Solo Ride To Ladakh
Dates- 02-Sept-05 – 19-Sept-05
Route- Jammu – Srinagar – Kargil – Leh – Nubra – Leh – Manali – Delhi
This is going to be a long story. More than excitement, it was the fear of being solo for next 20 days in the most feared place in country – Ladakh. This was 2005, riding from Jammu to Leh was unheard of. First because it was Jammu-Kashmir then Ladakh…name which most hadn’t even heard of. I had friends and acquaintances asking if it was in India, they didn’t even know such a place existed in our country. For most of them I had lost my mind but then I was the eccentric one.
This was very first ride outside my known boundaries of sayadris, that too on bike which had just done around 500 kms on the odometer. I had got new thunderbird royal enfield.
And more than all that, no one in my family knowing that I am riding solo.
It wasn’t planned that way, I was supposed to ride with my fellow rider – Zenosh but unfortunately there was emergency situation at his place and he cancelled his plans and I had to decide either to step back or just go ahead SOLO.
I guess that was big decision I made, which turned the course of my life.
Here I cannot take away the credit to my well wishers who helped me make this trip happen. Especially my office colleagues who gifted me all these necessary little things like swiss knife, camera, even money so I can take this trip. Also my relatives who monetarily contributed supported my trip.
02/09/05 Mumbai to Jammu
D-day arrived on 2nd sep 2005, My father suddenly decided to drop me off to station which was not part of my plan, I had asked my friend to get his car to drop me. I was super tensed, he wanted to see me off and also meet my friend Zenosh, luckily I had told him earlier that our bogies are separate as he was in AC class and I had booked sleeper.
The long and a exhaustive train ride came to an end on 3rd sep evening. Managing 4 heavy bags and taking out your bike from the train cargo is a task in itself, somehow managed that with help from fellow passengers. Taking out bike was easy but tiring. Within half an hour I had booked a room in one of the cheapest hotels I could find.
In my room I was struggling to rearrange the contents of my luggage but it was too hot and humid to even think straight. Irritated I dumped the stuff and went off to Jammu market. BTW Jammu has market where Guns are sold in shop with people who have license.
Tomorrow the adventure begins; fill up the tank and ride away.
04/09/05 – Jammu to Srinagar
The Day dawn at 4:30 for me. The excitement, fear & the heat were too much for me. Final packing started with a mess, the whole aim was to fit everything in such a way that on both sides would weigh the same for maintaining balance and back seat bag would be lighter. Somehow I managed that and luckily I was also able to use my bungee ropes quite efficiently. Mind you this was my first ride on my bike with pannier and all. Filled up the fuel tank & I was on my way to Srinagar. During the transfer in the train my bike had turned over and the accelerator cable was jammed and the throttle was hard, but I got it rectified at Dharampur (65 kms from Jammu) in an Enfield workshop. Thus began my long and winding journey through hills, which gradually turned towards mountains.
Almost afternoon and I was stopped at a random army check post and was asked to pass my baggage through the X-Ray machine. Initially I found that strange but soon realised that no one was spared. This security was for Jawahar Tunnel, it is big enough only for one army truck to pass. More than a tunnel it looked like a dungeon that too 2.5 kms long. No lights no ventilation…just darkness. An army truck right in front of me was spewing black smoke from its exhaust. Other side of the tunnel had a platoon of army staring at me from their bunkers. It was all very new to me but then soldiers were stationed at every 15 ft. Later I was told all this security was for army convoy that passes through every day, that carried food, ammunition etc. The entire journey from there was ducking in between convoy of trucks and all the soldiers sitting in the back of the truck, asking questions and making comments. Seeing a bike rider with MH name plate must be rare in that area.
Travelling along with convoy had its pros and cons. I wasnt allowed to stop to take pictures but i had the privilege to pass through where other vehicles were stopped. The other noticeable thing was that each and every bridge even smallest one was guarded by army. At makarkhot some 120kms before Srinagar, i halted in the small town for some pahadi chai which invariably is made from salt instead of sugar but sure tasted like heaven there and of course warm hearted people around chatting with me. By the end of the day, i managed to get a room, went out for an evening stroll near Dal lake which was amazing. The lake is mesmerizing with the boat houses at the border…no wonder Srinagar is Switzerland of India.
