To Ladakh & back: A life-altering road-trip ##BestOfTravel

Tripoto
2nd Sep 2017

As the snowstorm cleared over Khardungla Top..

Photo of To Ladakh & back: A life-altering road-trip ##BestOfTravel by Writer Sam

I’ll begin by acknowledging the love and support we received from all of family and friends. Yes, thanks to them and our machines, we 4 brothers (The Biker Brotherhood) have accomplished the journey from Mumbai to Ladakh and back (a journey of 6000 kms) over a period of 18 days; both machines and men coming back in the best of health.

Day 1

As the designated writer amongst the brothers, i pondered over ways to write about our experience in a manner which would appeal to readers across ages and inspire atleast a few to take up a journey which could become life altering, if not enhancing. Through posts in FB, i have already shared few highlights from our trip, at times day wise and at times clubbing them. I wrote a detailed piece on our preparation as well. For the comprehensive travelogue though, i felt a need to convey few messages; which we brothers have discerned through our experience of being on road. Instead of only being a chronological detailing of events, this travelogue intends to touch upon few of our best memories (day wise) and how they left an ever-lasting impression on us; and may strike a chord with you too in your lives.

Day 1 → Mumbai → Ratlam

Waking up before sunrise, all packed and thrilled, we said fond farewells to better halves, parents and siblings and were flagged off (rather photographed off) from the front gate. Our route was planned in advance and so was our formation. Ansu led on the Avenger (bike), Anand followed in his Thunderbird (bike) and i, Vinod took the wheel of Xcent (car) while Kuttan sat next to me.

The sunrise was surreal and the beautiful orange light filled up not only the skies, but also our hearts. Catching up each other at the toll gates, our excitement at having started the trip boosted our speeds and before long we were riding up the Kasara ghat section (hilly roads). The misty hills were a welcome sight and (ironically) cleared any apprehensions we had in our hearts. Each one of us was smiling visibly, all the while focusing on riding / drively safely on the road. Both me and Ansu were familiar with the route till Nashik, as we had both ridden / driven across the stretch multiple times.

The reason for the smiles became clearer when we stopped for breakfast. Ordering our 1st tea (chai) of hundreds to come ahead, we looked at each other and i exclaimed “So it begins. Finally we have started. Now, we know we’ll complete this no matter what happens”. Nods of ‘I feel you, bro! We’ll do it’ appeared instantly on the faces of all the other 3.

Yes, Ansu had set the goal. “We’ll ride all the way to Ladakh and back”, he had said. We all had jumped in and attached ourselves to his vision. Throughout the preparation time, there were multiple hurdles including persuading family, funding and leave planning, but kudos to him to sticking to the basic goal. Multiple options were put up including flying or travelling via train (with or without our machines), renting bikes from delhi / manali, etc. But, he was adamant. We had to ride and come back all the way on our own machines, there was no other way, we were getting this done. And at that restaurant (which served excellent Chole Bhature, btw), we knew that we had started.

In hindsight, i can of course take pride in the fact that we met our goal. But for that day to arrive, it was vital that we set a goal, didn’t compromise on it and got started. My proudest moment from the trip was there, at that restaurant coz it had begun. We had taken that first step (or wheelturn, if i may)

"So it begins.."

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

Posing before the start

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

Thanks for the awards which our family gave us

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam
Day 2

Day 2→ Ratlam → Jaipur

To be honest, the first day was tiring. We had covered almost 600 kms. We weren’t used to that. The 2nd day was to be equally taxing and the aftertaste of the delicious MP special breakfast of poha (best i’ve had), kachori and crisp jalebis soon vanished when we hit the road. Rains lashed at us and we took breaks to sip more chai and filled up our own bellies while our rides had their fill of petrol.

The climate remained adverse till we crossed on to Rajasthan (the desert state seemingly shuns the rain clouds). Throughout the journey, we had a plan of alternating between bikes and cars in a manner of ensuring each 1 of us rested atleast once a day. We called this ‘resting’, but it was the guy sitting in the car next to the driver who was the busiest. While not photographing with 2 DSLR’s and multiple smartphones, he had to manage the music especially to the taste of the driver, scour for snacks from backseat and feed the driver, all the while navigating to ensure that the best possible routes were taken.

I was handling the ‘resting’ duty by the time we were nearing Chittorgarh. Amidst multitasking, i missed a left turn on the highway and Kuttan (driver) naturally took the route most vehicles were taking up. I realized my folly a minute later when google announced a re-route which took us through the town. My initial panic turned to worry when i spotted traffic ahead in the map which would mean a delay (and as mentioned earlier, Jaipur was a good distance ahead). However, all that dissolved when the traffic turned out to be negligible and before joining back the highway, we got a mesmerising glimpse of the high walls of the ancient fort city of ‘Chittorgarh’ gleaming in the sun.

A day back when we were studying the route, Anand had asked whether we would be able to see the fort. The route we meant to take would not have made that happen. Whether it was a coincidence or just plain luck, the wrong route led to a pleasant surprise. As someone said, wrong turns may sometimes lead to right places.

Filling their bellies..

