Friday, 1 January 2016

Leh Calling !

Jullay! Hello! If Kashmir is the heaven on Earth then Leh is unarguably the paradise for bikers. Every biker on this planet dreams of driving on the beautiful terrain of Ladakh at least once in his lifetime. I am no different at this. It was October 2014, we were discussing about Leh and Gaurav told that we don't know where we all might be next year, who might get married and not be able to go. So, this is the final chance we have and we made a deal that whatever happens, we will complete our bike trip to Leh next year. At the start of the biking season in June 2015, only 4 of us were left to go (and lets not discuss about how our friends ditched us at the end as always) so, we joined 'Ride of my Life' group for our trip. I had read about Gaurav Jani, the founder of this group and his passion towards biking and Leh attracted me to join him for my adventure.

On 3rd August, we reached Manali, met the ROML team and our fellow bikers. That day we were introduced to each other, briefed about the next 10 days and were provided our Royal Enfield 500cc bikes for roaming/shopping around Manali. The view of the valley from our hotel, the first look of our bikes, the roaring of all the 16 Enfields at a time, the excitement and happiness on our faces - I knew I was going to love and cherish this trip forever. We were about to reach Ladakh or the land of high passes and to drive an Enfield on some of the highest passes of the world was like a dream come true.

Next day, we were taken for a test ride around Manali to get to know what shall we expect in the coming days and get accustomed to our bikes. We started early morning, the weather was good, the roads were narrow but fine, sometimes the gravel was loose but we were still managing well until there came wet mud on the road and all the hell broke loose. Our bikes started skidding; sometimes we got stuck in the middle of one feet mud lying over the whole road. Once I put my feet down to balance the bike, my shoes got stuck in the mud and damn those heavy Woodland shoes, I had a high time just lifting my feet up. Some riders couldn't handle and even fell down. Every step in the mud felt like crossing a mile. At the end of just 70-80km of the total trip, we all were exhausted with the worst driving terrain experience ever. Whether it was the worst road ever or not, now we were mentally prepared for whatever might come in our way to Leh.

Day 3 - August 5 - We started early in the morning from Manali with our road captains Manish and Sachin. Soon, we reached Rohtang pass and it was one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen. Though we were only able to have glimpses of the valley due to the heavy fog, it was an awesome start to our closeness with the Himalayas. We stopped at the top of Rohtang pass for photo break as fog had cleared with the sun and the view was amazing. We easily reached our destination Keylong in the evening. We were warmly greeted with Jullay by the hotel staff. We left our bags in the hotel and explored this small town on foot, even tried momos and 'thukpa' there which was not a very good experience.

Next morning, my brother was down due to the thukpa effect and had to rest in the carriage vehicle for the day. We were told that we might face a few water streams today. The first stream we encountered was over 1 foot deep with water flowing at a high speed from the mountain with valley on the other side. Although water at freezing temperature entered our boots, we all crossed it safe and sound. We faced 2-3 more water streams on the day but managed to cross all with ease. We came across Baralacha pass on this day and the snow covered peaks in the background made the view mesmerizing. I guess that's why we call it 'The majestic Himalayas' coz you are spell bound by the beauty of the mountain ranges and the valley. We reached Sarchu after lunch where the Swiss tents were waiting for us.

Sarchu camp was at a height of around 15000 ft and some of us were feeling altitude sickness here. Souvik and I took a stroll to see the surroundings and it started to rain. We made a dash to our tents and Imran bhai stopped us saying it is better to get drenched than wasting our energy and we should save our breadth at this altitude. In the evening, I even went down the valley to the river and then climbing that mere 100 ft at that altitude felt very exhaustive. This was our first day in Kashmir and our phones had only one use left now – clicking pics. We also got the terrible news that there was a cloud-burst before Leh, the roads were washed away and we might have to cut short the trip and return back to Manali. We had to wait till the morning to get this confirmation but I was confident of going forward: “Nothing will spoil my Sunday”. We might be in tents but the stay was warm and cozy and food was delicious. May be that’s the beauty of travelling – you tend to love almost everything that comes in your way. Even the night sky was so clear at Sarchu which we don’t see in cities; the only problem was it was too cold to be outside our tents in the night.

Next Morning, we decided to move towards Leh and would see if the roads clear by the time we reach there. My bro was fine now after a day’s rest and he was ready to drive. We encountered Gata loops early in the morning, a succession of 21 loops in the valley which immediately elevated us from around 15000 ft to 17000 ft. We crossed Nakeela and Lachungla to reach a path where there were trucks with supplies from both sides and the roads had only space for one vehicle but hats off to everyone’s coordination. Then we reached Moore plains which is a beautiful area between the valleys. High mountains on both side and the absolutely straight roads for the entire distance our eyes could see – it was a lovely view and a speed ride. My bike even crossed 120kph and I enjoyed it to my core. Next we reached Tanglang la which was the third highest pass of our trip at 17582 ft. After riding 60-70 km more, we were on the checkpost before Leh and we got the news that the roads were cleared and we would reach Leh. While crossing Thiksey, we saw loads of mud dumped on either side of road which might have been washed out from the mountains by the cloudburst and blocked the roads but it had been cleared and we got our passage. Finally, we reached our hotel Leh-Chen where we had a nice steam bath and the much needed rest after our 250 km ride of the day.