05/09/05 Srinagar to Kargil
The day began very late, left from Shrinagar at 9:00 am since Zozilla pass opened only after 1:00 pm. THe Dal Lake looked even more spectacular in the morning with tall water fountains spurting water some 20 – 25 ft high that too in the middle of the lake. As i moved further the lake looked even bigger than the previous evening. As i was leaving behind this beauty and entering the territory of mountains, the morning mist made the mountains look like shadows.
PS: Srinagar has some very beautiful Bungalows which you will ever see.
The first halt was at Sonamarg and finally made it there by 12:30 pm. As i neared Sonmarg, the mountains started looking bigger & more beautiful, something words can’t describe or camera can’t capture. After a long never ending ride, you start to realize that you’re getting cut off from the civilization, light traffic but ofcourse army everywhere.
PS: Would like to mention here – The excitement of seeing soldiers started with greeting them, then waving at them, smiling at them & gradually died down to staring at them and finally ignoring them.
Sonmarg is very small valley town situated on either side of the only main road, hardly half a KM long. But the place is heaven. Surrounded by mountains from all sides. For the first time i had a very close look at the glaciers sitting on the verandah of my room. Locals said it was a short cut to Amarnath Yatra.
I hardly passed Sonamarg, and i was stopped by cops who said that there was a road blasting taking place ahead and will be only allowed tomorrow. I decided to hang around in Sonmarg, the place was very lively with people everywhere and somehow i convinced the JKTDC caretaker to spare me a room for cheap, he gave me a store room. Soon enough i had unloaded and made myself comfortable went out for a stroll nearby. But strangely all the vehicles made beeline towards the pass. By the time i managed to reach the main road, the town bore a deserted look, barely 5 mins ago this place hustling with tourists. I rushed to my room, packed stuff and was ready, but i had lost precious time in re-loading my baggage.
Hardly had i passed Sonamarg and the road turned into my biggest nightmare. Instead of road, there was only DUST, Stones and more stones that too on the steepest of the incline turn. This was my first ever ride over the pass. Gradually my bike had started to whine, no matter how i rode; the roar had gone from it. Later i was told by the army guys that usually this happens due to some kind of magnetic energy emitted from the mountains that pulls the vehicles to the ground. One even claimed that any helicopter coming over it, also get pulled down. Who knows, had to believe them.
Bad roads, treacherous turns, long winding incline, behind schedule all these things were making me very frustrated. To top it all i was stopped at every army check post and submit my details to the army. They found it very hard to digest that i was travelling all alone in that region. Back in 2005 riding itself was a rare phenomenon, that too solo. One such unique incident was at Gumeri, which is said to be as cold as DRASS. The army guy was just not able to understand why i was travelling alone, fortunately his superior turned up at that moment who was sensible and let me go after asking general questions. Gumeri was interesting place, a complete flat land as big as 5 football fields and bordered with mountains. Zozilla pass had taken up most of my time & by the time i reached Drass it was already 6:00 pm. Drass is said to be world’s coldest place with temperature going below -50 deg in winter. I found the place to be very cramped & crowded. After brief directions from the locals, i decided to move on to Kargil but i knew I was barely going to make it to Kargil before sunset. This was actually a bad move, as i soon was out of the city, a 25 truck convoy came in through the opposite side of a narrow bridge and i was asked to wait till the convoy passed which ate up an hour of my precious time. Darkness loomed over the area and not a single army guy was to be seen which had been haunting me all thru the journey. Kargil looked forever to reach. Numbers on milestones just weren’t dropping fast enough. Imagine first ever ride into unknown territory that too in pitch darkness and in a place that was known for its recent war with Pakistan. Kargil is completely hidden by mountains all around it. I was riding in utter darkness on the only road that I could see. Finally around 8:30 pm I reached Kargil. The people I spoke with weren’t really nice, infact some of them were outright arrogant. Infamous for the war, one can still see the gloom, the sorrow, and war-ridden houses. Even a decent hotel in kargil was in shambles, dim lighting all around. Even phone lines all through kargil were dead, infact it was completely cut out from the world. In the night went out for dinner at local small dhaba, the Punjabi dhaba owner was narrating his tale of the war and how it had left the morale of the people in shambles.
