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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Motorcycle Ride to the top of the world – Khardung La, Ladakh, India!!

This event took place way back in June 2007. I was going through my old diaries and I felt it would be appropriate if I shared this motorcycling experience with the world as this Himalayan ride is one of the Top ten motorcycle rides in the world.





 
This trip was in the works for a long while before the plan got well laid out. The credit for organizing this trip goes to a small motorcycling outfit that called itself ‘Old Skool Bikers’ and that has morphed into a motorcycle adventure company titled Motours.
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Thus, when the day dawned it was 21 motorcycles and 31 bikers (riders+pillion) that set off to conquer the Western Himalayas. Most of us reached Delhi, our starting point by taking flights from Bangalore, while a few joined us directly at Delhi. Our motorcycles, which had been shipped a week earlier by train, had arrived a day before us.


Luckily for us, we found sponsors for our journey in Wildcraft who provided us with saddle bags, Castrol who provided us with Winter Motorcycling Jackets and Winter Gloves, Standard Chartered Bank who provided us with some much need cash and Airtel that bore some of the accommodation expenses.

 
The route we had planned for was Delhi –> Chandigarh (+260 kms)–> Manali (+330 Kms)–> Tandi (+130 Kms)–> Sarchu (+140 Kms) –> Leh (+280 Kms) –> Khardung La (+45 Kms) –> Nubra Valley (+85 Kms) –> Khardung La-> Leh –> Sarchu –> Tandi –> Manali –> Chandigarh –> Delhi. So, 21 bikes fully saddled up and their riders and pillion donning bright red motorcycling jackets set off on their journey on a cloudy morning from Delhi. After getting caught in heavy showers, we reached Chandigarh late in the afternoon.


After an evening of rest and some local exploration at Chandigarh, the group proceeded to Manali the next morning crossing the winding Himalayan roads and riding by the picturesque valley of the Beas river. At Manali, we were joined by our backup jeep and mechanic as the terrain in front of us was bound to be treacherous and required some additional planning and backup.


Now, the thing that was cool about this motorcycling outfit is that we had all kinds of motorcycles in our stable, starting from Hero Honda (100cc) to TVS Fiero (150 cc) to Bajaj Pulsar (150 and 180 cc) to Yezdi Road King (275 cc) to Yamaha RX 135 (135 cc) to the Royal Enfield Bullets (350 and 500 cc). The only thing that ran strong in the entire group was the love and passion for motorcycling and feeling the wind on our faces.


Manali was our first destination for acclimatization. The thin atmosphere and dipping temperatures were preparing us for the days to come. The evening that we were at Manali, most of the group shopped for additional winter wear to stand up to the below freezing temperatures that we would see in the days to come.


The next morning, till about 9 am, we stayed at Manali admiring the stunning views of the snow peaks in the distance against the clear blue skies. Plus, we used this time to organize some major group photograph sessions. In the meanwhile, the backup jeep was getting ready and so were the motorcycles and folks were busy filling their fuel tanks as fuel becomes a prized commodity beyond Manali.


As we rattled along on the dusty and bumpy road to Rohtang Pass, which is also zero point, we found the heavy traffic to be annoying as tourists made a beeline to set their feet on snow at Rohtang Pass. But, the surroundings that kept getting prettier with every ascent forced our minds to meander elsewhere.


We stopped for an hour at Rohtang Pass, enjoying the below freezing temperatures, playing in the snow, enjoying hot cups of tea and feeling numb all over in the stiff breeze that was blowing around. Before, we turned to ice, we warmed ourselves and our bikes to proceed towards Tandi, a picturesque location, 10 kms before Keylong, the headquarters of the Lahaul district of Himachal Pradesh. This place was also going to be our halt for the day and another acclimatization zone.


As we proceeded towards Tandi, the traffic thinned rapidly as the  terrain got rougher. Only die-hards, locals and the Indian army were to be seen around. When we reached Tandi, the pretty sight of the confluence of the Chandra and Baga rivers caught our eye.


