Have you ever come across a situation in life where something that you thought you probably wouldn’t ever even try to attempt, becomes an achievement; that too without you believing in the fact that you are actually doing it and probably have had to pinch the person next to you more than once (I never pinch myself even in a dream) !! A situation where your brain screams out “WTF” more than once i.e. (What the Fafda, man!!, it’s not cool to use ** for expletives anymore”) and tries various fears to pull you out of doing the activity; more like a “Bheja Sue” kind of a feeling.
If you think the text that you are reading borders on insanity or to be frank is actually insane; well that’s the feeling you will get when you go for “Srinagar to Chandigarh Bike Ride via Leh on a Royal Enfield 500”
Frankly speaking I was never a very big fan of a Royal Enfield in my teens, being more of a sports bike person myself. The situation changed when I test drove a Classic 500 and as they say the rest is history. Having bought a Desert Storm 500 a couple of years ago, I managed to chalk out a few rides in and around Mumbai, doing the usual Pune, Nasik and Mahabaleshwar stretches. Felt like a man, yeah! Trust me I couldn’t have been more wrong. These rides are like playing “lagori” with a five year old when you compare it to the “baap of all rides” that’s the Leh Ladakh trip for you. That in comparison is like playing in an England Australia Rugby final and trust me, you will get hurt! That’s why they say hindsight intelligence is like common sense, everybody has it after the act. Nobody warned me before I signed up for the ride that it will be as great an experience as one can ever have in their lives, unless they have slept with Beyonce, not that I have but people have a habit of creating analogies...
So on one fine Wednesday morn when I was twiddling my thumbs in office, I came upon a YouTube video of two junk heads by the name of Costa Brothers who have done some of the wildest things you can imagine on a bike while riding on the Leh Ladakh trip. And I thought to myself, if my current actions are not going to get me any closer to the “Best employee” award, I might as well do something worthwhile, isn’t it, what the fafda man! I dug through my drawer attempting to find a card that I had got from a group called “Thunderbikes India”. I picked up the receiver and kept it down again!, that’s the new word for 4 times if you didn’t know already. Was I ready for this? I thought I would give it a shot and called these guys up to get all the details. Over the next few weeks the word spread like wildfire and everyone started asking me if I was going to go. I felt like I had conferenced the whole floor and my phone was on speaker when I made the call. I put up a board outside my cubicle “Work in progress. Inconvenience due to lack of response is regretted” After a lot of deliberation and getting precariously close to a divorce, I decided to sign up for the ride. I also managed to convince a friend and a fellow biker to tag along. I still remember the date when I took the second most unplanned and adventurous decision of my life , first one was to get married. Don’t ask!
Day 1. It all started on Aug 29th, when we took the flight down to Srinagar and from then on Thunderbikes had a well chalked out plan with enough rest days and breaks in the itenary to ensure that it’s an enjoyable experience. The riders like me who were keen riding their own bulls, their bikes were also shipped to Srinagar after careful packaging and were delivered by road via NITCO packers and movers.
TIP: If you are doing this for the first time, please done do this on your own! You will need help especially if you face a breakdown or if you fall ill. Make sure that you ride with a bike group which has the right credentials and people to help you sail through. Be adventurous but don’t be reckless.
The first day at Srinagar was a “collect the flock” day where Thunderbikes collected the riders who trickled into Srinagar and for the riders to collect their bikes from the Nitco yard. It was time to meet Maverick (my Desert Storm 500) after 3 weeks. We celebrated with drinks, I had Mountain dew and he had a shot of engine oil. Sureshbhau, who was the Enfield expert mechanic with Thunderbikes helped us put the bikes in order again, correcting small niggles in the armory caused by the transit. We felt good that Suresh was going to be with us during the entire ride. After picking up the bikes, we headed to the houseboats to crash for the night. As they say, when in Srinagar, do as the non-vegetarians do!! For dinner, we headed down to the famous Mughal Darbar Restaurant for their “Vazhwan”. Trust me again, this is like a meat orgy. If you think you have had a huge amount of meat in one meal ever in your lives, multiply that by five, that’s a Vazhwan for you. The best part of the dinner was that we got to “meat” the entire group of riders and pillions. Did I tell you that there was a lot of meat? We were fortunate, as we came to know during the trip, to have a great bunch of guys and especially good riders with whom we were going to have a whale of a time in the next coming days.
