How to get Leh'd - A Non-Adventurer's Tale (Part One)

Photo of How to get Leh'd - A Non-Adventurer's Tale (Part One) 1/41 by Anand Menon

I'm pretty sure you're wondering why I called this "a Non-Adventurer's Tale". For people who have read my other blogs, you must be wondering if scuba-diving in the Andamans or river rafting in Kullu are not adventures. They are, of course. But going on a 3000 kilometers bike trip on a bike that you've never sat on and taking, what is considered, one of the toughest routes in the world, is something different altogether. And as for the "Part One" - I really wanted to fit everything into one post but then it wouldn't do justice to the places I visited. So, I'm keeping it to Two parts this time - one for the onward journey and one for the return.

A bike trip to Leh was certainly not on my list of "Things-to-do". Two reasons - one, I wasn't a biker and didn't have a bike (the last time I went for a 100km long ride was 4 years ago and that too on a rented, run-down CD-Dawn) and two, the adventure component was far beyond my threshold. However, here I was on my new-found adventure-seeking streak planning a trip to Leh-Ladakh from Delhi. It started at office with Darshan (my senior from college) who was thinking of doing this trip. He had found a group starting from Delhi on a 14-day tour. The itinerary was Delhi-Pathankot-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Pangong-Nubra-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi. I wasn't too keen on the Delhi bit as it would just lengthen the ride. But then starting and ending at Delhi would complete the entire experience and encompass all kinds of terrain and weather conditions. I enrolled along with Gaggi (batchmate from college and colleague at work) for the trip. Now came the part of the bike. This again was a giant leap for me as I've never ridden an Enfield and I wasn't sure I could handle the weight. And to maneuver it on the tricky slopes of Kashmir and Ladakh might actually be beyond me. But then the journey experience would be complete only on an Enfield. Also, how hard can it actually be? I believe driving/riding is like swimming. Once you get a sense of the road, you can cut through anything. I decided to go solo (no pillion) and booked an Electra TwinSpark 350cc from Delhi. It cost 1100 bucks per day (petrol would be extra).

Next came the challenge of the mind. Beating the doubts and fears. For this my friend from undergrad, NKD helped me out. He's done this tour a year ago and told me that the best way for this was to read. I kept reading more and more about the roads, how to prepare for the trip, what all to be ready to encounter. Some websites are really good (will mention them towards the end). As we got closer to the trip, Darshan had to push his plans due to something unavoidable. That was a big setback for me. Now I'd have to make it to Chandigarh alone where Gaggi would join the group. The recent earthquakes in Nepal didn't do well to give confidence to go ahead. Also, there was a doubt looming about the status of the Leh-Manali road due to heavy snowfall in the region. After a lot of thought and a much needed push from Gaggi and others (thanks for that, guys!), I decided to go for it.

Here's a list of the things you must carry when you're going for such an expedition: Bags, thermal wear, 5-6 T-shirts, jacket, windcheater, rain pants, gum boots, 4-5 pairs of socks, gloves (water proof), muffler, bungee cords and lots of plastic covers. There are many more things you can carry but the above are a must as the weather conditions you encounter can vary like crazy. The main purpose is to cut out air and water while riding. Ok then, I'll go right into the trip from here.

Day 1

Got up at 3am as the flight from Bangalore was at 6am. After around 7-8km, I remembered that I'd left my camera bag at home! Every single time! Even after all the check-lists, something had to be forgotten! Back I went and got the camera (I conveniently ignored the fact that it is considered inauspicious to come back home right after leaving for a trip). Good decision to turn back or else I'd have missed out on the best moments of the trip! We were put up at a hotel called Natraj Yes Please (that's actually the name of the hotel!) in Paharganj. Delhi was super hot - in fact there were pics in the newspapers that roads had melted in some places - and all this was after a cold and rainy evening at Bangalore the previous day. From there, I went along with some others in the group who had to rent out bikes. We picked up the bikes from a certain "Tony Motors" (pretty decent people apart from the fact that they ripped us off when we returned the bikes :P). I got a black Electra which I took out for a test drive - it went pretty smooth. When I was making my payments, I realized that the bike was actually assigned to someone else! I picked up my actual bike - a red Electra which wouldn't start.

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Many kicks and a new carburetor later, it was riding smooth. We returned to the hotel in the sweltering Delhi heat. We had a briefing session where we were told about some of the riding rules (which were not adhered to :P). I stocked up on glucose and biscuits for the trip and crashed for the night.