Tandi, which is situated at an altitude of 11,000 feet, is also the last place where one can find a gas station (petrol bunk) before Leh. Hence, all of us filled our gas tanks to the brim and carried additional fuel in our backup jeep in case of emergencies. After finishing this task, we made our way uphill to our lovely tented accommodation. The highlight was the evening was the sight of bright sunshine till 9 pm and most of us surprised that we were famished even before the sun went down.

 
After our night of acclimatization, the next morning, we continued our ascent to the cold desert terrain of the Western Himalayas.


First, we crossed Baralachala Pass (16,500 feet), a high mountain range in the Zanskar range connecting Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh to Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. Then, we came across the Hemis high altitude National Park, which is known for the Ladakhi kiangs and the Yaks.

 
It is very difficult to sight greenery in this terrain and that includes even tiny blades of grass. Such is the ruthless nature of this terrain.


During our trip, the mountain ranges wore a barren brown look, while the skies were clear blue and the high altitude sun was giving us deep sun burns. But, it is said that in winter, this region hardly sees any sun and temperatures plummet to 30 degrees or more below freezing and to make matters worse, the wind chill factor takes one of its meanest forms across the world.
 
When we reached Sarchu at 5 in the evening, the sun was right above us. Only tented accommodation is available at this place. Most of us were aware of the low oxygen levels at this place, but didn’t take it too seriously. Most of us were fine till the sun kept shining.

 
The moment darkness set in, the temperatures started falling rapidly. We found out in the morning that the lowest temperature in the night was minus eight degrees Celsius.
 
Most of us couldn’t enjoy our dinner and with the exception of one person in the entire group, none of us got any sleep that night. Some started hallucinating. In the morning, many of us were forced to take oxygen from the oxygen cylinders available in the camp. I was extremely uncomfortable in the morning and threw up a couple of times. I figured that the best way to survive was to keep my stomach empty and get out of this treacherous terrain as soon as possible.


So even after a late start, I was one of the first to reach Tanglangla Pass, which is the second highest motorable pass in the world at 17,582 feet above mean sea level.


Enroute to Tanglangla Pass or rather enroute to Leh, one can see cocky, but interesting sayings on signboards built by the Border Roads Organization that maintains the Manali-Leh highway.


The lakes, the snow capped peaks, the views are all stunning and feel like heaven. The steep drops, the bumpy roads, the chilling temperatures, the lack of oxygen all put together make for a hallucinating experience.

 
Before we reached Tanglangla, we crossed More Plains, the highest flat desert land in the world.


This is where we spotted a large herd of yaks grazing and this is where most of us clocked high speeds on the straightest of roads and thus skidded when we found fine sand underneath our wheels and covering up to 10 inches of thickness from the road’s surface.


The ride beyond More Plains is very peaceful as one crosses Tanglangla, the second highest motorable pass in the world and one keeps following the Indus river, one of the oldest known rivers in the world. Since, we were entering the plush valleys, the terrain got smoother and as we were approaching Leh – the headquarters of Ladakh, the roads got better.


On reaching Leh, we got a great welcome from JCB, who were another of our sponsors.


At Leh, most of us led our bikes to our mechanic to fix the glitches that had cropped up during our arduous journey and to make them fit for the final climb. After having acclimatized at Manali, Tandi and Sarchu, all of us had pretty much gotten used to the low oxygen levels, except for a couple of them who got seriously ill and had to be flown out of Leh.


The next morning as we all woke up, we stared at the amazing views of the snow capped peaks from our rooms and kept enjoying it for a longer while by sipping tea and having hot and sumptuous omelettes at the open breakfast table. We had a slight delay in getting permits to go to Khardungla, but once that hurdle was cleared, we all set off to ascend more than 7000 feet in about 40 kilometres.



Finally, we were there!! It was a feeling of huge satisfaction and there was a mighty grin on all our faces. We had scaled the highest motorable road in the world.


Our stop at the top was just 30 minutes as anything more could prove disastrous owing to the extremely low oxygen levels. During these 30 minutes, we organized group photo shoots, chatted with the soldiers posted here, admired the beauty of the Himalayas, studied the history of this place and basically grinning ear to ear.


Post this 30 minute session, we began our descent to the other side of Khardungla Pass that led to the valley covered by the Nubra river and hence titled Nubra valley.
 

