Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh

Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 1/7 by Ankush Bhayekar

It is an inevitable dream of most of the voyagers to travel to the mystic land of Himalayas for once in a life time. The land which is shielded by frosted mountains whose white summits often penetrates through the clouds blanketed under the vivacious blue sky. To reach to the Leh-Laddakh there are three major route options, I would may be differentiate those as short – moderate – longest wherein short: via Srinagar, Kargil and moderate: via Manali, Rohtang and longest: via Shimla, Spiti valley. Some people can also think of easy ways in achieving this by taking a direct flight or public transport but none of these was our choice. An uneasy way often requires reasonable planning, patience and some extra time. As true in most cases, the paths which require significantly extra time and physical endurance often pay off with commensurate beautiful experiences, memories and stunning landscapes. In this case one can experience a lot of adventures and bountiful mesmerizing landscapes on the way via Shimla and Spiti valley. As in our case the limited time and our thirst for adventure left us with only option which is via Manali, Rohtang La.

Most people prefer to join the bevy of bikers to conquer this treacherous route, larger the group an easier it becomes. No jaw drops that some guys start alone on this journey and later join some other lone guys or some smaller groups. For us it was going to be the smaller group of 3 guys. I was personally not bent towards to join any other bike riders group which could have added some restrictions on our interests and time schedules. Being a small group avoids lots of nuances involved in overall planning. Planning everything on your own helps while guiding to others who may be dreaming about this arduous yet mesmerising journey of the lifetime.

To put the efforts at the right place and to avoid unnecessary travelling we decided to take a flight till Delhi. We had our own Royal Enfield ThunderBird 350 which we shipped directly to Chandigarh by train and decided to rent another one from Manali. We came to the consensus to ride on only two bikes rather than three. The logic behind two bikes for three guys was to avoid continuous driving by anyone. The back seat of other bike was going to be loaded with luggage saddle bags, fuel can and other stuff.

It was decided that one of us will directly go to Manali from Delhi to collect the rented bike and Rohtang permit passes. Two of us (including me) agreed to go to the Chandigarh to collect the bike which was earlier shipped by train and then ride all the way to Manali on the same day. The distance between these two cities is just 309 kms and we thought it was going to be easier. But we were wrong and by the time we reached Manali in the evening we were almost exhausted. During the last few kilometres on that day we were champing at the bit to reach to the reserved hotel. In the meantime, our friend who reached to the Manali in the morning itself took care of rented bike and Rohtang pass and after hearing this we breathed a sigh of relief. Before hitting the sack on that night we thought to go to tie one on just to allay the pain caused due to all day riding.

Next day morning was just lazy due to yesterday’s tiredness and soporific effects as we laid one on in the night. Still we rushed as we were getting late and packed our bags, bought some nuts, dates, chocolates, box of water bottles, painkillers, oxy spray etc. as we won’t be getting this easily on the way. Note that we forgot to buy altitude sickness tabs for which you will find a reference later in this blog. We had a good lunch around 11:30 am, loaded the bikes with luggage, petrol can, water bottles and preserved food and hit the road the around 12:30 pm.

After riding for 1-2 hours without any hurdles, at the advent of Rohtang pass we saw heavy traffic jam which was actually expected as we started late. Being the bikers it wasn’t really a problem for us but still it was going to reflect in our overall planning. The weather at Rohtang was temperate and quiescent with intermittent showers. We somehow managed to reach to the top of Rohtang by 4 pm, the apogee of Rohtang was completely covered with greyish clouds. We soon started descending without any further delay, the other side of Rohtang was dry, the sun was still shining and there was no sign of rain. Our initial plan was to take a night halt at Jispa which was still 86 Kms away and even if we would have throttled the bikes with balls to the wall it couldn’t be achieved. So rather we decided to ride till the darkness and then hammer our tents to the ground wherever we stop. This being said we encountered the complete darkness and an impasse near to the Sissu. We were still 50kms behind our day’s target but that’s okay. Fortunately, we were able to find a professional camp site nearby and we decided to setup a tent in their campus. The camp provided us a good dinner and agreed to arrange an early morning breakfast, obviously in an exchange of some dosh.

Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 2/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
Cruising towards Rohtang La

The night at Sissu was frigid and our tent wasn’t so successful in isolating inner space from the outer cold, in the morning the inner lining of the tent was seen wet with the dew. But who cares as long as we were comfortable inside pigeonhole of our trustworthy sleeping bags, without which it would have been impossible to take an undisturbed nap. Again, we rushed, did all the morning essentials, had a breakfast, packed our bags and our tent and hit the road towards Leh. The day’s target was to at least reach to the Sarchu if not to the Pang.

