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On life…and learning

Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Ladakh…the ride to Leh…

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Part 3 of the Motorcycle Diaries. Road to Ladakh…

Day 6: June 28, 2012; Kaza to Keylong: This was the day all riders were having nightmares about – we were about to experience the rather dreaded water-crossings en route. There were speculations doing the rounds whole of the rest-day – how easy or difficult the ride’s going to be! Our morning briefing and tips shared by the RE Team did little to prepare us – I could sense palpability amongst a lot many of us. Yet, with the passion of riding in our hearts, we started our ride for the day.

Next 60kms to Losar was a great ride – I witnessed superb panorama all around – Spiti Valley continued to offer mesmerizing views. I encountered a mix of good to ‘not-so-bad’ roads during this stretch and we took only 90minutes to cover this distance.

Losar is also a police check-post, where one needs to enter the details for self and the bike.

A quick, refreshing tea-break at Losar charged me enough to ride 19kms uphill towards the first Mountain Pass of the journey – the Kunzum La, which is a tenuous link of the two valleys of Lahaul & Spiti, at 4551m AMSL. This pass has much-revered Hindu Goddess Durga’s Temple located a little off-route, which all travellers encircle, offer prayers and only then ride ahead.

To me, Kumzum La Pass appeared safer and provided easy ascent and descent. The panorama as viewed from the top was breathtaking. The lofty Shigri Peak can be seen right in front in all its grandeur.

Nature enthusiasts may note that the famous Chandra Taal (meaning the Lake of the Moon) is located before this Pass. From the town of Battal, a 6km motorable road takes you to the lake, which is situated at a height of 4300m AMSL. Though we didn’t go to this lake, I am told about it’s stunning beauty and that its deep blue-water is the source of the Chandra river.

From Kunzum La, I descended the Pass and arrived at the Chandra Dhaba, our scheduled halt for lunch. Hungry us! See our meal-plate and you’d understand what was our sumptuous lunch for the day!

Here, we met travellers coming from the opposite direction, who told us the water crossings were fairly bad this time – and that there were several of them one after another! Shucks!

After a 90-minute break or so, we resumed our journey.

Well, what we encountered hereafter made me opine – there is nothing that is truly waterproof while riding a bike on this terrain! Gumboots, rain-shoe-covers, poly-covers, expensive riding boots – all failed rather miserably from preventing the gushing water to seep in and soak us. It seemed the river changed its course and started flowing on what I call ‘no-roads’ itself! Some of us rode through this ordeal, some fell down and some needed support to pull the bikes out! See for yourself…

Water-crossings were aplenty – and as more and more came our way, I turned bolder, as if I decided to not let them scare me. Rode I on!

For the more vivid experience, do watch the videos on ‘youtube’ posted by the Royal Enfield Media and other fellow riders. One of them can be accessed at:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ri6w8YzAINM

Gradually, we crossed all of them, and reached the town of Koksar, which is the police check-post. This is the point from where a route goes towards Rohtang Pass and Manali. We rode on after a brief stoppage of 30-minutes here; post completion of police formalities and feeding our tired bodies once again – the water-crossing had taken their toll! See my drenched shoes!

From here on, the road towards Keylong was both good and wherever they weren’t in the 43km stretch, we didn’t mind – the worst of the day was long over!

Riding a total of 180kms from Kaza, we reached Tandi. It is a small village, located 7kms before the town of Keylong. This is where the river Bhaga meets the river Chandra to become the Chandra-Bhaga/Chenab.

The adjoining signage would tell you the significance of this town to all road-travellers to Leh – it has the last petrol pump before Leh, which is still around 365 km away. However, I noted later that the next petrol station is located at Karu, which is 40kms before Leh; making the total distance without a petrol pump to 325kms. So, this is your last chance to fill your tank. You won’t miss it; there’s nothing else around and the sign is big enough. As they say, if signboards were celebrities, this one would have been their superstar for sure!

Here, the RE team came to our rescue. Depending on the mileage our respective bikes were giving, they purchased and stored spare petrol – 3 to 5 litres per bike. Typically, a 500CC RE needs about 3l and a 350CC needs approximately 4l to make it to Karu.

Keylong is the administrative headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti and is an oasis of green fields, on the banks of Bhaga River. It is located at an altitude of 3080m AMSL. After a long-hour’s wait at the Tandi pump, we rode towards Hotel Dekyid located in the town of Keylong. It had turned dark by this time and we rode carefully on the bad-roads, continually asking the locals about the address of the hotel. I reached the hotel at about 8:15pm. It was a neat and clean place, a RE regular for years – the several years’ Odyssey stickers were the testimonial of this fact!

A hot shower can do wonders to your tired back! That done, I ate a light dinner and went of to sleep by 11pm.

