Ladakh - 2008
Motorcycling around Himalayas
One of the toughest terrains to ride in the world- Ladakh is every biker’s dream. I’m not an exception. I did my ride to Leh and places around and I’m really proud to complete it successfully.
Except Delhi to Leh and PangongTso I was all alone. Completely on my own, barren land around and broken roads ahead, with the company of just the motorcycle and music of the engine, heart filled with the excitement of the hundreds and thousands of miles covered and the sweet memories of hospitable native people I could interact with… it certainly is a very different and personal feeling… a pure Ladakhi feeling…
The bike doesn’t have a complaint about the heavy dead weight loaded on it. Even the machine seemed to enjoy the new terrain it took for the first time and felt like asking for more. It was a dream ride; ride of a life time. Like the rider even the machine had all the excitement of a first timer to Ladakh. I’m proud of my machine for that matter.
About this ride, nothing went according to my plan, but everything happened very well and smoothly. Plan to enter Kashmir via Srinagar got changed because of the regional and political issues and curfew at that region. Reach Kargil first and do Zanskar before Leh was the initial plan. Anyway Manali - Leh route was still open and no one could impose curfew on that option.
Delhi to Leh
Ride started from Delhi with two pals from Delhi RB- Kam and Rajan. After a late start we could do only till Bilaspur on the first day. Heavy showers welcomed us to Manali on the second day. Old highway to manali doesn’t look so bad. We reached early in the evening and the rain stopped on our arrival. My friends did some shopping and I too had a ride here and there in the city. Before Leh, Manali is the last place with ATM facility.
Third day offered the most exciting part of the ride till then. Climb to Rohthang pass (13050 ft) seemed to be a cakewalk for LB5. Down shift happens only when the speed has to be reduced at hairpins or broken patches. Anyway the fully broken patches and slushy stretches of Rohthang pass climb added more excitement. After Rohthang the motorcycle never looked 'chromy' and clean again.
We did not miss the tradition of taking photos at the Tandi petrol bunk, under the board that says 'next filling station 365km ahead'. I haven't seen any Leh ride album without that photo!
For the reason that we spent more time on tea breaks, we actually were behind schedule (we actually didn't have one). Our plan to reach at least till Sarchu did not work out. We had to halt at Zingzingbar. Three tents were what that place had. We three and two other riders from Mumbai whom we met on the way settled at one of the tents. The tents were not water proof and it rained that night. It was waterproof tarpaulins that helped us survive that night.
Fourth day is going to be tough. There are 310 km to Leh. Considering the road condition, the terrain and the no of stops we are going to take, it’s a bit tough. But we have to make it and we did it comfortably. We were in Leh by around 6:30. That day we crossed four high altitude passes.
First one- Baralacha La (16000 ft) came within 15 km from Zingzingbar and that was the first time I had to open up the carburetor and down size the main jet. Bike started to miss at around 14000 feet+. Ride further was smooth with the proper jet. 75km from Baralacha La is Naki La (16250 ft). It is the ever exciting Ghata loops that makes the climb to Naki La interesting. It is a combination of 21 continuous hairpins. Few kilometers further is Lachung La (16600 ft) and then we decent to Pang. Pang is ideal place for a tea break. The excitement awaits immediately after Pang is the plain surface that stretches for 60km known as More plains. It is 40km wide and is part of Great Tibetan Chamathang plateau. End of more plains is the climb to Tanglang La (17500 ft). Road is in bad shape with few water crossings and climb is a bit hard. Tanglang La is the highest pass on Manali – Leh road. 28 km further is Rumste and from there the road is good till Leh.
Distance in km - Delhi to Leh via Manali
Delhi – 203 - Ambala - 57 - Chandigarh – 116 - Bilaspur - 69 – Mandi – 69 - Kullu - 40 - Manali - 35 - Mahri - 16 - Rohtang - 20 – Khoksar - 16 - Tandi – 08 - Keylong – 21 - Jispa - 11 - Darcha - 30 - Zingzingbar - 11 - Baralacha La - 36 - Sarchu -40 – Naki La – 16- Luchung La- 23 – Pang - 35 – Debring - 40 - Tanglang La 28 - Rumste - 32 - Upshi - 13 - Karu - 36 – Leh
Ladakh ride is all about reaching Leh first, taking permits for the sensitive regions from the DC office and do the detours. Most wanted ones are Khardung La- Nubra valley and Pangong Tso.
1. Khardung La – Nubra valley
That was my first ride from Leh and beginning of my solo rides. My pals are resting at Leh. I had an early start with minimum luggage and one jerrycan of reserve petrol. I wanted to go to where ever is ridable in Nubra.