06/09/05 Kargil to Leh
Next day it was kinda late & lazy morning, making a way out kargil was happiest thing to do so. My bike had started to leak oil, but the local mechanic was able to fix it. I had my first break and breakfast at Mulbekh some 40 kms from Kargil. From there my journey to Fotu-la was amazing, btw Fotula is highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Past Fotula i rode almost Non-stop for 4 hrs but finally lost control over my bike due to monotonus riding in the mountains and fell hard in order to avoid the sumo which sprung around the corner. Even though the fall was bad, i escaped with few bruises but my bike took the complete shock. The Sumo driver helped me up and my bike. i rested there for a while to gather my senses and figure out what was wrong with me. Well I couldn’t figure out that time and immediately continued riding which again was a wrong decision since after that in matter of 4 hrs i had 4 falls from the bike. Eventually later when I thought about it i realised that i had forgotten to have food nor did i let myself get used to the altitude and i was suffering from lack of oxygen. The anxiousness of reach Leh, just kept on riding, hence my reactions had slowed down & i was exhausted. Still in all this I took detour and visited Lamarayu monastery which was beautiful but took up my precious energy.
Final stretch was really awesome as i was closing in towards leh but i really struggled to reach. I had thoughts of cutting short my trip and was losing confidence and self trust. Fear was rising my mind… Finally at Leh, I was again looking for a budget accommodation which also took up quite some time and energy….eventually at one point while taking U turn my bike slipped and I was on the floor. I had no energy to pick the bike up. Then one passerby helped me with the bike and took me to his home which I later figured was also a hotel. The hotel name is Galwan and owner is Amin bhai…a great person, he gave a me a room to stay fitting to my budget.
Leh was hustling with foreigners and royal enfields were scattered everywhere. The atmosphere was completely different here; there was scent of friendliness in air. Leh is completely different from any other city i have ever seen. While searching for guesthouses, i bumped into 3 guys from bangalore who were also riding and were planning the trip to Nubra Valley the day after. I decided to join them since i had to cross through Khardungla (18360 ft) to reach nubra valley. I had decided to rest for the next day and make it Nubra the day after along with the other guys. I wasnt planning for it but since i had company i decided to make this trip. Early morning took my bike to mechanic; it was in real bad shape. Oil had entered into air filter, oil needed to be changed. Physical damages were evident. Roamed around the whole day today, nothing better to do but hang around the market area, checking out some weird looking foreigners, window shop (since everything was really very expensive) & ofcourse having the famous apricot & berry juice in Zomsa. Zomsa means “Meeting Place” wherein anybody could fill in boiled mineral water for 7 bucks instead of buying a new water bottle, buy some great second hand books, or drink organic juices.
In the evening i went for a small walk to Shanti Stupa which a monastery on a small hill but one can see the whole of leh, the most peaceful place i found in my journey. Boredom was creeping into me..You can say mind had started to shift on the negative side.
The room where i was staying at leh was filled with spiders. of all shapes and sizes crawling everywhere & thoroughly active, surprisingly for i am paranoid about eight legged freaks but managed to stay amongst them for 3 days.
08/09/05 Leh to Nubra Valley
I had enough time to interact with the Bangalore guys and know them; we left for Nubra at around 8 am, after a quick but heavy breakfast. Those guys were real fast on the road and naturally i was the one who would have to be at the last. The ride was fanatastic. The view can’t be described by words nor can it be captured by any camera. You have to see it to believe it. A landscape beyond any imagination, every 10 kms showed a complete different landscape more awesome than before. Finally the moment had come, the desire, the dream, the determination of riding to the highest road in the world had come near. It sounded foolish for them but it was a sense of acheivement for me. The wait, the preparation, the planning & the hungama i did for this lasted for not more than 10 mins as I was feeling lightheaded due to the altitude. Also my bike refused to pull up at the top due to lack of oxygen. We moved on to the other side almost immediately.