Photo of Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

During a short break on the highway

Photo of Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 3

Day 3 → Jaipur → Chandigarh

It was a day dedicated to animals. Starting from the pretty looking locust on our hotel balcony (yes, macro shots were taken); the cows and their calves which had the utmost confidence to either graze on the grass / plants grown on the dividers of the highways bringing them to the fastest lane or to chew the cud sitting calmly on any of the other lanes (all vehicles made way for them, even the biggest of trucks); the buffaloes which were sometimes big enough to occupy multiple lanes when they adopted their lazy gait (thankfully in the slow lane); the dogs, some alive and active on the side lanes, but many of them dead with their entails lying mangled on fast lanes (presumably hit by speeding trucks when the animals would have tried crossing the roads); even few horses and mules by the side of the road or grazing inside farms.

We were all fond of one instance where all of us were riding / driving close to each other when we spotted a herd of cattle crossing the main highway. We stopped to let the entire stretch of hundreds of locally bred cattle pass through, delighted to see their huge shapely horns and their confident walk. Waving and shouting back ‘Ram Ram Sa’, a local rajasthani greeting to the cow herders, we rode on.

Over our journey, we met many more animals including donkeys, wild ass, yaks, pashmina goats, sheeps, marmots and even red fox (Day 9). However, every time we glimpsed and veered to avoid yet another dog carcass, we muttered a silent prayer and realized how as humans, while we breed animals for our own needs, we also lead many others to their untimely deaths through deliberate or unknown actions.

The world is as much theirs, as it is ours and it’d surely be a better world if we learn to live in it together. Please don’t get me wrong here, i’m not marketing for PETA. But we admit, it’s a cause to care for.

Cattle crossing

Photo of Jaipur, Rajasthan, India by Writer Sam
Day 4

Day 4 → Chandigarh → McLeod Ganj

Punjab, the land of the big hearted turban wearing punjabi’s, a land of passion where people don’t hide any emotions, be it happiness (with a booming laugh) or be it anger (the loud voice becoming louder); was also a beautiful state to ride through. The highways were full of tractors and mini trucks carrying produce as well as people and green fields adorned the sides; reflecting the farming profession.

Our bikes required abit of washing, greasing and tightening after the marathon runs and the sun was blazing atop our heads by the time we left Chandigarh (not before munching on pizza); we were bound to the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh and the distance was much lesser than what we covered in the past days. The first stretch through the highways was covered in quick time and after crossing the famous gurudwaras, we chose to stop at a bakery cum sweet shop for some chai and snacks.

An aged uncle (of course with a turban) was sitting next to our table; he was on the slimmer side and was dressed little shabbily. When we got our tea, he addressed Kuttan and asked him something in punjabi (we assumed so, as he couldn’t make out any words); Kuttan naturally judged the person as someone pestering for money and avoided him. But, the uncle persisted with his statements. This continued for about 5 minutes; Kuttan was getting perturbed and by the time we were about to leave, i listened to the uncle carefully trying to use my little knowledge of his language (my wife is a punjabi), and realized that all he was asking was how much did the chai cost in that shop; poor guy was deciding whether to order a chai based on his budget. I answered his query and Kuttan, now all smiles, declared him as his ‘new best friend’.

It was a lesson for us to not judge a person beforehand; prejudice blinded us initially before we realized our foolishness. Ahead in the day, we also met a solo rider (all the way from Kerala) on his way for 2.5 months long ride across India, Nepal and Bhutan. Our experience earlier may have helped us to talk to him. share another chai and listen to some of his adventures from his earlier trips to Spiti. During the rest of our sojourn, we met multiple strangers and never again felt an urge to judge beforehand. Our trip became much richer, thanks to this incident.

Goods transport, people travel for free

Photo of Chandigarh, India by Writer Sam

Our solo rider friend (one on the bike)

Photo of Chandigarh, India by Writer Sam
Day 5

Day 5 → McLeod Ganj & Dharamshala

We had crossed 2000 kms in 4 days and the late night ride on Day 4 where we had to climb up the hill station on narrow upward curving lanes and the search for the hotel (google maps confusing us further) had taken the winds out of us. We had a consensus to take a day off and stay put. The morning sun’s rays streaming in a straight line from behind the mountain fighting the chilly mists was the scene we woke upto and the day continued to remain beautiful.

The lane width meant we chose only to use bikes to ride around the town. Our first stop was Bhagsunag waterfalls, a short walk through a temple bringing us to the spot where the icy cold fresh water splashed down from a good height amidst lush green forests into the valley. Few rapids at the base of the falls provided us the photo op and then we rode down to the valley of Dharamshala; our priority was the cricket stadium which we had seen only on TV. The stadium was as pretty as any you find in India, but the himalayan vista made it special.

Momo’s (south asian dumpling of Tibetan origin) were being served on a street cart outside the stadium and we couldn’t resist but gorge on both the fried and steamed versions, before repeating them. Goli soda (aerated drink unique for their bottles corked with marble) attracted us as well and we ensured 2 rounds of the drink which has become a rarity in cities.

