This July, we found a beautiful place to get lost – Ladakh.
Coordinating with friends for a few months. A Whatsapp group. 13 members. Few sneaked away. Few stayed.
And on a overcast Saturday afternoon, we all met at My Bar at Rajiv Chowk to kick start our journey. A journey we have been looking forward to for some time now.
There were six of us, to be precise, in a place which was flooding with rucksacks. There were so many travelers in My Bar at that time that one would believe it was a base point for everyone who was starting to Leh from New Delhi. We had our share of discussions and drinks and left for Manali at 5 in the evening.
I remember someone quoting this to me on a stormy morning during our Har Ki Dun trek – “Red sky at night, traveler’s delight; Red sky in morning, traveler take warning”. The sky that evening was crystal blue, with puffs of cloud someone painted across the canvas. We all had our doubts of weather during the journey as it is usually very unpredictable at this time of the year. But the awesome weather gave us the confidence. All is well that ends well. But a good start never harmed anyone, has it?
After around 5 hours of music, we reached Chandigarh, where we crashed at a friend’s for dinner. The cab that we booked from the online cab booking service Gozocabs was very reasonable and kept their promise of no hidden cost. The driver was a little cranky though, but we gave him the benefit of doubt. Anyone can be cranky if they would be driving for 30 hours straight without getting a proper sleep. Tobacco was what kept him running. We didn’t mind it though, he promised us a touchdown in Manali at 6 in the morning.
But what’s the fun if everyone go as per plan? It was around 4 in the morning. There was an argument going on the cab, regarding which song to be played. And suddenly the music went all loud. I don’t know if it was the volume, the lights or plain dumb luck. BOOM. Our back left tyre just burst. Everyone did their bit by inspecting the damage and helping in the getting the tyre changed. By helping, I mean getting the flashlights of our phones on while our driver set up the OT.
It was just before the dawn. The time when night is at its darkest. We were standing next to a dam in the town of Mandi, observing the silhouette of the distant peaks, when the news struck us that the spare tyre had negligible air in it. Great. Talk about plan B. We were stranded in a place where you can only see a truck once in a while, with no sign of any inhabitants whatsoever. Need to wait for the morning, we thought. But the driver still had his part to play. “Jump In. We would try to make it through with the flat one only.” We followed. Being engineers, we had to do our bit as well. We loaded an extra man on the right side, making it uncomfortable for everyone and we kept on going on for an hour or so, where we finally found a petrol pump which had the air machine working.
The damage control was done. It was already dawn. And we were in the heart of Himachal. Manali was just a few hours away. The toll of the night took over us and we gently passed into sleep. A beautiful sound woke us up. Beas river running forward with an ecstasy. The trees waving by as the clouds blocked the Sun. We entered the city of Manali, which was as beautiful as always. Google Maps came to rescue as we bunked in our hotel, had our lunch and decided to catch some sleep. It had started raining by then.
At 3 in the afternoon, we were strolling around the Mall Road. Last chance to buy any supplies for the trip. And the first chance to get your hands across the steamy hot Chicken Momos. Something you can have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This place is the center of the city. One stop shop for anything you might need. And I mean anything 😉
We kept exploring the place before we met “Doctor”. He helped us with the supplies we needed. We thanked each other and made our way to Van Vihar National Park. Walking amidst the royal Deodar trees, we had a short hike downhill before we reached the edge of the River Beas. The river was singing in full delight and we found our refuge on the neighboring rocks. The sky was dark gray at that moment. But it was not sad. It was vibrant.
We headed back. Poker followed for some time. And then their was a visit to the nearby dam. We recited horror stories, complimented the dropping temperature, debated the possibility of the black dog following us being a form of Yamraj, and then went to sleep. There was a light drizzle. The night was calm. We waited to greet the next morning as we set forth for Leh.
Day 1- The Colors
Manali – Rohtang Pass – Keylong (115 kms)
The D day. We had booked four Royal Enfield Classic 500 and a Gypsy from Enfield Point in Old Manali. It took some time for us to complete the paperwork, inspect the machines and load the luggage before we kicked start our Enfields. It was a partial Sunny Day. The sky was light blue. 12.30 in the afternoon. We knew we were running late but were in no hurry whatsoever.