Just before Diskit the road suddenly turned left and the road stretched out on a straight flat land. The land covered of dry white sand on both sides. It was a heavenly feeling. We had a small nap on that sand, it was hard to leave but it was getting dark and we were literally in the middle of nowhere. Finally we parked ourselves in lovely small motel, we chilled in the evening with some local beer. Their conversation wasn’t much of interest to me but I did try to gel in.
09/09/05 Diskit to Leh
Next day we returned from Nubra while coming back we experienced some snow at Khardungla. First time riding in small layer of snow…return ride was uneventful but I was more confident, anxiety free and was enjoying the ride better. Upon reaching Leh in the afternoon we met up again for late lunch for the last time.
Alone again, i realized that it really is not easy to travel alone, hats off to those guys who travel for months alone. My last evening in Leh, roamed around the market and left early morning. I did a final check up with my mechanic in Leh (Panditji) with whom I had shared my desire to finish my last leg of ride to Manali via Sarchu. He was reluctant as during that time, sept/oct is end of the season and there are hardly any vehicles on that route, also BRO starts withdrawing its support from region to pack up for winter.
10/09/05 Leh to Manali via Pang
Filled up my tank, this time even made use of the extra can which i was carrying, since i was told that there is not a single petrol pump till the time you reach Manali and that is 474 kms of no fuel station. Many locals as like my mechanic asked me not the do the trip to Manali alone due to bad roads, almost zero habitants and extreme climatic changes but advised me to return through Jammu. The decision might have been stupid but i was determined to finish the circle. Initial ride was very smooth, gliding thru small villages. The climate was definately changing and the ladakhis had predicted it already. After crossing Tanglang la pass, “second highest pass in world”, i was not able to balance my bike, a quick check and i found that the carrier on one side was broken from 2 joints and was hanging on the last screw. Luckily I had ropes with me and tied it up my bike and moved on. Even most of the contents of the baggage were shifted to other 2 bags and almost the entire weight was shifted to one side which wasn’t a bother initially but towards the end of the day my back had started to ache on one side. As I moved further, hoping to reach at least some kind of habitation. A few hours of ride, I got down to do a quick check to see how my ropes were holding only to find that nut to the suspension had come off. Heartbroken to see my bike falling apart, i had given up hope of reaching my destination today which was a bit of an issue cause staying anywhere else meant chilling winds, no food and possible rain.
No one to talk to I was actually losing my mind, I was singing loudly inside my helmet, cursing & praying to god at the same time and as every mumbaikar does cursing the government for the condition of the road. My journey henceforth took a serious jolt, as my speed had drastically reduced. A little further and i found a board which said “More plains” and quick look at the map and i figured where i was that time and Pang seems the only probable town to stay over.
More plains is actually a majestic plateau, with mammoth mountains on both sides. This makes you feel like u r driving thru a valley and as usual you would climbing up at some point of time but nothing of that sort happens. As i rode on looking for some habitation or expecting atleast a vehicle to pass by, the road that time and what you see now is a huge difference. There were multiple sinking ground boards along the stretch. After almost an hours ride, suddenly the view opened up to deep valley below and some strange looking mountains on the opposite side. That’s when i realised that i was driving on a mountain top, a ride down and i finally reached Pang. It was just an army and road construction workers base. There was only one tent to cater to travelers like me.
I had maggie for lunch and went out in search for spares for my bike and also a wielder, luckily i was able to find both, I had a help by a local tyre puncturewala – Sanju who eventually became a good friend.
A considerable amount of time had been lost & I had no other option but to stay back at Pang. The same restaurant where I had my lunch also hosted an sleeping area for people to rest. The weather conditions were really changing for worse, even BRO was getting ready to move out for the winter they had expected snow in another 2 weeks or so. After sunset the temperature dropped drastically, it was highly impossible to stay out and enjoy the nightfall. Wind had started to pick up speed and I was told that the weird looking mountains were called as the whispering mountains since the winds made eerie sound, similar to the one that we can hear in any horror bollywood movie. To my dismay the tent had small holes which made my life worse, warm clothes, sleeping bag & 10 kg razai weren’t enough to suppress the chill.
