Ladakh biking - On Schedule!!!

General Musings - Its been ages since I blogged and am feeling pretty bad about it - but not too much as I have been travelling atleast!! But the vacation over the last two weeks has reignited the spirit to blog!!! So, here goes ..............


Background -
This trip has been in the offing for ages now - a biking trip to Khardung-la (wrongly famous as the highest motorable road in the world). But biking for just 40+ kms from Leh to Khardung-la is pretty sad - so junta usually bike from either Delhi or Chandigarh through Manali to Leh and onwards to Khardung-la. Our plan was to bike from Manali to Leh with bikes hired from Manali.

After the Skiing course in March at DMAS (or WHMI), Shivshankar, Ram and Vikram enthusiastically planned the biking trip and somewhere in June I jumped in. And what a ride it was! A bike ride from Manali to Leh and excursions from Leh to Pangong Tso, Nubra valley and the monasteries around Leh.

The Story -

Day 1 -
Aug 03rd 1000 hrs - Flight from Bangalore to Delhi.
Aug 03rd 1230 hrs - Reach Delhi
Aug 03rd 1800 hrs - HPTDC bus from Delhi to Manali

Nothing much except travel on Day 1. Taking the HPTDC bus from Delhi brought back memories of last time when we delayed the bus for a couple of hours so as to get Angshu into the bus from the airport!! The event famously known as the "Race to Karnal"!

Day 2 -
Aug 04th 0800 hrs - Reach Manali
Aug 04th 1000 hrs - Test drive the hired bike in Manali for the entire day
Aug 04th 1700 hrs - Paragliding at Solang Valley

The bus rolled into Manali at 0830 hrs and rejuvenated me like nothing else can. The Himalayas has that effect on me - a sense of awe at its grandeur and splendor. I found the guy we had spoken to about the bikes - Mr. Govind and took one of them for a test drive (which ended up lasting around one hundred kms!!)

Stream between Manali and Naggar on a cloudy day - What a start to the vacation! :-)


The 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet - a smooth ride!! Don't miss the backdrop!


View from between Naggar and Kullu - My first visit to the Himalayas when its so greeeeen!!

All my visits to the Himalayas have been in winter or early summer when I am used to seeing it dry or white! The views of greenery on the gigantic slopes was new over 7-8 trips up here!!


View at Solang Nullah

After driving to Kullu through Naggar and back to Manali, with nothing much to do - I drove towards Solang valley (none of the others had reached yet - their flight from Delhi to Bhunter had gotten cancelled! Air Deccan ki jai!!). And how different can Solang look from my last visit here in March 2007. It was a carpet of white all around then and I could hardly recognize it this time around!!

The paragliding at Marhi was suspended as the weather was bad and Govind had told me that there was no gliding at Solang either as it was raining. But I took a chance - went to Solang and had one awesome minute of paragliding for 400 bucks!!


Paragliding at Solang - Definitely worth it!!

The other junta (viz Shivshankar, Ram, Sunil, Prem and Vinod) meanwhile took a flight from Delhi to Chandigarh and reached Manali in a cab at 2300 hrs!! Day 2 was eventful indeed!!

Day 3 -
Aug 05th 0900 hrs - Negotiate for the bike rates ..... The Big Fight!!
Aug 05th 1630 hrs - Depart from Manali
Aug 05th 1930 hrs - At Rohtang Pass after traffic jams and bike problems!
Aug 05th 2200 hrs - Reach Koksar. Night halt at Koksar.

The day began early. We were supposed to leave Manali immediately after breakfast and head off towards Leh. As as all well laid plans go - this one failed miserably! With Govind promising us the bikes at Rs.300 per day, we had planned to rent out 6 bulls (one for each of us) and it was well within our budget. But, we then found out that Govind was just a middleman - the guy renting out the bullets - Hardev Motors - refuted that he had ever promised bikes at 300 bucks and demanded 500 each day!! But even as we got it down to 400 bucks per day, it was eating into our budget. Also, we could now no longer afford to take a mechanic along. No mechanic, 6 bullets and 6 guys who have no clue how a bullet works is the best recipe for disaster!!

The option at the other extreme - go to Leh in a Tata Sumo and hire bikes in Leh to go around there. But considering that the biking from Manali-Leh was something that we were looking forward to, this option had not many takers - albeit a much cheaper option.

