It’s not everyday that you get to live your dream, and a fortnight is specifically rare! Now, if you had a way to measure that – the joy of living a dream for an elongated period of time – whatever scales of measurement you had, you would need exponentially larger ones to adjudge my altitude of bliss. Because not only I lived a long elusive dream, I lived it with the best of friends and that’s what made it legendary.
Five friends (plus a little family), residing in different directions of the country, re-combined this June to ride to heaven and back. This is an account of all the stupidities, all the fun, all the saddle sore and a lot more. So fuel up, it’s going to be a long read.
The Planning & Preparation
Firstly, I wish to thank Brian Acton and Jan Koum, the creators of WhatsApp, from the core of my heart. I don’t know how we could have planned the ride without WhatsApp.
The idea of the ride had always been there in all our minds, but last year, when we successfully completed our first long ride to Rajasthan, and had a terrible amount of fun, we were yearning for more. So, Ladakh just became the natural target.
We knew that the riding season starts in mid-May, so after much consultation 11th to 26th June was decided, considering that both the routes (Srinagar – Leh highway and Manali – Leh highway) would surely be open by then.
A separate WhatsApp group was created in February and then begun discussions on every nuance of the trip. Everything was discussed. Everything! Itinerary, what motorcycles to rent, spare parts to carry, size of jerry cans, no.of socks to carry and whatnot.
None of us had proper riding gear and after my fall in Rajasthan and Badal & Himanshu’s high speed crash in Agra last December, we had learnt the lesson the hard way. So, all of us (almost) got ourselves protective riding jackets and riding pants / or knee & shin guards.
June was approaching quick and now it was time for the toughest part of the whole ride – to get our leaves sanctioned. A 2 week leave application surpasses blasphemy in our boss’s view. The initial reply was, obviously, a no. However, all of us had went in with a non-negotiable attitude, and there’s not much really that they can say when you put on a stern face and say – “Sir, I’m not asking, I’m informing.”
With the leaves sanctioned, gear purchased and flight tickets booked, it was time for the arduous wait for D-Day.
Initially it was only five of us – Veeresh, Himanshu, Kunal, Badal and yours truly. But, around 3-4 weeks before the ride, Badal and Kunal exploded the bomb that their better halves would be joining us for the ride, as well. Slightly shocked and worried about the expected changes in dynamics of the group, the rest of us tried to reason with Badal and Kunal to decide otherwise and keep the ride a Men’s affair – they didn’t budge. So, we adjusted to the changed reality and it was for the good. Later on, Veeresh also added his brother as the eighth member of the group – The Grateful Eight!
Day Zero: The Union
All set and frothing with excitement, I left for work for the last time before the ride to heaven. All of us could hardly concentrate on work the whole day, and were constantly on WhatsApp discussing every little thing. I had an 8:30 PM flight from Kolkata to Delhi, Kunal & Neha had theirs at 8:15 PM. Considering the traffic situation I’d planned to leave for the airport at 5:30 PM but couldn’t resist waiting anymore and left half an hour early at 5:00 PM. I picked up Kunal & Neha on the way to the airport and the group had started to take shape. We’d different flights landing at different terminals at the Delhi airport so we parted at Kolkata Airport and reunited at Badal and Soma’s apartment in Delhi. Veeresh had flown in from Mumbai and arrived with Kunal and Neha a few minutes after me. Himanshu was already there from Chandigarh and so was Devesh, Veeresh’s brother. The Grateful Eight was united.
With help from Devesh, who had arrived earlier, Badal had brought in the rented bikes – two RE Classic 350, an Electra and a Thunderbird 350. The bikes were just more than a year old, so @ Rs. 900 a day we had a pretty nice deal. The four rented bikes and Badal’s Desert Storm were going to be our medium for the next 2 weeks.
Once in the apartment, we took a stock of things – the spare parts, the bungee ropes, the first aid, the riding essentials – all that was amassed. Himanshu had brought a huge polythene sheet to be used as rain /dust covers for the bags. We had a lengthy debate on deciding the most economical way for cutting the sheets but ended up splitting it in 8 equal pieces.
It was already 1:00 AM. All of us were tired, but there was no sleep in our eyes. We, somehow, called it a day and tried to get some sleep before the dream.
Day One: It’s Not a Dream (Delhi to Pathankot 486 Kms)
Although we were lying on the bed with our eyes closed, we hardly slept. The conversations had gone well up until 3:00 AM, but all of us were up by 4:00 AM and ready to rumble.
Eight people and two loos is not a pretty equation, or in the words of Gabbar Singh ‘bahut nainsaafi hai’, but this is how the next 2 weeks were going to be. It took us around two hours to get ready and haul are asses down to ready the bikes, which took another 40 minutes – wrapping the bags in polythene sheets and strapping them on the sides of the bikes. Thankfully, we accelerated on the learning curve soon and within 3-4 days the whole strapping business used to take half the time. Saddle bags from the next time!
