemed that I have matured a bit. However, it is always a tradeoff. My newly gained maturity as a biker acclimatized to the mountains also sounded the bells that my trip is now over and I need to head back home after a day of rest in Leh.
Dorji welcomed me at Samnet. I got a hot water bath and straightway hit the bed at 5 pm. I rested for about 4 hours and then went out to make some phone calls.
In the meanwhile, when I tried to recheck my itinerary, I realised that I was running a day short on the trip. I had neither spent any extra day anywhere nor lost time on mishaps. Therefore, it was a mistake in the itinerary preparation from the start. Anyway, the fact was that I was a day short and I had to do something about it.
I had dinner with Dorji and his family, and I had a good sleep!
Leh – Manali – Delhi
Day 17 (Leh to Pang):
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, which I did not have.
Sleep at night was one of the best. I am habituated to hills now.
I asked the hosts about the possible options to buy souvenirs and the time the shops in the market opened. They told me that I might get a few shops open even at 8 am and I reached the market at sharp 8 in the morning. However, the only problem was that the shopkeepers were yet to arrive. I tried my luck. I roamed around a lot and then some more.
Leh will confuse you with its countless one-way roads. I was never able to reach a place from the same route twice.
Finally, after checking at numerous shops, and after outright rejection by a local standing outside a shop, about any possibility of finding the things I wanted, I still entered a shop and gosh! I found what I wanted. However, it was not before the clock had hit 10:30 AM. I bought the souvenirs.
I was travelling alone. However, I had to buy memorabilia for a whole bunch of people. However, that is how life is.
I still did not find anything for myself. I wanted those coffee mugs with the picture of Khardung-La. The statement made by the soldier at Chang-la remained a fact. I could not get the coffee mugs in the Leh market. I was disappointed. I headed for the hotel and checked out.
I loaded the bike for one final time in Leh and started the return journey.
I could have come back to Delhi via Srinagar; however, I was not able to get out of my mind the challenge posed by Tanglang-la. Saarthi and I were more prepared now and I wanted to do one more fight with Tanglang-La pass. Let me see whether it was something lacking in me & Saarthi or it was just a bad mechanic in Manali who made things difficult for us. There was no other way to check it out but to go and stand at Tanglang-la again.
That was exactly what I did. I started the bike and headed for Manali. I would ride on Srinagar-Leh highway some other time.
I went to a medical store and bought essential medicines. The famous petrol pump in Leh had too much rush. I decided to skip it and moved ahead planning to fill the petrol on the way to Karu.
After riding for five km, I found a pump, only to be told that petrol was not available. Frustration was getting to my nerves. $#*@$#. There was one more petrol pump ahead; however, I could not risk going ahead and returning 10 km to Leh, if even that petrol pump said no. Therefore, I headed back to Leh and finally, got the “Tank full, bottle full”.
Now, the ride had started in its real sense. It was past noon. I was taking the ride very slowly.
I reached Karu. I found an army shop but it did not have the Khardungla coffee mugs. The soldier at the shop told me about the mobile shop, the army truck, which was parked a little ahead. I hurried and finally, found it. I ordered a set of teacups for the home and three large coffee cups; all of the Khardungla brand. One coffee mug was for me; another one for Naveen, and a spare one; just in case if I suffer another fall and I break one. I am a risk manager after all.
There was one thing that was always going to be on my mind from this point onwards. I had this whole load of crockery on my bike. I COULD NOT AFFORD A FALL. This cautiousness might interfere with my spontaneity; however, it also increased my safety instincts. Therefore, I was safe there onwards.
Soon, I reached Upshi, the first police check post on the route to Manali. The cop asked me whether I had had my lunch. I was moved. People are very friendly and caring in Ladakhi. I am going to miss them.
Soon, we reached the Gorges.
I was riding very carefully. An army caravan came with 19 trucks. I took the bike to the roadside and saluted all the soldiers. Each one of them. Patriotism fills one’s 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, then I would never visit any city or any office again. However, the fact as of now is that it is my job in Mumbai that made this dream trip possible and I need to do that job a bit more to fulfil more of my dreams. Guys, there are bigger trips coming up. Let the imagination fly and engines roar.
Soon, we reached Rumtse. A week back, I was standing breathless at this place, just after descending from the Tanglang-la pass. The place seemed calm and serene this time. There were a few tourists heading for Leh. However, I paid little heed to them. My target laid ahead of me.
The milestones read “Tanglangla ahead”.
I had never been more cautious and anxious while riding on a road than at this moment during the ascent to Tanglang La pass. I was filled with self-doubts; however, 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 the last time. Now, it was time to appreciate it. It was a lot more green than I had thought. Snowcapped peaks were as beautiful as a Ladakh trademark.