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The day started at 2:30am. I had all my stuff packed and loaded on to the bike. The bungee cords were amazing as they really held the luggage firm on to the carrier of the bike. Riding solo has its perks - you can tie your luggage on to the back seat and use it as a back-rest whenever you need.

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That trick helped me in many places! Thanks to Kalyan (our team leader) for the tip! It was fun riding through the roads of Delhi with no traffic at 4 in the morning. Our destination for the day was Pathankot - a distance of 500kms. It would be a good warm-up for the trip as the roads were straight and smooth and it would be good to get a feel of the bike. We had our first stop at Zhilmil Dhaba, around 140 kms from Delhi towards Ambala.

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The roads had been like a dream so far - we could average around 70 - 80kmph overtaking buses, trucks, cars and birds. We crossed Kurukshetra and Ambala. It was a good thing I wore a full sleeve shirt - I was getting buffeted by insects and little stones. The heat was picking up as we neared noon. We had lunch at McDonalds in Gobindgarh near Khanna.

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As we started again, there were dark clouds ahead. I pulled out my jacket just in caseit rained. Within seconds, I was riding right into a dust storm. The road couldn't be seen and vehicles were all going at over 80kmph. The dust storm was soon followed by heavy rain. Rain was falling down like pellets and at that speed it kinda hurt. I got drenched completely as we hadn't thought it would rain in this part, that too in the middle of the summer heat. The clouds cleared making way for the sun again. It was like having a huge hairdryer turned towards you - completely dry in a few minutes of riding. It was foiled by more rain and then cleared up by the sun. The skies played this cruel game two more times. Meanwhile, we passed Ludhiana and reached the outskirts of Jalandhar. I saw a Walmart wholesale store for the very first time. I also came across Lovely Professional University and suppressed a laugh (we used to make fun of the name in our pre-engineering days) - didn't look quite as lovely as the pics they used to publish. We regrouped at the Jalandhar bypass and took the road towards Amritsar and then to Pathankot. The road continued to be good. There were fields on both sides and trees lining the roads. It was a beautiful sight. The group increased speed as the roads were straight and traffic had decreased. We overtook a train at one point! There was some festival being celebrated in the villages there (a lot of "pind"s). The villagers stopped us and treated us to Sharbat.

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The hospitality felt amazing - these people were genuinely happy helping out and treating strange travelers on the road. I couldn't imagine any city where people would be even half as happy to help out others. As we passed through the villages, the first sight of the mountains came into view. We were nearing Pathankot and I realized that Punjab was indeed a very beautiful place. We reached our hotel in Pathankot by 5pm. It was an amazing ride - the most distance I've ever done in a single day!

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Day 3 started at 4:30am and we left Pathankot at 6:30am. There were two routes to Srinagar (our destination for the day) - one was via Udhampur by the national highway and the other was an offbeat road via the Mughal Road.

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As we were here for adventure, we decided to take the Mughal Road. That meant we had to ride through Jammu. Distance - 430kms. We reached Jammu by 9. Jammu is a small town with tiny roads - we got stuck in traffic for quite a bit. As we moved on, the condition of the roads worsened. We passed through places like Nowshera and Rajouri.

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The roads in these small towns were clogged with traffic and slush. There were streams flowing down the roads, and the road had just gravel and stones. It looked more like a trekking trail. It seemed like we'd never reach the starting point of the Mughal Road as we kept going on and on the bumpy path. The bike was constantly trying to challenge me as I climbed the slopes through the streams. At one point, it turned off and the rubber on the kick-start lever broke off. It took two people to start the bike as our shoes couldn't grip the wet lever. Once I got the bike started, I decided I wouldn't turn it off anywhere as long as I was alone. There were hairpin bends with mud and traffic coming downhill.

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We reached Poonch district. The scenery all around was beautiful and the roads were the worst.

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We were riding under tall trees as the roads wound through the dense forest. It could be a scene from a book or a movie. It would have been an amazing feeling if it was during the day - but daylight had started to fail. I wish I could click pics but the highest priority now was to reach the Mughal Road. We soon arrived at the starting point of the Mughal Road at a place called Buffliaz. The road looked good with green mountains and sheer cliffs on both sides. It looked dangerous and exciting at the same time. It started raining - it was very bad timing as we weren't geared up for it and the temperature was dropping rapidly. But we had to continue riding. The rain and cold got more intense as we got closer to the mountain pass. My hands were freezing and became numb - it was not possible to hold on to the clutch and brakes, which was not a good thing while riding on a road with heavy vehicles coming in the opposite direction and the cliffs on one side ready to swallow us. We saw snowy mountains right in front of us which explained the cold.