With the luggage strapped on, all of us geared up and after amused stares from the neighbors, we were ready to, literally, kick start the ride. The engines revved to life and thump of the bullets filled the street. It wasn’t a dream!
It took us a few kilometers to break in to the rented bikes, but after that our butts adjusted to them like yin and yang. As soon as we crossed the city’s limits we started noticing other riders as well, and in an hour or so it became evident that Ladakh is no more the road less taken. There were dozens of groups – all on bullets or KTMs and all geared up. The heaven was going to be crowded.
We’d planned to go up through Srinagar and return via the Manali route. The target for the first day was to reach Pathankot, that is close to 500 Kms. We’d started the day early and with a few breaks in between we crossed Amabala a little after 10:00 AM. The weather gods had been kind for the better half of the morning – the sky was overcast and we were saved from the scathing heat of the June Sun. But the Sun was just getting ready, and it was all sunshine when we stopped a few kms after Ambala for a quick breakfast.
We were just finishing up the Dahi and Aloo Parathas when a large group with not less than 30 riders stopped at the joint as well. They were riding in from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh! We exchanged a few head nods with some of them and inquired about their plans. We also met a solo rider on a Hero Impulse, he wished us luck for our first Ladakh ride and also informed us that it had snowed in Khardung La the previous day. It was going to be so much fun!
The Sun really exhausted us in the next two hours and a few Kms after Ludhiana we stopped to take a breather. But at mid-day, the heat was almost torturous, specially with the heavy riding gear. We spotted an empty field with a shed in the middle. Given that we’d started early and had already covered more than 300 Kms of the targeted 500 Kms, we decided to take a break for a couple of hours up until the heat recedes to some extent.
We rode down the highway onto the narrow path leading up to the shed in the middle of the field. We’d just put our bikes on stands and were freeing ourselves of riding jackets, when the field’s farmer arrived with his son. We were expecting some hostility, but he looked at the weary travelers and signaled us to relax. He unlocked the single room under the shed and brought out a ‘Khatiya’ (cot) for us to rest upon and sent his son to bring us water. We were swayed by his kindness towards strangers.
We rested under the shed when the heat outside was at peak. Aftet a couple of hours, even though it was still pretty warm outside, we wondered we couldn’t wait anymore and so we marched on.
We stopped to take breathers regularly and also stopped for a quick bite at around 5:00 PM. We reached Pathankot, just before darkness fell, found ourselves cheap rooms and settled in for the night.
Day Two: Repairs (Pathankot to Patnitop 220 Kms)
“Avoid drinking.” “Sleep early and start the day early.” We’d read almost every blog and every discussion thread about the Leh ride. Each of them told us to follow the two simple rules above. And what do we do at the end of the first day itself – get boozed up and stay awake late, making fun of each other.
The next day we could get ready with the bikes by 11:00 AM! That is very very late. The sun was up with its torturous heat yet again. But we weren’t fully ready yet. The rented bikes had given away already. All of them needed some minor fixes (or so we thought).
We stopped at a garage just a few metres from the hotel. ‘Dilbagh Garage’ is run by Vicky and brothers and their apprentices. All of them were extremely talkative and kept us busy chatting while they multitasked in repairing the bikes. The bearings of the rear wheel of the Electra had given away and had to be fixed. We also filled the tire tubes with puncture sealants that we were carrying.
The other bikes needed some minor fixes while the Thunderbird required some attention. After around 3 hours of repairs and multitudes of stories from the garage guys we were ready to start the day at around 2:30 in the afternoon.
The initial plan was to ride up to Srinagar by the end of the second day, but it was evident now that it was not going to be so. It was just the 2nd day and we were already a day behind the itinerary. We rode for some two hours and reached Jammu, almost melting from the heat. The Desert Storm’s front shockers were now making noises, and so was the Thunderbird’s chain socket, so we stopped (again) to get that sorted. While four of the bikes were together, Himanshu had rode ahead into the city. And while I was trying to explain to him where we had stopped, Veeresh and Kunal, assuming that the repair work would take at least an hour, went off to some side ally “to relax”. So, basically, a big mess. Himanshu finally found us and Veeresh and Kunal also returned from their sojourn and were rightfully welcomed with an earful from Neha and Soma.
While all this was going on, Badal and I were looking at our bikes getting repaired when a scene broke out there. The garage owner, a Sardarji, almost pulled punches on a customer who was repeatedly nagging about the price he was charged. The customer was about to ride-off when Sardarji pulled out the keys from the bikes and challenged for a duel, but he finally let it go.
