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

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Photo of How to get Leh'd - A Non-Adventurer's Tale (Part Two) 1/29 by Anand Menon

The day began at 8am - there were no wake up calls for the day as it was dedicated to local sight-seeing. Some people opted to go for river rafting. Along with some others, I decided to hire a cab and explore Leh. After breakfast, we set out for sightseeing. Most of the places of interest in Leh are on the Manali road.

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Our first stop was Hemis Monastery – the oldest monastery in Ladakh. The temple and monastery are hidden behind mountains hiding them from the view of the world. It was hidden in a way similar to the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra – you could find it only if you wanted to. There are two temple halls – one where tourists could click pics and one where you couldn’t. The reason is that the second one has monks offering their prayers. The room was completely dark except for a few spots of sunlight peeping in through the few blocks of glass placed on the roof. You get transported to a different world inside – there was a loud and deep humming sound due to the chanting of the monks.

The most prominent person in the room is the head priest who sits near the photo of the Dalai Lama (it isn’t the current Dalai Lama). The chant grows louder all around you. When you look around trying to find the source of the sound, you see heads popping out of the dark occasionally- monks of all ages sit in every corner and chant along with the head priest. It is eerie at times. Not really sure of what to do, I stood in line along with some people who looked like visitors. We walked up to the Dalai Lama’s photo and bowed down in prayer. We did the same in front of the Buddha’s statue as well. The monks read the prayers off long horizontal pieces of paper. Once they finished a prayer, they would drink out of their bowls.

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Photo of How to get Leh'd - A Non-Adventurer's Tale (Part Two) 4/29 by Anand Menon

Within no time, a couple of monks would appear with a huge bucket of the same drink and refill the bowls – it looked like a sludgy mix of noodles and soup and porridge – piping hot! The monks would put it under their desks and continue with the next prayer. You could see the life of a monk in that very room – how their lives were totally dedicated to worship and prayer – right from the really small kids to the old men who hardly had teeth left in their mouths. As I headed outside the prayer room, there was a common kitchen where they were serving the same mixture that the monks were having – it was some sort of thukpa (noodle soup). I had one small sip – totally burned by mouth! There was a golden statue of Buddha at the top of a huge rock near the monastery – this was the only point visible from a distance. A few of us decided to scale the rock – it was a tedious task!

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It’s astonishing how helpless you can get at this altitude – you get exhausted after climbing just three steps! Not that the steps are steep or anything – three “normal” steps! The thin air really crushes the lungs at the slightest of effort.

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We managed to reach the top and “earned” the magnificent view of the mountains – we could see it raining and snowing in the nearby mountains. We had an early lunch of noodles and momos and left for our next stop – Thiksey monastery. As we drove there, it started drizzling. The weather of Ladakh is the craziest I’ve ever seen! It changes every 15 minutes! You can see it raining in the hill right next you while you may be basking in strong sunshine. It gets really random at times. We spent more time at the Thiksey souvenir shop than at the monastery.

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The next stop was at a place called Shey – the Druk Padma Karpo School (more famous as Rancho’s school from 3 Idiots). It was a beautiful school – completely self-sustained in terms of power, constructed out of donations, meant for teaching kids in Ladakh who couldn’t afford education. We posed for some photos and clicked some more. The next stop was Stok Palace. We were exhausted by the time we reached there and didn’t go all the way inside the Palace and museum.

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Luckily we got an amazing view of the valley complete with a beautiful rainbow! The clouds gave an amazing view of the mountains with different shades of brown all around with white snow on top. Our last stop for the day was Shanti Stupa in Leh.

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The stupa is at a height and can be spotted from most places in Leh. We finished the day with some souvenir shopping at the market

This was one of the days I was looking forward to the most. Destination - Pangong Tso. Distance - 225kms. We had a damp start as we discovered on the way that the Changla mountain pass (which we had to cross) was covered in snow. They said bikes couldn't get through. We also heard that the Khardungla pass (which was also part of the itinerary) was closed to traffic because of excessive snowfall. We started pondering whether we should go to Tso Moriri (another lake) instead. But luck was on our side and the weather cleared - we were good to go over the Changla. The road was quite bad especially because of the snow.

