RIDING THE HIMALAYAS
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!!