The road till the Jispa was in very bad in condition, no concrete base and all the dust. And our decision to halt at Sissu last night was seemed to be laudable. After the Jispa you may expect quite a few running water runnels on the way and while crossing couple of those even our bike stuck. The iced water entered our shoes making it unbearable to wear. So be it, we were not going to wait and we were not going to capitulate, we took off the shoes and tied those to bike leg guards and started riding again wearing just the socks and sandals. Then it was a start of the circuitous road ascending towards a ZingZing bar, summit of which is known as Baralacha La which was at an altitude of around 5030 meters. The road at the Baralacha La was elegant with felicitous surrounding, cutting its way through the ice and elevated from the lake on the right side. We stopped at summit for some time just to capture the memories, although it is not suggested by the wise to remain there for more than half an hour as due to the lack of oxygen at such high altitude one may feel sick and encounter the nausea. So adhering to the words of wisdom we started descending from Baralacha La. The world on the other side was completely different, brownish-reddish mountains stretched all over the horizon and now we had to travel cutting those mountains towards the Sarchu. The landscape was just stunning and we couldn’t control ourselves from stopping there and taking some pics.

Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 3/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
Riding towards Zingzing Bar
Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 4/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
Descend from Baralacha La
Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 5/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
Photo shoot after Baralacha La

So finally, we reached Sarchu around 5 pm and called it a day without moving further. Sarchu’s temperature in the night drops significantly which may be just slightly higher than to be the glacial. The wind here flows with high speed; air is arid with very less oxygen hence many people suggests not to spend a night here as there are chances of being prone to an altitude sickness. As we were on the ball till now and not having any option we opted to stay. We seemed to be overconfident that time thinking that nothing will happen to any of us, like counting the chickens before they hatch. However, we did not want to take a risk this time with our not so perfect hermetic tent and bang! we dropped our one of the sleeping bags somewhere on the way while coming from Jispa today. Only option now was to opt the professional camping site. We rented a small tent which was sufficient for three people, had a dinner and went to hit the sack. But before that two of us (not me) went to tie one on which is highly not recommended in Sarchu. And yes, they just missed the boat and made the matters worse. The night which could have been the good night rather became the sleepless due to headache and dehydration. The wind was blowing on the flappy walls of the tent and we were able to hearken the voices from our adjacent tents who were having incessant vomiting. And thank god, none of us did face that level of sickness but we realised our grave mistake of not buying the altitude sickness tablets from Manali. Till the morning one of us (Mahesh) was already feeling under the weather and also had some fever. There was no pharmacist or hospital in the Sarchu so we did not have any choice but to move on. Throwing caution to the wind and without crying over the spilt milk we started riding in the morning after finishing our breakfast.

Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 6/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
Camping at Sissu

Target for that day was to reach Leh by the evening and on the way find pharmacist or hospital to take a prescription for Mahesh who was having a sickness. When we started to take bikes out from the stands, Mahesh stood up and had shown the strength for the riding. He was just off his rocker and it seemed like he still had some energy inside his body. We saw eye to eye and okay let’s do it, I sat behind him and we started to rolling our bikes. After Sarchu there was Pang, we stopped their had some food switched the ridership and now Mahesh sat behind me. The road after the pang was more than perfect, stretched perfectly flat and straight on the plain land surrounded by the mountains. Riding the bike on such road is like flying in the air. At the end of the Pang road, there is Taglang La ascend. Taglang La pass is the second highest pass in the world at an altitude of 5300 meters. Till the time we reached to the summit of the pass Mahesh was completely enervated. He was simply not able to walk or speak and the fever had reached to the paramount, he wanted to take a rest there but as previously said it is not recommended to stay at high altitude for more time that is again in such conditions without taking medicines. Fortunately, this was noticed by one girl who rode the bike all the way from Bengalore along with her rather bevy of bikers. She had some medicines and also the garlic which is considered as an antidote for the altitude sickness. We gave that to Mahesh and started descending immediately from the Taglang La. After reaching at the base we saw one small hotel on the roadside where two of us ate some food and in the meantime Mahesh took a nap for an hour. When he woke up, he seemed rather energetic, stalwart and was fit as fiddle. As planned we reached to the Leh by the evening, booked a hotel room and took the hot water bath and that night unlike previous nights, we had a solid reason to tie one on before hitting to the sack. We decided to take a rest next whole day by not riding the bike but to explore the local attractive spots inside and around Leh city.