It was late in the afternoon and the traffic was scant even from the Manali-Leh highway perspective. I could find a few people driving down the pass. However, I was the only one going up. I had rarely found any pass where I could not see vehicles ahead of me; however, few they may be, guiding my way, moving kilometres ahead of me, very near to the distant top, screaming out loud the challenge lying ahead of me. It created a sinking feeling in my heart.
However, now, there was something different. It was cautiousness mixed with nostalgia. I knew that once I cross Tanglang La pass, it would be the official closure of my rendezvous with Ladakh. However, one has to move on.
I took many “look over your shoulder” snaps.
The snowcapped peaks kept on coming closer. Saarthi was holding on like a brave companion. Not a sign of fatigue. We kept moving on.
This pic was taken looking back while on way to Tanglangla. I tried counting the number of loops that I had just crossed. I failed. I tried counting the mountain ranges that I have crossed. I failed. The only thing that I could count on was the contentment in my heart. It was aplenty.
The road in the pic below speaks for itself. Is it a good road or a bad road?
It is a very good road as per the conditions of Ladakh. In Ladakh, if you find something hard to put your tyres on and ride, then you have got the best road. Moreover, In Ladakh, there is no better sign than the vehicles going ahead of you on the road. It means that the road ahead can be crossed.
I dread the sand. I dread the mud. I fear the slush. Moreover, I am told I must fear the snow. I drove on snow at Chang-la and Khardung-la for some time; however, that was no way near to be called an experience. I am still a novice in driving over the snow.
Finally, we did it! Kudos to Saarthi for it. Saarthi did not let me feel any trouble at all. It 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 at the top of Tanglang La.
However, at the top, it was a rare moment when the wind had stopped at the pass. I had rarely found the flags so steady. These flags look and feel the best when they are fluttering. It was cold at the top and the wind started blowing soon.
I found two bikers at the pass. Both were Ladakhi and were riding on a Bajaj Avenger. They were happy to see me crossing Tanglang La pass in the afternoon. At last, they had found some company. However, I am habituated to being a loner and had got the nickname “Solo Man” on this trip. Thanks, Probir for that.
We started making plans to halt together for the night. They insisted for Sarchu. However, I was keen to stay at Pang. I did not want to make the ride tough for Saarthi as well as for me. Ultimately, we could not come to a consensus. We helped each other by taking pics.
I offered them water, which they politely declined. In a way, I felt happy. Resources are scarce and very precious in Ladakh. I took some sips of water and then started exploring the Tanglang La top.
The milestone at the top of the Tanglang La pass:
The distances mentioned here are from Manali. Poor “Nakeela”. People do not even consider it a pass. Baralacha-la pass is the coldest, Tanglang-la pass is the toughest, and Rohtang pass is the diciest but the most beautiful.
This is the descent towards Manali. Ahead, Moore Plains awaited me. I could see the road in the mountains to the left, which was my nemesis when I was here the last time. However, this time everything seemed under control. It was evident how much a man depends on the machines in Ladakh.
The land here was barren. I could hardly find any plant on these slopes. Eight months of snow in a year is bound to kill any vegetation on the slopes of the mountains. I wished that I could visit this place in May/early June when the snow is aplenty. At that time, this road shows the bikers its fiercest of colours.
I started the descent from Tanglang la soon afterwards. The Ladakhi friends caught up with me soon and then overtook me. I like to descend slowly and in addition, this time, with souvenirs at the back, I had to drive carefully. Was it a blessing in disguise? I do not know.
A few streams crossed my way; however, none of them was challenging. Though, a few troubled Saarthi and me a bit.
BRO is on its way, working to make a double-lane road here. These people were working diligently. They command my respect.
Tanglangla from Manali side. You can see the pass in this pic:
I had finished the descent and was about to reach Debring when I took this pic. Debring is the dustiest settlement on this route. It lies just at the start of Moore plains from Leh side.
Moore plain is now divided into two parts by the kind of road they have. The one towards Leh (near Debring) has no road at all. Here, you drive through the sand, which is a foot deep. The sand is so fine that it takes off to air behind you and if you are the unlucky one facing tailwinds, then you are in trouble because the sand would block your vision. And near-zero visibility here guarantees a fall.
The other half of Moore Plains towards Manali (near Pang), is a biker’s dream. You feel like getting rewarded for all the effort you had just put in to cross the tough terrain until now. It has a nicely paved tarmac road. You can drive the way you want.
The valley to the right takes you to Tso Kar and further to Tso Moriri, the lake for which I had the permit but I did not visit. One can start from Leh, go to Tso Moriri via Chumthang and return to Manali-Leh highway at this place. Thereby, bypassing Tanglangla and then straightway head for Manali.
I was still on the tough dusty track in Moore Plains. The path had improved a lot since I last crossed it about a week back on my way to Leh. BRO is really quick to improve the roads.
I met a lot of truckers and bikers headed for Leh on the way. Each of them was anxious and enquired about the road ahead.