Looking at all this, Badal said “Bhai, don’t bargain the prices here, just give him what he wants.” I was a step ahead, and said “I’m going to give him my wallet and ask him to take what he thinks is appropriate.”
The bikes were done, we had all the people regrouped and were ready to march on. But, that is when I couldn’t found the keys to my bike. I checked every damn pocket of everyone’s jackets and pants, twice, but the keys weren’t to be found. We looked on the street, the helmets and in each spot were I’d been during the last hour. Finally, I found it dangling from a crack in the drain cover where we’d been standing. It had just barely managed to stuck in the crack, or else our night would’ve been spent in Jammu itself. (No extra keys).
With enough stupidities done for the day, we started off from Jammu at close to 06:00 PM and on to the mountains. The swirling roads started soon. For the first few good Kms, the Jammu-Srinagar road is a four lane highway and extremely fun to ride on the curves. But the highway narrowed down soon and our already slow speed dropped to half. The fact that darkness was about to fall and there was a continuous rush of trucks to the valley, made matters worse.
Just after it was dark, we took another stop for some snacks, but it too was extended for up to an hour.
We restarted at around 09:00 PM and gradually made our way through the narrow, pot-holed road, overtaking the moving barrage of trucks one-by-one.
We reached Patnitop after 11:00 PM. There are only a few hotels there and almost all of them were full by the time we reached.
Kunal and Veeresh went to look for rooms and even after some 40 minutes, couldn’t find one.
We were offered one-off rooms by some people but that would not have fit all of us, so we said thanks but no thanks and continued our hotel hunt. Eventually, we found one and settled for the night.
Day Three: To the Valley (Patnitop to Srinagar via Ananthnag 220 Kms)
We strapped on the bags early the next day, seeing only that of Patnitop that our hotel windows offered. It was a relief to ride the mountains without the long queues of trucks ahead and behind us, but the traffic soon started to peak. We stopped to eat at close to 10:00 AM. After a hearty brunch, we resumed our ride to the valley.
A few Kms after the meal, we took one of the innumerous turns on the mountains, but this time we were greeted by the mighty highlands through which audacious humans have pierced a way to the valley. Riding through the Jawahar Tunnel has to be one of the high points of the whole ride. Zooming through the unending (actually 2.85 Kms) one lane tunnel was sheer joy. The tunnel has one lane road in either direction and is guarded by the defense forces, round the clock. The traffic is also regulated as only a limited no. of vehicles are sent through at once, but bikes are given preference as we were let through before the long queue of cars and trucks that were waiting to cross through.
After crossing the tunnel, and few good Kms, we reached the point of descent but were first welcomed by a beautiful view of the Kashmir Valley.
As soon as we descended into the valley, the roads to Srinagar were jam packed and we had to fight to move every inch forward. Around 50 Kms before Srinagar, we took a detour and turned right towards Ananthnag. We were really interested in seeing the ‘Martand Sun Temple’ over there, where the song ‘Bismil’ from the movie ‘Haider’ was also shot. We took help of Google Maps to direct us towards the temple, but we ended up at a different one which is also known as the Martand Temple, hence the confusion. After going round a full circle and coming to the same spot, Google Maps eventually guided us to the temple which was situated up a hill, not far from where we were.
Riding up the hill should not have been trouble, but Kunal somehow lost his balance and dropped the bike. He was behind us, so we didn’t see him fall and were waiting up on the hill for him, when locals on their way up told us that he had fallen off. We were just running down to check up on him when he came riding up. There were no injuries to humans, so it was a big relief, but the bike’s footrest on the left side had broken and he was having trouble riding. So, Neha sat as my pillion and I was now under immense pressure to ride smoothly and without falling down :). Thankfully, within minutes we found a garage and fixed the footrest and I was relieved of my responsibility.
From there on it was straight to Srinagar, and after being stuck in traffic for a good half of the afternoon, we zoomed through. However, in this zooming through business, all of us got separated. While, ideally we stop right before entering the destination city / town to re-group so that we don’t get lost in the traffic, but this time we didn’t and ended up going round the streets of Srinagar, individually. I coincidentally united with Kunal on a street intersection and finally regrouped with the others at Dal Lake.
We booked a houseboat for the night, had some ‘Wazwan’ for dinner and bootlegged whiskey (alcohol being banned in Kashmir in the holy month of Ramzan) and chatted till late in the night.
Day Four: Rest Day (Dal Lake Tour and Srinagar to Sonmarg 80 Kms)
Considering that we were already a day behind the scheduled itinerary, we decided to have a short tour of the Dal Lake before leaving Srinagar and ride at least up to Sonamarg for the day. So we had a lazy ride on Shikaras through Dal Lake in the morning before th short ride to Sonamarg.
