Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Top of the World, a motorcycle journey through the high altitude desert of Ladakh, India. (part I) By Sabya Sachi Ghosh

the surreal landscape of Lamayuru, Ladakh
Every serious rider has always dreamt of riding above the clouds in the Ladakh region of the Jammu and Kashmir state of India. The riding community here swears by the gravel on the road and the snowy peaks of the upper Himalayas. For us it is akin to climbing Everest, but on our Royal Enfield motorcycles.

climbing up the Kashmir valley
The lure of the pristine Himalayas, the challenge it offers a rider is a temptation that sometimes prove fatal. If unprepared and callous, the ride can turn to disaster at every bend and climb and snow covered passes and water crossings. Once a rider completes the Ladakh circuit, she/he is considered to be in the big league of biking aficionados.

at Patni Top, Jammu and Kashmir 
In the year 2014 four of my riding buddies and I from our club the We Royal Riders, Agra completed the circuit. We did this the hard way, climbing the dreaded Zojila pass via Sonemarg in J and K and climbing down at the perpetually snow covered Rohtang pass near Manali, Himachal Pradesh.

atop the Zojila Pass
'Ladakh Returned' bikers have uncountable tales to tell. 'Ladakh Returned' is an honorific title that many returnees love to advertise on their helmets or fuel tanks... my buddies and I are not those peacocks. Talking about the ride we started our journey from Agra and in three days time reached the upper Himalyan valley of Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir. So far it was easy going. Riding through the brutally hot plains of north India we were only glad to have climbed to the alpine climes of the Kashmir Valley. Now the real challenge lay ahead...to reach above the snow line and beyond into the magical but bare mountains of Ladakh. To do that we had to first pay our respects to the Jozila Pass. The only way of doing this is by naturally climbing it, without any incident.

about to reach Sonemarg from Srinagar
From Sonemarg the Zojila top is a mere 10 kms... it took us almost 2 hours to traverse this dangerously steep climb, with a sudden change of altitude from 5200 ft (Srinagar) to 11575 ft. There is no road here, only gravel and 6 inches of dust if you are lucky. On unlucky days with rain this dust turns to slippery slosh in the summer and landslides at several bends. In winter one has to brave avalanches (the road is closed in the winters) and during war time with Pakistan, shelling. Here we are very close to the Pakistani border.  We were lucky, as we merely had to snake our way between trucks and 'traffic jams' and boulders that were being removed to the cliff side by bulldozers, belonging to the Border Roads Organisation, a logistic arm of the Indian Army. And yes, by 'traffic jams' I mean tourist vehicles and trucks all headed for Ladakh, this being the only way from Srinagar. The Zojila road is nasty, steep with bottomless fall and filled with the rising anxiety of altitude sickness. Eventually we reached the top and for the first time in my life I experienced the biting chill of winds that blew over the ice, which always blankets this pass. From here on we were ready to face any sort of weather or road or the lack of it.

the surreal landscape of the Waka Valley of Ladakh
Needless to say the landscape is surreal. As we rode towards our destination of Leh, the main town of Ladakh, we came across lunar, martian and every sort of landscapes that is found in the solar system. For the night we stopped by at a small town called Kargill, made famous in India due to the Kargill War with Pakistan in the year 1999. The Pakistan occupied Kashmir is just a mountain away from this town and at places we could see the occupied territories of the Himalayas.

stopping near the Lamayuru for a piss break
We had one more day of riding till we reached Leh. This stretch is absolutely barren. As one enters the Buddhist region of J and K after Kargill, one is welcomed by a 20 feet tall, 1000 years old relief statue of the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha yet to be born). This stretch offers us the inhospitable but stunningly beautiful nude mountains of the Waka Valley, the mysterious Lamayuru Monastry and for the lucky ones the rare sighting of the elusive snow leopard.

Ladakh region
The Lamayuru Monastery is about 1200 years old and founded by a Bengali monk from my state of West Bengal (11,520 ft above sea level). It felt nice to know that a fellow Bengali by the name of the reverend Naropa (Naropodo in Bengali) had trekked so far away from home and founded an institution as beautiful as the Lamayuru, which has a magnificent library of ancient and rare Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts. My fellow riders teased me when I took pride in this fact that a thousand years ago a timid Bengali was brave enough to walk 2600 kms from his home and establish a seat of learning in this part of the world, where even now the wilderness prevails. Regional glory apart, we then rolled towards Leh. Just 40 kms before our destination we decided to spend the night in a quaint little rest house at a place called Basgo (10,821 ft above sea level). I am glad we did that. I am an avid star gazer and at Basgo (the old and abandoned capital of the Ladakhi Monarchy) I not only saw the firmament in its full glory but could almost touch the stars, the milky way and all other galaxies that the universe has created for us to explore in the future. Due to the higher altitude, thinner atmosphere and no other disturbing source of light, one views the stars here as a bigger phenomenon that from the sea level.

We reached Leh the next day....

the Zojila pass

Buddhist chotens (relic mounds) of the Ladakh region

near the magnetic hill, Ladakh region

Ladakh region
crossed Sonemarg for Zojila

Waka Valley, Ladakh region

Ladakh region

saw this frozen river at Zojila Pass

 the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha yet to be born) Ladakh region

Ladakh region

Ladakh region
Ladakh region

Ladakh region

Ladakh region


  1. Man, this is the stuff of dreams! :-)

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