An idea, they say, can change your life. And up until now we believed that inception (of an idea) was one of the most difficult things to do, if not impossible. However, it did happen in our case. During our last visit to the region back in 2011, an idea incepted in Aarti’s brain that we had to do the circuit on a bike. With neither her or me being a biker, the idea was difficult to implement, if not impossible. However, inception had happened, and like a virus it had traveled from her head to mine. The last time I rode a bike long enough with a pillion was back in 2004, when we were still in our courtship period. It was on my Splendour from college days, and a ride from Delhi to Rajasthan border was sufficient to give me a stiff back. Biking, of course, is not a child’s play and I was pretty skeptical to begin with. Needless to say, so was Aarti. That’s when a certain push was needed from external sources. That’s when our wonderful friends came into the picture.
On a comfortable October evening, we started discussing the idea with them. The response was immediate. We all are at that point in our lives where the inflection point exists, and with respective families planned not far away in the future, an idea of a group ride to Ladakh found immediate takers. We all shook hands, and made a pact that the next year come what may, we had to do it.
With KD, Sagar and Yeshu already being experienced riders to the region, the onus was on newbies like Gunjan, Aarti and me to prepare ourselves for this journey. But wait, before the story can move ahead, introductions are in order.
The guy with a passion for Goddess, his 2006 model Electra. The guy whose first biking trip was to Ladakh. He speaks of the Manali - Leh highway as if speaking of a dear child. A designer by profession, he has an eye for beauty, and a heart of gold. If you are active on twitter-verse, chances are that you would know him already (@nithinkd).
A 27 year old boy with a penchant for double meaning one-liners. And yes, they are pretty classy. Introduced to the world of riding back in 2010 by none other than KD himself, his first trip to the mountains was on Vertigo, a 2008 model Yamaha FZ. A biking trip enthusiast ever since, his next few trips were to Spiti and Ladakh in the following years, converting him from a newbie to a bad-ass rider. A developer by profession, he works with maps, making it a perfect fit for his meandering soul.
You can ask her to dance on any number you can play and she would come up with some exquisite moves. Ever since her first trip to the mountains (to Narkanda), she has been eager for more and more. Her trip to Spiti last year was a teaser, and being a Ladakh virgin, she was eagerly looking forward to visit the land of high passes soon. A consultant by profession, taking out two weeks for the trip was pretty difficult for her. I tell you, a consultant’s life is not easy.
This Punjab Ka puttar is the one responsible for your personal accounts going haywire - if you are married that is. Being in the business of selling female grooming products online, he knows the perfect gifts for your better half and at better prices as well. Just do not introduce his website to your better half, if you have not done already. His Jugni, a 2004 model Bullet, was the least troublesome bike.
Aarti, the trip inceptor and Harsh, the man who always had his ass on fire on the trip.
Day 1: Delhi - Bilaspur.
The day before the trip is typically full of excitement - and for us it was even more exciting since “The Dark Knight Rises” had released. All of us had to take an additional half-day off from work just so that we could catch the movie before going. Yes, we are crazy about the Dark Knight series. However, it turned out to be a bit disappointing, fuelling apprehensions that sometimes the wait and hype can ruin the actual thing. The upcoming trip was also much awaited and much hyped... Usually, we do Delhi - Manali in a single day in our car, and it takes us hardly about 12 hours. However, a bike ride, we found out, was different. We were thrown out of our cage, and into the sweltering heat of July of Northern India. We thus kept the plan on the easier side and decided to break the first day’s ride at Mandi or Pandoh. Little did we know that our stamina and bikes would give way much before that. Each one of us has a different policy to commence the ride. Aarti and I start with a simple loud cry of “Jai Shri Ram”. Gunjan and Yeshu prefer to say “Jai Jai”. The boys (KD and Sagar) always begin their trips with a visit to the small Hanuman Mandir located outside IIT Delhi’s gate. We planned to rendezvous at the temple at 5 am and surprisingly everyone made it on time.