We ended up having a sort of scuffle with the dude at the parking where we’d kept our bikes. Thankfully, only words were exchanged and there was no physical contact. Badal noticed that his Desert Storm’s rear chain sprocket was about to give away as almost half of the tooths had broken. So we bought a spare chain sprocket set to get it fixed later. We were extremely hungry, so fueled ourselves before the short ride to Sonamarg.
It was during the ride to Sonamarg, when it really hit me what we were doing. Surrounded by huge mountains on all sides, riding through the valley on an empty road, as clichéd as it may sound, but we were ‘living the dream’. Just after Srinagar, the Indus catches up to you on the side of the roads and stays almost through out Ladakah, hiding in the mountains for a while and then reappearing at every chance it gets. We were allured by its first appearance, however, somehow resisted the urge to go and take a dip. But, as we saw it languidly flowing under a bridge, we could not stop ourselves and just went in.
The night fell soon, and we were further slowed down by hundreds of sheep blocking the roads, who were returning from their day’s graze.
We reached Sonamarg at close to 08:30 PM and found a cheap, little hotel with a picturesque setting – snow capped mountains in front and the Indus flowing behind.
Day Five: The Mighty Zoji La (Sonamarg to Mulbekh 162 Kms)
In the morning, we went back a few Kms to have a look at the valley and the forceful Indus, which we’d missed last night, as it was already dark.
Then we prepared ourselves to take on the mighty Zoji La. It is not one of the highest mountains passes, but it is certainly one of the most toughest terrains. Specially, after riding through smooth tarmac, the dust and gravels on the Zoji La was our first taste of what was about to come in the near future. The road continues for some 8 Kms after Sonamarg and desolates into an elevating, uneven, narrow platform of dust, gravel, mud and water with a deep, deep valley running on one side.
At the beginning of the pass, there was more than ankle deep, fine dust, and as we approached a curve, first Devesh, then I and then Kunal, behind me, lost balance and dropped the bike as our handles jammed in the dust below. That was a scene!
The bikes, held out pretty well and riding the RE Classic, despite the fall, was a pleasure. We continued slowly at our natural speeds, which our instincts allowed. Veeresh and Devesh, who were on one bike, and I were riding together while the others were a few curves ahead of us. I ended up being a few curves ahead of Veeresh and Devesh, so I stopped on the side of the mountain, and that was when my belief on the biking community solidified. As I stood there, waiting for the lads, at least three different groups of riders crossed me and each of them stopped or signaled inquiring, whether all was okay. The eagerness to help, and the camaraderie shared with others on two wheels just re-imposes the will to ride.
The snow-capped mountains were now running along-side us and the Baltal below was, partially frozen. There were no major water crossings, on the road, rather they were more like puddles, compared to what we were about to witness in the coming days. It took us almost two, two and a half hours to traverse through the Zoji La, after which the tarmac re-emerged.
As we moved forward, there were, metres of snow on both sides and it was extremely fun to ride along. Our speed remained compromised as the continuous flow of water from the melting snow had affected the road conditions.
We descended a few good hundred metres and reached Dras around in the afternoon. After a quick stop there, we moved forward towards Kargil, which was planned to be our stop for the day.
Just a few Kms from the town of Dras, is the Kargil War Memorial, which is set in the foots of the Tololing Hill. It is a place which is sure to leave every Indian with immense gratitude towards the defense forces.
The memorial houses plaques with names of martyrs in the Dras sector since independence, and being there and witnessing it in that setting would leave even the most unemotional individual with moist eyes and a lump in the throat. After spending time reading all about the war and sacrifices by our soldiers and the very informative briefing from one of the soldiers describing the story of the war and its heroes, we marched on towards Kargil town.
We’d initially planned to stop at Kargil for the day, but as we reached it before 05:00 PM we decided it would be better if we made it to Mulbekh, so that we’d have more time the next day. First, we fueled up our bikes in the last petrol pump before Leh and after a very late lunch that had eluded us, we rode to Mulbekh. Mulbekh does not fall in people’s usually itinerary for a night stop, so there aren’t any proper hotels over there. But after some searching, we found two cheap rooms bang opposite to the 8th century stone carved ‘Maitreya Buddha’ statue.
Day Six: We are officially Leh’d (Mulbekh to Leh 174 Kms)
I’d say Mulbekh is around the point were the harsh, brazen and dry Ladakh mountains become prominent and greenery starts to become a thing of the past.
We tried to ride out early, but given our habit of being a serial offender on that front, which was augmented by the availability of a single toilet, we managed to start out at close to 11:00 AM, after a fulfilling breakfast. Right after Mulbekh, we started to ascend again and in a few Kms reached the second highest Pass on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, Namika La.
We remember, a European couple who we’d first seen somewhere in Punjab and last at Namika La. Unlike every body else, these guys were riding to Leh on Hero Honda Splendor!!!