McLeod Ganj has Tibetan settlement (also being the abode of H.H.Dalai Lama); a warm bunch who preserve their culture carefully; we chose to ride back up the hill for our lunch. Anand recalled that he had heard about ‘Norling’ restaurant when he saw the signage and we trundled into the small seating area and wondered whether we were in the right place. The menu was limited but included many words which we were unfamiliar. All 4 agreed to order all those items which we haven’t heard of. And within few minutes, we had a table full of thupka (hot & steamy noodle broth), thenthuka (hand pulled noodle soup), kothey (half fried/steamed momos) and tingmo (white steamed bun ). Washing down the food items with the famous and delicious butter tea (containing yak butter and salt), we were all passionately discussing our favourite among what we ate. I garnered most votes for my pick — ‘kothey’.

It was a lunch memory which remained with us, as we had chosen to try out something new and local. Our confidence to keep trying new things did get a boost there and now continues to reflect in our lives.

Monks rejoicing in front of Bhagsunag falls

Photo of McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 6

Day 6 → McLeod Ganj → Manali

We knew hills could be tricky for riding post sunset and on Day 4 had experienced it first hand. The rest day had dissolved our weariness and we were adamant on leaving early morning before the sun rose. And we proceeded thus downhill from McLeod Ganj towards Manali (which we thought akin to our base camp to Ladakh).

The sun rose soon lighting our spirits and the hilly vistas opened up revealing valleys adorned by pine trees, curvy roads, grazing cattle, bridges across merrily flowing streams and at times, unnamed waterfalls which would put even the named ones to shame.

The roads soon turned dangerous with deep gorges on the sides and awkwardly cut out mountains on the other; the single lane highways with blind curves adding to the challenge. Just as other riders, we were caught in between enjoying the scenery and focusing on the road. River Beas soon showed up and we know she’ll keep company till Manali. Passing through a long lit tunnel, we soon reached Kullu (Manali’s sister city). We stopped for snacks on a restaurant by the river side and had a gala time with their pet dogs and the seating which was right by the river.

We had made a habit of booking hotels typically on the 2nd half of the day as we’d by then have an indication of where we’d get to by the end of the day; at times we booked online if we liked some hotels; when we weren’t sure, we called up 1–2 hotels and blocked the rooms; so that we could visit, negotiate and then decide whether to stay or not.

The last stretch towards Manali had alternate route options (one on either side of the river) and with google’s advice we took the narrower route which ended up with our car getting stuck in multiple places due to oncoming truck traffic. The mighty himalayas loomed ahead and the first sight was enough to fill our hearts with energy.

By the time, the car stumbled into the town, it got dark; but the bikers had gone ahead to check-in at the hotel. Luckily we had time enough to come to the market and apply online for the permit to carry us across Rohtang pass into Leh, before the shops closed for the night. A delay would have meant another day in Manali to obtain permits and may have derailed our plans.

We were glad to have started early and that learning stayed with us across the expedition.

Fun at riverside

Photo of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

The first glimpse

Photo of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Didn't need a name to mesmerize

Photo of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 7

Day 7 → Manali → Jispa

Mountains were calling, and we were at the foothills. All we had to do was climb.

We prepared for it. Petrol stations are understandably sparse on the route to Leh and most of the blogs we read recommended us to carry petrol cans with us. So we did fill up 45 ltrs in 3 cans and went through the struggle of placing them in the car’s boot. I thought i loved the smell of gasoline, but realized soon that it got to the brain after sometime. The smell soon vanished though when we opened all the windows and let the fresh breeze come in. It wasn’t cold yet. We began the ascent.

The car soon started to trail behind the bikes as the roads started becoming narrower and u-turns and s-turns gave good workout to both the arms and legs of the driver; while the bikes had their own sorts of trouble. First target was the Rohtang pass (famous for the view it provides as well as the snow cover allowing tourists from Manali to enjoy the snow and be back for evening tea). Rohtang was notorious for it’s traffic snarls and we expected roads to be worse too. To our astonishment, the road leading to Rohtang was all classy and one could say, we hardly spotted a pothole till we reached the top. We were dressed for cold, but snow was nowhere to be seen at the summit; and we were glad our trip hadn’t ended there. We had many more summits ahead to target and we knew a few would definitely test our resistance to cold.

After shooting panaromas when me and Kuttan shifted to bikes beginning the descent; the climate changed both in the heavens and on the earth. It began drizzling slightly and the way started turning from smooth roads to rough roads to gravel to boulders to slush and mud. It became narrower as well and convoys of military trucks and civilian trucks had left the roads in a mess (we coined the term ‘no roads’ for this stretch). We were initially aiming for Sarchu; but with the going becoming slower and even the ‘Alien Dabba’ ensured we were delayed.

When we had given up on the hope of finding better roads, BRO (Border Roads Organization) saved our day with newly built roads from Sissu onwards. We regrouped (car took a while to catch up though) and again picked up good speed through Keylong and neared Jispa when Anand spotted a nice array of white tents next to the icy blue coloured Bhag river nestled between gigantic mountain peaks on either side. It was only about 5 in the evening; but as soon as he proposed we stop for enquiry, our hearts gave in and after a quick negotiation, we checked in to a cozy tent.

Sun soon set and we got our first chance at a long conversation over snacks where the seniors (especially me) gave unsolicited advice to the young Kuttan. It included a piece, we had just experienced during the day’s ride. Good roads may lead to bad roads; but don’t give up hope; good roads shall be waiting again in the next turn. So, ride on.

