On life…and learning

Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Ladakh…

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Part 2 of the Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Ladakh…

“If you go to the Odyssey as a boy, you will return a man; if you go as a man, you will return a sage, and if you go as a sage, surprisingly you will return as a boy”.

With these words, Dr. Venki Padmanabhan, the CEO of Royal Enfield, flagged off the Himalayan Odyssey, 2012 from the India Gate, New Delhi, on June 23rd.

Listening to these words, I wondered, what would bring the above-mentioned changes in us? Both True (that’s what I call my latest Enfield) and I pondered alike…

Well, now that I am back home after covering over 3000kms on this ride of a lifetime, I can tell you it did bring out the boys, men and sages in & amongst the 60 of us riders! The group had riders aging 21 years to 62 years, from fittest to not so fit, extroverts and introverts alike, riders having tremendous riding experience to those having very little experience of riding a Royal Enfield, et al. Riders came from all over India, and parts of the world too! We had doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, managers, and students amongst us. Married and happy ones would ride together! And what united this diverse group was our passion for riding an Enfield and this band of brothers came together to ride on this fascinating journey to this rather inhospitable land of passes, mountains, roads and no roads, and to the highest motorable road of the world – it was passion and boyish exhilaration writ on faces all over when I saw them first.

It has been six days that I have come back, and haven’t stopped thinking about it as yet. The overwhelming experience has been quite enriching and before I started to pen down this blog, I had several thoughts coming to me – should I simply write a travelogue, or I should write about the elevating experiences I had before and during the entire trip.

Let me try and attempt both.

Day 0: ‘Day Zero’ would constitute months of preparation – working on a grilling fitness regime, getting the bikes ready, buying loads and loads of required riding gear, the works! The enthusiasm over the yahoo-group was simply infectious – you’d note the boyish excitement spread all over! Finally, on 21st & 22nd June, we got together at the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, New Delhi and completed the scrutiny of gear, bike and the physical fitness was tested – try the 5km run plus 50-push-ups in 60minutes – you’d understand what am I talking about!

Day 1: June 23, 2012; New Delhi to Parwanoo: A day that shall always remain etched in every rider’s memory. The day when we turned into celebrities! The day when, as it appeared, every bike-enthusiast turned at India Gate to flag-off the Himalayan Odyssey. Interviewed & clicked by media, Cheered and waved, congratulated and photographed, envied and hailed, and after receiving the blessings of the Buddhist monks, Dr. Venky flagged off the ride.

I tied the blessed flags to my bike, said my prayers, waved to well-wishers present and started on to this dream ride…

On NH-1 and then on NH-22, the ride of 270kms from New Delhi to Parwanoo, a hill-town near Chandigarh was largely devoid of any mentionable events, barring the fact the Mayil Anna, one of us and a great senior of mine had a narrow escape when a rogue oil tanker barged onto his ride! We learnt – protection gear pays, it really does!

Passing the curious onlookers and braving the severe heat, all riders arrived Parwanoo and reported to our respective hotels – Shivalik and Windsmoor. It was an easy day’s ride and day ended with loads of beer flowing all around. We were getting to know each other, chatting about what not and also tended to our bikes; ready to roll on the windy roads that lay ahead…

Day 2: June 24, 2012; Parwanoo to Narkanda: We resumed the day after a short briefing. Straight roads had already given way to the serpentine roads as we entered Indian State of Himachal Pradesh (HP) yesterday. Good roads lay ahead and we drove towards Chail, via the Kanda Ghat. After this turn towards Chail, narrow roads started as we rode towards Kufri. After crossing heavy traffic jams at Kufri, we took our lunch-break at Theog, about 11kms after the Kufri town.

We reached Narkanda at about 4pm, covering about 155kms. Hotel Hatu of HPTDC was a very good place to give rest to our bodies and bikes. A brief medical check ensued – to check any untoward symptoms that we may have developed in last two days.

Narkanda is a beautiful hill-town, located in Shimla District of HP. It is at an altitude of 2750m above mean sea level (AMSL) on the NH-22, about 65 km from Shimla. It is surrounded by the Shivalik Ranges that span a large part of HP. Evening was slightly chilly and gave a pleasant respite to our sunburnt bodies from the Day-1!

Day 3: June 25, 2012; Narkanda to Kalpa: Our destination was Kalpa; about 200kms away, continuing on NH22. We covered towns of Ramnagarbusair, Jeori, Poari and Peo enroute.