Group riding protocols were put in place - Always signal the rider if there is trouble ahead. Always keep your headlights switched on. Stop if you hear long uninterrupted honking from the rider behind you. Stop and wait if you don’t see the rider behind you for more than 20 mins.
The sweltering heat made us take a lot of stops even before we hit our lunch break somewhere after Ropar. There was a longish break at Karnal to sync up all the riders, another one on a deserted bus stop somewhere between Ambala and Banur. Speaking of the Banur route, although it is a fantastic bypass for Chandigarh, but sadly due to it being new, there are hardly any dhabas on it. Lunch was relaxing in the shade of a giant tree at a dhaba. Hell they even had charpais where we could rest our backs for a wee-bit. It was about 4:00 pm when we eventually trudged into the Lake View hotel at Bilaspur. Initially, the plan was to take a short tea break. However, as we got comfortable, energy levels sapped, and it was decided unanimously to end the day there. In any case, a night stay at Manali was scheduled for the next day, so it hardly made a difference if we stopped at Bilaspur or Mandi or Pandoh. Also, KD and my bike were behaving badly. His braking was severely affected and I was reeling with problems with my rear shock absorber. At each bend, on the hills, the rear Tyre was touching the rim. A visit to the local mechanic took an hour, but both the problems were rectified - KD’s permanently and mine temporarily. As it turned out, I had to struggle with this problem all the way to Leh.
Day 2: Bilaspur to Manali
Aarti and I were carrying 5 bags as our luggage. Four of them were really small, fitted on either side of our “Ladakh carrier”. The 5th bag was of a standard size and was strapped to the part of the Ladakh carrier that extends horizontally behind the pillion seat. Of course, all the bags were kept in garbage bags, wrapped with tarp, and then secured by bungees. Now, packing on Day 1 was relatively easier as half of it was done the night before and the bike was locked up in the garage. Day 2 made us realize the ills of carrying luggage on a carrier - it was quite a chore to secure the stuff safely each morning. Doing so on days when the previous night was spent in the comforts of a hotel was even tougher. The sun was beating down upon us making our progress slow again. The riding jacket, although necessary, was getting pretty uncomfortable as the day progressed. After Mandi, my bike’s rear tyre again started hitting the mud-guard as the adjustment done the day before had given up. It was in any case a jugaad, one that I realized I had to do on a daily basis now. I thought it was due only due to the bulky luggage we were carrying. But that was only a part of the problem, the real problem was discovered later... Anyway, we reached Manali without any further fuss by about 2 pm and straightaway headed towards Il Forno to have our favourite lunch. Being with a larger group gave us the liberty of ordering everything that was nice on the menu and sample each one of those awesome dishes. Too bad, the hungry monsters devoured before I could click anything. Recommendations - the pizzas (especially the ham one), chicken supreme and Fiametta for dessert. With luggage checked in, the next step was to get the bikes fixed and pick up permits for Rohtang the next day. I forgot to mention that we had asked two different sets of people to arrange permits for us. One was a random travel agent searched on the net and the other person that KD happened to know. And thank god we had a backup as it turned out that the travel agent was unreachable.
Day 3: Manali to Rohtang Top
A monster by the name of Rani Nallah lay ahead as the first and the biggest hurdle of the trip ahead. For the uninitiated, just before Rohatang top exists Rani Nallah, a rider’s and even a driver’s worst nightmare. There is literally no road at the Nallah and the 4 km stretch before it, and one has to ride/ drive on pure slush, especially in the rains. This slush fiesta is at times almost knee deep. Many have returned back from this point with burnt clutch plates and hopes of doing the Manali-Leh highway lost somewhere in the slush. Last year, the slush monster made us wait for 9 hours in our Safari, the boys lost their center-stands, foot-pegs, etc. Thus, it was natural for the entire group to be really scared when clouds descended on Manali early that morning and it started to drizzle. The implication was clear, it must be raining cats and dogs up there, adding to the enormity of the slush monster we all so feared... The ride till Marhi had taken us hardly 1.5 hours. The jeeps descending Rohtang were not too filthy, a sign that was heartening. With no jams visible on the road above, we finally relaxed a bit and decided to have a cuppa with something to feed our starving stomachs. We left soon enough, fearing a traffic build up. The rain gods relented and the pelting gave way to a light drizzle. A short break and a few cuppas later, we were all set for our journey ahead. The descent was a bit disappointing. As expected, the other side of Rohtang was bone dry! How can one side of a mountain receive so much rain while the other remains completely dry? Amazing! Should’ve studied geography a bit better back in my school days. Although dry, the descent was more painful than the ascent, with the road ridden with potholes.