Water hadn't yet turned to ice

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

The climb to Rohtang

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

At Rohtang Top, all swag

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 8

Day 8 → Jispa → Upshi

If i had to pick 1 day out of the 18 days where we were overawed by nature, it’d be Day 8. We left again before sunrise (slightly shivering in morning cold); the peak tops were already glittering in sun light; it took time for the light to shine down on the roads though.

Zipping through Jispa, we came to Zing zing bar (the roads swinging zig zag) but again well laid so we could speed on till Sarchu, where we stopped for breakfast. Nature started revealing it’s best post Sarchu where the Tsarap river formed ‘out-of-this-world’ looking gorges with vertical sand formations which would rival the best of human artists. Many passes followed; few tested us like Barlach La with it’s bouncy paths strewn with boulders; Nakee La which we reached through 24 uphill s-turns (the haunted Gata loops) where we took a break and both me and Anand couldn’t resist answering nature’s call at 16000 ft and ended up emptying our bowels on the shrubs atop the pass looking at the most brilliant view no other toilet in the world could offer (shivering and out of breath too, i’d add), we also stacked up our 7 stone pile (a tibetan custom for good luck, we think) near the mile stone wishing for success in our journey; Tanglang La chilled us to our bones when we wrongly decided (and realized later) to switch over and exchange biker jackets.

However, the highlight of the day was our ride through what they call Morey (Or More) plains; geographically a stretch of 40 kms from Pang towards Leh; but metaphorically a path to the heavens crafted by gods to provide immeasurable bliss to those who chose to tread the course and when those destined become lucky like us; the sun shines golden across the path to light up the brown hills looming in the horizon and the road itself turns out to be made of pure silk where the rider gets drawn into a state of trance and thanks the universe for his existence.

Forgive me, if i got lost in my words in that last para; but to be honest it’s a futile effort to put an unforgettable experience into mere words, try as one may. Nature rules, right from the universe till our bowels, and it was a day for us to realize that and respect it; while enjoying and cherishing the experience it brought us.

Tsarap river gorge

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Thunder posing with our stonepile

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

There, the sun shines atop

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Paradise.

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Ansu, thanking his bike n nature

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 9

Day 9 → Upshi → Leh

We woke up in the small, but cozy guest house in Upshi which we had found late on Day 8 after crossing Tanglang La and had chosen to stay as it was already dark with Leh a good distance ahead. But this was supposed to be our highlight day; the day we target the famous pinnacle of Khardung La (claimed by BRO as the tallest motorable road in the world). We were a day behind our schedule (coz of the break day in McLeod Ganj) and were aiming to do K-Top and visit places near Leh on the same day.

But as soon as we left the guest house, the police checkpost ahead of us halted us and informed that due to Leh city marathon, all roads to the town were blocked till 2pm. We felt crest fallen and all the enthusiasm of the morning suddenly started vanishing. But something in the air made me positive and i encouraged the guys to ride back along the Indus river to find a spot where we could wash our vehicles (dusty and worn they looked); and we did find a perfect spot where the car could go off road and stop just next to the clear waters of the Indus (Sindhu river as it used to be called ages ago). Ansu and me got the empty cans filled with river water and started washing, Kuttan helping and Anand as always, clicking away. Although it was tiring, at the end of it, when the machines gleamed in sunlight, i recall saying to Ansu that it was good we did this, we never get to do this back home. Somehow, the bond between man and machine strengthened that day.

After spending around an hour more on the river bank playing blackjack with pebbles (instead of cash), we headed back to the checkpost by around 12pm hoping to persuade the policeman. He did relent and let us proceed on our way warning about blockades ahead. Luckily for us, as we approached the city all blockades had been removed and after a quick lunch, we were off to Leh and through the town took up the ascent to Khardung La. And it was an ascent to remember.

The pass was infamous for it’s bad roads and i had warned my brothers about same basis my past experience. However, BRO had re-laid roads half the way uptill the checkpost where we stopped only to be informed of another permit to be obtained, which we hadn’t. Anand convinced the cop that we were not planning to cross over to Nubra valley, and will return by evenfall and blessedly, he waved us off.

But before we sat back on our rides, the weather changed and light particles of ice started descending in slow motion from the atmosphere (yes, a snowfall, but it was my first ever). It was also a first for Kuttan and both Ansu and Anand were also beaming. Not wanting to waste daylight, we started off again, only for the snow to worsen and the roads did the same too. I was driving, Kuttan with me and Ansu and Anand on their own bikes; it became much colder with the snow getting thicker and visibility started reducing. Suddenly the snow vanished, the clouds moved away and sun shone upon us revealing a scene across the valley below which is best seen, than described.

We completed the ascent with sun shining on our backs and the snow which had accumulated on the biker’s jackets quickly dissolved. Customary photoshoots and tea/maggi on the cafe at the top followed before we headed back and me and Kuttan chanced upon the red fox (native to Ladakh region) twice while riding down after twilight.

Many days later (Day 15), when we were discussing about our best memories from the trip, me and Ansu pointed out that it was Day 9, but the memory was the one near the Indus river when we bonded with our machines. It was an activity which was never in our plans and a setback led to one of the most cherished memories.