Kardung La was covered in snow when I reached there. It is August 15th and what an ideal location to celebrate independence day! Few kilometers before reaching the top itself I could see small patches of snow all around. The mountains around looked like Dalmatians. K-top offered a good time with snowfall happening intermittently. Hardly three or four tourists were seen around. I was literally excited. When it snowed I took shelter at the highest tea stall or at the memento shop. And when the snowing stops I am out. I was roaming around there like a kid. I did not even realize that I spent around 2 hours there. K-top started to become crowded when the snowfall settled. On everyone’s face there is this feeling of having achieved something even if they have come there inside the safety of a four wheel drive. One cyclists gang lined up in front of the Kardung La board and singing ‘we are the champions…’ Another group of Indians celebrate Independence Day singing Vande Madaram and Janaganamana… Few bikers are in a dilemma whether to proceed further to Nubra and get stuck in the snow or go back to Leh… The atmosphere is getting more crowded with different people and different thought processes and it’s time for me to head further.
Few more kilometers of snow filled roads and then suddenly everything is clear much before reaching Nubra valley. Nubra means green and vast green pockets in the valley are prosperous villages. This valley once was the famous Tibetan – Turkistan trade route.
77km from K-top is the village Diskit. Diskit is famous for the largest and ancient gompa in the valley. Diskit gompa is 350 years old and is home to around 70 monks. It was interesting to hear that one of the statues there holds skeletal arm and skull of one of the invaders who was slain 500 years ago.
I stayed at Zambala guest house owned by Mr. Nawang at Diskit (Ph: 01980 220418). Nawang family stays in the same building and the guest house is an extension of his house. What a nice family to stay with! I was served food at their family dining area. The next day morning Nawang offered a free lunch parcel and water bottles. He and his kids helped me carry my stuff to the bike and saddle up. That stay was one memorable experience. The faces I met there and the hospitality I experienced are hard to forget.
Though I once did the climb to Diskit gompa in the previous evening, I visited the gompa for the second time in the morning since prayer room was opened in the morning which gave access to more rooms and activities in the gompa.
About 7km further is Hunter which is the last point a civilian can go. Further from Hunter is the sensitive and expensive real estate for India and Pakistan – Siachen glaciers. Hunter is famous for the sand dunes and double humped Bactrian camels. These camels are believed to have been abandoned by the passing caravans centuries ago and have flourished there. Tourists can take a ride on these camels for Rs. 150 for half an hour and for Rs. 300 for one hour. I was interested only in clicking some pics of those animals and headed back.
32 km on the way back there is a left deviation that takes you to Sumur and Panamik. The deviation is around 15km before Khalsar when we come from Hunter side. 3km ride along the river bed to cross to Sumur side is one exciting experience. You can open up to even 90kph+ there. Panamik is famous for the hot springs. Once I touched the water I couldn’t hold on for more than a second. It was really hot.
I headed back to Leh in the afternoon. It is a 160 km ride till Leh. I did not resist the temptation to take another stop at the Khardung La top. There was a long convoy of army trucks waiting at K-top and there is this jawan jumping out of the first truck and walks up to me seeing a KL registered bike. Mr. Srikumar from Adimali was excited to see an adventure rider from Kerala for the first time during his 3 months tenure there. We had a chat at the tea shop for some time and I left to Leh to reach there before sunset.
Distance in km
Leh - 40 - Khardung La - 52 - Khalsar
Khalsar - 25 - Diskit - 7 - Hunter
Khalsar - 52 - Panamik
2. Pangong Tso
This was my only ride as group at Leh. It was a two men group to Pangong Tso- myself and Kam. Though it is doable in one day we preferred to halt near the lake and come back only on the second day.
The deviation to Pangong Tso from Leh- Manali road is at Karu. Total distance from Leh to pangong Tso is 118km. One of the toughest passes Chang La comes at 88km from Leh. The roads are comparatively fine except few bad patches close to Chang La on both the sides and few water crossing areas before Pangong Tso.
Chang La top welcomes you with a board at the army settlement ‘Free tea for every one’. It’s really tasty. I did not miss it while my retunr too.
Around 10km towards right from Lukung, through the road close to the lake is the village Spangmik. The road is in very bad shape with fully broken patches and a couple of big water crossings. Spangmik is the last village on Indan side. Further ahead is Tibetan region (China). Spangmik’s population is only 45. But it is considered to be one of the sensitive places considering the location. Spangmik doesn’t have electricity or phone facility or even postal service. Villagers rely on Army for any sort of communication with the outside world. Further from Spangmik one needs to have a permit to ride through the lake side road to find beautiful beach like locations.
