RID­ING THE HI­MALAYAS

The Luxury Collection - - Current Affairs - -By An­dre Ca­mara

Into ad­ven­ture and a thrill for the out­doors? Well this jour­ney is just the dose you need! The Manali-leh jour­ney has leg­endary writ­ten all over it! One of the most thrilling ex­pe­ri­ences in In­dia and very eas­ily in the rest for the world as well. Trav­el­ling Ladakh by bike in­volves cross­ing gush­ing streams, travers­ing next to non-ex­is­tent roads and over­com­ing grav­ity de­fy­ing moun­tain passes! This is the stuff great sto­ries are made of and once you’re through with it, all you want to do is go back! As in my case, hav­ing just com­pleted this epic ride last month, I now sit at my desk at home and my heart yearns for the soul stir­ring moun­tains!

Like most avid bik­ers, rid­ing to the Hi­malayas has been on my bucket list for don­key’s years! And like ev­ery other biker, ev­ery year I would con­jure some rhyme or rea­son to push it to the next year. The Manali-leh high­way con­nects Leh in Ladakh, Jammu Kash­mir and Manali, Hi­machal Pradesh. Open only for around four to five months ev­ery year, it makes it an even harder task to plan this trip. Cou­ple that with no net­work or con­nec­tiv­ity for al­most all of the stops in be­tween and you’ve got your­self a real ad­ven­ture. Mind you, this jour­ney is not for the faint hearted as it truly can test you in so many ways. The al­ti­tude, ter­rains, lack of ba­sic ameni­ties and un­pre­dictable weather are just some of the el­e­ments you will en­counter through this jour­ney de­signed to break you! But for what it’s worth, all it takes is a lit­tle prepa­ra­tion and you will be good to go.

As for me, I started my jour­ney in Chandi­garh hav­ing flown to the joint cap­i­tal of Pun­jab and Haryana. Our con­voy came to­gether here be­fore I took a bus to a lit­tle town called Mandi from where we were to pick our bikes. After spend­ing a night in Mandi, we flagged off to­wards Manali which was a to­tal of around 120 km. The jour­ney to Manali was dot­ted with lush green moun­tains that tow­ered above you as you rode through them. At one such in­stance in par­tic­u­lar,you quite lit­er­ally ride through them via a tun­nel.

Thanks to the mon­soons that were slowly show­ing signs of re­treat­ing, ev­ery square inch of the ground was cov­ered in green. At times you would feel like you are rid­ing through some of the best stretches of the Western Ghats. It was truly in­vig­o­rat­ing rid­ing through all that fresh­ness and grandeur. The tricky bends and curves on the other­wise well laid road let me test my bike and pre­pare me for its han­dling be­fore the treach­er­ous ter­rains ahead. The invit­ing view of cedar forests and ap­ple groves were an in­di­ca­tion that Manali was soon ap­proach­ing. We by-passed the tourist laden town of Manali and checked into our ho­tel in Sholang Val­ley. Here is where I got my first glimpse of a snow capped moun­tain. En­gulfed by the ex­cite­ment, all I could do was pull out my phone and keep click­ing away, lit­tle know­ing that I was to ride di­rectly to­wards them in the com­ing days.

The next day we were to take on the crown prince of the Lehmanali route, the in­fa­mous Rohtang Pass! This beau­ti­ful moun­tain pass of­fers a view com­pa­ra­ble to no other! Al­though, gaz­ing at the gor­geous land­scape was more of a peek-a-boo as the roads are re­ally bad and hair­pins el­e­vat­ing to what felt like a 60 de­gree as­cent at times. The Rohtang pass was the gate­way to the rest of the trip and it had all the tests to cre­ate a pre­lude to what was ahead. And just as you are get­ting used to the gor­geous hues of green around you, with­out any no­tice, the land­scapes sud­denly change! The moun­tains are now arid with al­most close to no veg­e­ta­tion. Roads started get­ting rugged un­til a point where there was no road at all! And as warned ear­lier, the un­pre­dictable weather had one last test for us as we reached the sum­mit and were about to head down. A sud­den burst of rain turned what was left of the de­bris laden road into a slush pond, much like what you see in ob­sta­cle runs in an army train­ing camp! With nowhere to take shel­ter and only for­ward to go, I took off us­ing all the power my bike could con­jure and made it past this in­sid­i­ous pass. At the bot­tom, now with the rain sub­sided, a very fa­mil­iar sight showed on my rear view mir­ror. The rains had left be­hind a rain­bow so spec­tac­u­lar, it fit right into the cover page of a fairy tale! And just like that, all the slush and wet gear was for­got­ten.

With a quick stopover for lunch at Kokhsar, we made our way to­wards Jispa through the La­haul Val­ley which gave me a clear glimpse of the moun­tains capped with snow all around! We took a quick fuel stopover in Tandi, which was quite lit­er­ally the last fuel sta­tion for the next 365km! Yes, that is how re­mote this place re­ally is! We reached Jispa post sun­down and headed straight to get out of our drenched gear. The night called for cel­e­bra­tion after what I can eas­ily say was the best off-road ex­pe­ri­ence of my life!