A further few good Kms up the road is highest mountains pass on the Srinagar-Leh Highway, Fotu La. These passes are higher than Zoji La, but have an excellent road leading up all the way to Leh.
The huge and picturesque Lamayuru Monastery.
The monastery offers sweeping view of the mountains its surrounded by and the valley beneath.
We had lunch at the food joint next to the monastery and rode on. As I said, the roads are excellent and riding through them is great fun. A few good Kms before Leh, there is a straight road with mountains on either sides offering greats photo-ops, so we obliged.
Next stop was at the Magnetic Hill.
There’s a hill next to the road which has trail marks leading on to it. So, Badal, Himanshu and Devesh followed the trail and rode up the hill. They also found a 10 litre jerry can up on the hill, which turned out be very helpful.
After Magnetic Hill and before Leh, the last stop was at the Gurudwara Patthar Sahib.
We reached Leh at around sunset and after a hectic search and bragain, found a not so cheap hotel for the next two days and settled in.
Day Seven: Rest Again (In an around Leh)
It turned out to be a real rest day as we started the day pretty late at almost the afternoon. There were couple of more groups staying at the same hotel, one of whom had completed the circuit and was returning, so we inquired about the road conditions from them. The other group was leaving for Nubra Valley, so we wished them luck.
In Leh, we hit the major man-made attractions of the town,
Himanshu went down the hill from Shanti Stupa to get a fallen helmet.
After tour of the town, it was time to fuel up the bikes and jerry cans as the next petrol pump on our route would be after more than 400 Kms. We met another group of riders who adjudged that we were rookies and were eager to give us advice. After that, it was time to get some minor fixes on the bikes, which took slightly more than what we expected. It was already close to 10:00 PM and we had to do a bit of thorough search to find a place which was serving food at that hour. We were eager to end the day as the Khardung La awaited us the on the other side.
Day Eight: We’re Here! (Leh to Diskit 180 Kms)
The day started early, and we moved towards Nubra Valley, but first there was to be the ‘Inception’ sequence – dream within a dream – Khardung La on Bikes! Khardung La is allegedly the highest motor-able mountain pass in the world, but reaching it is relatively easier than any reaching any other pass in the whole route. It is only 40 Kms from Leh out of which close to 20 Kms are solid, but narrow tarmac. Relatively easier, is still tough enough as you climb almost 7000 ft in altitude in a matter of a few Kms. And, when the tarmac runs out its back to the dust, gravel, rock, mud and water that characterizes the ride to Ladakh.
There was a barricade of the Leh Taxi Association on the way to Khardung La, checking for non-Leh rented bikes and stopping them (Bikes rented from outside Leh are banned by the association for sightseeing in and around Leh). The barricade was open to let through a truck, so we dashed through without stopping, however, Himanshu got stuck behind a truck and couldn’t pass through. But after some haggling, he was let through as well.
First came South Pullu check post, where we had to furnish the details of each bike and rider. And then, a few steep Kms later, right after a turn, came the highest point at Khardung La!
Barring a couple of steep climbs, the bikes held out pretty well and we didn’t have much trouble in riding up to Khardung La or the descent from thereon. Within a Km from Khardung La came one of the water crossings which had freezing water.
We were able to maneuver it without much trouble, except one of the bikes got stuck in between rocks.
But the water was so terribly cold, we had to remove our shoes and socks and sit down for quite a few minutes to regain blood flow.
The gravel road continued almost up to North Pullu Check Post where we were again required to submit details of bikes and the riders.
From thereon, it was smooth tarmac spiraling through the mountains and great fun to ride on. We turned towards Diskit, Nubra Valley from what we call ‘The Cube’. The roads were completely deserted except for an odd army truck or so.
The ride from ‘the Cube’ to Diskit is great fun with a couple of long patches of straight roads which acts as just the refresher after whole day swirling through mountains. Veeresh & Devesh and I found a smooth spot following an Army Jeep which acted as a ‘pilot car’ zooming through the mountain road in the dark.
In our usual fashion, we reached Diskit when it was already dark, so we found ourselves a hotel and settled in, rather than staying at the camps – a decision we would regret very very much!
Day Nine: Shock Valley! (Hunder to Pangong Lake 173 Kms)
In the morning, while others were getting ready and being very very late, Himanshu and I ran-off to have a short tour of the Diskit Monastery.
Then, when everyone was ready, it was time to go to Hunder Sand Dunes, but first we had to get the Desert Storm’s rear chain sprocket fixed. We were carrying the chain sprocket set from Srinagar and fortunately found a mechanic in Diskit itself. It took over an hour to get that done, and then we were off to the Sand dunes.