It is a fantastic experience to see the lake at different times of the day. Moon rise and sun rise by the lade side are beautiful views. Clean and light blue look of the lake with the black and snow covered mountains in the back ground is one of the beautiful moods. Deep blue looking lake with the brown colored mountains in the background is another pose of the ever photogenic Pangong Tso.
We pitched tent at the backyard of Stenzing who served us food and rode with us to guide us to beautiful spots at the lake side. It was nice to listen to the china war time experiences from the villagers. Those are information we wouldn’t get on googling or from any history books.
We started our return at noon. The climb to Chang La from Pangong side seemed to be harder than that from the Leh side. Pangong side climb is steeper. No wonder why Chang La is called as Mighty Chang La.
Distance in km
Leh - 15 - Shey - 4 - Tikse - 31 - Chemre - 8 - Taktok - 30 - Chang La - 22 - Tangste - 8 - Luking - 10 - Spangmik
During my Himalayan ride I had real good times with the native people at many places. Meeting Spulzang was great experience. It was after a long search in the city with the photo of him taken by GK two years ago, Spulzang was finally located at his internet café. He has expanded his business in two years and opened a restaurant too. He is the one who taught us the local name of ‘Old Monk’- Largan (it really means old monk in Ladakhi language). His gift –my name etched on a stone plate- was one big surprise to me. That is one example for how Ladakhi people value friends
Places in and around Leh
I initially doubted that time spent at Leh is actually waste, But visit to few places around changed that opinion. It was intersting to know that Leh used to be an extremely busy city in the olden days when it was a major trading center. Leh is quieter nowadays! It's interesting to visualize those days with caravans from far away lands parked in the market and people from different cultures together in the background of that old world charm… Even today another version is very much noticeable at Leh- international tourists out number the nationals.
I feel it is worth staying two or three days in Leh to see the historic places around. I visited few places.
Shanti Stupa, close to Changspa is one beautiful place to visit. The stupa is made by a Japanese with the help of Japanese government. It is part of his effort to spread Buddhism around the globe. The view of Leh from the stupa is awesome and the stupa itself is one hot spot for photography.
Leh Palace too is worth a visit just for the views from top of the palace and the gompa nearby. Namgyall Dynasty ruled from this palace from 1553 till 1834. The palace is a nine storey structure with projecting wooden balconies. The palace is said to have been abandoned in the year 1834 after an attack and defeat by Dorga and the royal family was moved to the stok palace where they live to date.
Stock palace is around 10km from Leh. Built in 1814 this palace is occupied by the royal family to date. It has a small museum that has few royal artifacts on display. The gradual ascent to Stok is amazing. Places in rear view mirror gradually goes down and finally at Stok you have a good view of the stok village with the mountains in the background.
Shey Palace and Gompa
15km in the Manali road, this summer palace was built in 1645 and the gompa in 1655. Ruins of an old fortress too are seen nearby. 12m high statue of Buddha inside the gompa is the biggest in Ladahk. The statue is gilded with gold.
After the detours to Khardung La, Nubra and Pangong Tso and the visits to different historic places in and around Leh I was still in full excitement about Zanskar. I did full preparation at Leh for Zanskar.That included a bike service.
20th Aug 2008. I’m supposed to head to Kargil and from there to Zanskar, the next day. I had to sit at the garage till noon to finish issues with the shock absorbers etc. Again time spent on arranging two more jerrycans delayed me further. So I had to stop at Lamayuru that evening.
Next 5 days were the most memorable riding days of my life. I have written separately about the Zanskar days- ‘Zanskar- A solo Pilgrimage’
A night at the Army camp
After coming back from Zanskar I was in a kind of ‘ride is all over’ mood. What remains now is the return to Delhi via curfew bound Srinagar that will not even let me take a stop in between. So nothing colorful is left. I am even going to miss Dal Lake.
From Kargil I’m heading towards Drass. I was a bit fast to reach Drass before sunset and find a place to stay. It was only 25 km to Drass when the mishap occurred. The clutch box hitting an unnoticed stone in the middle of the road and the resulting fall and damages to the bike left me with no other option but to stay with an army camp. The damages were broken and oil dripping clutch box, fully bent foot peg and a broken rod that holds the side stand and the silencer. The riding gear saved me without a scratch. It is hard to forget the faces of those three army men who treated me like more than a guest. Their hospitality is beyond words.
Kargil to Delhi via the curfew bound Srinagar
I had to go back to Kargil to fix up the bike the next day and I filled extra petrol in jerrycans before heading to Srinagar (Thanks to the advice of those Jawans whom I stayed with). That was one basic necessity since there was no petrol bunks opened on the way due to curfew.