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We reached the mighty Changla peak and I saw snowfall for the first time in my life! There was fresh snow everywhere – it was as soft as….as…I don’t know….the softest thing you can think of! It was so unreal – but I had to contain my excitement as the air here was very thin – after all, it was the third highest motorable road in the world! We moved on towards our destination.

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The landscape changed drastically. There was no vegetation on the mountains anymore. It was completely like a desert – oh wait, it looked like a river bed. The mountains had marks of water flowing down them at some point of time. The road just kept going on and on through this desolate yet amazing landscape.

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As we neared Pangong, we saw signs of green and wild animals – marmots popping their heads out of their holes, wild horses and mountain goats. One of the goats charged towards us as we were clicking pics of the marmot. We thought we were in for an attack. But surprisingly the goat stood right in front of us and looked at our faces with an open mouth. It looked as if the goat were smiling at us in a mischievous way. I guess they are used to tourists feeding them. We didn’t feed it though – not a good idea to mess around with the biodiversity of this place. The landscape then changed to black sand – it was spilling all over the road as well. It looked totally out of this world – as if something was out of place.

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After a few more turns, I saw the first glimpse of blue – the lake! As we got closer, it got even more amazing. There were so many different shades of blue in the water as it reflected the clear sky above. The sunlight danced around the water and played with the shades. The lake went on and on – I couldn’t even think of spotting the end of the lake – it was enormous! And this was hardly one-fourth of the lake – the rest was in China.

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The blue water, brown mountains and snow-capped peaks made for a magnificent sight. The lake was so huge that it had beaches all around and the wind was so strong that it made waves on the water. It was completely out of this world.

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We went down to the point where the last scene of 3 Idiots was shot – a thin strip of sand extending into the lake. After a lot of photos, we reached our tents and crashed for the day. I had plans of clicking the night sky but the cold was too biting and I couldn’t even imagine getting out of the quilt!

Day 9

This day was the return journey. Oh and I forgot to add - some people plan to visit Pangong and return the same day. One piece of advice - please avoid that. Two reasons - one, the distance is way too much given the condition of the roads and the difficulty to drive and two, you are doing injustice to the place by just getting a glimpse and turning back. The weather was really warm on the way back and there was no trouble getting to the Changla pass. But this time we were met with even heavier snowfall at the peak. It was a beautiful yet terrifying sight - we had to leave soon or else risk getting stuck in the snow. As we got downhill, most of the snow we had seen the previous day was not there - it had all melted - within a day! It's amazing how the landscape changes so quickly in these parts. No wonder our guide Kalyan said that in all the 20-odd times he's been to these passes, no two times have ever been the same. We were there in 2 consecutive days and the place was unrecognizable. We returned to Leh and learnt that Khardungla had been opened for traffic. After a bonfire and dinner, I went to sleep

Day 10

The day began at 5am and we started on our bikes at 7am. Destination – Nubra Valley. Distance – 110kms. There was a short-cut from the market to Khardungla road.

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As soon as we got onto the road, we were welcomed by a sign claiming “You are on the highest motorable road in the world”. Wow! That felt awesome! The road was good up to a place called South Pullu. From there the ascent began – the tar road ended to make way for a dirt track.

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It was 14 kms from here to the top – I could see the road in the distance – a black line cutting across the snow-clad mountain. This climb was even more challenging that Changla as the road was worse and there was a lot of snow around. The snow had hardened into ice at places causing vehicles to skid.

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We had to stop at many places as the vehicles could only pass one at a time – it took multiple attempts to cross the icy stretches as the tyres kept skidding of their own accord. And the worst part – thin air! It took super human effort to walk three steps, let alone push the bike through the ice. It took almost 90 mins to cover the 14 kms to the top (just like it does in Bangalore traffic for the same distance). People were going crazy all around – after all, we were at the highest motorable pass in the world! There were boards there cautioning people not to stay there for more than 20-25 mins as the oxygen was low. We decided not to push our bodies too much and started the descent. It was another 14km down to North Pullu where the tarmac roads resumed. Downhill was easier than uphill and we got down quite fast. We were met at the bottom by an army vehicle going uphill with sirens blaring. Apparently, there was an avalanche due to some landslides and people were trapped. A chill went down my spine! We had passed by that point just minutes ago! This goes to show how easily nature can toss around people at will – it was as easy as displacing ants off an anthill. We got to know that some people from our group could not cross over and were trapped on the other side. So they would have to return to Leh. There were rumours of a tourist car being buried in the snow but we hoped they weren’t true.