It is really amazing how in within 100 Kms you reach from the snow-capped highest motor-able mountain pass in the world to the sand-dunes in Hunder.
We were just on time to be late for the Bactrian Camel ride as they take a break on mid-day.
We did not have much time in our hands so we started to ride out towards Pangong Lake. There was a functioning Petrol Pump available in Diskit, but we were carrying enough fuel with us for at least next 350-400 Kms, so we didn’t bother.
There are two ways to reach Pangong Lake from Nubra Valley – first is to go back to Leh and ride to Pangong, which is what is mostly done by people. Second is to go through the Shyeok Valley or as we liked to call it, the Shock Valley, which is a straight route to Pangong. But anyone who has been on the latter route will tell you that it is anything but straight.
We were in for a real shock in Shyeok Valley. I haven’t been to many extreme roads, but as far as extreme is concerned, Shyeok Valley sure pulls a punch. It starts off real smooth, with a great tarmac road but desolates into rocky, sandy, gravel-filled mess of a way. At times you would think that someone has fooled you and its not the way at all! But I must say, it was one of the most memorable rides and great fun, AFTER we’d completed it! There are innumerous water-crossings with bone-chilling cold water and sometime with a stupendous flow. There is also, absolutely no population in between the two points – so mostly, you are on your own. In case of breakdown, only the odd truckers can save you!
It took us more than 9 hours to traverse through the whole route and we reached Spangmik Village besides Pangong Lake, very very late in the night. Spangmik surely looks like a gypsy camp with multitudes of tents in all directions you see – and actually that is what it is!
After searching for more than half an hour, we finally found tents for the night. The place was extremely windy and cold. We bought some firewood and lighted up a campfire. There was no food available, but there was coffee so we had some coffee and Snickers for the night and recalled the madness of day that just went past.
Day Ten: The day of the falls (Spangmik to Karu 125 Kms)
The night was so windy and cold that we slept with the riding jacket on. In the morning there was no water in the taps, so we called up the guy and he said that it was so cold last night that water froze in the pipes. Anyways, we freshened up early and went for a short tour of the lake front.
Later, when others were ready as well, we hauled up the bags and went to the ‘3 Idiots’ spot for photo-ops!
Pangong Lake is, in fact, a special place. Its vastness offers a particular calm. Just sit at the edge of the water and stare into nothingness, peace prevails. So we did exactly that!
Soon, it was time to bid adieu to Pangong and we rode out. The initial few Kms from Pangong to Leh houses a number of Army camps and as I was crossing a check post, I was stopped by two Jawans carrying large empty food cans back to their camps. They just wanted a lift and I happily obliged. Only one of them sat as a pillion and we rode close to a Km when he signaled me to stop in the middle of absolutely nowhere! It was straight road surrounded by hills on either sides, and their camp was on the other side of these dry and barren hills! It is impossible even to imagine the hardships that they have to face on a daily basis. We shook hands and carried on to our separate ways.
The road from Spangmik to Karu was not terribly bad, except for the patch when we crossed Chang La, world’s third highest pass at 17688 ft. I guess, the definition of bad changes once you’ve been on such roads!
After that, we were, relatively, descending in altitude – a time when you want your breaks to work properly (not that at any other times you want them to work otherwise). But in congruence with our reputation, something had to go bad and that’s what happened. Himanshu’s rear breaks stopped working and he was left with only the front breaks to maneuver with on the windy roads. So our speed was terribly compromised but still in every few Kms his bike skidded as he used the front breaks. A few times he managed to stay upright, and at others he lost his balance and fell. But we’re real friends, so we didn’t let him fall alone – I fell a couple of time as well skidding on gravel on the roads and so did Kunal, losing balance due to the huge bags that he was hauling on the sides!
We reached Karu, which is some 30 Kms before Leh on the Manali-Leh Highway, at around 06:00 PM and got Himanshu’s bike fixed first. Meanwhile, Veeresh and Kunal found us hotel rooms not too far from where we were. The next job was to refuel the bikes and the jerry cans, as the next petrol pump would be at Tandi before Manali, that is some 350 Kms. So we fueled up good, that’s more than 100 litres of petrol!
Day Eleven: This is Pang! (Karu to Pang 140 Kms)
After we stopped in Karu, Devesh noticed that the rear shockers of the Electra had broken! Obviously, we weren’t carrying an extra shocker, so they had to ride back to Leh in the morning and get it fixed. Himanshu accompanied them on my bike which also needed a change of the rear chain sprocket.
While the others went to Leh I and Badal had to find a ‘jugaad’ for carrying the jerry cans. Actually, the cans we were carrying were made of thin plastic and bent on the carrier’s support rods and could possibly leak. So we needed something flat in the bottom, to support them. We were looking for a piece of plywood around and saw one in one of those army uniform shops. It looked like it was just lying around so we asked him politely first, but he declined and then later when I bought a pair of boots from the shop he brought a better piece from inside his store! We were able to get the piece of plywood cut from guys doing wood work in a shop close by. They turned out to be fellow Biharis, just like me and didn’t charge anything!