So a compromise was reached. We would hire 3 bikes so that we get the biking experience, and dump the luggage and the tired bikers in a Sumo that would follow us (talk of administrative back-up!). And that was the best decision that we made on this trip!!!

And it was almost 1630 when we set off from Manali - a slap on the face of the theory to "cross mountain passes as early in the morning as possible" - and we were the ones to cry later!!


View enroute Rohtang la


Traffic jam enroute Rohtang la

The first major hurdle was around 200m of slush that had caused a traffic snarl. Having passed that, we cruised towards Rohtang pass when one of the three bikes started giving problems!

We had three bullets - (call them Red, Black and Yellow - guess why!) and Red Bull started acting up. The clutch would not engage fully and so the throttle had no effect on the speed!! But the hero of the day - Shivshankar - tamed the bull - and at Marhi we decided to go to Rohtang la and then decide where to stay for the night.

When we reached Rohtang la half an hour later - it started raining - and then pouring!! But with no habitation at the pass, we had to move on. Pouring rain, bad roads, bad visibility, night driving - biking at its best?? or at its worst?? That's your call!!

When we reached Koksar, we found accomodation at some government dorm for a measly 15/- per bed for the night! Day 3 drew to a close. Grand distance covered on the day was 70 kms!!

Day 4-
Aug 06th 0900 hrs - Depart from Koksar
Aug 06th 1100 hrs - Pass through Keylong
Aug 06th 1400 hrs - Lunch at Patsio
Aug 06th 1600 hrs - Major bike problems on the climb towards Baralacha la.
Aug 06th 1830 hrs - Finally at Baralacha la - 16000 feet!
Aug 06th 2000 hrs - Reach Sarchu. Night halt at Sarchu.

Day 4 began with tasty Aloo Parathas and an ad for liquor which said -

"Jab tak hai G to G bhar ke P, jab narahe G to kaun kahega P"
:)


On a cloudy drizzling morning, we set off from Koksar planning to reach Pang if possible by the end of the day. A pleasant drive in the morning through spectacular landscapes - life was good!

Lake with a waterfall in the background between Koksar and TanDi


And as we reached Tandi, we knew this was the last petrol bunk for a really long distance ... Check this board out!!
And so all the vehicles fueled up to the brim ...... and we filled around 20 liters in a can for backup ..... and set off towards Leh.

Red Bull had some problems again. But the mechanic at Keylong said there was nothing much he could do about it, and said that it would last the journey till Leh - so we need not worry! Since Prem was not too intent on biking, he was in the Sumo and so I was on Red Bull alone - and I zoomed to Patsio.



The Scene at Patsio

By the river, I stood waiting for the other junta - and no one was to be seen! A half hour later, I saw Vinod and Shiv on the Black Bull - and still no signs of the rest. Patsio had a single chai shop and after a lot of prodding he said that he had some "maggi wuggi" that I could eat - and that was lunch!!

It was another hour before the Yellow Bull would show up with the Sumo - and what delayed them? They had stopped for lunch at Darcha - around 30 kms before Patsio!

It was after this that the Red Bull (and Shivshankar) showed their true colors! The clutch problem resurfaced and Shiv showed his other side - the mechanic!! Cutting the metal shielding over the clutch cable, he readjusted the spacer so that the clutch would engage - and Red Bull would move!! I slowly but surely navigated this bike over Baralacha la - at 16000 feet! It was close to 1830 when we were at Baralacha la - and it was coooold. And me was driving without any gloves or socks - I was freezing!! (I guess its for people like me that BRO puts up signs saying 'Don't be a gama in the land of the lama'! ) I used the hot tea at Baralacha la to revive my hands back to life, fled into the Sumo and wrapped myself in warm clothing!! Half an hour later, we were at Sarchu - the midpoint of the journey from Manali to Leh.

Accomodation at Sarchu was in tents - very commercial ones at that! They charged us 400 bucks per head for the night (including dinner and breakfast) - but the tents looked cozy!

Day 5 -
Aug 07th 0730 hrs - Depart from Sarchu. Destination Leh - 250 kms away!
Aug 07th 0830 hrs - At the top of the Gata loops!
Aug07th 0930 hrs - Pass through Nakeela pass
Aug07th 1230 hrs - Lunch at Pang
Aug 07th 1400 hrs - At the Moray plains - What a place!!!
Aug 07th 1600 hrs - At the top of Tanglang la - 17000 feet!
Aug 07th 2000 hrs - At Leh, Ladakh! No falls, no injuries and no casualities!!