Day 7: June 29, 2012; Keylong to Sarchu: As the ride was of only 130kms, the riders thought it would be an easy day. I knew it wasn’t going to be so – we were to cross world’s third highest pass today – Bara-lacha La and then ride into the Sarchu Valley.

Our first halt of the day was Darcha, which is a small village located about 32kms from Keylong. We crossed the scenic town of Jispa en route, where the greenery was highly captivating. Good roads with few bad patches took us about an hour to reach Darcha. All passing vehicles must stop at Darcha’s police checkpoint for checks. We left Darcha soon after and started the ascent towards loopy roads that led us to Bara-lacha La in another 90minutes or so.

Situated at 4890m AMSL, Bara-lacha La is about 40kms from Darcha. The name means ‘pass with crossroads on summit’ (roads from Ladakh, Spiti and Lahaul join at the top). This high mountain pass in the Zanskar range connects the Lahaul district in HP to Ladakh in J&K.

Bara-lacha La was all clad in snow. Luckily, the roads were devoid of any snow, making it easy of us riders to sail through. You’d notice that unlike other key milestones, I haven’t posted any image of a plaque reading Bara-lacha La – actually, I could’nt take any – there was a huge jam ahead, as we climbed up the Pass. I saw an oil-tanker overturned and fallen off the road, taking the signage down with it! Thankfully, the truck hadn’t taken the plunge into the gorge. It appeared to be a very recent accident – the driver of the truck was safely back on road and was assessing the damages done. The Border Roads Organization that manages these roads was very quick to respond; they had already arrived with a crane and were working out a rescue plan.

Advantage Biker! We quickly made our way through the mounting traffic and descended to the famous Bharatpur – our lunch halt of the day. This place is something – all full of colourful dhabas!

The images would tell you how we sank into the cozy mattresses and treated ourselves to food – maggi, eggs, et al! All through our journey, Dhabas like these acted as saviours for us riders – warm and hospitable locals, trying their best to serve us, without any intention to overcharge for anything they sell!

Our break at Bharatput was a long and tiring one – 3.5hours; the support vehicles were stuck in the jam at Bara-lacha La! Waited and waited, we all felt drowsy and lethargic! It was only at 3:30pm that the support vehicles arrived and we resumed our ride towards Sarchu.

45minutes later, we entered the Sarchu valley. Sarchu, also called Sir Bhum Chun, is a tented camp town located on the boundary between states of HP and J&K. As we rode into this beautiful valley, rows of tents could be seen one after the other. This was our overnight halt – first night in tents. Since the journey along the Leh highway is at high altitude and variable road conditions normally takes two days, the travellers and tourists use this spot as an overnight stop.

No sooner the sun went down, the weather turned dramatically colder, and the howling winds started to threaten to blow my tent away. Within a span of only an hour, we experienced freezing cold. The riders quickly queued up to refill their tanks from the stored petrol. Remember RE team stored additional petrol at Tandi?

I quickly ate my dinner – food was pathetic! However, it is important to have a filled stomach, so I ate somehow. Immediately thereafter, I tucked myself inside the quilt and an additional blanket on top of it! It was so cold that I slept with my warm-inners on!

Sarchu is a place where you can first experience acute mountain sickness and that could be dangerous. Thus, our doctor asked us to set an alarm for midnight, when we would get up and check upon the health of our roommate. Once that done, I slept peacefully.

Day 8: June 30, 2012; Sarchu to Leh: Slept peacefully last night, only to wake up to a freezing morning at 6am and to find there wasn’t any water in the tap – it was frozen in the pipes! I simply brushed my teeth using mineral water, washed my face and geared up. Soon after, cozy sunrays made it confortable to bear the morning chill.

During the briefing, I could notice considerable excitement. After all, this was the day for which we all were waiting eagerly – today we would finally ride into Leh! Another reason the anticipation was higher than usual was the fact that we would cross three famous passes today – Nakee La, Lachulung La and the second highest pass of the world – Taglang La! We would also cross Morey Plains today – the cold desert at 4000m AMSL!

Our ride for the day was about 255kms. With comforting sun over our heads, we started at 8am. Our camp was located about 7kms before Sarchu and as we rode ahead, I could not help but get absorbed in the nature’s abundance – the sky was never this clear over my heads and the view never this captivating. The view of rock-formations around River Tsarap were unbelievable. However, as the day ahead was going to be long, I enjoyed the panorama but I didn’t stop much and rode continuously towards the famous Gata Loops. We crossed Sarchu’s police check post; Leh was 250kms from here. After this, we entered the boundary of the J&K state.

The flat terrain and straight roads near Sarchu did not last long. After crossing River Tsarap soon after Sarchu, the road starts ascending.