Riding towards K-Top

Photo of Upshi, Leh by Writer Sam

Approaching Indus river bank

Photo of Upshi, Leh by Writer Sam

Once the snowstorm passed.

Photo of Upshi, Leh by Writer Sam

Ready for another days ride

Photo of Upshi, Leh by Writer Sam

K-Top Joy!!

Photo of Upshi, Leh by Writer Sam
Day 10

Day 10 → Leh → Pangong Tso

Next on our list of must do’s was a visit to Pangong Tso (the lake lying at the borders of India with a major part of it cutting across to China) and since we had permits to obtain; me and Anand took off early for same while Ansu and Kuttan got busy repacking the stuff we needed for 2 days into 2 bags. Our host at the hotel was kind enough to offer us parking space for our car and let the remaining luggage stay in our room (without charging us room rent for 2 days); little did we know then that generosity would be theme for the day.

So we ended up taking only the bikes with a can of petrol each tied up and headed towards Karu, from where a diversion led to Chang La (2nd highest motorable pass as per BRO). As we started climbing up the pass from Karu, 2 teen monks waved and bid us to stop and requested us for some petrol. They had a bike and were on the way to Leh but had gone empty before they reached Karu. Ansu immediately accepted and they produced a bottle which we filled up with a litre (we had 5 each in our cans and the bikes were full too). The taller monk immediately offered Rs. 200 (petrol is sold at Rs. 130 in pangong as against market price of Rs. 70); which i instantly refused saying that it was only a gesture of help, not a sale.

Across Chang La, we rode through the most dynamic and striking series of landscape ranging from marshy lands, grasslands, white sand deserts (dunes with wind shaped patterns) and even a gurgling stream of freezing water flowing downhill with a layer of brown moss near its banks; all these surrounded by tall mountains of differing stone types and colours rising up till the snow wrapped their peaks.

Sun went down behind the hills and we were on the last stretch towards lake when a lady waved us down. Anand was riding ahead with Kuttan in pillion and the lady asked whether any of us could ride a bike and help them reach Pangong. They were 4 people on 2 bikes, 3 guys and a lady. I noticed that the shorter guy’s helmet visor was broken and he was talking harshly about another guy who seemed in a drunken stupor and was adamant on riding the other bike. Before i could intervene, Kuttan had started the bike which they had and the lady took up his pillion seat; with the small guy hopping in behind Anand. The other taller guy (sober one) was trying his best to convince the drunk one to sit behind him but was not winning the argument. It was getting late and i had to ask the other bikers to follow me and leave the taller guys to look after themselves. Riding ahead and pausing after a minute, i questioned the lady regarding their stay arrangements whereupon we were informed that they were a part of a bigger group which had gone ahead in a cab and they were yet to book any hotel. As gentlemen, we agreed to help her find her friends and to our luck, we found them just near to the lake. We dropped the lady, the short guy and the bike to them smiling at their thank you shouts, but warned them to avoid any drunk riding / driving in these places where nature itself gives you a high.

Earlier during our trip from McLeod Ganj to Manali, i had given lift to an old uncle while Anand gave same help to a policeman. Although these were some instances of providing help to those who asked, we realized that many a time in the city, we didn’t even do the same as we mistrusted strangers. After dinner at the hotel where we checked in, we discussed about our day as usual (i used to make a list of highlights for the day for the travelogue), Kuttan insisted we note these 2 instances as mentioned above. A help given in need makes you feel happy indeed.

That perfect road with a view

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Ride and Pillion 'fie

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Grass, marsh, stream and mountain

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam
Day 11

Day 11 →Pangong Tso → Leh

It was to be a day for epic photographs. We anticipated that well and were up much earlier before sun rise; i knew the perfect spot to take them to (from my previous visit here) and got all 3 ready to follow me as we went on a short ride from where we stayed on the road by the lake and then going off road through stony path and slippery sand right to the bank of Tso Pangong, undoubtedly one of the most famous lakes in the country.

Dawn had started to break and we had a perfect setting, the vast lake in front of us with hills in the horizon behind which the sun was about to rise and at our back were tall mountains where clouds still spilled snow; a cold breeze was blowing as we all waited for the sunrise. There were 3 sitting benches (made as tribute to a hindi movie called 3 idiots which was shot at the lake side); me, Kuttan and Ansu sat on it while Anand scouted for various camera angles to capture the scene at its best.

Kuttan and Anand were talking about time lapses and were upset with the clouds which was blocking the sun when i hushed them by shouting ‘2 minute to chup raho yaar (atleast stay quiet for 2 minutes). They did listen to me at that time (though rarely afterwards ;)) as we enjoyed a blissful sunrise captured beautifully in a timelapse video by Kuttan.

Once the sun started shining brightly, i started walking towards the sandbar at our left and Anand joined me. We walked on for few minutes in silence. Anand stopped midway while i went on to the centre of the sandbar from where one could see the lake on both sides. I dipped my hands in the water and it turned to be slightly warm, or the cold breeze tugging me may have given me that illusion. I sat down by the lake and enjoyed staring at the water where minor ripples of waves were forming and moving towards the land gracefully breaking into the sand driving the small pebbles back and forth. There were little birds hopping on the bank pecking at something. A few sea gulls were around as well, some dipping into the water and i wondered who fed them as i had read that the lake lacked any aquatic life. The sun was starting to play it’s magic on the water and depending where you looked, the water colour ranged from silver to grey to myriad shades of blue which i can never hope to describe.