11/09/05 Leh to Manali via Keylong
Next morning, after a formal goodbye to all those who helped me, I resumed my journey and reached my first stop at Sarchu, some 65 kms from Pang, which actually was going to be my yesterday’s destination. The road was really treacherous and it was a sensible decision not to make it to Sarchu last evening. After a quick rest at Sarchu, the ride resumed & also began the worst part of my journey. The road had been replaced for stones, boulders, sand, river streams and more rocks and that too for miles together. At one such point I couldn’t have been more helpless in my life than I was that day pushing my bike uphill at 16500 ft. It was cause there was dearth of oxygen, only stones laden road and my machine had given up. Also it was my inexperience to ride in such a terrain that was making things worse. At every step trying to push my 200kg machine, I was gasping for air. I had given up any hope to reach Baralacha la. I was literally clearing all the stones below the wheels, starting my bike and moved on. It took 4 such trials to follow the same process and cover the distance of 10-15 feet. But at the top things were getting any better either as the road downhill was still worse. After a lot of cursing, praying, self motivation I made it to Keylong. By this time I was really frustrated of bad roads and mountains, I just wanted to be home.
Just to pep myself, I decided to stay in a better hotel at Keylong get refreshed and then continue my journey but as for my luck the bridge at khoskar was damaged since a week and all the traffic had come to a standstill, I had put myself up in biggest hotel in Keylong – Hotel Chamba by HPTDC and figure out my next plan of action. It was drizzling almost all through the time making it chilly, also I was trying to figure out the situation from locals but there was no clear picture, anyways from the jist of their conversation it looked as if it would take longer so I had no options but to stay one more day at Keylong. Due to broken bridge the entire vehicular movement had come to halt, the big hotel was also completely deserted; I was the sole tourist there. I was stuck in Keylong and would have had to spend few more days there.
Early morning I found more budget accommodation and moved in there. It was raining as mentioned earlier almost non-stop, the atmosphere was dull throughout, trucks had started to pile up over nearby the village. Stories started pouring in as I got friendlier with the locals there. Nothing much to do but sit and chat with locals…
13/09/05 Leh to Manali via Madhi
Waiting there was getting frustrating so next day I decided to leave for khoskar, the place where the bridge was broken. The nonstop rains had screwed up the road, now the route was mucky, over flowing nallas and muck. Staying on road was getting tougher since the roads were slippery & muddy. As I was nearing khoskar, the stranded vehicular traffic had started some 20kms before that place. Unfortunately they had stopped the pully system from where I had planned to load my bike and get to the other side. The pully arrangement was made to transfer perishable goods to other side so that atlteast food was getting transported. The bridge was supposed to open that day at 1pm, waiting was the sensible option. It was kind of a huge roadblock with estimated 1500 vehicles being stranded, mostly trucks and tempos. Some people had reached the place just 15 mins after the bridge was broken and were stuck there for 9 days; one such guy I met was guide who organized Himalayan treks was stranded with his team and 2 jeeps. Work was slow as the weather conditions were getting worse; the temperature had started to fall, onset of the winter as some predicted. Lunch was with some real hardcore truck drivers who stayed on roads for months and months, they were unperturbed by the incident. Again post lunch had wonderful time with the trekker and we decided to meet up at his designated hotel for a campfire and few drinks.
Finally at 5 pm, the bridge was opened for testing and I was allowed to pass and again the bridge was closed again for minor work. Not to mention the road was in worse shape due incessant rains, darkness was creeping in, hence the temperature was falling drastically, it doubled up with rising altitude since I was riding up to Rohtang. Sky was over cast for the 4th day now. I was completely drenched by now, eventually my fingers got numb & my hand movement was restricted. To add to my woes, the breath was getting vapourised on the visor further reducing my visibility. Keeping the visor up wasn’t advisable since my lips were frosted due to chily winds, I felt like paralysed and I had hard time staying on the bike due to the road condition. Somehow I managed to keep pushing myself for almost an hour and barely reached Rohtang. I had high hopes of getting hot tea, soup and shelter at Rohtang but it was shut due to bad weather; my hope of taking shelter there was shattered. The stalls all covered up by rocks, it looked like graveyard. It was an ultimate fight against nature, its power and wrath. Having a good and appropriate riding gear helps, I was ill-equipped to battle such terrain and weather conditions. The nature gave me its ultimate blow on the other side of the mountain, spine killing chilled wind gushed across my body, I could feel my bones rattling. The weather was harsher on the other side, now balancing my bike on those road conditions was next to impossible. I had to drop my speed to 10 kmph if I had to survive this. There was a war going on amongst my mind, body and nature. But my body was losing it’s battle against the mighty wrath of the nature. I was drenched to bone, fingers were almost frost bitten white…there was no sensation.