One of the jerry can carriers on my bike had broken, and Kunal’s had only one, so these two 5 litre jerry cans along with the 10 litre can we found ad Magnetic Hill, all went on the sides of Himanshu’s bike. This was in addition to the two 5 litre cans there was already space for!
The guys were back by around 11:00 AM and we hurried to ride out of Karu. Our initial plan was to ride up to Sarchu, but as we were pretty delayed already, we considered Pang to be the practical destination for the day. And so we begun on of the remotest stretches. The route went through Upshi, Gya and took us to another major mountain pass of the route Taglang La, which is at 17582 ft and is incorrectly marked as the second highest mountain pass in the world. Unlike Chang La or Khardung La, despite the altitude, the road is fairly paved and we didn’t have any problem in traversing through.
After descending from Taglang La, in a few Kms the spiraling mountain roads gave us a break and turned into a straight patch of uninhabited, traffic-less, biker heaven – the More Plains.
It is almost a 40 Km stretch of straight roads, surrounded by mountains on either sides. The view is fantastic and the ride is, for the lack of a better phrase, out of this world!
As unexpected is the appearance of the More Plains, is its abrupt end. There is no transition as the plains suddenly converge into a mountainous road with a deep valley on the rider’s side. It is sure to give a wobble. A few spirals down the mountains and we arrive at Pang.
Pang is just a few huts and tents, one blessed mechanic and a prissy old aunty! Obviously, Pang doesn’t have a hotel room – it has beds to rent, ranging from Rs. 250 to Rs. 400 each depending on the no. of people that would be accompanying you in the room. We reached Pang after 06:00 PM and considering that it was going to get dark in an hour or so and as suggested by everyone there, we decided not to proceed to Sarchu – which is another 80 Kms from Pang. So we started to look for beds and fortunately found a small room with four beds that was perfect, given the circumstances, for the couples. It belonged to the prissy old aunty who was irked at everything we said and at one time also threatened to throw us out, however her cute daughter helped us maintain a shelter over our heads. The remaining four of us were staying across the path in a different dormitory, which was relatively less crowded than others. But it had only one toilet. That is only one toilet for everyone in that dormitory, that is more than 30 people and you couldn’t shut the door! So you had to sing a song.
We ate our food early, afraid of the aunty, fueled up our bikes from the jerry cans and called in for the night. The temperature dropped rapidly in the dark and I, again, slept with half of the riding gear on.
Day Twelve: Race to Manali (Pang to Keylong 184 Kms)
The morning was as cold as the night and we woke up shivering. We hurried to get ready early, like everyone else over there. The Majority of the riders had just begun their trips and were riding up to Leh, while few of us where heading down. We managed to leave Pang by 07:00 AM.
The plan was to ride 300 Km to Manali before dark. Some 50 Kms from Pang we reached one of the most fun features of the whole ride – the Gata Loops! These are 21 loops at an altitude of 15000 ft, spiraling you down the mountain.
We reached the J&K and Himachal Pradesh border just after Gata Loops and we had some Maggi and Omelette just before it. We had to provide details of the bikes before entering into HP. And soon we were in Sarchu! I’d say it was from around Sarchu that the barren mountains started to have signs of life on them and turned green. Sarchu has some nice tents with great views, if one can make it, it is the ideal stop.
The altitude was maintained and we started a slight ascent as we traversed through Baralacha La, which was covered with snow on the sides. Given our hurry to ride to Manali, we just acknowledged the fact that we were in Baralacha La but didn’t halt. Just after the highest point on the pass, there is a huge lake that accompanies you for a while. It is called Vishal Tal, named after Captain Vishal Shrivastav who was martyred near the lake in a helicopter crash in May 2000.
We rode through the high terrain and after a few Kms signs of green started to appear on the mountains. The water crossings continued, only the water was less freezing as we descended in altitude. We had to stop at couple of check posts to register the bike details before moving forward, and soon we reached smooth but narrow tarmac towards Rohtang Pass. But first there was this explosion of green on the mountains, trees surrounded by mist – after days in the cold desert, this sure was a treat for the eyes.
But the mist turned out to be clouds and it started to rain soon, slow at first and then with great intensity. We crossed Jispa in the rains, but had to halt at Keylong and decided to have some snacks before moving forward. It was already after 04:00 PM and the rain dampened our enthusiasm for Rohtang. It is a notorious stretch, and we didn’t wanted to get stuck in there during rains with the darkness looming over us. So we decided, for better or for worse, we would halt at Keylong for the day. Rohtang will have to wait.