Looking back, i saw that each brother was enjoying a bit lone time for themselves. Anand was wandering about, Kuttan tried some photographs and then handed over the camera to Ansu. We regrouped after a while and took the bikes across the bank to the sandbar to get some choice shots of the bike with the lake’s background.

Snow fell abit again before we headed back to Leh. We all knew we had found a semblance of peace in that morning by the lakeside. Sometimes, silence alone can provide the answer one seeks.

Shimmering like silk

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Dwarfed

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

And the sun rises..

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

4 idiots by the lake (4th one behind the camera)

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Some pics don't need captions

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Silent conversations

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Love triangle?

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Behold the mighty, said the tiny

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

The sandbar

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Silent conversations again

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam

Once the colours come out

Photo of Pangong Tso by Writer Sam
Day 12

Day 12 → Leh day

It was Kuttan’s birthday. After arriving from Pangong on Day 11, we had bought some pastry cakes and had Kuttan cut them again followed by the customary song and cake smearing on his face. Waking up abit late, we chose the car to take us around Leh (bikes finally getting a rest day) and veered towards Srinagar-Leh highway; glistening tarmac helped speed and in no time, we had reached ‘The Hall of Fame”.

Throughout the past days, once we crossed Manali, we had spotted military convoys carrying both supplies and personnel from the valleys to the camps in the mountains. We never failed to wave and salute the soldiers and they never failed to wave back or respond with a nod even when driving through the ‘no roads’. Indian Army has a strong presence in Ladakh which has witnessed multiple wars before and after our independence where we have fought both of our neighbours Pakistan and China. I suggested a cafe next to the monument for breakfast and as we were munching, Kuttan drew a sketch of our ‘Biker brotherhood’ logo along with a thanks message to the Army on a napkin and pinned it to a board in the cafe. Ansu had a special attachment with defence forces as he had tried without success, to enroll into the National Defence Academy during his college days.

The indoor hall itself was arranged orderly with sections describing Ladakh’s history, culture, traditions, flora and fauna and then moving on to the war section describing each war through words, photos and memorabilia (including weapons, letters and ID cards captured from enemy across border) and aptly praising all major operations and army personnel involved in them with a hall dedicated to all the heroes honored with gallantry awards. There was a special section dedicated to operations in Siachen (world’s highest battlefield) where sub-zero temperatures are a norm. Outside the hall, decommissioned Jeeps, spitzers and armored vans repainted in army colors made us recall bollywood movies dedicated to the armed forces.

Exit from the indoor hall led to an open memorial monument dedicated to those soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the nation aptly accompanied by an Amar Jyoti Flame (eternal lamp) and complemented by the ever fluttering flags and the roar of the Cheetah helicopter as it took off to drop yet another package to Siachen. There was another section, a Tribute to our Heroes adorned by a semi-circle of plaques mentioned names of the fallen.

As the new generation, we had lived through the Kargil war of 1999 with Pakistan and even though very young to understand the impact of war, always admired the resilience of soldiers in the battlefront who valued their mission above their own lives. Many atimes, we civilians fail to recognize their contribution, but the least we could do is pay our respects by visiting these monuments. The Army has a slogan for that as well — “When you go home, tell them of us. For their tomorrow, we gave our today”.

We moved on to Patthar Sahib (a gurudwara, temple of the sikhs) and also took multiple pics on the highway near The Magnetic Hill before heading back to Sanchi stupa to witness the twilight sweeping the town.

Nevertheless, the highlight of the day remained the memorial and the thought that Soldiers never die, they become immortal in memory.

Saluting our heroes

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Sketch by kuttan

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Military convoy

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

At the Changla Top

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

The tribute

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Heads held high

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam

Fun at magnetic hill road

Photo of Leh by Writer Sam
Day 13

Day 13 → Leh → Jispa (The Return)

It was time to return. This return journey (although sounds boring) was the most critical aspect; you’d recall our goal was from Mumbai to Ladakh and back. Although it may have felt like a hugely successful trip till date, we had our share of failures too. We hadn’t adhered to our schedule well enough, a day’s rest in McLeod Ganj, and another one spent in Leh town meant that our journey to Tso Moriri (another lake at an even more remote location than Pangong) had to be dropped. Similarly, our return route where we had plan to come through Rishikesh had to be re-drawn as we didn’t have enough days. Anand was hopeful of returning via Srinagar route but feedback from riders hailing that route was negative and again, time wasn’t in our side.

Yes, we were abit disappointed, personally i had looked forward to visiting Tso Moriri (which i couldn’t manage to do during my earlier trip); but we had to be bit practical as well. All of us wanted a rest day once we were back in Mumbai before we hit our dull routines again. So, we all agreed that there were many places we couldn’t cross in our list; but there’s always next time and it’s a nice way to be motivated to visit the place again.