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We waited for the people in our group who had crossed the avalanche (the last one in the line actually had some snow fall on him as well!). After some momos from North Pullu, we started towards Nubra Valley. I could see the road all the way – winding across the mountains for miles and miles. The roads kept turning and turning with blind curves everywhere and trucks popping up at the corners. It was a dangerous road through the barren landscape. I remember one point where the roads kept turning towards and away from a particular snow-capped peak. Each time we rode towards the peak, we were showered with snowfall and after every turn, we were back in the sun. It was an amazing feeling! We reached our campsite near Tirith village by 1.30pm.

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We learnt that almost half of our group couldn’t make it past Khardungla. It remained to see what the status of the road would be the next day. We decided to go sightseeing to Hunder and Diskit in the cab which was with us – prominent places in Nubra Valley. As we drove towards Hunder along the mountain sides, we heard a sharp cracking sound. Within no time, the driver stopped the car and sharply took a reverse. We were all startled. I thought that the ground below had given way. Actually the huge boulders above us had cracked and some rocks had fallen down on the car. He went out and inspected the area. We waited for some time and then went ahead. Ooof! Close shave that one!

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As we went on, the landscape changed – there were sand dunes everywhere – proper tall sand dunes likes you see in a desert. Well, here we were – the cold desert of Ladakh. Hunder is a crazy little place where you run out of words when you try to describe the place. You can see sand dunes, huge rocky mountains, snow-capped peaks, grassy plains and a river – all in one frame! The mountains seem as if they have been shaped out by years and years of water flowing on them. We went camel riding on the famous double-humped camels. 200 bucks for 15 mins but definitely worth it! There was a festival going on as well with a lot of stalls and small gambling games happening all around. After the camels, we moved to Diskit (we had crossed Diskit on our way to Hunder).

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Diskit has a huge statue on top of the temple. We were hoping to catch the sunset here (it was around 7pm and the sun sets at 7.45pm in these parts).

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We heard prayers happening in the temple and went in to have a look. There was a monk chanting inside and beating a drum for rhythm. I sat alongside him and meditated on the sound for some time. It was the most detached feeling I’ve ever experienced. Here I was, literally cut-off from the world, sitting inside a Buddhist temple and meditating on the chanting sounds of an old monk! It’s a really striking feeling, especially if you’ve come from a bustling city. After these moments of tranquil, we returned to our camp. We got news that the Khardungla pass wouldn’t open the next day. So we were stuck here for good! I wondered how I’d catch my flight to Bangalore on the 14th. Here we were stuck in Nubra Valley, almost 1600 kms away from Delhi on 9th of June, not knowing when we’d get back to Leh!

Day 11

I woke up to the confirmation that we’d be here for another day. The cab driver said it was a normal thing in these parts and it even took as much as 10 days at times to get the road back open. Whoa! We’re definitely not waiting here that long! Meanwhile I had other things to worry about as my stomach refused to do its job. 

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I just had some local bread for the entire day – the bread is called Khambeer and it’s the most filling thing ever! There were plans made to visit the Panamik hot springs but most of us didn’t have enough petrol and no one was in the mood to risk it. So we chilled all day in the beautiful campsite. The campsite was indeed like a dream – a rich green clearing with trees, white tents all around, wooden fences and snow-capped mountains right behind. Words can’t describe the beauty of the place. Chethan sir (the oldest but most active member of our gang), put together a couple of sticks and we played Gilli danda in the evening. It’s a fun game – the first time I ever played it.

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After some time, Partha (my fellow Mallu of the group) and I decided to take a walk to the Shyok river for some photography. It was a really long walk but surprisingly not tiring.

