MOTORCYCLE DIARIES- HOW I GOT LEH’D !!
Yes. I got Leh’d. And the experience of getting Leh’d is much more exciting than just getting LAID. The most important chapter of my motorcycle diaries is my 22 day trip to Leh, Ladakh on a Royal Enfield Thunderbird.
It all started when Discovery channel broadcasted an episode on riding in Leh, Ladakh. That 1 hour episode was enough for my mind to switch on the Laptop and research some more on this beautiful location in the Himalyas. For 4 days, Google kept flashing pictures of the scenic beauty of this small town located near India-China border. I had made up my mind. I had decided to take a break from work and pack my bags. A bike ride to Leh, Ladakh passes through some of the most challenging, breathtaking and awe-inspiring landscapes found on earth. But motorcycling in Ladakh is in no way an easy ride as most of the roads are above an altitude of 13000 feet in the Himalayas. It is often said that four wheels move the body but two wheels move the soul. Riding on top of the world transforms a person from within. I went with 2 motives in mind. To reach Khardung La- The highest motorable road in the world. And to salute the biggest national flag of India in Kargil.
The roads in Ladakh are open only for 4 months (June to September) and covered with snow for rest of the year. So after a lot of planning for 3 months, the calendar had hit June and the time arrived. On 10th June, while I was waiting for my bike to be loaded for transporting from Mumbai to Delhi, I realized that the journey had started at that very moment. I reached Delhi 2 days later and was glad to see my bike there, which was now going to become a part of me throughout the trip.
Delhi to Ludhiana
After preparing the bike for 2 days and a final check on all essentials, the ride started from Qutubminar in Delhi, with 18 riders who were totally strangers that morning but are now best pals. At 4am in the morning, when the group was about to start after a short discussion, a Delhi police vehicle approached us. When the officer enquired about what was happening and when we told him we are headed to Leh, he simply told his junior, “Dimaag kharab ho gaya hai yeh logo ka” (These people have gone mad). We immediately looked at each other and thought that it was true in a way.
On the first day we had to ride around 350kms. It did not look very tough in the beginning but nature had different plans. We were greeted with heavy rainfall and strong winds at 3pm. We waited for an hour for the rain to pass but there was no sign of skies getting clear very soon. The call was taken and we were left with no option but to continue the journey. City roads in Ludhiana were flooded leading to heavy traffic and the 20km stretch took 3 hours. As we crashed in the hotel room that night, we discussed about the good part of the ride. Whenever we took a halt for refreshment at a Dhaba(Local eating joint) we saw people cheering and welcoming us everywhere. Every individual who we spoke to blessed us and prayed for the successful completion of our journey.
Reaching Kashmir- The heaven on earth
If you have grown up as an Indian kid, you must have often heard from elders, “Agar duniya mien kahin jannat hai, to woh Kashmir mein hai” (If there is heaven on earth, then it is in Kashmir). Our day 2 ride was to reach this heaven on earth. You get the first view of Kashmir from a point called Titanic view point. This is from where the humungous mountains and beautiful rivers of Kashmir start. As you enter Kashmir, the first thing that you will notice is the hospitality of the Kashmiris. Be it a fine dine restaurant or a roadside tea stall, the locals greet you with a lot of warmth and affection. After a relaxed overnight stay in Udhampur we left for Srinagar the next day. As we rode between the valleys and mountains of Kashmir, fellow riders started bonding with each other.
On reaching Srinagar, we took a one day break for our tired bodies and bikes to get fit again. It was a much needed break and we decided to make the most of it. Instead of taking a cab to Shankaracharya temple at a mountain top, we trekked all the way up. Whenever you are on a road trip, ask the locals for what and where to eat. After taking the opinion from locals in Srinagar we decided to go for a local delicacy called Wazwan. Wazwan is a multi-course meal in Muslim Kashmiri cuisine, the preparation of which is considered an art and a point of pride in Kashmiri Muslim culture and identity. With our bellies full of delicious meal, it was time to unwind on a Shikara ride on Dal lake. The shikara is a type of wooden boat found on Dal Lake and other water bodies of Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, India. Dal Lake is famous for its beauty, for its vibrance, because it sustains within its periphery, a life that is unique anywhere in the world. The houseboat and shikara communities have lived for centuries on the Dal Lake, and so complete is their infrastructure on the lake, that they never have to step on land! Doctors, tailors, and bakers – all in tiny wooden shops on the lake, near picturesque vegetable gardens and acres of lotus gardens.