The roads got worse, but the views got better. One side of the road was lined with frozen ice, there was water and small rocks on the rough surface called road and the other side was steep cliffs.


Nubra valley is on the side of the Indo-China border and is very close to the Siachen Glacier and hence one needs special permits to access this place.


This valley is known for its rare artefacts, its hot sulphur springs, its ancient monasteries, the rare double humped Bactrian camel and the cold desert dunes close by.

 
At a pit stop enroute, we came across a lively bunch of kids who were extremely photogenic and camera lovers. One thing that all of us found out during our journey so far was that as the terrain kept getting tougher, the hospitality of the locals kept getting better.


We stayed overnight at lovely cottages in the valley, but did not venture out to explore the surroundings, but I have plans to explore this area at length in the near future. The next morning, we retraced our way back to Leh, thus climbing Khardung la twice and that too from either side.


At Leh, a major decision was taken by me and 4 of my other friends. We decided not to retrace the way back to Delhi along with the group and instead cover the entire Jammu and Kashmir loop. With this decision, we lost our backup jeep and mechanic as they stuck with the larger group and their contract.


So 5 of us, proceeded to follow this new route to reach Delhi. Leh –> Kargil –> Drass –> Sonmarg –> Srinagar –> Jammu –> Pathankot –> Jalandhar –> Chandigarh –> Delhi.


The very first day after splitting up, we found trouble. A couple of bikes started giving trouble and we had no mechanic. We were stranded in no man’s land, but somehow managed to fix the issue ourselves.


Since this route borders Pakistan, we saw Indian soldiers and army camps at every nook and corner. We were advised to stay together and carry our identification with us at all times. And since this is slightly sensitive area, tourists abstain from entering here, thereby leading to even thinner traffic.


The entire Kargil, where the famous Indo-Pak war was fought is a lovely valley and has some turbulent rivers that can provide great rafting opportunities. After a lunch stop at Kargil, we proceeded to goto Drass, our stop for the day.


It was already dark and we had close to 70 kms to reach Drass. These Himalayan roads look scarier in the nights and it was a slow team effort to get us safely to Drass and into the only hotel that seemed to have some kind of accommodation available. Drass, is known for its extremely low winter temperatures and has recorded the second lowest temperature ever at minus sixty (60) degree Celsius. Thankfully, when we were there, the weather was not so bad.


Next day, we crossed the pretty pilgrimage site of Sonmarg, where we found army trucks lined together for kilometres. Somehow, we managed to scrape past them. The next hurdle was the biggest hurdle of our entire trip.


This was Zozila pass, which was possibly in the worst condition of all the passes we had covered during our journey. It was a downright butt-breaker.


Finally, we made way to the lovely green valley of Srinagar and found ourselves a nice hotel opposite the famous Dal Lake. All we did was just nurse our really sore butts here. What followed next was pure madness.


We left Srinagar quite late in the morning considering that we had a long riding day ahead of us. We had a long delay before Jammu due to jammed brakes on one of the motorcycles. Then we faced heavy mist near Patnitop. By this time, we had approached darkness. We had dinner nearby and decided to contemplate on next steps.


During dinner, all of us decided to ride till we reached Pathankot in Punjab, but bordering Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan. The clock was ticking and heads were dropping. Sleep was catching up with us real fast. We took tea breaks every 15 minutes to wake us up. Folks started sleep-riding, dreaming, but thankfully and safely, we finally reached Pathankot in the wee hours of the morning. We struggled to find a place. The rest of the group were cursing me as this was my idea and it ended up being a stupid decision. Finally, we found ourselves a hotel room and slept like logs.


The next day was fairly uneventful as we zipped through the plains of Punjab to join the rest of the group at Chandigarh. The motorcycles were shipped back to Bangalore in trucks and we hired taxis to take us to Delhi and to the airport.


Overall, a phenomenal experience lasting 15 days that took us to the Top of the World and a sense of elation at having completed one of the toughest and the best motorcycle rides in the world. And all credit for organizing this trip goes to the Old Skool Biker community that runs a motorcycle business under the name of Motours.

To view the entire set of photos, click the album below.
Riding to the top of the world



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