The day was spent as planned roaming inside and around the Leh city. We had also planned to start the riding early next morning towards the Nubra valley. The road to which goes through the world’s highest motorable pass – Khardung La which is located at an altitude of 5600 meters.

As planned we kicked our bikes in the morning towards Khardung La. The road upwards was as usual the circuitous and meandered. At some locations the road condition was horrendous and for the first time since the start of the journey, I felt a fear from within. But as they say you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, so I broke some eggs and reached to highest pass of the world. We stayed at the top for 1-2 hours, this time we did not have to worry about the altitude sickness as our body seemed acclimated with the high altitudes. After capturing some snapshots and footage, we started descending towards Nubra Valley. The downward road was more precarious due to the potholes and melted water flowing on the road. There were some running water runnels as well having very high flow velocity which created further hurdles. We descended and crossed all the hurdles with a vigilance and patience, and reached to the village Sumur in the Nubra valley. Booked a spacious tent in one of the private hotels. Guess what there was a silk route cultural festival at the sand dunes near to the Sumur next day so the local folks were doing some singing, dancing practice in the hotel campus. The beautiful voices and dance moves of those people helped us to get a second wind and rather than sleeping immediately, we sat together with those guys and enjoyed the practice.

First half of the following day was obviously reserved for the silk route festival, the hotel staff and the local guys explicitly requested us to attend and experience the festival. We were not having any problem at all, only thing we had to keep in the mind that we had to reach Leh by the evening. So we slept, and woke up and went to attend the festival in the morning. The local folks did their best to break the ice for us and we would never forget their hospitality. The festival was completely flooded with the different dance styles, songs and dramas. We felt accomplished after attending it, we did not want to leave from there in half a way but due to the time limits we had to. We started our return journey to Leh via Khardungla and while ascending our both bikes were again stuck in the runnel, iced water flooded inside our shoes. This time we did something different, we took off our shoes and socks, tied those to the bike leg guards and started riding the bike with naked foot, can you imagine it? With insensible foot we reached to the hotel and immediately hit the sack after taking the hot water bath.

The following day plan was to start early in the morning, Mahesh was supposed to ride alone to Jammu to ship his Thunderbird on the train. And we both were supposed to ride back by the same way to the Manali to handover the rented bike. On the next day while leaving we gave a second thought considering Mahesh’s health and uneven distribution of the luggage. So at the drop of the hat we decided to go together towards Jammu till Udhampur via Kargil and Srinagar, bifurcate at the Udhampur from where Mahesh will go to Jammu which is just 60kms and we will go towards the Manali which is approx. 450kms, yes, we both were going to be self-sacrificed. The day on which we left Leh, we were able to reach only till the Kargil. We had a good nap in a hotel in Kargil and planned to start all over again on the next day morning.

Photo of Spellbinding and Herculean bike ride to Leh-Ladakh 7/7 by Ankush Bhayekar
On the way towards Kargil

Next day’s target was to reach Udhampur by any means, which was approx. 450 kms from Kargil. The first half of the day went very enthusiastically but second half after the Srinagar was just frustrating due to lots of commercial diesel trucks on the double lane highway between Srinagar and Udhampur. By the time we reached Udhampur, it was already 8 pm and that day we started from Kargil at 7 am, so it was 13 hours of restless driving. And there was no fun at doing this because after the Srinagar it was just the road cutting through hills without any satisfying landscape. Somehow we found a reasonable hotel in Udhampur near the railway station and took a nap there. Next day was also going to be a torturous for two of us as we had to cover next 450 kms from Udhampur to Manali.

As we had to bite the bullet anyway, we woke up around 6 am, and kicked our bike once again. We were just riding alternatively like robots but circumspectly leaving buses, trucks everything on the way behind, stopping only to drink a tea so as to get rid of the sleeplessness and to relax the seat and back muscles. After sailing through the circuitous roads of Himachal Pradesh we finally made it to the Manali in the evening around 7pm. Handed over the bike to the owner and boarded on an only available Himachal transport bus that time towards Delhi.

We reached Delhi in the morning and relaxed all over the day and boarded a flight towards Pune in the evening with lots of unforgettable memories. The journey was exceptionally awesome and once in a life time experience owing to all the scenic landscapes, riding on the world’s most treacherous routes through the dust, mud and water runnels, hitting the sacks inside the tents at a high altitude surrounded by glacial cold, and to all the difficulties which we have faced and the lessons we have learned.

Some can say that this could be the end of this journey but for me, it ain't over till the fat lady sings. Stay tuned !

We also have captured some footage of our journey. See below and who knows some of you may get inspired by this….!