But guess by this time the bridge was operational and the vehicular movement which was zero, had started to move. A sumo driver who was about to pass by me, noticed my condition & stopped me. I was barely able to reply to him due to my frosted lips. It didn’t take an expert to understand what the problem was; he immediately asked to stop over at the nearest township ‘Madhi” which was 16 kms below. Managed to make it till there and he followed me till I reached Madhi, it was just a stopover for tourist for food n tea. By that time my whole body had a frost bite, I wasn’t able to feel my fingers and I was shuddering from cold. The driver got help from locals from the restaurant and who literally lifted me from my bike, parked bike nearby. I was taken inside and fire was put up for me with blanket..but I was not just shivering but vibrating from cold. Nothing was helping; the locals then suggested that I be taken to Manali which would be warmer with better facilities.
The driver himself unloaded my luggage from the bike, put them in his car, put me in his car and took me to Manali. Manali was still 35kms from that place and there was no way I was going to make those last 35kms. I had ultimately lost the war, the fight that I fought for almost for 440kms & 4 days had come to an end. The driver put me in some local lodge in market area and disappeared with just words of thanks from me. A hot shower & hot coffee was good enough for me to get my senses back.
Morning was late for me. I left at around 9 am to look for some lift to Madhi to get my bike back. Private vehicles were charging a bomb for such a short trip. So I waited till afternoon for the state transpot to arrive, that too came in late. By the time I reached Madhi it was 5 pm again. Nonstop rain had worsened the roads even further and locals were expecting a landslide to happen anytime soon which is a norm on those hills. Some local riders had also quit their plans to reach hometown that day. It was reported that Snowfall had begun at Rohtang which was indication for the dhaba walas there to pack up their business for the year and go down. Riding down was a complete suicide, so hitchhiked a pickup truck, loaded my bike on it and made it to Manali by evening.
15/09/05 Manali to Delhi via Swarghat
Towards the last leg of the journey was also not so smooth, as bike repairs took up a almost half of my day. Still continued my journey to Delhi. Chandigarh which was scheduled stop looked impossible as it was 320kms from Manali. This time it was NH21, the road was narrow but managed to cover 240kms in the remaining part of the day. Bilaspur was rescheduled stopover but I managed to reach there before sunset and planned to move a bit further to a place called Swarghat. Voila exactly at the top of the mountain, the sight that I came across was mind blowing. Flat land for miles together and that too seeing it after a span of 15 days, Millions of lights enlightened the earth. Delhi was 340 kms from there.
16/09/05 Manali to Delhi
Next day, a 5 kms ride and a “welcome to Punjab” greeted me and road just flattened there on. Kissing at the speed of 100 kmph the rest of the journey was uneventful. Punjab is wonderful city with tall trees covering the road all throughout. Had a quick check up at Chandigarh in royal enfield garage and moved on. Finally at panipat the rains drizzled and followed till Delhi. Stay at Delhi wasn’t so much of a pleasant experience but nevertheless it was an experience.
I had time so I could roamed around in Delhi. For the first time I traveled in a Underground Metro as well as Sky metro in India.
18/09/05 Delhi to Mumbai
Getting to load bike onto train was quite an task, there are quite a lot agents who charge a bomb to load the bike.
Time to get back to my routine life. It was journey of lifetime, which I may never do again in life. But I did it, Memories might fade, friends might not remember it. But for me it was dream that I chased, nourished and ultimately fulfilled it. A feat achieved only because of the support of my family members, my friends and ofcourse my office colleagues. And well this is just the beginning.