As I scaled the good roads, I saw two interestingly named bridges – Brandy Bridge and Whisky Bridge! Wonder why they were named so!

Then came the Gata Loops! These are 21 hairpin bends that will take you from 4190m to 4630m AMSL. You’d hit Gata Loops after 25kms from Sarchu tents. These bends took me up by more than 1500 feet in less than an hour’s time. The views from Gata Loops were too good. Clouds and the sundays were playing magic over the rocky mountains!

However, here I was reminded of the caution our group-leader Santhosh Vijay gave at Kaza about the oil-canters and their dangerous habit of taking shortcuts at these loops. Evidently, these trucks ply between Ambala to Tandi and Leh ferrying petrol/diesel and the drivers get paid about Rs.35K for a return journey – high incentive for a trucker, leading to hazardous driving habits! Watch out for them here!

At the top of the Gata loops is Nakee La, located at an altitude 4740m AMSL, which for some reason is not as famous as other Passes on this route. The terrain is very dry after Nakeela with no streams or rivers en route. The ride ahead was monotonous as the road descends into a dry valley and quickly climbs up towards the next pass – Lachulung La, which is located at an altitude of 5059m AMSL.

Hereafter, the road becomes serpentine and moves down through a narrow canyon – this was all very picturesque! Sadly, I didn’t stop and take any pictures – I simply enjoyed the ride. As the road descents to Pang, life was infused into the scenery from the clear flow of a stream – Kangla Jal. It soon widens to appear like a river, flowing next to the army camp of Pang, at an altitude 4600m AMSL. Just across the road is an army camp where a sign proudly proclaims it as the ‘world’s highest transit camp’.

Pang was about 80kms from Sarchu; and was our first halt of the day. We met Dorma Aunty – the sweet lady who runs the Shanti Dhaba. Our RE teammate Aakash told us stories about her kind behavior and good food from his earlier experiences. After filling myself with yummy omelets and rotis, we moved ahead towards Morey Plains. The plain area started after covering around 4 km uphill road from Pang. The road is mostly on the plain for around 30–35 km, before it again starts to rise to Tanglang La.

Voila! The roads that led to Morey Plains were superb! I relished riding at 80kmph after days and days of bad roads! Ride’s going be superb now, so I thought.

How grossly mistaken I was!

After 20kms of very good patch, we hit the under-construction roads. Bad, very bad they were! It was as if I was riding perennially over speed-breakers! The area appeared uninhabitable and has no construction at all, and also no population, save the migrant construction workers. Its was an extremely tiring and tedious ride; we also were forced from time to time to off-road into sand and ride wherever the roads were blocked for construction – BRO is constructing a two-lane road here. I always find riding in sand really painful and painful it was even this time. As we ascended, the road became worse – it is all under construction. Heavy amount of gravel on the road made the ride very tiring and I was in fact forced to stop several times before reaching Taglang La – the second highest motorable pass of the world. This was the worst patch to ride till now.

Despite a mild headache (one shouldn’t wait at high Passes in such case), I rested at the Pass for a good 15minutes. I needed it, badly!

After the Tanglang-La descent, we reached our last stop of the day – Rumtse village, which is located at 14000ft AMSL. A brief halt here helped me relax with a cup of lemon tea and a chitchat with BRO’s road-workers, who hailed from Jharkhand. These workers, I observed, were painstakingly constructing the road all through our journey. Far from there homes, they were engaged in hard labour at the most inhospitable terrains and in harshest of weather! Some toughness this act merits.

Leh is about 80kms from Rumste. The roads hereafter were not-so-bad and gradually turned good as we entered Karu, a town having the first petrol pump after Tandi. All through this stretch, small villages, green fields and kids saying ‘JULLEY!’ – a greeting in the Ladakhi language –  added life to the relatively straight road to Leh. We crossed Upshi and Shey Palace en route to enter Leh at about 7pm.

Leh – here I come!! What an amazing feeling it was! No words can do justice to elation that I felt when this picture was being clicked.

I checked in at Hotel Namgyal Palace on the Fort Road. A leisurely hot-water shower took away a lot of pain of the tiring day. Good food and nicely done room soon made me forget all the miseries of the Sarchu tents!

The next day was to be the rest day – I was in Leh and there was so much to see around. And then, we were to drive to Khardung La – world’s highest motorable road! With these thoughts, I dozed off…

To be continued in the next blog…

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‘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.

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2 Responses

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  1. very well written,Amazing pictures speaking the truth too…..looks like pictures of another world.Thanks for sharing .

    Mohit Gujral

    July 15, 2012 at 2:25 AM

  2. Sir, great trip ,well expressed with awesome pics ,thanks for sharing

    Ankit

    July 16, 2012 at 7:59 PM


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