Our next des­ti­na­tion was Sarchu! Leav­ing quiet Jispa be­hind, we were now en­ter­ing the Greater Hi­malayan Land­scape. On our way to the heart of the moun­tains, the Bar­alachha Pass (5000 me­ters above sea level) was a piece of cake after con­quer­ing the Rohtang. The way to Sarchu was laden with tow­er­ing moun­tain ranges, deep gorges and steep curves. It was here that I faced my first signs of al­ti­tude sick­ness. Noth­ing that a lot of wa­ter, a parac­eta­mol and a de­cent night’s sleep couldn’t fix. Of course, Sarchu is a stopover that can re­ally test your mettle. With ba­sic fab­ric tent ac­com­mo­da­tion and near to out­door bath­rooms, I was look­ing for­ward to the morn­ing be­fore set­ting off again on the road ahead. Next was Pang. Na­keela pass, Lachungla pass and 21 gata loops, a se­ries of hair­pin bends loop­ing down was just an­other day in of­fice now. Good weather favoured us as we made our way to the lit­tle town of Pang where the lo­cals wel­comed us with the warm­est hugs!

Truly was a re­lief after what we went through at Sarchu. The night was one to re­mem­ber, with a full moon above us, the streams down the val­ley glis­tened in awe as we headed to our ac­com­mo­da­tion which in­cluded a tiny bed among 12 oth­ers in a 12’x12’ room! In hind­sight, the warmth of hud­dling in all to­gether made for a good night’s sleep on that cold Hi­malayan night.

The next day we set out for Tso kar, one of the three main lakes in the Hi­malayas. And just when you thought the land­scape had noth­ing that could sur­prise you, just 10km from Pang, we were greeted by the More Plains. This road has an av­er­age el­e­va­tion of 4800 me­tres and is flanked by moun­tain ranges on both sides. A pure stun­ner to find such vast ex­panses of land at an al­ti­tude as high as this! After a quick Maggi lunch stopover, we made our way to Tso kar. The float­ing is­lands of veg­e­ta­tion and nat­u­ral flora and fauna set the tone for the lovely evening we were to spend at this quaint lit­tle town. The next day was to Hanle. Hot­springs, nat­u­ral wildlife and sheer colour changes in the land­scape ear­marked this jour­ney. As we made our way to­wards Hanle, we were greeted by the In­dus that ran right be­sides us most of the way. The moun­tains be­gan chang­ing colour due to their high in­her­ent min­eral con­tent and then again, out of nowhere, sand dunes be­gan to ap­pear! Yes, sand dunes! It could eas­ily be mis­taken for a spot in the Sa­hara. But the jour­ney had yet one marvel still in store for us. As we made our way to Hanle, a 40km stretch of good roads along vast plains we were joined by the lo­cal Asi­atic Wild asses, also called the Ki­jangs. And what a wel­come they gave us! Gal­lop­ing at a speed of roughly 70km/hr, th­ese ma­jes­tic an­i­mals were run­ning 10 feet along­side our bikes and sud­denly cross­ing over the road to the other side. It was like we were egging them on for a race. And this hap­pened with around 5 herds along the way. A re­al­ity check wor­thy ex­pe­ri­ence.

The en­try to Hanle greeted us with a ma­jes­tic monastery lodged up pre­car­i­ously atop a hill and the Hanle Ob­ser­va­tory, which has one of the world’s high­est sites for op­ti­cal, in­fra-red and gamma-ray tele­scopes. The town of Hanle it­self was out of this world. What felt like a scene from an early cow­boy movie, the town’s dirt track roads and empty streets had ad­ven­ture writ­ten all over it! That evening had some­thing spe­cial in store for us. Hanle is known for its high al­ti­tude, clear skies and zero light pol­lu­tion, a re­sult of which, the milky way was right above us along with the star struck skies! I had to pinch my­self in dis­be­lief at what I was look­ing at. An out of this world ex­pe­ri­ence. And if that wasn’t enough, the morn­ing greeted us with a fresh snow­fall the next day! A first for me and what a way to ring it in, set amidst one of the most fan­ci­ful places on earth!

Leav­ing Hanle for Leh was truly de­ject­ing, but alas, we were in for the zenith of our ride! The road to Leh was a mix of the ex­tremes. From around 50 km of the worst roads I have ever seen, to the stretch lead­ing into Leh be­ing some of the best tar­macs I have ever slept on (yes, quite lit­er­ally). A to­tal of 250km that day, we en­tered Leh post sun down and were ec­static at com­plet­ing this mighty jour­ney. We had one last leg to com­plete be­fore we ended the trip, and that was a ride to Khardung La the next day. Con­sid­ered as an epit­ome of the ride, Khardung La stands at 5,602 m (18,379 ft) and is said to be the world’s high­est mo­tor-able pass. But what I truly

en­joyed was the ride down, which was to be my last ride in the Hi­malayas, so a cer­tain sense of grat­i­tude en­gulfed me as I made my way down­hill into the busy town of Leh and fi­nally to my ho­tel, bid­ding a farewell to my bike which showed near damn heart all along the way.

I some­times won­der what got me through those 12 days of bad roads, chilly weather, cold streams and lack of oxy­gen. Maybe it was the sheer com­pany of my fel­low riders all of whom had a very spe­cial role to play through­out the jour­ney. Or was it the thumbs ups we got from fel­low riders as they crossed us along the way. Maybe it was the warm wel­come we got from the lo­cals who would serve us with a hos­pi­tal­ity that was in­com­pa­ra­ble to any ho­tel or re­sort could of­fer. Pos­si­bly, the sight of na­ture at its best and in the midst of it all, a bunch of colour­ful prayer flags or a heap of stacked stones as­sur­ing us that we weren’t alone. Maybe it was just the thought of be­ing in a par­al­lel world where time knew no dig­its and weeks knew no days. All of it and more synced in har­mony as we com­pleted the ride of our lives and took back one heck of a story!!

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