After experiencing superb roads descending into the town of Ramnagar, encountered what I call ‘not-so-good roads’ (wait for ‘bad-roads’!), where the JP Group of Companies is digging tunnels into the mountains. Taking our first break at Jeori, we found that it has no proper eating-places and most of us filled up our stomachs with whatever little available around.

Kalpa is a small town in the Sutlej river valley, in the Kinnaur district of HP, at the height of 2960m AMSL. During the ride, I observed for the first time the free-flowing Sutlej River, which races through deep gorges. As we reached the town of Kalpa, it was around 6:15pm. All of a sudden, it started drizzling. Our destination was Rakpa Regency Hotel, which was located above 8kms the main town and we rode in rain. Wow! The first feeling of out gloved fingers freezing, as we soaked in rain, was such a welcome change from all the heat the North India suffered whole of summer!

Once settled into the hotel, I took my time to notice the serenity of this sleepy hamlet, now sitting in the lap of snow-clad mountains in front of me – the Kinnar Kailash range of peaks. Also visible from this place is the sacred Shivling rock on the Chota-Kailash peak. I was told that this peak changes its color at different points in the day. That true or not, I did observe the pristine beauty of the peaks – both as the sun took shelter behind them and as it rose the next morning – some sights!

Day 4: June 26, 2012; Kalpa to Kaza: Next morning, we all started early, only to find out that there was only one petrol pump around, located at Peo. It turned out to be a very busy one too, with 65 of us in the queue. The riders took close to an hour getting their tanks filled, wasting about 60min of the precious riding time during the day. Thus, I would recommend you start at about 7:30am, as the distance to be covered was around 220kms to Kaza.

Covering 30kms of ‘not-so-good roads’, we reached the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) check-post, where the travelers must stop to get their inner line permits to continue upwards to the Spiti Valley. Luckily for us, we were only asked to get out details noted down and move on.

Viola! Next 15kms were superb roads – we cruised at about 80kmph! Only to be stopped for the rock-blasts! Yes, you’d encounter a LOT of them, and landslides, as you ride on this route – watch out! As you’d ride ahead, you’d come across what I call ‘bad-roads (wait for ‘no-roads’!).

Sutlej flows in its full beastly glory, as if determined to drown all the rocky mountains that dare come in its way.

As I rode though barren patches, I would not help admire the exquisiteness of the rocks all around – they were as spellbinding as the Grand Canyon, all through the journey on the Indo-China border. No images can describe this splendor!

During last 100kms, as the terrain turned bad to worse, I had consumed all my water. Thirsty and tired, I found water only at Dubling, after riding for over 3.5 hours. As I gulped down water, I couldn’t help observe that the same Kinley packaged water bottle we paid Rs.40/- at the HPTDC hotels (a premium of double the cost!) was being sold by this mom-&-pop shop at the MRP!

After covering about 110kms from Peo, we arrived in at Yangthang. This place came as a respite to us craving-for-food souls! Jumping at simple vegetable-rice and mashed-eggs, we ate like there is no tomorrow and relaxed thereafter.

After a long halt of over 2 hours for remaining riders (that’s the rule – we would wait for each and every biker at all scheduled halts), we started riding ahead at about 3pm.

What we encountered ahead is I call ‘no-roads’! At an altitude of 3500m AMSL, this is was the scariest patch I have ridden to in my life. Rough, narrow and steep ups & downs! Barren mountains all around us and the Sutlej roaring down below, my heart almost took a permanent place in my throat for next 30kms! So much so, I stopped at a place, chanted Ik Onkar and with the divine intervention providing courage, moved ahead.

Can you make out where is the road on the mountain that you see in the adjoining image to your right? I bet you can’t! Believe me you, there exists a road in that fine line that you see 🙂

Once in a while, I could see snow-clad peaks behind the rocky-mountains. Some sights I would love you to enjoy.

After more than a 150km ride through the rocky mountains, greenery at Chango was pleasant to the eyes. Also, the very fact that Kaza was only 40kms odd from here brought some relief to the aching back and hurting wrists – today was a long day!