The campsite at Sarchu

All 6 of us woke up on Day 5 with headaches - Altitude Sickness. We had spent the nights of Day 2 at Manali (6500 ft), Day 3 at Koksar (10000 ft) and Day 4 at Sarchu (at 14000 ft). Altitudes of around 9000 ft and above are regarded as high altitude and it is recommended that the ascent be no more than 2000 ft per day after that for safe acclimatization - We had slept 4000 ft higher.

With signs of altitude sickness, people preferred to be in the jeep rather than on the bikes!! Vikram, Vinod and myself were on the bikes - and what a ride it was!!


On the road - between Sarchu and the start of the Gata loops


Before the Gata loops - the dry arid mountains of Ladakh


The landscape had changed - no longer lush green; no more rains. We had entered the mountainous desert that is Ladakh. But the trademark clear blue skies were hidden by dark nimbus clouds ..........

The Gata loops are a series of 20+ hairpin bends that are a joy to bike on. And on a bullet that works well - its double the pleasure!! It was here that I discovered how stable the bike actually is - try as you might, it is really difficult to lose your balance and fall on one of these!!


At the top of the Gata loops

From the loops, we ascended further to 15500 feet - Nakeela pass. A single stone structure erected by Project Himank of the Border Roads Organization (BRO) was all that were to suggest where we were.

Nakeela - at 15547 feet

Onwards from Nakeela is a slight descent into what is called "Whiskey Nullah" (seen below) before climbing again to Lachalang la at over 16k feet.

Roads leading down to Whiskey nullah

The stretch between Whiskey Nullah and Lachalang la gave us a feel of high altitude exertion. With Red Bull getting a flat tyre at 16000 feet - fixing it seemed an ordeal!! A task as simple as replacing the tube took an hour and using a footpump to fill in air felt like an hour's workout!! You just wonder how there are a hundred people on bicycles on this very stretch between Manali and Leh still alive!

Lachalang la - crossing over from Nakeela towards Pang

It was around Pang that we noticed strange structures on the mountains - as in the snap below. I still have no clue as to what they are and how they came about!!


And then was one of the best parts of the trip - the Moray Plains. A humongous stretch of plain land between mountain ridges - it provided opportunities for landscape photography like no other!!
View on the Moray plains

"Make your own road" - Screams an ad. And that was precisely what we did on the Moray plains - the first and only opportunity to engage the throttle of the bullet to its hilt!


More views of the Moray plains

At the end of the plains we would begin the climb to the second highest motorable pass constructed by the BRO - at Tanglang la. At 17582 ft, this is second only to Khardung la (according to claims by the BRO. These claims have been refuted in many websites and even the altitudes mentioned have been inconsistent with GPS measurements).

At Tanglang la

From here on, it was plain descent - From 17k feet at Tanglang la to 11k feet at Leh. The first signs of civilization are at Rumptse, where these chortens make their appearance against the mountainous backdrop of Ladakh.

Chortens along the road at Rumptse

On the road between Rumptse and Upshi

After Upshi is a huge military base at Karu. Wide, well asphalted plain roads lead from Karu to Leh. We had arrived in Leh on August 07th - "On Schedule!"Day 6 -
Aug 08th 0900 hrs - At the DC office, Leh for permission letters
Aug 08th 1000 hrs - At the mechanic's workshop - setting the bikes right!
Aug 08th 1600 hrs - Bikes finally done! All set for the future days!

Accomodation at Leh was at the 246 transit camp - Fire and Fury Corps thanks to Capt. Prem Sagar who was taking full jugaad of his years as a SSC Officer! Being treated like Officers and getting good food in the Officer's mess did not hurt us one bit!!

This day was supposed to be a 'buffer day' as per plans - and it was used to get permissions to go to Nubra Valley and Pangong Tso; and get the bikes fixed.

Curious onlookers while the bikes were getting 'fixed'

A calm day after three hectic days on the road! Later that day, in the market, we got a taste of apricots - and didn't we love 'em! Three of us gobbled up 1.5 kgs in ten minutes flat!!

Day 7 -
Aug 09th 0900 hrs - On the road again - towards Pangong Tso
Aug 09th 1100 hrs - Bikes refuse to climb up Chang la - push, shove or whatever!!
Aug 09th 1500 hrs - Bikes finally got up to Chang la! Phew!!
Aug 09th 1800 hrs - Everyone at Tangste. Decide to go to Lukung.
Aug 09th 1930 hrs - Black Bull has a flat tyre!!
Aug 09th 2030 hrs - At the cozy acco at Lukung - a stone's throw from Pangong Tso.

