Leh Ladakh - Rejoicing the travel spirit

3rd Jul 2015
Photo of Leh Ladakh - Rejoicing the travel spirit 1/21 by Abhishek Johri
World's highest motorable road
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Close to Nakeela Pass
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The best stretch!
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Enroute to Khardungla Pass
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Manali Valley!
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When the road calls you out!
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Might meets religion!
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You have to ride to believe it!
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Ever changing terrains!
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The achievement!
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Pangong Lake
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It is a misty affair!
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Beauty at its best!
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Streams for company!
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That is a stuck truck!
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One of the hidden treasures!
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Suraj Tal!
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When the road is this beautiful!

Well, as they say, if biking is in your blood, Leh Ladakh will be the ultimate adventure. Over the years, this dream took a backseat for me, as life shifted priorities. But one fateful day, fed up with the corporate slumber, I became determined to turn this into reality. This was my dream trip, but what made it even better was a group of like-minded friends. Punters we are, crazy guys, who share stupid and over-the-top traits.

So, it was December 2014 when we decided to have our get together in the humble abodes of the great Himalayas. It was a difficult decision at first, as we were all buried neck deep in our respective jobs. It is tough being an MBA in the corporate jungle. Expectations are high, Managers hard to please, and leaves are rare. But we all knew that this was the moment. We were staring at a very plausible scenario of having a get together in each other's marriage. It had to be this year!

It was decided then, a road trip to Leh in the month of July. But lazy lads that we are, we only picked a date, and decided to postpone everything else. We were after all "MBAs"! Soon it was the month of June and our trip was only 15 days away. To our dismay, we were yet to create a travel itinerary. We proudly call us managers but the concept of time management always eludes us. Although, the good part with an all friends trip is you can make decisions in a jiffy. And so all it took was one hangout, and a brief amount of research, to create an itinerary. What followed was a crazy amount of travelogue reading, day dreaming and multiple shopping visits. We were (almost) ready!

Fast forward to 4th of July, it was 2 pm when we reached Manali from Delhi. The moment we entered Manali, we were treated to mighty mountains and flowing rivers. In spite of the tumultuous bus journey, we were astoundingly fresh. It was definitely news for us because we are used to feeling dull and down in the afternoon. It is only when you visit such places that you realize why you hate your usual, mundane life. Slave to the corporate evil, condemned to dance around the whims of others. But that is another story altogether. Important thing was we were all there, and the real fun was only a day away.

The first thing on our list was getting good vehicular transportation. We knew that to make this trip a success, the most essential part was getting good rides. You would not want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with your bullets refusing to budge an inch. So, after visiting three stores and doing 6-7 test rides, we finalized our bullets. Surprising enough, we got relatively newer ones and that too in mint operational condition. I stressed on getting 500ccs (as I own one), and I absolutely love that crazy feeling of power. Oh yes! I am a bullet fan!

Next stop was Solang valley. We had read on a blog that Solang would help us acclimatize to higher altitudes, prior to our stay at Sarchu. It was getting darker but with Solang Valley only 11 kms away, we were game for it. Lucky for us, we found a perfect place to stay, right besides the Beas river. We were all set for our trip next morning at 6.

Solang to Sarchu:

We started early to avoid the famous traffic jam of Rohtang Pass. And it proved to be a good decision indeed. Road was pretty slick and scenic, and we were soon love-struck. Waterfalls, Valleys, Snow, Greenery, the bike nearly glides. But once we crossed Rohtang, gliding turned into bumping, and lo and behold the first challenge. If you are lucky, it would not have rained in the past 2 or 3 days. If it did, you are in for a rough, although equally entertaining, ride. The road becomes muddy, waterlogged, and is downhill, so you need to be extra cautious. But personally, this is the stretch which makes you realize that you are not on just any road trip, but the Holy Grail of biking.

The bumps continued till Koksar where we took a well-deserved breakfast break. Thereafter the next stop was Darcha which was again a breezy ride.