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I guess we were finally acclimatized to the height. It was an amazing view of the valley as the sun went down. We sat down on some rocks in the middle of the river waiting for the sun to set and get our cameras into action. The sun set by 8pm and we’d got enough stock in our cameras. As I pulled up the blankets back in my tent, I hoped the pass would open the next day. Or else, we could never get back to Delhi on time.

Day 12

I got up at around 5am, thinking I had gotten up too early. When I went out to brush my teeth, I was shocked – there was a line for the washrooms! Everyone was up and getting ready – even without a wake-up call. We got on our bikes and started for Khardungla. The plan was to reach there and wait for the pass to open. In case it was closed, we would camp at the Khardung village. At North Pullu, we saw the wreckage of a Mahindra Xylo. So the rumors were true – two tourists were crushed by the avalanche. The army officer there told us to wait till 1pm, almost 5 hours of wait. But soon after, he told us to start moving – around 11am. We cautiously made our way up the mountain. There were clear marks of where the avalanche had occurred as the roads had also been swept away.

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We reached the top after a lot of slipping and skidding, once again huffing and puffing after every small physical effort. We were greeted at the top by a traffic jam! There was snowfall and an army convoy was waiting to move down to North Pullu. But to be safe, the tyres of the trucks were being chained. Even talking for a long time here drains you of energy. It took almost 40 mins for the road to clear and we were on our way. The moment we reached South Pullu, we felt as if we’d got a new lease of life – as if we’d cheated death that had come in the form of the Khardungla pass. We’d successfully scaled Khardungla twice! That too in the most difficult conditions! That sense of achievement was really something different! We reached Leh by around 1pm. We had enough time to make our way to Kargil so that we could cover up for the lost day. But many people in the group hadn’t reached yet and since it was best to stick together, we decided to break at Leh for the day. It was the 10th of June and we had to reach Delhi on 13th. It was a really crazy task at hand – 1400 kms in 3 days! Oh wait! You must be wondering why Kargil! The Leh-Manali road was blocked by over 20 feet of snow at Baralacha La pass. So even giving that route a try was out of question. We had no option but to return by the Srinagar route. Many people opted to fly out of Leh. Many more shipped their bikes and took cabs to Srinagar and flew out from there. Only around 20 of the 47 people who started from Delhi were there for the complete return journey. Now I understood why this trip is considered one of the most difficult in the world – not only does it drain you physically, it grips you mentally as well. I decided not to think too much about it and slept.

Day 13

The day began at 4am. Destination – Srinagar. Distance – 420 kms. Three mountain passes to cover. We had to reach Zozila pass, which was at a distance of 312 kms by at least 12.30pm. It was a crazy target. But we had no other option. These are the times when you really need to play to your strengths and keep your mind together. It was the first time I was riding an Enfield. I was terribly slow on the curves as I still hadn’t got very used to the weight of the machine. But I knew I could do this. I tried to break down the monster of a challenge in front of me into pieces. The first target was Kargil – 220kms away. I had to reach there without taking many halts. A maximum of two water breaks. If I could, I’d stretch the run to Drass – around 300kms away. The road was amazing and I could average 60 on it. Which meant I should reach there by 11am giving me plenty of time to reach Zozila. The weather was on our side and it was a smooth run. The road just before Kargil for around 20km is a really bad stretch and I had a minor fall on the way. I was waiting behind a truck giving way to a bus coming in the opposite direction. It brushed past my bike’s carrier and I couldn’t hold on to the weight of the bike. Down it fell and the headlight’s glass broke! Bah! My so far “unblemished” trip took its first fall. Luckily I didn’t even get a scratch! I reached Kargil by 9.45am which meant I’d made pretty good time. I passed by the Kargil War Memorial. Tololing Hill had snow on top this time indicating that the weather hadn’t been great here in the last few days. Then that bad stretch started – I bumped along cursing under my breath the whole way. It was 11.30am and I was well on my way to Zozila. The roads were worse than when we passed by the previous week. More snow had melted and there were a lot of streams flowing wildly down the slopes threatening to knock us off our bikes. Somehow, I made my way to the snowy top – there was lesser snow there this time. Without stopping, I started the descent. Putting the bike on 1st gear, I carefully negotiated the dangerous curves. As I climbed down, I noticed a huge line of vehicles. I asked one of the bikers there – apparently, there was a landslide which had to be cleared for traffic to start moving again. Water was flowing down the hill carrying along with it stones and mud and dislodging boulders in the process. A JCB was trying to clear the road, As soon as the guy began clearing, some huge stones started tumbling down. Down he leapt and ran for his life. After the situation calmed a bit, he got back and resumed. This happened around 4 times before he could properly clear the road. But the problem was that the mud was being pushed down the road.