So, after a lot of deliberation, we decided on the return route purposely choosing different places to stay over and enter Maharashtra through Gujarat instead of MP. Packing up and leaving by dawn again, we headed towards Karu only to witness a near miss accident between a military truck and a civilian car. I was driving the car and me and Ansu spoke about the need to be extra cautious during the return.

Once we crossed Upshi, we were back on the same road we had taken to arrive at the paradise 4 days back Morey plains felt much more earthly, but beautiful nevertheless. Returning via the same road gave us a sense of familiarity, but it never got boring. We had a way of ensuring that those who rode during a patch on our onward journey; got to be in the car during return and vice versa. I was driving during the first stretch and surveying the landscape, couldn’t help but think that they’d be wonderful places for fantasy filmmakers like George Lucas (For Star Wars series) and Peter Jackson (of the Hobbit and LOTR fame). We covered quite a distance that day, cruising through Nakee La (where we spotted our stone pile still standing) and the Gata loops (we counted 21 and a signboard confirmed the count, not 24)

It was also the day when i made a mistake of forgetting about my cellphone somewhere when we were swapping places between the bike and the car; resulting in the only loss to property we had in the whole trip. R.I.P my beloved Moto G4 Play (atleast you get to live in the paradise forever).

Our stonepile standing tall at Nakee La Top

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

The Return

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Moto G4 which I lost (atleast that gets to stay in paradise)

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

What? You don't want to go back?

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

Leh sunset, time to head back home

Photo of Jispa, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 14

Day 14 --> Jispa --> Kullu

We left Jispa with a slightly heavy heart; it was to be the last day in the mountains; we took our time to break fast at a restaurant overlooking the river and with snowy peaks in the horizon. Soon reaching Rohtang pass, we found a place where a rock protruded into abyss with a backdrop that wallpapers dream of. Spending a considerable time at the location, we all said our silent farewells to the mountains which had given us such wonderful memories during the past days, which would never fade away. Thus, with a hint of tears in our eyes and sorrow in our heart, we drove down the pass towards Manali where lush greenery awaited (a colour which we had missed) and so did humans (yes, we were back in civilization). By nightfall, we had reached Kullu; following the Beas river which continued to flow energetically carrying enthusiastic river rafters.

Gateway to Abyss

Photo of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam

The last click at Rohtang Top

Photo of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India by Writer Sam
Day 15

Day 15 --> Kullu --> Karnal

Riding through the hills, we made sure to breathe in the fresh air deeply as we’d soon be reaching the plains; where speed would double; but purity wouldn’t be easy to find. Providing lift to a hotel attendant from Kullu to Mandi, we were back in Punjab for lunch and made good time to enter into the brilliant roads of Haryana. The highlight of the day was however, the long conversation which we brothers had in the hotel room in Karnal. I had taken the lead in gathering us together (pulling out everyone from their gadgets) and start a discussion on our voyage — “Did each of us achieve their purpose of the ride? What was the best day and the memory, and why? Which experience made a lasting impression and why? Who’s that stranger we remembered the most and why?” Starting individually, the answers soon merged into a discussion where sparkling eyes and fluid hand movements, nod our heads and pat on each other’s backs reflected the bond which we had developed. It was a night where each slept with a memory which made us smile.

A Close - up

Photo of Karnal, Haryana, India by Writer Sam
Day 16

Day 16 --> Karnal --> Devgarh

On hindsight, this day became our longest ride on a single day (664 kms) beating the 640 kms we did on Day 1. Part reason were the lovely stretch of highways where we could comfortably average 3 digits; the other part was our longing for home where we wanted to reach with a little day light to spare, by Day 18. I can’t but mention the best aloo parathas (each of us ordered twice) and jalebi we ate at a local dhaba near Gohana (a localized version which was humongous and juicy while being delicious). While watching the beautiful sun setting with a myriad of colours, we resolved to reach Devgarh which we did after enduring a patch of dark highways. We had booked an RTDC (State owned) hotel which scared me and Ansu abit when we went into the old, worn out and haunted looking place where a lone light at the reception shone without anyone near it. Shouts by us were answered though, by a boisterous old man (built like an ox) and even sounded like one when he declared himself as the caretaker and led us to a room which looked as if it was preserved since India’s independence (70 years ago); with a B&W TV (which may have been samsung’s first ever model). The room had an additional door to keep out insects; which it did very ineffectively. Our source of entertainment was the caretaker himself who had no qualms regarding our privacy barging into the room at his will and freely chosing to advice us on eating our dinner when it is warm. He was also frank enough to reveal his age (60+), his salary (which was meagre) and his hometown without being asked. Although we laughed privately at all his quirkiness, what we couldn’t deny was his dedication to his job when he almost broken in through the door next day morning at 5am with hot tea. His was a character we’d never forget; which made our tour, abit more fun

Back to tractor land

Photo of Devgarh, Rajasthan, India by Writer Sam
Day 17

Day 17 --> Devgarh --> Bharuch

17 is a curious number. It’s a number not many like. But as riders, we were repeating what we were doing for 17th time. We had already covered more than 5000 kms; but on that day when i was riding the bullet through yet another serene path across Gujarat, i realized that if we do what we love, we’ll not tire even we were repeating it for the 17th time. We were feeling the heat of the plains; getting dehydrated and tanned quite abit and even if we didn’t want to admit it, our bodies as well as the machines were abit sore. It didn’t dim our passion at all though; we kept good speed and entered Bharuch before nightfall checking into a hotel very close to the Narmada river. Climate changed immediately after we were under the roof; thundershowers throughout the night cooled off machines as we got set for the final ride on Day 18.