First stop was at Drass. Visiting Vijay path- Kargil war memorial was an honor. The huge stone with the names of Jawans we lost in the war is right infront of you and the places that took most of their lives- Rhino’s horn and the (in)famous tiger hill stand in the background.
That day I stopped at Sonamarg and stayed with few other riders met there who were reluctant to enter the curfew bound areas in the day time. Plan for the next day is to cross the Srinagar region which is under curfew. I was stopped at least 20 times on the way by police and military. Thankfully army rules the entire highway. Sight of army guys at each and every corner of the highway gave a safety feeling.
One incident is unforgettable. This army officer –Sandeep and his Jawans controls a specific region and I was stopped there and Mr. Sandeep has no intension to let me proceed further. It was after 10-15 min. his intentions came clear to me. He wants to listen to my ride stories and wants to know about my bike, how I maintain it for such a long ride etc. Even I enjoyed that break. I saw in his eyes, the desire for rides while inspecting my bike and the set up. Doing all these rides alone was one thing that confused him.
So, you are not married?
I said, ‘no’.
You don’t have a girlfriend either?
I again said, ‘no’.
Hmm, so it is clear… No wonder…
I just smiled.
After a long chat he wished me good luck and I opened the throttle and wished him back.
Before leaving I asked him what to do if someone else again stops me like this.
He said, no, no one is going to stop you like 'this'!
Yes, that was true. No one stopped me anywhere else like 'that'!
Rest of the journey was eventless. By around 6 I reached Pathankot. I spent that night there in real heat after around 20 days. The next day straight to Delhi and that was the end of my 20 days’ expedition.
I haven’t heard good about north Indian cops. But this incident proved that there are exceptions. I was shot with speed gun on the way to Delhi twice. First time I pulled over with other over speeding four wheelers by cops at the next barricade. I was the only two wheeler and the cop wondered with the reading in his hand- 98kph!… The allowed speed for two wheelers is 55kph. But when am I going to reach Delhi if I go at that speed. Amazingly he left me me with no reluctance. What a relief... The second time I was 100+ and I was not stopped. That was real luck.
Distance in km - Leh to Delhi via Srinagar
Leh – 35 – Nimmu – 29 – Alchi – 63 – Lamayuru – 51 – Mulbek – 47 - Kargil – 56 – Drass - 30 – Zojilla pass – 25 - Sonmarg – 63 – Ganderbal – 21 – Srinagar – 178 – Patni Top - 55 – Udhampur – 60 – Samba – 77 – Pathankot - 116 – Jalandhar – 59 – Ludhiana – 106 – Ambala – 120 – Panipat – 85 - Delhi
How may days for Ladakh
If the ride begins from Delhi, it will probably be 4 days to reach Leh via both Srinagar and Manali routes. So 4 days to reach Leh and 4 days for the return.
Two days in Leh to arrange the permits and to see places around.
Two days for Khardung La and Nubra
Two days for Pangong Tso.
And there can be atleast one day buffer.
That means atleast 15 days for the traditional routes.
If Marsimek La is added to the itinerary then that's going to add one day.
For Tso Moriri and Tso Kar one day, if the circuit is done while on the way back from Leh or on the way to Leh or else it is going to be two days.
On Leh - kargil route if the Dha - Batalik route is an option, that will add one more day.
If Zanskar is part of the plan add 4 more days.
Places that need Permit for entry
1. Pangog Tso - beyond Spangmik.
A permit and extra fuel will let you do the Chumathang - Tso moriri - Tso Kar circuit from pangong Tso.
2. Nubra valley ( Diskit, Hunter, Sumur, Panamik )
3. Tso Moriri
4. Batalik (Skurbuchen - Dha - Batalik)
Tips that I learned during my trip for a smooth ride on the mountains:
1. If the vehicle is running in the plains with up-jetted carburetor, keep the stock size or even lower size jets as spare. You might end up with a missing carburetor on mountains. (Spare jets carried with me helped me during the ride)
2. Clean the air filter once in a while. The dusty terrain clogs the filter faster and the lack of oxygen at mountains will lessen the air intake into the carb drastically.
PS: There are few guys I can't miss to mention about here. Those are the guys who helped me whatever way they could in my effort to make arrangements for this ride.
Tools and spares contributed by JSR, Moshaii, Sashi, Meppa...
Thanks to JSR for the carburetor tips and loads of information about Ladakh. Your previos experiences made things easier for me.
Kam and Rajan from Royal Beasts, thank you for being my hosts in Delhi and for giving me company till Leh.
I thank every one who supported and helped me directly or indirectly.