Our next stop was Sarchu which was a small camping site. While descending Bara lacha la, sludge of mud and ice makes biking very adventurous and the sunlight glazing from the snow – fields in the valley gives a paradisiac appearance to the scenery. Several camps are located at the small ice field at the bottom of the valley where we stopped for some snacks and tea. We reached Sarchu in the afternoon but that was the only distance we could traverse since one of the bikes had been punctured. There was no puncture shop till Pang, which was 80 kms away. Luckily, we found a guy named Alex who helped us fix the bike. Alex was an American, once a mechanical engineer in US but living in India since the past 10 years. He was tall, his clothes were dusty and he lacked the aura of sophistication that most foreigners carry. He knew these mountains as well as any local. He had left his job, married to an Indian girl and settled in Manali (solely for his love of mountains), and was living the wild and wooly life of a traveler. The way these mountains charm some people is incredible.
A sudden noise brought me back from my thoughts. The lake was still calm and blue. The noise came from the helicopter that had returned from its patrol and was now landing on a ledge nearby. Some bikers were circling beside the lake, clicking pictures. I returned to camp and ordered a cup of coffee. The sun was still rising lazily from behind the hills. As I sipped my coffee, a weary man came to me asking help to fix his bike. My friend, who knows about these things a little more than me, offered to help. As I watched them fuddling with the bike, I pondered about us when we were in the same situation three days ago. The two most crucial lessons I learnt on this trip were to be familiar with the ropes of bike repair and to always carry a proper kit for repairs, for a piece of thorn or a nail can puncture your bike tire along with your zeal and enthusiasm. A group of people were carrying some barrels of Chaang which is a locally brewed beer made from barley. I had wanted to taste this local liquor but now was not the time. We decided to put pedal to the metal and return to Leh since the weather was getting deceptive. The road between Leh and Pangong goes through Chang-Thang plateau and a pass named Chang La (5360 m).
Several army posts are located on the way. The road is constructed and maintained by Border Road Organization (BRO), which has done a great job not only in maintaining the road but also in putting up some very innovative and tongue-in-cheek one-liner caution boards throughout the way. One of them read, “Be gentle on my curves”, and the other one -“Feel the curves, do not test them”. Riding through Chang-Thang reminded me of our ride through Moore plains, which is a stretch of 40 Km between Pang and Tanglang la. It is at an average height of 4000 m and flanked by mountain ranges on both sides. After all the twists and turns, speeding at a100 kmph on that straight-as-an-arrow road felt like nature’s reward for all our hard work. Chang Thang’s road was loopy unlike Moore but the valley was just as wide at some places giving a great panoramic view.
As we were entering Leh, the valley got wider. Indus, the river around which one of the oldest civilizations of the old world had flourished, was gushing at its full strength. Watching the historical river, I felt how miniscule and insignificant my role is in this play featuring all-encompassing space and time. Laddakh, ethnically more similar to Tibet than Kashmir, was established as a Himalayan kingdom after the breakup of Tibetan Empire in 842 AD by Nyima-gon, a representative of the ancient Tibetan royal house. Leh was its capital and an important stopover on the trade route along the Indus Valley between Tibet to the east and Kashmir to the west. Presently Leh is the second largest (area wise) district of India after Kutch. 15 kilometers before Leh, you come across Shey Palace, which stands looking over a cliff, and you experience a blend of cultural and natural heritage. This blend can be seen throughout Leh as most gompas (monasteries) are built to perch precariously on lone rocks or craggy mountain-faces. Monasteries like Shey, Thiksey, Hemis, Spituk and several others preserve the rich ancient culture of Buddhism in the form of precious manuscripts and old Buddha statues. There are many hotels in and around Leh but if you really want to experience Leh more intimately, make your abode at one of the home-stays to get acquainted with the contemporary Laddkhi ways and mannerisms. The markets in Leh are as colorful as laddakhi culture. T-shirts with quotes like ‘My friend got Leh’d!” can be seen around the market but the item that is Leh’s forte is the thin and soft wool, from the inner coat of hair of Laddakhi goats, called Pashmina. You will also discover the most imaginative cafes in Leh, hidden down unlikely footpaths with variety of cuisines ranging from continental to Asian, including local laddakhi food. After dinner, we strolled to a café where some locals were sitting around a campfire, watching the FIFA world cup while downing beer. There, with my calm and content spirit, I felt peace like never before. I wanted to savor these last moments in Ladakh as much as possible, for the next day we would leave, not the empty vessels we came as, but filled with a montage of experiences to savor for a lifetime.