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We were forced to stop at a tent near a bridge as visibility became poor and the cold wouldn't let us continue. There was a huge danger of landslides as well. The tent was a small tea-shop and the guy inside welcomed all of us warmly and let us crash there. Almost 40 people were crammed inside one tent because we had no other choice. The rain turned into snowfall.

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But we were kept warm by the fire there and the guy kept serving us Kawa (an awesome Kashmiri tea with dry fruits), tea, boiled eggs and biscuits. The rain stopped at around 10pm and we stepped out to get accustomed to the cold.

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There was moon-light radiating off the snowy peak. It was a beautiful sight. We heard rumbling noises all around and saw landslides happening. The group decided to get back on the bikes and continue.

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This was a very risky decision as we would be riding in the middle of the night through the landslides, forests and militant-infested areas. We were not fully dressed for the cold which came as a disadvantage. We rode in a line as there were many parts where the roads was not to be seen - it had been completed engulfed by the landslides. We had ride over the stones, mud and slush. We reached the peak - Pir ki Galli. It was the most beautiful sight - the mountains on both sides were covered in a blanket of snow. Once again we missed out the real beauty as we were riding in the night. There was snow on the roads as well and the bike had to be held on strong to prevent skidding. Clutching on to dear life, we completed the pass and reached straighter roads. We passed through many beautiful villages in Kashmir but we were more concerned about reaching the destination and not getting stranded in the middle of the night in the militant infested region. I was desperately trying to stay within the view of other riders ensuring that I wasn't getting lost. We reached Shopian at 2 and waited for the last bikes to join us. As we waited, a police truck came into sight. It slowly rumbled towards us and the gun on top slowly rotated towards us. For a second I was petrified. To my relief, a torch pointed out and a policeman with a huge rifle stepped out of it. He told us to stick with the rest of the group and not lag behind. It was dangerous to be alone in these parts as you might be ambushed and even killed. We rode battling sleep and ensuring we were on the right road. Took a couple of wrong turns and returned to take the correct path. In the end, we reached Srinagar at 4am. It was a crazy night ride - rode for almost 20 hours to reach the destination. Definitely the most dangerous thing I've ever done in my life - and I survived.

This was supposed to be a rest day at Srinagar. But it wasn't to be. We had dinner at 5am and slept for some time. We learnt that some guys of our group had taken a wrong turn and got on to the main highway to Srinagar. So they'd reached at 7.30pm the previous evening. I really wanted to see the famous Mughal gardens and go boating on the Dal Lake.

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But first priority was shopping - we didn't want to go unprepared for the cold. So we went to the main market areas in Lal Chowk and Batmaloo. Srinagar is a beautiful city - especially the areas around the Dal Lake. And the lake itself is magnificent with mountains on all sides - some of them snow-capped. There are many gardens, beautiful houses all around the lake. One aspect that is a bit disturbing is that you see police and military vehicles everywhere. There is always the air of something serious about to happen. And the civilians have to bear the brunt for it. Our auto driver spoke proudly of his kin saying that the hospitality of Kashmiris is unparalleled and it cannot be seen in Hindustan. It was clear that this mentality was part of the upbringing here as he was quite convinced that Kashmir and India were two separate entities.

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By the time we returned from shopping, it was late and we couldn't go for the shikara ride or the gardens. We settled with the sunset on the Dal Lake - it was a magnificent sight with the mountains in the background. The next day was set to be a long one as we had to leave at 4am again.

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The destination for the day - Kargil. Distance - 203kms. The biggest obstacle on our path today was the Zozila Pass. We were repeatedly told that this would be one of the biggest challenges on the way and no matter what we did - we were not supposed to ride on the valley side of the road. Wow! As if the Mughal road weren't enough. Anyway, the road from Srinagar to Sonamarg was beautiful - the road kept curving up into the mountains. The weather was amazing - it was sunny with a little drizzle here and there. Armed with gum boots, 5 layers of clothes and water proof on top, neither wind nor water could pierce me today and I could totally enjoy the ride. We passed by the small cricket pitch which I've seen many times on those "20 things you must do..blah..blah.." articles on Facebook - we didn't stop as we had to reach the pass on time. We reached Sonamarg at 7:15am.