However, after crossing Samdo, as I entered the Spiti Valley, which about 70kms away from Kaza, I was spellbound with the natural beauty that unfolded turn after turn. As I moved ahead, I reached the famous Tabo Monastery, which was founded in 996 AD and is located in the very arid, cold and rocky area of Tabo village, at an altitude of 3280m AMSL. With its original decoration and art images intact, it is considered to be the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India and the Himalayas. The unique beauty of its art and its pivotal historical role in the transmission of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and culture in the 10th and 11th century makes Tabo Monastery an historically significant site. Within the ancient monastery’s compound are nine temples built between the late 10th and the 17th century and numerous stupas. (http://tabomonastery.org). The famous Dhankar monastery is only 31kms from this place.

Riding ahead, I was enthralled to note the stunning beauty of the Spiti Valley, as I rode into this the gateway to the northernmost reaches of the nation. The setting sun made the view even more pristine…

Spiti Valley forms one of the Trans-Himalayan frontier regions of northern India with a population of around 10,000 people. The name ‘Spiti’ means ‘The Middle Land’, i.e. the land between Tibet and India. In the past the region was included within the boundaries of Tibet.

The town of Kaza, the capital of Lahaul-Spiti District, is situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 3800m AMSL. The valley is cut off from the north up to eight months of the year by heavy snowfalls.

My destination was HPTDC Hotel Spiti at Kaza. However, before that, I did stop at the only petrol pump located near the main market. See this amazing signage for yourself…

Due to high elevation one is likely to feel altitude sickness in Spiti. I too felt severe headache. However, a hot cup of green tea (I carried tea-bags with me!) and a Disprin, I felt OK after a while. Tired like hell, I was relieved to recall that the next day was our rest day. Pleased to find hot water’s availability and a descent bed, I dozed off to sleep after an early dinner.

Day 5: June 26, 2012; Rest Day at Kaza: Rest day it was – for the bike and not for us. Whole of the early part of the day went about servicing the bikes. We had negotiated half-journey to Leh by now and what lay ahead of us (please wait!), needed the bikes to be in the fittest conditions. Luckily, True was riding in its best conditions and needed only cleaning & oiling of the chain and a refill of the engine-oil.

After a thorough cleaning and washing regime, both True and I were ready for visiting the local sites. Aman, my roommate, friend and great rider, joined me and we rode towards Kibber, a village located at about 22kms uphill, at a height of 4270m AMSL. It contains a monastery and the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.

Enroute, after about 15kms, we came across the revered Key Monastery, which is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery located on top of a hill at an altitude of 4166m AMSL. It is the biggest monastery of Spiti Valley and a religious training center for Lamas.

The view from Kibber is amazing – it almost feels like the end of the world! And even this end of the world had a restaurant leased and run by men from lower hills! With other riders joining in, we ate our lunch at this place and then rode back to the town of Kaza.

The marketplace of Kaza is small, just like any other hamlet located on the hills. I spent some time roaming around; mostly interacting with local people. I noted that many of the traders/shop-keepers hail from other parts of HP, and from Jammu & Kashmir, the northernmost Indian state. They stay there for only the season – May to October every year and before the routes get cut-off, they go back to their hometowns, away from this cold, arid and inhospitable terrain.

Spiti Valley’s calm made me sit and think…this was just another world, way different that where I came from. The outlook towards life has very little to do with luxury or comfort; organizing the basic essentials takes most of the waking times. No one appears to be in a tearing hurry, not even the cab-drivers. Shop-keepers smile at the customers as they enter; and they aren’t trained by any retail training managers. Help is easy to come by, no one offers a doubtful look to any curious onlooker. This is truly virgin & untouched…away from the mad rush of the world I came here from…

Five days have gone by…the riders have come a long way. Some of us experience falling, some of us encountered bike-breakdowns. Some are anxious & apprehensive, some appear keen to face the challenge. Some simply remain pensive, may be thinking as to what lay ahead…

Tomorrow, we would ride towards Keylong…and experience the much-awaited and rather-feared water-crossings. With these thoughts, most of us would go to bed tonight.

To be continued in the next blog…


‘Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Lodakh…’ was written in 8 parts. You can read all 8 parts of this travelog here.

Published during July-September 2012, this series of travelog – ‘Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Ladakh…’was recognized by Ghumakkar.com as their Featured Story of the Month, October 2012.

2 Responses

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  1. Awwwsomenesssss


    July 14, 2012 at 12:18 AM

  2. awesome one …

    congrtzzz jiju

    pranjul bansal

    July 14, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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