One group of bikers was especially very anxious. This was because their bikes had started losing power due to low oxygen in the air. It was a problem, which was trite to me by now. I empathized with them and advised them to take things easy as they come along. Further, I told about the mechanic on the Airport road in Leh who had put Saarthi in the best condition. They seemed frustrated. However, I could not do anything about it. You have to face all these hardships once you decide to cross the Rohtang pass. Now, in Moore plains, turning back is not an option.
The BRO contract worker at Moore plains:
I forgot his name. His presence here had an interesting story behind it. He was posted to stand here by orders, all alone on this stretch of road, far from any worker’s camp. Reason: the bad treacherous road.
The road here was so bad that you end up driving a lot off the road. The previous evening two bikers were stuck here in the sand crossing from the right side of the road and after the best of efforts, their bikes gave way. The BRO workers had to rescue them. They dragged their bikes out of the sand and pushed them to their camp. They hosted the bikers for the night and bode them goodbye in the morning. Now, this BRO worker was posted here to make sure that no one goes off-road here from the right side of the road and gets stuck again.
My decision while driving on this stretch of road was bad; however, my luck was good. I took off-road on the dangerous right side of the road. However, thanks to Saarthi, I could come out of the sand by putting in some good hard effort.
The moment I was out of the sand, the BRO worker approached me. He reprimanding me for not paying attention to his constant hollers warning me and trying to guide me to the left side of the road. I apologized to him considering his good intentions. However, when you are fighting the tough terrain here, then you put your full focus on the road. You rarely pay attention to anything else. I could not have heard his voice even if he shouted at the decibels of jet aeroplanes.
The only thing he asked me was “Water”. Luckily, I had two bottles with me. He could drink it to his heart’s fill.
The guy was from Jharkhand. He was hired as a contract worker for 4 months and 10 days at a salary of ₹14,000/- per month. At his job, the food was free. However, it was a very basic diet. The living conditions and the loneliness were troubling him and he was regretting his decision to join this job. However, now, he was stuck. There was no respite in sight. He had to serve the remaining contract period.
Offering him water made me feel good. I bode adieu and moved ahead.
Another pic at the Moore Plains:
By this time, I was out of the dusty tracks of Moore plains and was moving smoothly at the tarmac. However, to my surprise, Saarthi was not accelerating beyond 70 kph. I thought that it might be due to low oxygen levels. I had never accelerated beyond 60 kph in the last week, therefore, the speed of 70kph was more than enough for my needs now. I was unbothered and I moved ahead.
The ride at this stretch of Moore plains is a welcome relief.
The first sight of Pang:
This site has a temporary settlement, which is set up for about 4 months every year. There is a camp of defense services as well. One may find some medical help for AMS at Pang, in case, you get over-adventurous and try driving to Pang from Manali in one day.
You can see that from Moore plains I had to descend to reach Pang. However, it is interesting to see this journey in the reverse. While coming from Manali, one reaches Pang and readies oneself for Moore plains. While at pang, one has the expectations that he would have to first go uphill, and then descend at the other side to reach Moore plains, just like my friend Saurabh Kulkarni. However, the moment one scales the height, he is welcomed with a vast plain starting right at top of the ascent. The result is a mix of surprise and relief.
The tent where I stayed in Pang:
I reached Pang when there was still some sunlight left in the day. I had decided not to overexert myself. The next settlement was at Sarchu. Even though Sarchu was only about 80 km from here; however, it involved crossing two passes, Lachungla and Nakeela, and Gata Loops. Like on my way to Leh from Manali, now also, I wanted to enjoy them during the daylight. Therefore, I made the decision 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. However, when I reached Debring, I saw their bike at one of the dhabas there. Nevertheless, I did not feel like taking a rest at Debring, and therefore, I moved ahead.
They passed through Pang about half an hour after I had reached. They were still upbeat to reach Sarchu and therefore, they moved on. I was thinking about what could be so urgent that one misses out on the beauty of this track by travelling at night. Covering more kilometres in a day can be fun at highways on the mainland; however, it is not the best approach at Manali Leh Highway.
Why did I choose this particular tent? For a simple reason, momos.
On this trip, until now, I was hooked to Tibetan food. Momos were my favourite. The moment I reached Pang, many owners came running to me and requested me to stay in their tent. My only one question to all of them was that who would prepare momos for dinner? I knew that at this altitude and given scarce resources, it is difficult to cook momos at Pang. Only one person dared with the caveat that he would prepare only veg momos. He won the competition and took an order of two plates of momos from me.
Other tents at Pang:
You can see the typical structure of a tent in this pic. The dome in the front serves as a kitchen and the sitting arena for eating the food. The portion in the back has a number of beds put up in lines. You can choose any bed and put your luggage near it.