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The road to Zozila was a one-way and we discovered that we had missed our time slot. The next slot was at 12pm which meant a 4-hour wait! Luckily we were on 2-wheelers and we were told we could go up anyway.

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There were beautiful forests on the hills on both sides along with snow-capped peaks. I understood why we were warned so many times about the road. There was no road - it was mainly mud and stones with steep roads and sheer cliffs on one side. There were places with landslides and snow falling across the road - at some places there were walls of snow more than 20 feet high. The trick here is momentum - minimum use of brakes, clutch and no stopping. This becomes a challenge because of the heavy vehicles and traffic on the road. There were stretches with water flowing down the slope - the bottom had huge rocks and pebbles which we couldn't even see. The only option was to take the bike in and hold on tight - let the bike take the beating.

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Go with the flow (not down the cliff though). We somehow crossed the sludge and reached the top. The road here was tiled and slightly better. The top was completely covered in snow. Now I know how Pir-ki-Galli would have looked during the day.

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We stopped and did sledging in the snow. It was awesome fun sliding down the steep slopes on the sledge. Now began the descent which was as challenging as the ascent if not more. There was more water here with "Paagal-naalas" all over the place. There were snow walls all around. The snow cleared making way for beautiful green pastures. We reached the check-post to the Drass sector (this was the second coldest region on earth after Siberia).

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The road from here to the Kargil War Memorial was really really bad. An absolute pain to ride on. There were only stones and rubble on the slopes and bike kept bouncing along.

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We reached the Kargil War Memorial which was built on what was the battlefield of the 1999 war. The hills - Tololing and Tiger Hill looked intimidating - the slopes were steep and there was no cover. Anyone on top of the hill could obliterate anyone and anything. It's amazing to think of how the Indian army at the bottom actually toppled the Pakistani forces.

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There were Pakistani bunkers that were seized after the war. An army personnel explained to us how the war had unfolded and how India managed to win the war. We had maggi for lunch and left for Kargil. The road from here was pretty smooth all the way.

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It started raining but we managed to reach our campsite by around 6pm. It was a scenic camp with tents in the green valley and overlooking the mountains in the distance.I crashed into my bed and was knocked out for almost 10 hours!

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Day 6

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Destination - Leh. Distance - 220km. Today's journey would be a transition from the Muslim part of Kashmir to the Buddhist part. And sure enough, we came across our first Buddha temple at Mulbeck. There was a huge Buddha carved on a rock (with an uncanny resemblance to Shiva).

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The roads from here onwards were good as we passed by two more mountain passes - Namika La (12,198 Ft) and Fatula (13,479 FT) - the highest mountain pass on the Leh-Srinagar road.

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However, there was no snow on these passes. The mountains were dry and devoid of vegetation. The mountains had slipping stones which would litter the roads after every strong wind or rain.

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There are "slipping stones" Hazard signs everywhere on the route.

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We stopped for lunch at Lamayuru - famous for the very old monastery there.

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As we continued, we went along a river and the landscape suddenly changed to that of a desert.

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It resembled the scenes from the latest movie of Mad Max! Sadly we did not have any monster trucks. The roads here were really awesome!

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The landscape looked out of this world with mountains, sand and snow. We stopped at the Magnetic Hill where people had made their own dirt track on the hill.

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Some people in our group decided to give it a shot. Some completed it, some stretched harder than the others, some fell. I didn't really get the "magnetic" point of the hill - it was more of an optical illusion - the vehicle seemed to go uphill whereas it was actually going downhill!

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It started raining again and we decided to make our way to Leh.

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After riding through the dry desert-like roads, we soon had our first glimpse of Leh - the iconic monastery near the airport that we see so often on pics. The town as such looked pretty much like Manali but a lot smaller. I decided to explore the next day as it was a rest day.

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We had finally made it to Leh! A journey of 1400 kms. I was ecstatic - it was something I never dreamt I'd achieve - first time on a bullet and riding those crazy roads! But this was just the beginning. There was still a week more to go. So as I crash to sleep for the day, I bid adieu to you guys for now. I'll be back with the next part of the trip soon! Thanks for reading!

This blog was originally published on 'AMen'