Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

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

a stone mandala at the 134 kms long salt lake of  Pangong, that straddles across the Indo China border
We reached Leh on the 6th day. Now the large town of Leh is unlike any other 'hill station'. It is largely a flat dusty unplanned urban spread, with dry hot weather during the day and freezing cold nights that gives you nose bleeds.

Leh is a historical place. Being the capital of the Ladakhi Kingdom it has several ancient Buddhist monasteries and palaces. Generally a tourist to Ladakh makes Leh her/his centre of stay. Every other tourist spot is all around this town differing only in road distance from it. We stayed for three days in Leh, cooling our heels over beer and rum. In between all this we explored the countryside by visiting the oft visited tourist spots. It is from here that one has to climb the Khardungla Pass, the highest motorable road in the world some 40 kms away from the town.

Traces of a lake that was believed to have been drained by Naropa before he established the Lamayuru
So we did the Khardungla (18,379 ft), we did the salty Pangong Lake (14,270 ft) on the Indo China border, we did all that every rider does when on a ride to Ladakh.

Khardungla Top
Riding towards Leh
It was now time for us to head back home. Now another set of adventure lay in store for us. Going to Manali from Leh one has to cross several snow covered mountain passes and uncountable water crossings. It is a two days affair if one does not come across any mishap. This stretch is treacherous, with unpredictable water crossings, really bad roads, falling rocks and steep fall into bottomless gorges. This stretch is also the most beautiful. There are several valleys that takes ones breath away. The wild beauty of the wild yak grazing Mori plains still rakes my memory with its biting ting of nostalgia. 
the Mori plains
The Mori planes is a stretch of 40 kms of straight undulating road flanked by mountains. These mountains looks like rolling hills but are in fact too high to climb. These are sharp gravel clad peaks and are home to the wildlife in that area. After crossing the Mori plains we reached Sarchu (14,070 ft). Sarchu is a midway stopover. It is not a village or anything like that, but because of it being somewhere between Leh and Manali, the few enterprising locals of Leh has built shacks that doubles up as restaurants and rest houses under the same tin roof. There are large tent compounds too, but they are pricey. Sarchu is a compulsory stop over. Needless to say, it is foolhardy to ride or drive after sundown in this region. The night temperature at Sarchu falls well below 10 degrees in the summer.

on our way to Pangong
Most of the unpredictable water crossings are found between Sarchu and Manali. Water crossings are streams that flow across the road as they plummet down the cliffs. These snow melt torrents are most pliant in the morning, but as the day progresses they began to take on a fiercer aspect. Crossing these on a motorcycle that is weighed down with luggage, is no mean task. I have seen many bikers wait before certain crossings hoping for army trucks to pass by so that they may be helped across by soldiers in those four wheel drives. The secret to a successful crossing is to keep ones wits about oneself without panicking and to put the bike in its 1st gear and accelerate accordingly. Never touch the clutch lever or change gear while in the water. If the water is too deep never decelerate, you don't want water to enter your silencer pipe. Make sure you have plastic bags covering your shoes, for the water is snow melt and bitingly cold. Ok, you can ignore the plastic bags. And if you feel it is impossible to cross, specially if one such crossing has a steep fall on its side I suggest you wait for an army truck to help you out. I have heard of stories of riders being washed away to death. I have herd stories of riders camping beside such 'mad' torrents and freezing themselves to kulfi (ice cream sticks) in order to await the morning, when the force of the water subsides giving them a safe passage. Remember these streams are ice melt and are most dangerous towards the second half of the day.

one of the peaceful water crossings
After half a days ride from Sarchu we crossed the snow line and entered the mid Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh. Here we saw vegetation worthy of being called vegetation. Remember greenery vanishes after climbing Zojila. I was beginning to miss it. The verdurous landscape of Keylong Valley does help ones eye recover from the plight of martian barrenness that Ladakh offers. After Keylong, we had to once again begin our climb to the last pass for us to reach Manali. The ascend to the perpetually snow covered Rohtang Pass (13,050 ft) from the Keylong side is a nightmare. Due to the constant melting ice, the road on this side of the mountain is always bad. On flat stretches there are pools, on sloping stretches there are slippery water crossings and on stretches that do not have water or pools, there are just dust and gravel.

about to reach the snow line at Himachal near Keylong
Now the best part about the Rohtang climb is the high wall of snow one has to ride through. At places these walls tower over us or any other vehicles and at places one can just simply park ones ride and have a snow ball fight, on the rolling surface of the snow clad mountain. But once one reaches the Rohtang top one is aghast to see hundreds of cacophonous tourist vehicles, laden with equally cacophonous louts, whose only purpose to visit the Rohtang is to shout to his friend beside him in order to tell him that he is on the Rohtang.

Rohtang Pass
By early evening we descended the Rohtang and reached the hill station of Manali.... 40 kms below. The next day we reached plains and the next day we were home.

coming across wild yaks
There is one particular incident I would like to share here... Just as we were about to leave Leh for Sarchu, at a small breakfast joint we came across two riders from Delhi, on fancily modified REs. These two claimed to be veteran riders of this circuit, doing it more than four times. Having heard scary tales of the road condition from Leh to Rohtang, we asked them about it, as a matter of confirmation. They further scared us by their overtly exaggerated narration, which we realized later as nothing but bragging and 'taking us for a ride'. After breakfast they asked us to follow them...we tried to do so but they were too fast for us, leaving us behind, they vanished into the mountains. We did not see their parked bikes at Sarchu either, which was odd. No matter how fast one rides here, Sarchu is a compulsory stop for the night. Anyway we reached the plains at our own pace, sans any 'íncident' and just outside Chandigarh, we decided to rest the night before the final leg of our journey. As we were 'celebrating' at the rest house's open air restaurant towards midnight, we heard impossibly loud 'dug dug', which is the signature sound of REs. Those two 'veteran' riders had rolled in. Both their bikes had their silencers detached from the engine and tied to the leg guard. Both had twisted handle bars and both had their primary head lamps broken. One of those 'veterans' had bandaged arms and a face so swollen that his helmet could not fit over it.... they told us that over a particular water crossing before Sarchu, the bandaged 'veteran's' bike was nearly washed away only to be rescued by some army men and after Sarchu, the other 'veteran' had skidded on the Mori plains and damaged his bike.' We paid for their beer... hahaha.

no roads, Ladakh
our place of stay at Leh
Pangong lake
Pangong lake
Sarchu shelter's angel, daughter of the shacks owner
Rohtang Pass
a Buddhist painting on the wall of Lamayuru
no roads
the Shanti Stupa of Leh
Thickshey Monastery, Leh
Ladakh Countryside
coming across wild asses
coming across seagulls at Pangong Lake
Sarchu Shelter