Day 2. Finally on Aug 30th, the day dawned. We were supposed to ride from Srinagar to Leh to Manali and then onto Chandigarh (phew), a distance of more than 2000 kilometers in a span of 9-10 days. The good part was that we had 2 SUV (Mahindra Xylos) as a lead and backup vehicles who were going to be with us for the entire journey. Trust me such an arrangement helps a lot especially when you riding on precarious stretches on bad roads facing inhospitable climatic conditions. We rode from Srinagar to Kargil on day one, going via the picturesque Sonmarg onto Dras. Sonmarg tells you why Kashmir is called the Switzerland of India.
What happens when you are in an England Australia Rugby final? You get punched in the face for starters! We were hit by the Zojila pass or the “Godzilla” pass as we rechristened it later. A stretch full of rocks, dust and trucks to contend with on your way to Dras. The Kargil War Memorial, DRAS in one place, you mustn’t miss. The sight of the TOLOLING peaks right in front of you and hearing the tales of valor of our troops from the extremely courteous soldiers posted there, gives you goose bumps. Salute to the heroes!! Kudos to BRO (Border Roads Organization) to maintain such fantastic roads even in the wilderness. The road from DRAS to Kargil is a treat for bikers; you won’t find a comparable road even in the cities. The stay in Kargil was a small yet well-appointed hotel. It’s very important to have good accommodation at the end of the day after an exhausting ride. Trust me if you are harboring thoughts akin to living in the wild west with only your gun and your horse, chances are that you won’t make it through the entire trip without a break down. And I mean you, not your bike.
TIP: A good rest and a good dinner are a must. If you stay at the right places, you will get both even on this ride.
Day 3. The next day we started for LEH. You could immediately see the locales changing with a lot of dry, desert like scenes coming through along with prayer flags and small monasteries. Crossing Namikala pass @ 12198 ft, we stopped at the Lamayuru monastery on the way to Leh. Maverick found this ride to be much simpler as compared to day one and heaved a sigh of relief through 3 consecutive misfires. Do try the egg thupka and the tuna fried rice at the LAMAYURU canteen, great food to have after a long ride. With our bikes adorning the prayer flags from the Monastery as a medal to have participated in this ride, we set of towards the coveted destination i.e. LEH. There are some fantastic roads on this stretch and you will enjoy your ride thoroughly. On the way, do stop at the point where Zanskar and Indus merge. It’s a great photo opp. While entering LEH, we marked the spots we planned to visit the next day i.e. Thiksey & Hemis Monasteries, Hall of Fame and Gurudwara Patthar Sahib. At the end of the day, we reached the highlight of the entire trip, the most comfortable, well-appointed and customer friendly hotel of the trip i.e. Hotel Kidar, Leh. We were bowled over by the hospitality and prompt service extended to us over the 2-3 days that we stayed there. Great job guys!!
The rest day was spent at leisure visiting the highlights mentioned above and lounging about in KIDAR enjoying their hospitality. The Hall of Fame is a must visit place. Apart from viewing the pics do ensure that you attend the presentations that the army does for giving out the details of the Kargil war (please do not record them, it’s not allowed). The LEH market is a vibrant place with a lot of eateries and souvenir shops. I picked up a lot of prayer flags, Ts and a singing bowl from the Tibetan shops. Don’t forget a bargain a lot! The Gezzmo (German bakery) for its pastries and Dreamland (Huge red board) for its Chinese are worth a visit.
Day 4. We set out to go to the NUBRA Valley taking on the mighty Khardungla pass, 18380 ft on the way there. The destination was Diskit where we were going to stop for the night. Khardungla has a unique trait apart from being the highest motorable pass in the world. It’s has a “never ending” feeling; just goes on and on and on till its beats you into submission. Most of the riders were half dead by the time we got to the top. It’s so relentless that by the time you get there you are more concerned about the “absent bottom” feeling than the exhilaration of reaching the top of the motorable world. However the feeling is exemplary! You just can beat the experience of eating a piping hot maggi along with coffee from the military canteen on top. Getting too excited and starting some wild dances / exercises / shouting sprees should be avoided. People tend to make a big scene as if they have conquered Everest. Totally low class!! You can only stop for 20-30 minutes (so we did it twice), please make the most of it in a sane manner. On the way down to Diskit, we ran into a narrow road where we had a rock face on one side and a river on the other with a 16 wheeler military truck that had developed some snag. The whole group helped the soldiers make way for the vehicles by pushing the truck to the side. Not every day do you get to push a military armored vehicle, doodh Ka doodh aur pani ka pani ho jata hai!! After a heavy duty day, we crashed at a hotel in Diskit, again very comfortable and having good food.