Once we crossed Darcha, the landscape changed entirely and we were greeted by narrow roads. Often we found gushing streams which blocked our way. The only way forward included crossing these streams along with the bikes. Exhilarating, adventurous, and a breathtaking experience it was. When you feel the river crossing beneath, you get this huge adrenaline rush which was a first for me. This was the day I realized why riding is different from driving. Why do I prefer to ride, and what was I missing in all my years as a rider. This was easily the highlight of the day.

Roads improved near Baralacha La, and we were soon riding in snow-capped mountains. Baralacha La pass is definitely one of the more scenic passes on the entire route. Layers of snow which emit a golden tint because of the sunlight, these truly were pristine lands. The pass also marked our first interaction with AMS and oxygen deficiency, but we were excited enough to overcome it and hence continued forward.

After crossing Baralacha La, road conditions became bad again but the landscape compensated for more than enough of it. Once we crossed Bharatpur, we were riding more on the river streams rather than roads. It was almost dark when we reached Sarchu. Tired from the ride, we hurriedly booked a tent and crashed on the beds.

Places crossed: Rohtang Pass, Tandi, Keylong, Jispa, Darcha, Baralacha La Pass, Bharatpur

Points to note:

  • Start early to avoid the traffic jam at Rohtang Pass.
  • Rain gear is an absolute must, including gum boots
  • Fill up your tanks, and the extra cans, at Tandi. There is no petrol pump till Leh after that
  • Cross the stretch from Darcha to Sarchu as early as possible. The water level rises in the river streams
  • You may feel dizzy and breathless at Baralacha La . If you do, park your bike and ensure that you rest for some time. Deep breaths often are the solution. In worse cases, take medicine.
  • Whenever you see a mechanic, ask for a routine check of brakes, tire pressure. There are a few shops in Keylong.

Sarchu to Leh:

We were right in the middle of the place known for its ability to induce altitude sickness in even the best of us. We feared the worst for night stay, but it was not so bad. Headaches, slightly feverish but nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe the Solang valley stay did help us acclimatize to the higher altitudes. The only downside was that we were looking at late start from Sarchu, around 8:30 am.

Once we left Sarchu, the landscape changed dramatically and brown became the dominant color. We were treated to barren mountains with only a few snow-capped peaks. It did help us to pick up speed and soon we were staring at the famous Gata Loops. For people who are unaware, Gata loops are a series of 21 loops crafted ingenuously in the mountains. They were a humbling experience as we carefully maneuvered our bikes along these loops. View from the top was certainly rewarding.

Next came Nakeela Pass, and after moving further up, we reached Lachunglula Pass. Road thereafter turned a bit challenging as it was all dust and mud, but we crossed some breathtaking valleys and landscapes. This is the road which tests your patience as well as the riding skills. Crossing this will take you to Pang. We took a sigh of relief as the hardest stretch of the road was done and dusted, literally. Post Pang came my favorite part of the journey. The road descended into this mindbogglingly gorgeous valley. What was even better was this dead straight, freshly made road which transcended us into pure bliss. Never before did I ride amongst such beautiful landscapes.

Further up, we reached Tanglang La which is, arguably, the world’s second highest motorable road in the world. It gives you a sense of achievement but you do not celebrate much as Khardungla is still in store. After Tanglang La, we mostly drove on lowlands and the road conditions are much better too.

Once we crossed Upshi, we could almost sense our destination. We were treated to some exquisite landscape, and had the mighty Indus for company. Soon we were greeted by bustling city traffics, and there are no second guesses for this destination. With the city boasting of a full fledged airport, this did not come as a surprise.