The first day was green. Lush green fields smiling back at you. The roads that cut through the mountain like a snake. The brown terrain meeting the green one, and the white peak smiling at the intersection. When we reached Rohtang Pass, it was freezing. And the visibility was really low. The colors kept on blending with each other until we could see only one color in front of us – Dense white. We were literally riding in the clouds for few kilometers.
We couldn’t help taking multiple pit stops while we were on our way from Rohtang Pass to Khoksar. You will find two check points on the first day. One just before Rohtang Pass and another one near Khoksar. It did not take us a lot of time to get done with the same and continue on our journey to Keylong. We reached Keylong at 7 in the evening and bunked in a guesthouse. The evening was spent reflecting back on the day that just went by and speculating about the day that was about to greet us.
This was a day of the waterfalls, the blue sky painted with clouds and the green fields which led the way from brown terrains to white peaks.
Day 2 – Terror of Pang
Keylong – Sarchu – Pang (184 kms)
“The next petrol pump is 365 kms away”
“Diamox should be taken at least a day or two before your trip”
“Yesterday was a fun day. Today is not”
It was made clear to us in the morning itself that this is going to be a tough day. All the containers were filled with petrol as we set forth towards Jespa, where we had our breakfast. It was a bright Sunny Day. We took less pit stops today. Even the ones that we took were to add or remove a layer of clothing, as the temperature fluctuated bitterly while we were riding near passes.
When we reached Baralacha La (16,040 ft), it was completely overcast and Nature was gearing up to give us a shower. Our fingers were numb as we made our way to the Lord Shiva’s temple at the Pass. We did not stay there for long as the weather looked in a bad mood and we still had a long day in front of us. And the day indeed was long. We did not find even a single stretch of good road.
The real test for the day was the ride from Sarchu to Pang. 75 kms which demanded utmost patience and concentration. Two passes still waited for us – Nakee La (15,547 feet) and Lachung La (16613 feet). On uphill ride towards Nakee La, one would encounter Gata loops – A relentless series of loops while riding uphill (21 loops to be precise).
The last stretch was marked by giant sand structures on either side of the isolated road. It felt like we were riding in a giant canyon. When we reached Pang at around 7, it was already dark and everyone was freezing. This day we decided to rest. We rented a tent for the night and gave in to sleep. We had to set the tent up in such a way that the opening was enough to let the oxygen in but not too much as to freeze everyone into oblivion.
This was a day of cold and dust. The toughest day of our journey.
Day 3 – The Indus River
Pang – Taglang La – Leh (117 kms)
The More Plains greeted us when we left from Pang the next morning. We were following a fleet of army trucks on our way. And one thing that you do not want to do while riding in mountains is get stuck behind trucks. For obvious reasons.
But we were lucky this time. More Plains, which stretches to 40 km, is marked by the best road in the entire route. A black serpent cutting across the mountains. Shining. Curving. It’s a beautiful place to ride. And equally dangerous too. Locals told us that this is the stretch where most of the accidents happen. The scarless road gives you a false impression that your speed is within the limits. Little do you realise that the vertical bends in the road can be very dangerous at the speed you are driving at. And by the time realisation kicks in, your trip had already come to a halt. But luckily for us, we did not experience any irregularities as such.
More Plains was followed by 15 kms of a rough path. And then you reach the second highest motorable pass in the world – Taglang La. We had our usual Maggie – Omletter – Tea combo before setting forward. Riding along the green pastures of Upshi to the red terrains of Rumtsay, we finally entered Leh.
3 PM. We had booked rooms in this quite little place called Rainbow Guest House. The place was full of cats and cotton flakes, which blanked the entire compound. They were all over the air but we could not find the source. Anyways, it looked beautiful so we never really questioned it. We spent 2 hours to reboot before we left for a stroll around the city.
A game of poker, reminder of the past few days, an unfinished book. We slept peacefully that night. After all, the next day was a rest day 😀
Day 4 – The Old Leh Shop
This was a cheat day of sorts. We took luxury of waking up late than usual. Sun was beating down hard. The cotton flakes were relentless. A kitten was staring at me from the end of the lobby, suspicious as ever. To sum it all, it was a good day. It was a day to explore the city.
Day 5 – The Moonland
Leh – Lamayuru – Leh (220 kms)
We intended to go to Kargil this day. But owing to the turbulence in that area, we had to pull back a little. We passed through Magnetic Hill and Moonland on our way to Lamayuru. The journey started with a deserted area before the river came to see us and then rode along with us before bidding us farewell just before Lamayuru.