Day 6 – August 8 – Rest day. We were given a day’s rest in Leh which was necessary as some people in the group were having health issues from Sarchu. After a good and long sleep, we moved out of the hotel to visit the Leh city. We went to the Leh Palace which was not as lavish or big as we see the palaces in Rajasthan but considering the altitude where we were, it was a unique architecture in itself. The view of the whole Leh city and the surrounding mountains was amazing from the palace. Then we strolled around the streets of the city and did some shopping. In the evening, we went to the Sanchi stoop which was near to our hotel. The setting sun made the Leh Palace glow and the 360 degree view of Leh was mesmerizing. Finally, we were ready for the big day.

Day 7 – August 9 – Sunday – The big day had arrived. We had to ride to the top of the highest motorable path to reach Khardung la at 18380 ft and the best thing was it was my birthday. This was one of our reasons to choose Ride of My Life group to celebrate my birthday in a memorable way, at the top of the highest motorable road. We had bought the cake the earlier day to be cut at Khardung la top. We were given local Leh bikes in the morning as bikes from other regions were not permitted in Ladakh for tourism and these were no match to the bikes which we had driven from Manali to Leh. We set out from the hotel and the roads were a disaster. Sorry, did I say roads. There were absolutely no roads after the checkpost for Khardung la, just rocks and gravel which made it too difficult to handle the bike throughout to the top. Finally, we reached our destination Khardung la which has its own importance as the roads connect to the Siachen glacier. I celebrated my birthday at Khardung la top and everyone took loads of photos. Finally, we decided to move back from there before altitude sickness could take its toll. We reached Thiksey in the evening, a small town 30 km from Leh, where we had our second encounter with the swiss tents.

We all were pretty exhausted from the rough terrain we had traversed in the day but our spirits were still high. The tents were comfortable and had all the basic amenities. After dinner, we made a bonfire and everyone gathered around it. We played ‘Antakshari’ for quite a long time; my brother showed his poetry book and shared some of his poetry. We cracked jokes, pulled each other’s legs and shared some of our experiences. Finally, when there was no wood left, we decided to retire for the day.

Next morning, we headed towards Pangong Lake. On the way, we crossed the second highest pass of our journey, Chang la at 17688 ft. We also crossed an army base on our way which reminded us of the dedication of the Indian army to serve the country at any place, altitude and climate. The roads were mostly good today and we had a smooth ride. We knew that there were few wooden cottages and more swiss tents at Pangong and we were pretty much done with the tents and no longer wanted them. So, we rushed ahead to reach first at our camp site where Manish told us that cottages would be occupied by the couples and rest of us would take the tents. Now we were thinking why the hell did we drove crazily to reach early. Anyways, we kept our bags in the tents and rode towards the spot of the lake where the shooting of ‘3 Idiots’ had been done. The view surrounding the lake was mesmerizing. We could see the sunlight throwing all its beauty over the mountains and every peak was a shade different. The rainbow in the distance was like our childhood painting where we used to draw the rainbow spread above the mountains. The water of the lake was crystal clear and the breeze was making waves in the lake. It was too calm and soothing and our hearts were overwhelmed with the beauty of nature. We even rode our bikes to the lake side which was tough in the sand. After spending some peaceful time near the lake, we decided to head back to the camp before sun would leave us and descend behind the mountains. There was again a bonfire in the night but with fewer people than yesterday.

The following morning, we started our journey back to Leh. Continuous bike ride for the last 8 days was showing its effect and we were getting a little restless to end our journey. This was our final ride before leaving Leh. Gaurav had some pain in his hands and hence, Souvik rode with me on the last day. Now, I realized that riding solo was a lot easier. Hats-off to all the riders with pillion on this tough track. On reaching back to Leh-Chen hotel, everyone started their packing for the return. The time had come for the adventure to end and go back to our normal routine life. Thanks to the Ride of My Life team - Sachin, Manish, Imran, Dorjee and all the fellow riders, I had a great riding experience in Ladakh. The adventure seeking person inside me was satisfied but had a yearning to ride once more. Let’s see what’s in the store of our future – Be it trek to Everest Base camp or Europe backpacking tour. A New Year has come; May it bring new hopes and adventures. Till then, Jullay!

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