TIP: There is lack of oxygen and you may feel the effects of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Do take a Diamox tablet after breakfast on the day you attempt Khardungla. There is no network past LEH except BSNL (that too in patches). Please carry a BSNL sim in case you need to stay connected. Else you need to wait till you get to a STD booth. Yes they still work in those areas.
Day 5. After a hot breakfast and loads of tea, we set off from Diskit towards Turtuk, which is small village close to the border with Pakistan. The roads in these regions vary from good to bad to very bad to no roads so be prepared for the worst especially in the passes. The entire ride is a true test of all your riding experience and skills along with your ability to endure long spells in blow hot blow cold climate on such roads. Welcome to party, brah!!
BRO is given a daunting task of maintaining the roads in these regions; these guys really work hard to make that happen despite the odd weather and rocky terrain. Hats off to BRO! Turtuk gives you a different experience with the local lifestyle being very close to the Pakistani culture. We stopped at Ashoor restaurant where the owner Ibrahim was kind enough to take us across the village and give us a lesson in history till the lunch was served.
The unique thing about Turtuk is that there are clear water streams flowing in front of majority of the homes. The water is clearer and more refreshing than any of the mineral water brands in town. The locals use the water smartly and don’t dip utensils and clothes in the stream. They deploy canisters which are connected to taps in the houses via pipes, the water is brought into the house untouched and the waste water flows down via PVC pipes without contaminating the surroundings. We really need to learn from these guys!!
If you have a good DSLR with a 300mm lens, you can see white Indian and Pakistani army tents perched on the mountain tops, so high that you can mistake them for ice as they are so closely clustered. On the way back to Diskit, we visited Hunder that has a double hump camel ride site.
TIP: There is heavy army presence in the area so make sure you don’t do anything stupid. Be kind to the locals. They are well versed with urban etiquettes so get off you high horse and be rooted. Carry a good DSLR camera. Choose a good spot and fill empty bottles with the stream water, trust me you wouldn’t drink “Bisleri ka pani” ever again. Most travelers would advise against drinking water from open sources but what the hell, be a nomad, it’s an experience you must have. This holds true for anywhere in the LEH region.
Day 6. We set off from Diskit again towards LEH, this time we crossed Khardungla again but this time it was swift as we were prepared. We returned to our haven that was KIDAR and rested for the day. It was a much needed respite in the long riding days till now. We had to get ready for our ride the next day to Pangong Lake after taking on the mighty Changla pass, 17688 ft. Everyone was apprehensive about Changla as it is supposed to be the coldest pass in the region.
Day 7. Changla started immediately after Karu and rose like an escalator. It is again a relentless assault and being the coldest pass in the region, doesn’t help. You reach a stage where you don’t feel your fingers at all despite wearing 2 sets of hand gloves. There is a Changla Baba Mandir at the top which you must visit, and make 3 rounds with your bike around the monument in the centre of the road. Pradakshina on bikes.
We climbed down from Changla to hit Tangtse, which has a huge army base. It will help if you take a break here for tea and snacks as Pangong is a fair distance away from this point. We crossed TangTse and reached Pangong in the afternoon for lunch. Pangong is a sight for sore eyes if you reach at the perfect time and with clear skies, which we did. We were blessed to see a vast expanse of blue in front of us prompting us to take wide array of pics. We stayed at the tent campus. It was close to the end of the season there so luxuries like hot water etc. were hard to come by, in addition to the cold, windy climate. Day 8 was going to be the hardest day of our ride as we were expected to cover close to 270KM of “road” from Pangong to Karu to PANG on the way to Manali. We had a camp fire to beat the cold and dozed off for the night.
TIP: Pangong is an ecologically sensitive zone so please don’t plonk your bikes and cars in the water for pics. Its salt water and damn cold so don’t aim to have a bath or indulge in water sports. Be prepared for some nomadic living in these areas and concentrate on your food / sleep.