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It took almost two hours for the road to get cleared and because we were on bikes, we snaked our way around the traffic and reached Sonamarg. The roads were beautiful with forests on both sides and a full-flowing river on one side while the road curved alongside it. Amazing! At many points, I felt it strikingly similar to the hills of Kerala – the area in Pala and Wayanad. As I neared Srinagar, some people directed me to Dal Gate from where I could follow the gate and reach Nishat gardens. I went through all the traffic and tiny roads that Srinagar had to offer and finally reached Dal Gate. It had been a frustrating ride through the crowded city. I crashed early as I was exhausted beyond anything I’d felt so far. My roommates – Gaggi, Satish bhai and Chethan sir were kind enough to force some food down my throat so that I’d have some energy for the next day. I was relieved – the biggest obstacle, Zozila and the mountains were behind us now!

Day 14

Destination – Pathankot. Distance – 430 kms. The day started late as I had to get my bike repaired – the glass had to be replaced as we would only reach Pathankot by nightfall. It took longer than we expected and could only leave Srinagar at 11:30am. The group left by 8:30am and so we did not have any backup vehicle for this leg. Why was I foolish enough to start so late? And who are “we”? Well, this day is completely dedicated to Gaggi and Satish bhai. Thanks to them, I was able to complete one of the most difficult legs of the return journey. We decided to ride in formation with one of them in front, one at the back and me in the middle. 11:30am is not a great time to start a ride especially near a city due to the traffic. The formation was working well but I had to increase my pace. Both riders were used to riding much faster than this and I was the speed-determining element of the group. In other words, I was slower than I was supposed to be. At this rate, we wouldn’t reach Pathankot before midnight. And I didn’t want another night ride. Satish bhai gave me tips on handling the traffic and told me to be a bit more aggressive – overtake wherever you can. We had to take a diversion at Anantnag towards Jammu. We soon reached the famed Jawahar Tunnel and the road began curving up into the mountains. The tunnel had two pipes – for traffic in both directions. It was crazy. At first, it seemed someone had turned off the lights. Nothing was visible! I put up my visor and I could atleast see the rear light of the bike in front. There was a truck in front of us and he was having some sadist joy blowing his air horn inside the tunnel. It ricocheted off the walls and our ears were filled with the blaring noise. It was mad inside! No lights, ears filled with deafening noise and we couldn’t see an end to it. To add to it was the noise of the generators inside. It went on for 2.5kms after which the sunlight welcomed us back. I was hoping that we were done with the mountains. But I was mistaken. They had only begun. The roads kept winding on and on. And the worst part – heavy traffic. Can it be any worse? The traffic consisted of trucks. Hundreds of them going in a never ending line – impossible to overtake in the slopes. We reached the famous Peera Rajma Chawal place – famous for the hot Rajma, rice and ghee. I couldn’t eat much as all my energy was focused on reaching Pathankot safely before midnight. As we started again, it started raining. It got tougher to ride and once again, the visor went up. It wasn’t raining heavily, so my spects didn’t get too clouded. Overtaking became a bigger challenge. Satish bhai took the lead and showed me the way as he overtook truck after truck. I had no choice but to follow him. I’ve never ridden this way in my life! And I don’t intend to do this again! It was a crazy streak. We climbed up all the way to the beautiful Patnitop and down to Udhampur. Even though I summarized this in a few lines, the road kept going on forever. It was a crazy run. We touched Udhampur at around 7:00pm. We were maintaining a really good speed given the condition of the roads. It was a really commendable effort. We had to take a diversion towards Pathankot in order to bypass Jammu (saving around 40-50kms). We would join the highway at a place called Samba. The sun set and we were riding into the darkness. I have no clue how he did it, but Satish bhai was awesome. He led the way through the mountains in the pitch dark. His tail light was my guide all the way. And Gaggi made sure I kept up my pace by being consistent at the back. The road soon ended and we entered a stony path. Round pebbles and boulders made the road. This path was the main road taken by trucks. It was absolute madness. If any of our bikes broke down, we’d be stuck in the middle of the forest with no one around and nowhere to go. Luckily, we made it through the stone path down blind curves and down the mountains after a 3 hour ride. I swear – I’d have followed Satish bhai down any road he took us – an amazing leader this guy! And Gaggi – I was relieved seeing the guy on my rear view mirror! We finally joined the highway at Samba with around 80km left for Pathankot. We covered this distance in just over an hour and reached our hotel at 11:30pm. My face had literally turned black with all the dust and soot from the trucks and dirt road. A 12-hour drive with hardly 4 stops on the way. It was a ride that tested endurance, patience and discipline. Our formation is what got us through. This was one ride I’d never ever forget.