Places crossed: Gata Loops, Nakeela Pass, Lachulungla Pass, Pang, Tanglangla Pass, Upshi

Points to Note:

  • Tanglang La is the second highest motorable pass. Do not spend too much time here as you will be severely short of breath
  • There are off-roading stretches once you cross Pang. Give it a try but only if you are familiar with off-roading
  • There will be stretches which offer super smooth and no traffic conditions. Let your brains guide you and not the brawns

Leh to Khardungla Pass:

This was the moment for which I had waited long. Since you start riding a bike, there are stories you often hear about the best roads to ride a bike on. There are also stories about the most challenging roads to drive on. The second is what I believe is the stuff of legends. As soon as I heard about Khardungla pass, the highest motorable pass in the world, I simply had to ride on it. And here it was the D-day, 8th July a Wednesday. While there is nothing new that you encounter on the road, you are often greeted by road signs like “Avalanche prone area”, “Landslides prone area”. You drive a little further up and this is where the fun starts. Snow, water streams, bad roads, all combined is what road till Khardungla entails. It makes you earn your right to drive on the highest motorable road in the world. However, once I reached the top and the initial excitement died down, I was a little disappointed. It was not because of the place, but this huge crowd of people with complete disregard for social manners. Shouting, throwing garbage, and paying no respect to the nature around. It was disheartening to see the lack of respect they showed towards mother nature, and also BRO who work so hard to make the place accessible. You tend to think about how we as a society are going backwards when it comes to social development. But, again, that story is for some other day.

Leh to Pangong and back: This was done on a rented cab, so will not be able to do justice to the description.

Leh to Magnetic Hill/Sangam:

With so much riding on treacherous passes, and non-existent roads, this is one stretch which helps you ease your body screws. Smooth roads along with beautiful landscapes, this route has a buttery feeling that tends to ease your nerves. And of course, once you see the Magnetic Hill, you have to bow down to its might. For people who are unaware, Magnetic Hill is popular among riders because of it's fabled magnetic force enough to attract any vehicle. My interest was not in the phenomenon per se but the landscape. The might of the hill does make you stand up and take notice.

Post Magnetic Hill lies a place known as Sangam, where Indus and Zanskar rivers meet. This is indeed a grand spectacle which will invite your attention almost as much as the Magnetic Hill. We did a short rafting trip, which turned out to be way more adventurous than we expected (our raft burst!!). But it was all part of a big plan I guess.

Leh To Manali (stopping at Sissu, 400 kms from Leh)

The day we had to start our journey back, we decided to cover as much ground in a single day as possible. We started very early, close to 5 am, but little did we know the Gods had other plans. It rained the entire day, with the intensity ranging from light showers to small hailstorms. Perhaps it was God’s way of making our return journey a wee bit more interesting. Freezing temperatures, misty roads, and the bullet, I found the perfect combination that day. However, it also made me realize how difficult riding could be in such conditions. Roads were slippery and visibility was close to half a km. To make matters worse, I was riding alone. Solo riding does give you an extra thrill, and at the same time, you become so much more aware of your skills, as well as the surroundings. It was a unique experience!

Surprisingly, we covered 400 kms on that day and halted at Sissu at around 5 pm. There was an urge to push towards Manali on the same day, but we did not take any chance as the roads in Rohtang can be a bit tricky, especially while going uphill.

The next day, we started towards Manali, and as expected we were greeted by Muddy roads and a lot of sludge. It was kinda fun to ride in those conditions with the only downside being getting soaked in the mud all over. Even that was entertaining. Took us 3 hours to reach Manali. To our surprise, Manali had a different look and feel with all the rainfall. It was lush green, and clouds had descended on the roads. Our trip was indeed blessed!

Few pointers for a successful trip:

  • If this is your dream bike trip, and you are renting bikes from Manali, make sure you spend enough time on finding the right bike. All bikes are different. Take test rides and take the one which feels right
  • Needless to say, get the spare parts (clutch cable, spare tube, spark plug, Tire inflator)
  • Carry extra Petrol (~10 lts for bike). There is a 365 km stretch which has no option available
  • Mountain riding has a golden rule: Start early, reach early, and take proper rest
  • Dedicate two sets of clothes as the riding clothes. They will be getting muddy, wet, stained

Rest all I can say is All the best! Personally, I believe I am a much better rider now than the one who started. I wish you experience something similar, if not more.

May the force be with you! Ride safe, and ride hard!