I was in no mood to unload the bike; however, the tent owner made me unload everything citing safety as the reason. He helped me unpack. I asked him to be careful with the luggage. The moment I mentioned that there is crockery in luggage, he told me that he knew what it was. 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 1,600 ISO of the DSLR camera 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.
Morten asked me whether I had a puncture kit. I asked him for which bike he needs the puncture kit. This was because I could see two bikes, an Enfield that had tubed tyres and a Yamaha Fazer that had tubeless tyres.
He said, “The one exactly like your bike”.
I could cool his nerves by saying, “Don’t worry. I have everything” and requested him to wait for some time.
After settling the luggage and selecting the bed, I came out. I found that they were staying in a tent next to ours and were waiting for me to be free. I immediately got the puncture kit out so that we could rectify the bike today itself so that they would not have to wait for me in the morning. This is because I had made a leisurely sleep in the morning, a routine on this trip.
Morten and Laos had hired the bikes in Manali and then drove them to Leh. The guy in Manali was charging them ₹3,000/- per day for both the bikes. They were novices and did not know that this price is higher than the market rate. Therefore, they agreed to it, accepted the bikes, and reached Leh.
In Leh, they could not roam around a lot as Laos got stomach upset the day they reached there. They went to Tso Moriri for a festival. There also, they were overcharged for a night stay. They paid ₹2,500/- a night for a tent stay at Tso Moriri. They were further perturbed when I told them about my stay of ₹150/- a night for the tent stay at Pangong Tso.
They were determined to renegotiate the bike rentals in Manali, as they had not yet paid the full amount. As per them, everyone in Leh, whom they told about their bikes rental amount, laughed at them.
Both, Morten and Laos, were very innocent persons. They were quite a contrast to the Israelites that I met in Panamik in Nubra Valley. Israelites, both the boy and girls, were very shrewd.
They travelled from Tso Moriri to Tso Kar and then rode straight to Moore Plains and Pang where they had the flat tyre.
They were waiting in Pang for four hours for someone to fix the flat tyre of their bike. The local people had tried everything from rubber plugins to Feviquick; however, nothing worked. My landing at pang was a God sent help for them. I fixed the puncture within two minutes. Moreover, the hard part of filling the air with the foot pump was remaining.
“You have 2 guys for that”, replied Morten and both of them started pumping the air. Soon the bike was in perfect condition. 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 more time chatting with them.
The owner of the tent where they were staying had tried to invite me to his tent for stay; however, he had backed off refrained when I asked about preparing momos for dinner. He did not speak English. He approached me now and requested that I tell these foreigners, Morten and Laos, that if they want momos, he would make it for them.
I translated it for him; however, to my surprise, Morten and Laos had not had this awesome Tibetan dish, momos, until now on this trip. They could not understand the dish even after my multiple attempts to explain it to them. Anyway, I invited them to have dinner with me and taste momos.
At dinner, we discussed everything under the sun. Politics, defence, history, philosophy, travel stories, and a lot more. They were impressed by the Indian defence establishment and wanted to know whose side India would take if the US and China came out in the open against each other.
They felt diffident that their country of 5 million people, Denmark, could not defend itself and needs to depend on others like NATO. Denmark tries to play its part by sending volunteers to areas like Afghanistan.
The momos arrived and we all had to “our heart’s fill”. Morten and Laos, both liked the momos and regretted not eating them in Leh.
By this time, the owner of their tent had wooed a touring group of 7-8 people for stay and Morten was getting anxious about a lot of people competing for a very few mattresses inside the tent. They asked my permission and ran inside the tent to reserve their beds before everything was occupied. Poor chaps!
The sleep I had in Pang was the best I had on this whole trip. AMS? What is that?
Day 18 (Pang to Manali):
The start of the day at Pang:
This group was from the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. The fact that I had been to a medical college in Ambejogai in the same region, was a great icebreaker. In addition, my knowledge of Marathi was the icing on the cake. The guys were very cool. They were carrying a music system that worked on the batteries of the bikes. One of them had seen me buying souvenirs at Karu and gave me that reference.
They asked if I would join them for the rest of the journey. However, as usual, any large group takes a lot of time to start its journey. Therefore, I bid them goodbye and moved ahead of them.
Morten and Laos were in a hurry. They wanted to start today’s journey ahead of me and retain the lead. They wanted to ensure that I trail them on the trip so that they would get help in case their bike get a puncture again.
The owner of our tent had kept my crockery with his personal belongings. He handed it over to me safely now. 🙂
The ride started well.
If you remember, previously, the route between Pang and Lachung la had seemed the most haunted one. Now, a few trucks were ahead of me. They were continuously pushing the dust in the air, which was making it difficult to drive. Luckily, the trucks at this highway, do not compete with you and give you the side at the first possible opportunity. However, the kind of path this is, such opportunities do not come frequently.