Day 8. The day started with us facing a daunting task of crossing Changla again and then taking the turn off from Karu to head towards PANG after crossing Tanglangla pass , 17790 ft , Barlachala pass and More Plains which we were told was the most remote of the regions that we would hit during the ride. It turned out to be more difficult than we could imagine. The road from Karu to the start of Tanglangla was probably the worst that we had encountered in the ride till date. It was followed by the best road in the entire ride, descent from Tanglangla till More plains. The vast expanse of More Plains is something that you must capture in the ride. When we reached PANG towards the end of the day, we saw what remote means. It was a small place in the middle of nowhere with just one small army base with a helipad and a 4 tent complex. The lady who ran the tents with her family, had one of them converted into a kitchen with the other 3 used for stragglers like us. They still managed to rustle up a good meal for us. This was the first time we slept in the riding gear and woke up the next day to get on to our bikes as is listening to ghost stories of an local guy eating 3 army soldiers in sheer desperation. What an experience!
Day 9. Pang to Jispa. Probably the day that we hated riding the most. Early in the morning when the bikes wouldn’t start due to the cold, we were forced to kick and kick again till they managed to chug back to life. We somehow waded through streams and passes till we saw glimpses of Himachal. The increasing greenery was telling us that HP was getting near and we were liking it. Jispa was heaven given the travails of the last few days. We had a great view of the snowcapped mountains, tents surrounded by green valley with the river gushing close by. “Jispa Journeys” was the group of tents that we had arrived at and they were good! Nanakbhai who was the caretaker there informed us that it’s going to be cold the next morning, so on came the camp fire, a few swigs of brandy and a good night’s sleep, probably the soundest that I had in the entire ride.
TIP: Ensure that you carry an extra canister of fuel for this leg of the journey. From Leh to Manali you wouldn’t find a lot of petrol pumps to tank up especially till Jispa, Keylong.
Day 10. Destination Manali. With a good breakfast and an extra load of fuel, we set off from Jispa to Manali. It was probably the coldest start till date with sub zero temperatures to contend with; we had a layer of snow on the bike seats!! Rohtang pass is one that you have to cross in this section. Personally I felt it was overrated and the other passes till this point were way more difficult and picturesque to boot. The road down from Rohtang to Manali is a treat for bikers, with bends and curves that make you ride to the best of your abilities. In addition the scenery that you witness in that leg is probably some of the best in the entire ride. The Mall road market in Manali and the Hadimba temple are two spots that one can visit to get a change from all the biking.
Day 11. Manali to Chandigarh. The longest ride in the entire journey, close to 300 KM was to Chandigarh. The route is extremely scenic and one should take pictures all along the way. After the long ride, we reached sector 26, Transport nagar where we had to submit the bikes for transfer back to Mumbai. The day ended with a sinking feeling that there was no more riding awaiting us the next day. The trip was over!, the “Bheja sue” feeling all over again! DAMN!!
This truly is an experience of a lifetime. No matter how many pictures, Go PRO videos you see, you will never be able to relate to the weather, the excitement, the pain, the camaraderie, the speed, the thump, the terrain, the fervor, the scenery, the people, the road, your bike and you! It’s a journey where you end up discovering yourselves, your endurance and your riding skills. All you need is a good bike, a good helmet, a riding jacket, elbow and knee gaurds, 2-3 bunjee cords, rain wear, riding boots (gum boots), great group of riders and a strong riding spirit! Rest all as they say are bells and whistles.
How I got Leh’d is the cliché that is making the rounds these days. “Getting Leh’d for 10 days at a stretch” is my version of the experience!!
Thunderbikes Team: Amazing RIDERS :
Kundan (DON) Milind (Ant Man) Rohit (Batla Shahrukh) Priyank (Girachand) Ankush and Ashwini (Layer Mulay)
Madhav (Local Boy Maddy) Vishwadeep (Robocop) Karan (Selfie Senapati) Vasant (Roadroller) Sheetal and Yashuba (Fevicol Jaiswal)
Suresh Bhau (Yeh kis line aa gaye!) Roshan (Rickshawalla) Jony (Quantum Majnu) Naresh (Dark Hulk) Mukund (Director Chacha)