On our way back that evening, we made sure to greet our old friend. A short hike downhill and we were sitting on the edge of the river, with a huge wall in front of us. We had never thought of landing somewhere like this. But as it is said, the entire world is yours to explore.
Day 6 – The Village by the Sand Dunes
Leh – Khardung La – Hunder (126 kms)
The Sun was playing hide and seek with us the next morning as we set forth for Nubra Valley.
It took us a couple of hours to reach KhardungLa pass. The sky was a shade of gray but the surroundings were turning white. It had started snowing.
We followed the Shyok river as we made our way to Diskit Monastery. It was approaching Sunset when we reached. We sat on the stairs for Monastery and kept looking at the valley, stretching miles as it went on to join the mountains. We left for Hunder before the Sun was completely set.
Located at the banks of Shyok river, Hunder is a quite little village, which is famous for its Camel rides and the Sand dunes. A small canal runs across the village, with water as pure as you can fathom. There were prayer wheels all over the village. Beautiful colourful huts placed in the heart of green compounds led us to a series of water streams.
After formulating strategy for a couple of minutes, we jumped into the stream (after making sure our cellphones are taken care of). We could see the Sand dunes and the highway from there. The giant red mountains looked like that structure from Maze Runner. I wondered if it was hollow. The flakes of cloud were reflecting gold as the Sun was packing up for the day. We decided to abandon the sand dunes and be where we were.
Darkness swept in the area in half an hour. We had our torches, our supply and a millions of stars which had also come to our side then. But the trail which looked straightforward in the evening had taken a 180 degree turn. After going in circles for almost an hour, we decided to seek help. Any sign of light or sound, and we went to the doors to ask for directions. Directions to the guest house whose name no one remembered. Awesome !!
We found the place ultimately, after many futile calculations and speculations. Lights came into the scene. Stars said goodbye. The smell of Mutton was calling us in the kitchen. And like the good guys we were, we obliged.
Day 7 – The Land of Lama
Hunder – Sumur – Leh (150 kms)
By the time Sun was straight overhead, we had reached Samstanling Monastery, located in the village of Sumur. The average density of Nubra Valley is 2 people per square km. But on that day, it appeared as if it had shot up to over 1000 people per square km. Reason? There was a three day festival going on and a religious Guru was visiting that day.
We came back to Leh. And spent our entire evening in this quaint little joint called “The Orange Sky” at Changspa Road. Stars. Bonfire. Good Food. Good Music. Rum. Purple Smoke. One thing was for sure – We had all the intentions of ending our last night in Leh with a HIGH.
Day 8 – The Mystical Lake
Leh – Chang La – Pangong Tso (140 kms)
We had rented our bikes from Manali and there was a high possibility that the locals would not have allowed us to ride to Pangong with the number plates from Himachal. But that luck had our back as we rushed forward to Pangong, crossing Chang La on the way, without any obstruction.
All the restaurants around the lake were named after 3 Idiots. After all, this was the movie that turned Pangong Lake into such a huge attraction. We had our food and rode for few kilometers to the other end of the lake. One of our bike’s silencers fell off in the way. But it did not cause any major damage.
We continued on with our journey on this wonderful evening.
Day 9 – The Hidden Gem
Pangong Tso – Karu – Rumtsay (117 kms)
It was gray and hot on the way from Pangong to Karu. It was green and wet on the way from Karu to Upshi. It was orange and breezy when we reached Rumtsay. The place I still cannot get off my mind. It was beautiful beyond words. When we were sitting by the side of the river, seeing the Sun going down, birds chirping, calves running around hysterically, it looked like my art book from primary school had suddenly come alive.
Day 10 – The Milky Way
Rumtsay – Lachung La – Sarchu (175 kms)
We camped at Sarchu on our last day in Ladakh. The vast plains with colourful tents, featuring a huge canal and a mountain wall on either sides. A strong breeze ran across the camp as we lied down and stared at the sky. I cannot remember when was the last time I had seen Milky Way so clearly. The very sight of the sky, with a million sparks of light placed against a jet black background, was enough to give you a high.
Day 11 – Memories
Sarchu – Khoksar – Manali (222 kms)
The last day of our ride. And we were not sad. With a wide grin on our face we bid farewell to Ladakh. As I look back on those 10 days, I see infinite memories and stronger bonds. Friends that travel together always stay together. We had awesome fun on that trip. And we left the place with a promise. A promise to come back again 🙂