This haunted road gave way to the hilltop at Lachungla. The prayer flags at the pass always look fascinating wherever you go. It is a soothing reward after the tough challenges that bikers face to reach the top.
At Lachung la top, I met some tourists heading for Leh. I realised that within the one week that I stayed in Ladakh, there had been a lot of improvement on the road. Moreover, the condition of the highway is going to improve every day going ahead. I concluded that the best time to see the ferocity of this highway ends in June.
Thereafter, from Lachungla to Whisky Nulla, to Nakeela, and to Gata Loops, everything looked very familiar. I did not feel like stopping the ride and taking pics.
I reached Sarchu. I halted at the same hotel where I had stayed for the night on my way to Leh. It was here that I had suffered a severe attack of AMS. The owner of the dhaba hardly recognised me. Life moves on.
I had lunch and rode ahead.
I registered at the Sarchu check post after negotiating one of the toughest streams just at the edge of Sarchu settlement.
From Lingti plains to Killing Sarai, to Bharatpur, everything went past in a moment. The stretch from Sarchu to Darcha, a distance of 80km, which I had taken a full day to cover on my way to Leh, was over in barely 3 hours today.
A stream on way to Baralachala from Bharatpur:
On my way to Baralachala Top:
I had found the Baralacha-La pass as the coldest pass on this highway, and it was still maintaining that reputation.
There were a lot of tourists this time around, both Indians as well as foreigners. One Indian family had parked its car on the road and had moved towards the nearby hills to explore the snow. I liked their idea; however, I had other plans.
I wanted to reach Manali by the end of the day end so that I could cover up for one day that I was running short. It was necessary so that I could spend some time at home with my family as well. In addition, there was a high chance that if someone spends a lot of time at Baralacha-La pass, then he will get a severe attack of AMS. I pray that the family, which left the road for their long exploration walk might have come back safely and continued their journey!
On my way down from Baralachala, a 29 km stretch, I crossed Zingzingbar and many other small settlements.
I tried to identify all the places where I had stopped on my way to Leh to take snaps. Everything was making me nostalgic. God! Would it be possible that right now, I take a u-turn and head back to Leh? However, this was not to happen and I kept moving towards Darcha.
The track between Sarchu and Darcha is the toughest one in the 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. Therefore, I could cross them without much trouble.
From Darcha to Jispa and to Keylong in Himachal Pradesh; the route here was greener than the route in the Ladakh region that I had left behind when I crossed Sarchu. Now, the villages were frequent and the traffic, a bit more.
Then, I reached Tandi and crossed the famous lone petrol pump. I had the spare fuel bottles full and there was no need for a refill. Therefore, I moved ahead.
However, the moment I started on the road along the Chandra River towards Manali, I was stunned to hear a blasting sound. It created a very high cloud of dirt. I was surprised. What was it? A landslide? Later, I came to know that the work on double-laning of this road is under progress and this blast was done by the BRO team in an attempt to widen the road. It took over half an hour for the bulldozers to clear the path.
It was already past 5 pm and I was still about 100 km away from Manali. I had to cross Rohtang Pass to reach Manali and it was obvious that I was running late. On top of it, the loss of time here waiting for clearing of the road was going to cost me dearly.
Thereafter, the ride to Khoksar was without any events; however, I was under pressure to reach Khoksar at the earliest. Otherwise, the police may close the road going up for the Rohtang pass for the night.
I reach Khoksar at about 6:45 pm and I was happy to notice that the policeman was ok about me going up on the road to the Rohtang pass at this hour. I came to know later that the Rohtang pass is open 24*7.
The weather was very clear and sunny in Chandra valley. However, I could see clouds at the top of the Rohtang pass:
I was getting anxious about being stuck at the top of Rohtang pass in rough weather. However, I wanted to take this risk to experience some of the other firsts in my life. Moreover, when I saw that the vehicles were coming down from the Rohtang pass, then it gave me a sign that the pass was still motorable. I had a sigh of relief.
I was still on my way to the Rohtang pass when it started to get dark and cold. By this time, a bit of drizzle had also started. However, I had worn the rain gear and had properly waterproofed the luggage, therefore, the rain was not a concern, unless it gained momentum. This is because if the intensity of the rain increased, then I would have to put my camera under polybags. The camera had hung around my neck for the entire time since I left Manali about 10 days back. Nevertheless, currently, everything seemed under control.
Just then, I saw a truck turned turtle on the side of the mountain. I immediately realised the foolishness in case someone tries to underestimate Mother Nature and the challenges can throw. I wanted to take the pictures of that truck. However, better sense prevailed over me and I decided to keep going on my way to cross the Rohtang pass as early as possible.
I reached Rohtang top at about 8 pm. At the top of the Rohtang pass:
I had to drive through a cloud from here on.