We decided to go to Pangong Tso before Khardung la just so that we had a buffer day in case things went wrong at Pangong - We would skip going to Nubra valley and just make a trip to Khardung la. And so Pangong it was - a distance of 150ish kms - expected to take around 6 - 7 hrs. Yeah - 'expected'.

Two guys on each bike now - and these old 350cc bikes struggled. This was not very obvious on the plains till Karu. But once we deviated off the Manali road at Karu and started climbing towards Chang la (the second highest road constructed by the BRO), the bikes just could not take it!!
A rare green patch seen between arid mountain peaks near Karu

Initially it was just the Red Bull that could not take 2 people on it. So we tried to take 3 people on the Black one and let the Red one go single - with all the luggage!

Trying to ride the Red Bull

But as the climb started to get steeper - all the three bikes complained! None of them had the firepower to haul two people - and so 3 of them hitchhiked till Chang la while the rest three tried to get the bikes till there. I was with the Red Bull - which had just had its back brake broken!! I was just about a couple of kms from the pass when the bike stopped - and refused to start. I pulled it back on its main stand and within a few kicks it started again - but now I was unable to get it off the stand which was under an inch of sand! At 165000 feet, trying to get the bullet off the stand was like trying to move an elephant - and I just gave up!!

I waited for Ram and Vikram to catch up and help me out. We got it off the stand - but now it refused to start!! This was probably the most frustrating moment for me on the trip. We pushed the bike, got it running and finally reached Chang la.

Chang la - At 17x00 ft

The call at Chang la was if we head back towards Leh (considering that all the bikes were giving problems) or if we just continue towards Pangong Tso. For anyone who has seen the blue waters of Pangong, the decision was obvious.

Using some metal wire to hold the brake of the Red Bull, I drove it down towards Tangse - trying my best to control the speed using the gears alone. The other two bikes too had just single riders now - and three people got into an Army truck which dropped them at Tangse.

With no mechanic available at Tangse, there was really no sense halting there for the night (even though the OC of GREF had invited us to stay over there). So we pushed off towards Lukung - more spectacular landscapes now in the offing!

Landscape enroute Lukung from Tangse

The final nail in the coffin that day was a flat tyre on the Black Bullet just a couple of kms before Lukung. Using the tow rope that Shivshankar had been carrying, Ram used the Yellow bike to tow the one with the flat tyre while Vikram and myself balanced it to the acco at Lukung. All we wanted to do by then was hit the sack. Phew!

Day 8 -
Aug 10th 0500 hrs - Up and about - Waiting for the sunrise above Pangong Tso
Aug 10th 0600 hrs - Sunrise done. Whats the big deal about?
Aug 10th 0800 hrs - Mesmarized by the lake
Aug 10th 1030 hrs - Depart Pangong Tso
Aug 10th 1230 hrs - At Durbuk. One man on each bike now.
Aug 10th 1700 hrs - All bikes finally reach Chang la
Aug 10th 1930 hrs - Reach Leh - "On Schedule"

We had heard about the spectacular sunrise over Pangong Tso - or rather we thought we had!! That was why we took all the pains to get to the lake the previous night itself. And that was again why we woke up at godforsaken hours like 5 am and walked out of the room to look at the lake.

Pangong Tso at dawn

The sun rose over the lake and went up higher - and we wondered what the big deal about this was! Nothing too great about the sunrise - I've seen better! :-P

But it was when the sun got overhead that we realised why Pangong Tso was so famous - Hold your breath and check out the snaps to follow ---



The vivid blue color of Pangong Tso was enchanting, mesmerizing ..... oh damn .... why am I even trying to describe something ever so spectacular. It was something that no camera can capture ....... and no words can describe. I was so in love with the lake!!!

Returning back, there were more landscapes that we had missed the previous night. The snap below has light greenish colored water against the mountainous backdrop!

When we reached Durbuk (from where the climb back towards Chang la begins), me and Prem hitched a ride in a passing lorry while the others tried to get the bikes to Chang la in one piece!

An old man manually carding the wool at Chang la

And while waiting for the bikes to arrive at Chang la, I tried my hand at cricket - at 17000 feet!!