Romancing the Roads in Ladakh
After a refreshing break in Srinagar, we resumed the ride to reach Kargil. Here I was, approaching the place which I had dreamt about for months, the Kargil war memorial. It is located 40kms before Kargil, in the 2nd coldest inhabited place on earth called Drass. The memorial is in the memory of the soldiers and officers of the Indian Army who were killed during the 1999 conflict between India and Pakistan. The conflict later became known as the Kargil War. The memorial has a huge epitaph with names of all the officers and soldiers who died in war. Visitors to the memorial can also see from there, some of the peaks like that the Indian army captured back from Pakistan. A giant national flag, weighing 15 kg was hoisted at the Kargil war memorial to commemorate the 13th anniversary of India’s victory in the war. The first mission of my ride was thus completed with a royal salute to the tricolor flag which flew in full glory at 8,780 above sea level.
However, we came across many difficulties on our way to Kargil. High altitude had started showing its effects. High Altitude Sickness happens because of lack of oxygen and lower atmospheric pressure the breathing rates increases to balance for the lesser amount of oxygen present in the air. It can lead to severe breathing problems and is also life threatening if right measures are not taken in time. One of our fellow riders probably had the luckiest day of his life, as he had dangerous crash at a hairpin bend along Dras river and survived with minor injuries.
Ladakh is truly a land of mystery and intrigue. The majestic mountains standing tall with their snow-capped peaks, the vast barren valleys, the high mountain passes, the beautiful lakes, the fast-flowing rivers and mountain streams, and last but not the least, the wonderful Ladakhi people, simple and yet honest. All this together turns a motorcycle trip in Ladakh into an experienced to be cherished for a lifetime. On reaching Leh, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this small town located at 11,000 feet. The roads which lead to Pangong lake leave you completely awestruck. The roads are maintained by the Indian army who work day and night so that tourist can enjoy a safe journey. The Pangong lake is for me the most scenic lake that can exist on this planet. Pangong Tso (or Pangong lake; Tso: Ladakhi for lake) is a lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4250 m (13,900 ft). It is 134 km (83.3 mi) long and extends from India to Tibet. Two thirds of the length of this lake falls in Tibet. Do not miss the sunrise and the sunset at this mystic lake located in the lap of Himalayas.
Reaching the Highest Motorable Road in the World
The day had arrived. We were all set for the ride to Khardung La- The Highest Motorable Road in the World. I was aware of the difficult terrain and had seen innumerable videos of the K Top. We started early morning and were to reach Diskit by evening, a cold desert on the other side of the Khardung La top. Khardung La is situated 39 km by road from Leh. The first 24 km, as far as the South Pullu check point are paved. From there to the North Pullu check point about 15 km beyond the pass the roadway is primarily loose rock, dirt, and occasional rivulets of snow melt. However, this pass is in better repair than many of the surrounding passes (Tanglang La, for example). From North Pullu into the Nubra Valley, the road is very well maintained (except in a very few places where washouts or falling rock occur). Hired vehicles (2 and 4-wheel-drive), heavy trucks, and motorcycles regularly travel into the Nubra Valley, though special permits that may need to be arranged for travellers to make the journey. It was easily the best moment of the life to be standing on top of the world. After spending the night in Diskit and playing in the sand dunes of the cold desert we headed back to Leh the next day. Some of the fauna that we spotted on the way were the double humped camels and the golden eagle.
Riding to Manali via Pang and Sarchu
The Leh-Manali Highway is a high mountain and spans over a length of 479 km among the Himalaya mountain range. It passes through some of the world’s highest mountain passes in the world, with a mean altitude in between 9000ft to 15,000ft above sea level. Uncertain weather, high altitude, no roads, extreme cold and no civilization for miles make this a very treacherous track. It is safe to carry extra fuel as you will not find any petrol pump till you reach Manali.