We found rooms at the same Cafe we’d stopped for snacks. The booze store was also just opposite the hotel, so we called it a day and snugged into the balcony.
Our rooms in Keylong offered an edifying view of the mountains, and spirituality flowed in the conversations, more so as the intake of ‘spirits’ increased.
This was followed by some episodes that I’d rather not put in black and white! We ended the day soon after for an early start the next day.
Day Thirteen and Fourteen: Manali ka hai yeh stuff! (Keylong to Manali via Solan Valley 140 Kms)
Rohtang is one treacherous stretch, but the descent is easier as against the ascent. Firstly, because for the most part, you’re on the side of the mountains rather than the valley and, Secondly, after traversing through the Ladakhi terrain, one is not terribly overwhelmed by the narrow Rohtang route.
The route was dusty in patches and muddy at places. Some stretches can get extremely anorexic and with oncoming traffic, you’re hardly left with any space to maneuver. At one of the spots we had to lean ourselves and our bikes on the mountains to make way for the oncoming trucks.
The truckers need to be commended for their skills and the work that they are doing. Maneuvering the terrain on bikes is not an easy task in itself, but it is beyond my imagination how these guys manage to do it on those massive trucks!
Slowly riding through the off-road terrain, we rode into a patchy road which gradually converged into smooth tarmac. A few curves laters, we could see the long line of tourist vehicles parked on the sides. We’d crossed Rohtang Pass and into tourist territory from traveller’s area. We made our way through the maze of SUVs blocking the road and stopped a few metres later, which was devoid of people, for some photo-ops!
Everyone, except me, wanted to do Paragliding in Solan Valley, so we made our way to there, maneuvering through the innumerable curves on the smooth road with ease. We reached Solan Valley at around after noon and the others lined up for their turn on the glide while I stayed on the ground being a watchful protector looking after everyone’s stuff. It didn’t take much time and we were on the way to Manali again. The streets were full of people and we made our way to a hotel slightly away from the crowd, obviously, not before getting separated and making a number of calls to each other to reunite!
We had a late lunch / early dinner as the sun set. Too tired to do anything else, we booked a late night show of ‘Udta Punjab’ at a local theatre.
The next day was dedicated to relaxing and remembering the bygone days beyond the mountains! We roamed around the streets of Manali and spent a good half of the afternoon lazing on the grass near the Hidimba Temple, while the girls shopped their bank accounts dry.
We had a blast in the evening in Old Manali, celebrating the ride with booze and live music!
Day Fifteen: To the Plains (Manali to Chandigarh 310 Kms)
We started the next day late in the morning. The heat was back and the riding gear seemed to get heavier by the minute as we sweated our way to Chandigarh. The roads on the mountains were swift for most parts. There’s a pretty long tunnel on the way down, and riding through was fun as usual.
The swift part on the mountains was interrupted by an under construction highway which didn’t seem to end. It was dusty initially but turned muddier as we moved forward. We rode for more than an hour on that road, sandwiched between traffic, getting frustrated by the minute.
The descend continued as the roads spiralled down towards Chandigarh. As the evening came close, we were joined by trucks – more and more of them – making there way to the plains. The spiralling roads and barrage of trucks slowed us down heavily and we reached Chandigarh at close to 11:00 PM, where Umesh was waiting for us with Biryani!
We settled for the night at Himanshu and Umesh’s apartment in Chandigarh.
Day Sixteen: All good things come to an End (Chandigarh to Delhi 246 Kms)
We parted with Himanshu in Chandigarh, and Veeresh & Devesh parted with each other and on to separate bikes which needed to be ridden to Delhi.
Once out of the city’s limits and on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway, it’s up to the rider to ride as quick as he wants! The wide highway has room enough for everyone – be it the Harayana Roadways bus about to give you a stroke with its horns or the weary biker returning from heaven.
We stopped in between for a late breakfast and rode with few stops after that. The heat was torturous, but we couldn’t stop and take a siesta break like we did on our way up as we had evening flights out of the city., Everyone drove at his own speed and we were hardly in a group. Badal was the first to enter the outskirts of Delhi slightly after 2:00 PM followed by Veeresh and then Devesh and I some 30 minutes later. Meanwhile, the Mishras were lagging behind and reached almost half an hour after us. We reached the starting point of our rides at around 04:00 PM and revved up the bikes to fill the neighborhood with thumps of bullet!
Returning the bikes turned out to be a massive pain in the posterior as the store owner was a certified asshole. He was asking for almost an astronomical amount of money for repairs. After haggling and shouting for almost half an hour we finally settled at a price and bid goodbye to renting bikes in the future!
We took an auto back to Badal’s apartment shoved everything in the bags and went off to the airport. A dream was lived!