Finally, it took 4 hours and a pick-up for the bikes to arrive! Two bikes were transported to Leh on the pickup and one was subsequently sent to be loaded on a truck back to Manali!! The day ended with us back at Leh - "On Schedule"!!


Day 9 -
Aug 11th 0900 hrs - Leave Leh towards Khardung la
Aug 11th 1000 hrs - Cross South Pullu.
Aug 11th 1100 hrs - At Khardung la - Photo sessions galore!!!
Aug 11th 1300 hrs - Lunch at North Pullu
Aug 11th 1600 hrs - At Diskit
Aug 11th 1700 hrs - Camel ride at Hunder
Aug 11th 1830 hrs - Rest at GREF Army base for the night

Driving towards Khardung la

The excitement was palpable. Shivshankar's childhood dream for the past six months was about to be fulfilled!! We were almost at Khardung la - the highest road constructed by the BRO! And then the inevitable happened ---



We had reached Khardung la.
:)

One and only group snap at Khardung la
(L-R myself, Ram, Vikram, Vinod, Shivshankar and Prem)

After posing for umpteen snaps, we continued towards Nubra valley - stopping to capture the yaks enroute.

I had read in some blogs that Nubra valley is indescribably beautiful. I shall let these photographs speak for themselves ---



Biking on the curves between North Pullu and Diskit was amazing fun - brought back memories of biking on the narrow hilly curves of Kerala. I was totally enjoying this ride - to quote Vinod, I was driving like my ass was on fire! ;-)

Just after passing Diskit, the landscape changed to that of a desert!! Sand dunes ..... and camels!!! As someone told us - "Expect the unexpected in Ladakh"


Day 10 -
Aug 12th 0330 hrs - Depart Hunder towards Panamik
Aug 12th 0630 hrs - At the hot springs at Panamik
Aug 12th 1200 hrs - Everyone reunited at Khalsar
Aug 12th 1800 hrs - Back at Leh - "On Schedule"A two hour discussion on the night of Aug 11th resulted in this master plan - Four of us departed at an unearthly 0330 hrs to the hotspring at Panamik and we would meet the other two at 0900 hrs at Khalsar.

Things were as per plan as we reached the hotspring at Panamik - albeit the place being a big disappointment!

The hot-spring at Panamik

Just as we thought we were on schedule to meet Shiv and Prem at Khalsar, one bike had a flat tyre at Sumur! I hitched a ride to Khalsar on a pick-up van and reached before our promised time of 0900 hrs - but there was no sign of Shiv and Prem till 1130 hrs!!! And when they did come, it was with the other 2 bikes - They had wandered towards Sumur, found the bike with the flat tyre and decided to stay on and help.

The last straw was when the same bike had another flat tyre near Khardung. While we waited for backup, I was busy clicking snaps of these bees sucking the last drop of nectar from these purple flowers --
It was army trucks to the rescue again - The bike was loaded onto the truck at Khardung ...... and unloaded at Leh right outside 'Chinar Roadlines' who was to transport the bikes back to Manali!! We were back in Leh -- "On Schedule"!!!


Day 11 -
Aug 13th 0600 hrs - Oktatabyebye to Ram, Prem and Shiv
Aug 13th 1000 hrs - Bike towards the monastery at Alchi - the oldest in Ladakh
Aug 13th 1600 hrs - Visit the Phyang monastery
Aug 13th 1800 hrs - At the Shanti Stupa, Leh
Aug 13th 1900 hrs - At Zorawar Fort, Leh

Ancient paintings on the walls at Alchi Gompa

View of Leh town from the Shanti Stupa

Zorawar fort - a joke??

Day 12 - Aug 14th 0900 hrs - Off to the Hemis monastery - the biggest in Ladakh
Aug 14th 1300 hrs - At the Thiksey monastery
Aug 14th 1530 hrs - Visit the Shey palace
Aug 14th 1730 hrs - Visit the Leh palace and the Tsemo castle
Aug 14th 1900 hrs - End of trip!!


Hemis Gompa - the largest in Ladakh

Tsemo castle as seen from the Leh palace

Day 13 -
Aug 15th 0000 hrs - Happy independence day!!
Aug 15th 0720 hrs - Flight from Leh - Delhi
Aug 15th 1345 hrs - Flight from Delhi - Bangalore
Aug 15th 1700 hrs - Home sweet home!! :)

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