I realised that the Manali valley was under very bad weather conditions. The Manali valley was completely covered with cloud/dense fog and the descent from the pass was not going to be easy.
Staying at Marhi was one of the options; however, it was still some kilometres away from my current location and a formidable slushy stretch on the descent was standing midway.
I stopped at the top of the Rohtang pass for some time. A few other bikers also stopped thinking that I might have some problems. People are helpful at such stretches. After a nod of assurance from my side, they continued ahead.
I saw a few youngsters at the top who probably were from Manali as they did not have any luggage on their bikes. Without paying attention to them, I started the descent.
All the restaurants at the top of the Rohtang pass were all deserted at this hour.
I switched on my cell phone in anticipation of getting the cellphone network on my way down from Rohtang pass.
Hardly had I cross a few turns of the road on the descent that it started raining. I had to park the bike on the side of the road to open the polybags to secure my camera. Soon, the rain picked up intensity and I found 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 their route and therefore, they were blowing horns like crazy. The phone call got disconnected. However, the camera packing was still not over and the phone started ringing 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 until I reach Manali.
It was dark and cold and the rain showed no signs of abating and I continued on the journey. Then came that bad slushy stretch on the road for a distance of about 100-150 meters. At this stretch, during the day time, the police allow vehicles only from one side at a time. Now, there was no sign of any cop.
I parked Saarthi on the side of the road among a line of trucks as a caravan of trucks from below had started its ascent. We had no idea how much time we might have to wait here. A few fellow drivers told me that if everything went smoothly, then we may start moving in about half an hour. However, if any vehicle coming from below was stuck, then we would be on our own throughout the night. Gosh!
At that time, a Tata Ace pick-up truck was trying its best to go uphill. However, its engine gave way when it reached just near us. Even its brakes were not able to stop it from rolling back. The truck behind it came to a screeching halt. I was amazed at the speed with which everyone besides me ran to stop the Tata Ace and pushed it up lest it blocked the road.
We were lucky that soon the downhill traffic started moving. However, the rain had some other plans. There was no sight of any respite. Moreover, the fog was getting denser.
Soon, we reached Marhi and the trucks decided to stop. I asked one truck driver, why he stopped. He replied that it would be more dense fog down in the valley and it would not be safe for him to drive. Therefore, he would start the next morning.
I asked what I should do. He advised that if I wished, then I could move ahead as the road is broad and smooth, and I might be able to reach Manali at a snail’s pace.
Just then, a truck overtook us. It felt like an omen and I decided to continue my journey. However, the ray of hope did not last long as the driver of that truck also stopped soon. Reason: zero visibility. Everybody wanted someone else to be in the front to guide the way.
I decided to move ahead irrespective of the condition. Moreover, the moment I started riding, the truck driver also started driving right behind me. The headlights of two vehicles made the road a bit visible. However, it was not sufficient by any means. It was the first time that I had turned torchbearer to a truck. It was like an ant helping the elephant.
Just a few meters down, an SUV was parked. A family was sitting in it. I asked for the reason. It was again the same. The driver said, “Bhai Sahab, kuch dikhe to gaadi chalaaon na”.
I had started to rely on Saarthi to take me through each situation and the condition now was no different. I left everyone behind and continued on.
I could barely see one edge of the road and I decided to follow that. I could make out whether I was on the hillside or the valley-side of the road. Being on the valley side gave me goosebumps thinking about the steep depth present a few inches away from me, which was not visible now. However, I had seen its extent on my way going up on Rohtang pass about 10 days back.
I kept on riding slowly.
Soon, I reached Kothi, and thereafter, I crossed some other villages. After a long time, I could reach the altitude where I came out of the cloud. Now, the visibility improved. However, I could not increase the speed. You might remember that first, I always go slowly downhill, and second, this time I had breakables in the luggage. It was a blessing in disguise.
Finally, I reached Manali city. Now, when I looking back over the shoulder and saw the milestone indicating “Leh – xxx km”, it was nostalgic.
I stopped at the first hotel that I came across. I called the receptionist out on the road itself and started negotiating the price straightway. He said, “Sir, please at least see the room first”. I said that I do not want to see the room. You just tell me whether you have food and hot water or not? “Yes, I do” was the reply, and the deal settled at ₹400/- for the night stay. The hotel was good.
I was in the worst situation possible. A hot water bath never seemed more relaxing. It was about 10 pm when I had reached here. I was lucky that nothing went wrong today. The Manali-Leh journey was finally over for me.
Day 19 (Manali to Yol Camp):
The morning at Manali. The condition towards the Rohtang top:
I do not know how much justice this pic does to explain the situation of the last night. The cloud-line visible in the picture could be about 8-10 km away whereas the total distance between Manali and Rohtang pass is about 50km. Therefore, one has to drive in 40 km in the dense fog to reach the Rohtang pass.