Day 3: Rohtang top to Jispa (cont)
A point to be noted here - beyond Rohtang, people now know that bikers are either heading to Ladakh or to Spiti. Either way, a certain camaraderie exists, with each passing vehicle, bike or car, gesturing their best wishes for the journey ahead. This is a concept unique to riding, one that was new to us. In a car, it is typically just us two exchanging philosophies of life at large. The break at Koksar was routine. A few maggis and chai were gulped down before we marched on. The boys decided to make use of the lovely tarmac and broke free from the group. The couple riders ambled along trudging comfortably on the delightful tarmac, especially till Gondla. We tried to catch up with the boys to show them where the Rohtang tunnel exit point was located, but the ever increasing distance between us ensured that our honks were never heard. At the next scheduled stop, the gas station at Tandi, they were disappointed to know that they’d missed the tunnel, again! It was now almost noon and we decided to break for lunch at Keylong. Aarti and I broke from the group to get her helmet fixed (a screw from the visor had fallen off). Since it was a jugaad screw with a dozen washers on it, it had to be tightened almost every day. It did work though. Of course, Aarti had to bear the brunt of several “sar ka screw tight kar le” jokes for the rest of the trip. There’s a nice restaurant (if you can call it that) near the bus stand at Keylong. The place serves one of the best mutton momos and meat rice I’ve ever had. While having lunch there, we contemplated riding all the way to Sarchu that day but decided against it eventually.
Emboldened with my success at Rohtang, I was feeling a bit over-confident and did not read the crossing correctly. The depth was much more than anticipated and worse, the pebbles lying underneath broke my momentum. I did manage to clear the water crossing safely, and climbed onto the dry patch, but lost my momentum at the end. I had to stand on my feet to get my balance back but sadly it was on a lateral incline and pebbles slipped underneath my foot. I lost my balance and the bike started tilting towards the right. I tried to muster all my strength to get the bike back in upright position but ever so slowly, the bike kept sliding and eventually fell into a puddle on the right. The camera splashed in water for a brief moment and I had to let go of the handle and break my fall with my hands. Aarti had ample time to climb off the bike, and thankfully she did not fall. The entire sequence played out in less than 5 seconds, but the details will be sketched in my mind for a long time to come.
Day 4: Jispa to Baralacha La top
We soon departed for our destination for the day - Sarchu. It was hardly about 90 km away from Jispa, and we had ample time to do it in. A longish breakfast break at Darcha ensured that we actually began the day at 9 am. Anyway, even with all the photography breaks, we were not going to take more than 4.5 hours to reach our destination. So why rush. The detour for Zanskar Sumdo came and went, and both our hearts skipped a beat. We really want to go back to that enchanting place and camp there for a night. But all good things in life have to wait. A long time ago (two years back I think), a notorious monster existed just before Baralacha La which people had fondly named the Zingzing Bar Nallah - a water crossing on a U-turn. We had not seen it so far in any of our trips as it always had a bridge, but KD swore it existed and had scared us to death with some horror stories of it. It had to wait though, as two relatively smaller monsters awaited us just beyond Darcha. The first water crossing was relatively easy, but the next one was a sight to behold. A short break later we found ourselves hurtling towards Suraj Tal and managed to reach there by 11 am. The boys were extremely disappointed with the lake this time. So far they had been used to seeing it all frozen and covered in white. However, this time, all the snow had already melted. The lake was completely unfrozen but the lighting over it was magical. Even at 5000 m ASL, my breathing pattern was normal and there were no signs of AMS. This was the first time we had decided to take Diamox from Day 2 since the exhaustion levels were higher on a bike. We saw a trek group consisting of 5 foreigners descending Baralacha La with an entourage of ponies. Upon asking the porters, it became clear that they had been on the Chandertal - Baralacha La trek, a trek which I have had my eyes on for quite sometime but have been unable to do it. But I assure you that sooner or later, this route too will be covered by yours truly.