Missing the mountains.

Photo of Bharuch, Gujarat, India by Writer Sam
Day 18

Day 18 --> Bharuch --> Mumbai

A day which we looked forward the most (as we would be able to achieve our goal); at the same time a day which we dreaded the most (as our journey was coming to an end).

Compared to the other days on return, we had planned this one in detail. Distance to be covered was about 320 kms only; so we took our time to get ready in the morning (we made sure to wear the same black tee’s which we had shopped in McLeod Ganj); got our group photo clicked by a hotel attendant before we crossed the 139 year old golden bridge over narmada river. We wanted to return the same way we had started; so Ansu took the Avenger, Anand the Thunderbird and me and Kuttan huddled in the car. There was to be no swapping; except me and Kuttan (Kuttan took the wheel first).

As i played the DJ, the miles were swept off and within half an hour of breaking fast, we were across the borders into Maharashtra. As i took the wheel from Kuttan, the climate did a u-turn. It was shining bright when we left in the morning, but now the clouds had grown thick and dark and the downpour took us by surprise with it’s ferocity. The visibility reduced considerably and so did our speed; we didn’t feel like stopping though. The riders who initially enjoyed the respite from heat were getting completely drenched and even the car skidded a few times on the slush. We realized that not a day on the road could be taken for granted and continued our ride cautiously. Mother nature had a last trial for us to face and we were determined to win through.

Home was within reach and our hearts quenched any hunger our stomachs had as we quit lunch for just tea and headed towards our destination. The riders went in first and were soon followed by the car for a warm reception by our family who had all arrived and waited for us to make landfall. Hugs, kisses and happy tears flowed from family; with Ansu’s pet dog Philie loudly welcoming him back with excited barks.

Getting out of the car and standing together with my brothers, i felt a happiness which i’d never known and the smile didn’t move out of my face for the rest of the day. Ushering us into the apartment, the riders quickly changed into dry clothes and Ansu’s dad made sure everyone packed into the hall where he announced our grand return. Anand’s parents gave us a team trophy while Ansu’s parents along with our spouses presented us individual awards (shaped as bikes) and tee’s with the biker brotherhood logo to commemorate our successful ride.

We gladly posed for the photos and the other 3 brothers got involved in picking up choice gossips of our trip and sharing it with family. Sheetal (my wife) and Ansu’s mom noticed that i was very calm and were curious about that. I told them that i was feeling an enhanced sense of peace at having completed the journey and everytime i closed my eyes for a moment, i was back at the mountains of Ladakh, a curving road by the gurgling river, a cool breeze flowing with prayer flags fluttering and the only other sound being the bike’s.

Rounding up the celebration, I made a special mention of the support of our family, especially the spouses gave us whose good wishes ensured our journey ended on such a high note and also that it had strengthened the bond between the brothers. The family responded by saying that the trip also brought them together as they kept a close track on where we had reached every hour.

Victory was to be celebrated, but the road goes on and new ventures await us brothers; as we strive to expand our brotherhood and go to places yet to be reached.

I’d like to end this long write-up with my favorite poem from The Lord of the Rings..

“Home is behind

The world ahead

And there are many paths to tread

Through shadow

To the edge of night

Until the stars are all alight”

Let’s ride towards the stars…

Epilogue:

The brothers parted the next day after spending the night congratulating each other, reminiscing few more stories from the trip and discussing hazy ideas of some of our future trips (whereupon mine and Anand’s wives; Sheetal and Anuya jumped into saying that they’d be joining too).

I had mentioned in the title that the trip was life altering for us. Elaborating on the same below.

Anand promised that he’d go for more rides in Kerala with his friends and wife (now that he no longer had any inhibitions on riding). He was moving to a day job (after many years of doing night shifts) and with the thunderbird in hand and God’s own country at his disposal, looked set for a comfy ride ahead.

Ansu planned to continue going for rides near Mumbai with his TAG and F.L.G groups and also shared his intention to start a biking group on his own; sending out invites and bringing the joy of the ride to more like-minded brothers and sisters. His lone ride on his bike may soon have a lady company too; as his parents continue to coax him for marriage.

Kuttan shifted his focus to finding a job first (hopefully in India itself) and then investing on his bike. He targets to do masters in engineering (preferably automobile) from an international university and hopefully achieve his dream job (which he had shared during our ride)

As for me, I had gone to the trip anxious, but determined to find my purpose; I came back relaxed and peaceful believing that life will take its own course just like the stream flowing from the mountain top into the valley. Professionally, i have started at a venture i believe in; while promising to invest more time in writing; which is my passion. For me, this travelogue is only a beginning.

The rare non-selfie. All 4 of us.

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

After the last day breakfast

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

18th day

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

After & Before

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam

Token of love from family

Photo of Mumbai, Maharashtra, India by Writer Sam
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