I started from Manali at around 11 am 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 on this trip, I had plans to visit him. However, 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 again, and therefore, I decided to meet him after three long years.
The drive was uneventful until Mandi. The ride today was also across hills. However, there were huge differences when compared to Ladakh. Here in Himachal Pradesh, the slopes were dark green; not only with grass but with dense trees. The road here was double-lane and the traffic was more than any other road I had seen in the last 10 days. Soon, I noticed that a Sikh festival was going on and everyone was headed on bikes to Manikaran gurdwara.
I had lunch at Mandi and started riding on the way to Kangra.
The pattern of the ascent on the hills in Himachal Pradesh was almost like the ones I had come across on many of the passes in Ladakh. Go uphill, ride across the hilltop, and then descend on the other side. The typical structure of the passes. However, the altitude of the pass here was 1,000m above sea level, which was in sharp contrast to the minimum altitude of 5,000m on the routes in Ladakh.
It was a pleasant ride until I reached Palanpur at about 5 pm. After that, I entered the Kangra Valley and all hell broke loose. It was raining very heavily. I could drive hardly for 5 minutes, and then I had to wait for half an hour for the rain to stop. The same pattern was repeated so many times that I got very irritated. On one occasion, I even started regretting my decision to visit Yol camp.
The last 30 kilometres from Palampur to Yol camp was the worst patch. It took me more than 3 hours to cover it that too in heavy rain. I do not know what happens at Cherrapunji, but Kangra Valley must not be far behind. Moreover, 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 rains. The rains in Mumbai is not even a comparable match.
Finally, after facing all the challenges, I reached Yol. I was completely drenched. The army camp was situated at a hilltop and the roads were at such slopes that they would match the road to Khardungla.
After multiple phone calls to my friend, Arun, to seek directions, I could reach his place. It was 8:30 pm.
Truly speaking, I just wanted to go to sleep straight away. However, Arun told me that he had plans for a dinner outside. Initially, I had no plans to open the luggage. However, I had to open it now to change my clothes. I got ready as fast as I could.
We had one of the most delicious food in many days. Thanks, Arun for that. I met bhabhiji for the first time as I was unable to attend their marriage.
I noticed that Arun had become an expert car driver. When I compare that to me who had never been behind a four-wheeler’s steering, he is a genius. I liked the nice restaurant, the company, the chat, and the sharing of memories in the evening.
Arun and I, both are very poor at the art of ordering food. We usually eat whatever is offered. Seeing this, bhabhiji took the lead from thereon. The food was good. Only after ordering the non-veg soup that I realised that I was in the company of strictly vegetarian people. Even though, both Arun and bhabhiji had no issues with me having non-veg food, I refrained from it.
The sleep that I had was good but it was frequently interrupted by the incessant rains lashing on everything outside. Thank God, my bike was parked under a shed. However, I was worried that I might lose another day here due to the weather. Moreover, I might suffer a fall in the slush on the road.
Day 20 (Yol Camp to Nilokheri):
I woke up leisurely at 9 am. I had asked Arun to have the breakfast kept at the dining table in the guestroom where I was staying. I did not want the food delivery person to disturb my sleep. However, the morning tea person did not take the instructions seriously and woke me up for a brief period at about 6 am. However, it did not matter much and at 9 AM, I was fresh and ready for the day’s ride.
I met Arun at his office, the pathology lab at the Military Hospital. He is a postgraduate now and is ranked a Major in the Indian Army. I never realised that my college batchmates are now in senior positions. It feels good to see people grow in their careers and life.
After a lot of talks remembering the deeds of our graduation 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 Yol. Whomever I asked, told me a different route. Finally, on my way, I reached a temple. It seemed a deity, which was revered by millions. However, it seemed that all the million followers had decided to visit this place this day. It was a mad rush on the roads and I could hardly drive.
Soon, I was out of Himachal Pradesh and the plains of North India welcomed me. However, the bike was not getting a speed of over 70 kph. I never had a chance to speed up over 70 kph during this whole trip except once in Moore Plains. In Moore plains, I had dismissed it thinking that it was due to low oxygen in the air. However, now it seemed like a problem.
In the plains, if I drive at a speed of 70kph, then it becomes a very monotonous, boring, and time-consuming journey. I would never be able to reach any place in time. I tried to reverse the changes done by the mechanic in Leh; however, the problem did not resolve. I visited the Yamaha agency in Una; however, I did not get any solution. I kept driving at that snail’s pace.
I reached Ropar and found that there is no Yamaha agency there. I saw another mechanic who said there was a problem with “Acceleration Coil”. Now, what the hell is that? Whatever an acceleration coil is, I decided that I should first reach Delhi slow and steady. However late it might be at night and get the bike transported to Mumbai from there. I knew a good mechanic in Mumbai whom I could trust. So, I moved on.