Day 15

I’d survived so far. Completed almost 900kms in the last two days. The last challenge was the ride back to Delhi. Distance – 500kms. This one was supposed to be piece of cake. I decided to tag along with Partha for this one. He didn’t have a phone so we had to do proper mirror riding. We maintained an average of 70kmph. We first stopped at Ludhiana – a distance of 180kms in two and a half hours. Soon after this, we stopped for lunch at one of the Haveli restaurants. A dust storm began outside followed by heavy rain. We had no option but to go ahead. The rain got strong and I could hardly see the road. The cars were going at over 100kmph and their spray completely blinded my visor. When I put it up, my spects got blinded with the rain and mud from the road. I was forced to stop until the rain moved on. However, I found myself riding right back into the storm. The storm clouds were moving in the direction we were riding. Completely blinded, I kept going. I managed to find Partha again (thanks to him for waiting for me!) and I tried cleaning my glasses. But to no avail. I was blinded again in no time. Just imagine – all you can see are blurred shapes all around and vehicles zooming by at crazy speeds and drenching you with all the slime on the road! Yuck! This was a completely different challenge. The road was good but the weather was a monster. It threatened to blow me off the bike. This went on for almost 4 hours. Yes, four hours of riding in this crazy weather! By the time I reached Panipat, I was begging for the rains to stop. There were still 80kms to go and I couldn’t take it anymore. But I didn’t stop. I was determined to cross the finish line. By 5pm, we had reached the outskirts of Delhi. We were back in the city! Greeted by the crazy traffic. We’d left the city at 45 degrees sweltering heat and here we were back bringing along with us rain! We returned our bikes and came to our hotel. I had a thorough bath to wash off the dirt that had set itself on my face right from Ludhiana to Delhi.

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I went for a walk after that on the roads of Paharganj. That’s when it started to sink in. Something felt different. I felt different. As if something inside me had be picked up, shaken and put back in place. I was back! After the epic adventure on the Bullet! I had actually completed the 1400km epic in 3 days. I rode all the way from the capital to the far reaches of Kashmir to the Pakistan and China borders! Rode through sun, dust, rain, snow, mountains, plains, cities, villages, tarmac, mud, water, dirt tracks over 14 days! It was a feeling beyond explanation. I had discovered a new side of myself. I had completed what was considered one of the toughest bike trips in the world. I guess this called for a change of description. I guess this officially makes me an “adventurer”. I guess I can call myself a biker as well. After all, a 3200km ride on this terrain certainly qualifies as one helluva bike ride! But most importantly, I proved to myself that “Nothing is Impossible”!

Loads of thanks to my family for encouraging me to take my own decisions, to Darshan for getting me started, to Gaggi for egging me on, to the entire group who were awesome company, to Satish bhai for being an inspiration on the road, to my editor and to you guys for reading. Thanks a lot for taking out time and reading this. Hope you enjoyed. If you liked it, I’d appreciate it if you could share the link on Facebook with your friends and let them know as well.

This blog was originally published on 'AMen'

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