Day 4: Baralacha La Top to Sarchu (and Around)
After spending sometime at the top of Baralacha La, we proceeded towards Bharatpur and stopped there to check for Bharti. It was KD’s fourth time on this highway, and over the years he had gotten friendly with a dhaba owner at Bharatpur by the name of Bharti. Sadly, this time she was not there. Several luxury camps have come up just before the Sarchu check-post, but we had decided to put up at a dhaba immediately after it, which was KD’s favourite. Just before stopping for the day, we did a photoshoot on the Sarchu plains with all our bikes. The dhaba was simple and cosy. They had a huge tent where all 6 of us could fit in, and a clean bathroom too (of course not attached). We had a good lunch and decided to snooze for a while. I took the opportunity to just lie down, knowing that sleep would never to come to me during the afternoon. My shoes, which were soaking wet, also got a deserved break and lay in the hot sun outside. Quechuas are difficult to get wet, but once they do, they are even more difficult to get dry.
After resting for a while, I came back out to stretch a bit. A “firangi” was loitering around looking quite perplexed. Upon striking a conversation with him, I got to know that the entire group had misplaced the one wallet in which they were carrying Indian currency, and now all they were left with were American dollars. The first phrase that strikes you in such a situation is ‘never keep all your eggs in the same basket’. Anyway, the deed was done, and now they were in a soup. With no currency at all, their ride till Manali was in jeopardy. He requested me to take 100 dollars in exchange for INR of an equivalent amount. Thankfully, I had some spare cash lying around for emergencies just like these. Eventually, my first ever high altitude currency exchange happened, and I got a sweet 100 USD for 5000 INR. That was also my first high altitude profit! Just hope that those dollars were not fake.
Day 5: Sarchu to Pang
It was a bit cloudy almost all the way till Pang, making the start a bit chilly. The boys vroomed ahead, while Jugni and WanderB trudged along. Sarchu plains have tarred roads, but they are not smooth, and if you zoom past 40 kmph, the bounciness of the track is apparent. My bike was especially bad as it was groaning with each bounce. I kept the bike at the dead center of the tarred road to minimize those bumps and this strategy seemed to work a bit. The lighting was perfect, and out came the GND filter, a new addition to my arsenal. Immediately after Sarchu, we took the looooong U-turn, which has always made me wonder why they don’t build a bridge to shave off those 10 extra kms. And as always, this thought was immediately followed by another - “the fact that there is a road at this place is more than enough, stop complaining, you jackass.” The roads were pretty bad this time around. The tar had peeled off at most places, and it was only at about 9 am that we finally managed to reach the top of Nakee La. There again we waited, and waited, and waited for Jugni to catch up, and it was a good half an hour before they did. Apparently they took a break just before Nakee La. Gunjan's AMS was getting worse and by the look on her face, one could tell that she was really not feeling well.
We decided to pause for a while after descending Nakee La and before climbing Lachulung La. The dhaba there served delicious ginger-lemon-honey-tea which helped us, and especially Gunjan, to relax. We also met a gang of Japanese-Korean-Chinese people who were doing a recce of the road to set up a travel business after they go back to their respective countries. We took the ‘longer’ route to climb Lachulung La as short cuts were a strict no-no. The tarmac had peeled off at most places, making the climb of Lachulung as miserable as the descent of Nakee La.