It was about 6 pm when I crossed Chandigarh and Mohali. The speed limit of 70kph was troubling me. Therefore, I decided to spend time by listening to music.
Gosh! I realised that I had not listed to the music on this entire trip. In the past, I never drove the bike without listening to music by earphones. However, this trip was really different. I was so engrossed in driving and enjoying the road and the natural beauty that I did not feel the need of music until now.
I called home and informed my family that I would reach after 12 am. However, fate had something else in mind for me.
I was driving steadily and it had become dark. The speed now was looking comfortable considering that it was night. However, suddenly, I felt like the bike lost all is power. As if suddenly, the bike came in the neutral gear. The engine lost all the thrust. The clutch and the accelerator stopped having any impact on the bike. I knew something was seriously wrong. I had guessed that the only reason for this behaviour could be that there is NO CHAIN on the bike.
The moment the bike came to a halt, I tried to feel the chain. However, my hand met with empty space. The chain was gone and Saarthi was now helpless.
It was about 9 pm. I was lucky that this incidence happened near a town. I dragged Saarthi to a nearby dhaba and enquired about any mechanic there. Then a chain of events started that lead me from one Good Samaritan to another at this place called “Nilokheri”, which is just before Karnal.
The first person that I met first on Dhaba, to whom I had inquired about the mechanic, immediately made a call to another person whom he knew was a mechanic and explained my situation to him. He guided me to his shop. I literally ran to the shop dragging Saarthi with me. However, 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 for the day. Therefore, he cannot 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 could get a spare chain. He was kind enough to guide me.
The spare parts shop was nearby and it was about to close for the day. I requested the shop owner to give me a spare chain, which he immediately did. However, we realised that Saarthi is designed for a chain size, which is longer than 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/- for the chain.
A person who seemed to be the friend of the shop owner asked me how I was going to fit the chain. I told him that I would figure some way out. He told me about a four-wheeler repair shop on the other side of the highway and said that a person there would help me with the tools and in fitting the chain. He introduced himself as the 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 people were offering me here.
I reached his shop and took out the tools that were required. The person there taught me how to open the chain link without breaking it. We were all set to put on the new chain on Saarthi. However, we realised that the new chain was short by about four inches.
I was feeling devastated now. However, what could be done. The only option was to go back to the highway and search for my older chain if I could find it lying on the road. It was a long stretch of about two km where the chain might have fallen. However, the survival instincts developed at Ladakh told me to go and search. Soon, I was on the highway with the headlights of oncoming vehicles and the flashlight of my phone acting as my guiding lamps. However, even after a walk of two km and a full-spirited search, I could not find the chain.
Now, I realised that I was stuck for the night at Nilokheri. There was a hotel across the road there that charged me ₹700/- for the night stay. It was my costliest stay until now on this trip.
Day 21 (Nilokheri to Gurgaon):
I checked out of the hotel and went straight to the spare parts shop. The shop owner brought out a spare piece of a chain of about 6 inches and handed over to me. I went to the mechanic and got it set.
Finally, I thought that the bike was ready. However, I had hardly ridden it 200 m that it stopped. All the things looked ok. There was enough petrol in the tank. There was no issue with the chain. I changed the spark plug. However, despite multiple attempts, the bike would not start. I went back to the mechanic and after waiting for my turn for about 15 minutes, I just thought of checking it again. It was good luck that Saarthi started up without any issues.
Now, I wanted to reach home without any further trouble.
I was asked about the bike papers for the first time on this trip when I crossed Panipat. The policeman gave me the advice to travel in a group on such long trips. I thanked him whole-heartedly even though I knew I would not follow it.
I reached Delhi and the honking metro traffic with consistent jams welcomed me. I wanted to go back to the hills. I was missing the mountains already. I missed Ladakh. I missed Panamik, I missed Pangong. I would go back for sure.
I reached home at about 4 pm. My mother welcomed me at the gates. The trip was finally over and Saarthi was to get some well-deserved rest.
Day 22 & 23 (Gurgaon):
I stayed at home for the next two days. I ate the home food, met friends, and bought sweets for officemates.
When I reached New Delhi railway station, the security person singled me out for questions based on a metal scan of my luggage. My bag contained the toolkit, foot pump, and a lot of things made from metal. He was finally convinced and let me go.
I boarded the train to Mumbai leaving Saarthi behind. Saarthi would be with me in Mumbai after some time. Saarthi would cover the distance from Delhi to Mumbai in a truck.
The speed limit of 70 kph and the engine stoppage problem that I faced in Ladakh and on my way to Delhi was due to the dust that entered the carburettor when I had removed the air filter while going up Tanglang la. Please do not remove the air filter of your bike.
After so many days and millions of dollars worth of experiences, this trip finally draws a close. Moreover, I rest to take on something new, something different, and definitely something bigger.
Until then “bon voyage”.