This dirt gravel road which connects Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir and Manali in Himachal Pradesh state is the most adventures ride. We reached Manali in 2 days and took an overnight halt at Pang. Camping at that altitude with some best friends and bonfire makes you feel complete. We passed through some more high mountain passes like the Taglang La and Rohtang pass. Because of the important position of Ladakh between China and Pakistan this Highway plays an important strategic role for India, which results in the maintenance of the road by the Indian army itself. In addition to the spectacular landscape the life on and next to the road is diversified because of a wide variety of people frequenting it. On our way to Manali, we passed through the snow clad mountains, experienced rain in extremely cold condition at Taglang La top and 21 Gata Loops. Gata Loops is a name that is unknown to everyone except for a few who have traveled on the Manali Leh highway. It is a series of 21 hairpin bends that takes you to the top of the 3rd high altitude pass on this highway, Nakeela, at a height of nearly 16000 ft. We reached Manali and went for a final dinner with the friends made on the ride as it was time to say a good bye to them the next morning.
A goodbye to new pals and the ride to Punjab
We crashed in our hotel rooms the night we reached Manali and cherished the memories of the last 18 days which were to stay with us through our life. Next morning, I left the group along with another friend and headed to Punjab. The last three important places I wanted to see were, the Jallianwala baug, The Golden Temple and at last the Wagah Border. Initially, I had planned to ride solo to Punjab, but was joined by another friend who bonded in Leh. It was a tough moment for us to say a bye to the gang and it became a never imagined emotional time for all. With a goodbye hug, both of us started our engines and rode till Kullu. The distance was not much and we had an entire day to hang around in Manali. After figuring out the best route to reach Amritsar from local shopkeepers we rented a room peeping straight into the Kullu valley. We were to cover close to 450kms in a day on a road which had innumerable hair pin bends. It was the last leg of the journey and we reached Amritsar late in the evening. Eating at Highway dhabas in Punjab is highly recommended to satisfy your taste buds. A three day stay in Amritsar ensured that we saw the pind (village) of Punjab from in and out.
Harmandir Sahib also known as Darbar Sahib and informally referred to as the ‘The Golden Temple’ is the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism, located in the city of Amritsar. People of Punjab are easily the most helpful people that we came across. On arriving in Amritsar, we were helped by a traffic police cop to find a place to stay. The police proactively came and escorted us through the narrow lanes on seeing Maharashtra number plates on our motorcycles. For the next three days we immersed ourselves in the beauty of the spiritual place and made a visit to Jallianwala Baug. The history of killings during the British era came live in our eyes and we could feel the trauma the people must have gone through at the Jallianwala Baug in 1919 when a crowd of nonviolent protesters, along with Baishakhi pilgrims, who had gathered in Jallianwala Baug were fired upon by troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Dyer.
The Wagah border is simply not-to-be-missed by anyone who visits Amritsar. In fact, every Indian must visit this place which hosts the retreat ceremony at 5pm every day. Wagah Border is the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. Often known as Berlin wall of Asia, this border lies on the Grand Trunk Road between Amritsar and Lahore. On this border, a retreat ceremony called ‘lowering of the flags’ is held every evening, since 1959. During the ceremony, Border Security Force (B.S.F) of India and the Pakistan Rangers soldiers perform energetic parade.
This 40 to 45 minutes ceremony takes place every evening before sunset at the Wagah Border. As the sun sets, the iron gate at the border is opened and the flags of India and Pakistan are lowered and folded by their respective soldiers. The ceremony ends with a handshake between the soldiers of both the countries. It was indeed a ‘Proud Indian’ moment while clicking some pictures against the board which read ‘India-Pakistan Border- 1KM’.
After more than 3 weeks, we returned back to our respective cities with so many memories to cherish and awaiting for a next epic trip to Ladakh. The friends made on this trip will always be special and all are still in touch thanks to social media and the internet revolution. In conclusion, I would suggest everyone to make a road trip to Ladakh and discover one’s own journey in tranquility.