The moment one crosses a retired monster by the name of Kangla Jal, ‘that’ bridge can be seen along with ‘that’ gateway formed by wind. The enormity of the scale is hard to digest, even the road all the way to Pang from there is just classic. The ant hill type formations on mountain tops soon become visible, and the Grand Canyon-ish feel of the place simply cannot be ignored. We finally made it to Pang by 11 am, taking just under 4 hours to cover the horrible 86 km stretch.
An interesting thing happened at Pang. A family of about 10 members were travelling in a rented Qualises (2 in nos) from Manali and heading towards Leh. I think they were Gujjus. The elderly and the young alike were impressed by our group riding all the way from Delhi towards Leh on bikes. A unique request followed: They wanted us to give ‘joy-rides’ to some members of their family on our bikes. Now we typically do not deny requests from strangers, but this was just absurd. A long haul to Leh still remained and with energy levels already sapping, it was hardly a time to offer joy-rides. Not to mention that the request itself was pretty bizarre. We politely declined, citing paucity of time, and moved on.
Day 5: Pang to Leh
We continued our journey on the recently tarred double-laned roads on Moreh. It was quite a feeling to zip at 80 - 100 kmph at such a high altitude. The bike was responding well, and even though the sun was beating down upon us, the good road made everything bearable. This dream run, however, was short lived as only half of the stretch had been tarred. What lay ahead was a nightmare for bikers and a delight for 4x4ers. A dust bowl which was quite sandy at stretches made the heavily loaded bike fishtail like crazy. To avoid falling down at each one of those 100 m patches required superhuman effort, sucking our energy like leeches suck blood. It took us a good one and a half hours to cross the plains to reach Debring. We went to find our ‘friend’ Urgain with whom we had been catching up for two years in a row now. Sadly, he was not there and his brother told us that he had taken up a job at the banks of Tso Kar at the ‘luxury’ tents there. We requested him to keep our jerry cans with him so that we could refuel on our way back to Manali, which he agreed to gladly. This way we had a good 30 L of petrol deposited which we could use on our return leg of Hanle - Tso Moriri - Tandi, a stretch which had no refuelling points. A lone Kiang was spotted by Sagar meandering a few hundred meters away from the dhaba. It was kind of weird, given the fact that these creatures generally tend to flock in a group, and are also very shy. Maybe he was the outcast, maybe he was just doing some side business on his own. Whatever the reason, we were happy at having sighted our first Kiang of the trip.
The climb towards Tanglang La was painful to describe it mildly. As I later found out, one of the shock absorbers of our bike had fallen apart, thus making the climb even more painful than it actually was. I believe the shock absorber was screwed up badly in one of those sand pits at Moreh. The climb was mostly on rubble - smooth but scattered with small pebbles. After 5 odd kms of bearing with bad, pothole ridden roads, we finally found lovely tarred roads which continued all the way till Rumtse. The road from Rumtse all the way to Leh used to be in excellent shape earlier. The mountains are far more rugged on the Rumtse - Upshi stretch, the valley is relatively narrow and the mountains are a strange purplish black. We were too exhausted to enjoy any of that though. The camera had been packed away, and we all waited to hit the Upshi - Leh highway, the last mile as they say. We zipped by familiar landmarks like the Karu petrol pump, Thiksey, Shey, Stakna and Choglamsar. We did not have the time or the energy to enjoy those sights though. Our longish 5 day ride from Delhi was about to culminate, and we felt a mixture of achievement and exhaustion.
Exhausted, dirty and hungry, we all gathered at the roundabout at Leh at 8 pm, a good 14 hrs after we had begun our day at Sarchu. With high fives going all around, the next problem was to look for accommodation for the night. For boys, it was a relatively simple matter, but with girls around, this was not going to be an easy task. Thus, Barath Guest House on Fort Road was discovered. At 1000 bucks a night and clean rooms, it was a life saviour. I still can’t remember how we managed to get the stuff off the bikes, take a shower and have dinner, because all that I remember was a deep deep sleep. That night, we slept like babies...