After eight long years, the mountains of Ladakh, India beckoned again. The motorbikes were calling out our names. High altitude passes, river streams and meandering roads were waiting to be crossed yet another time on a motorbike — this time on Royal Enfields. And so began the planning of our motorbike trip to Ladakh from Manali. Prashant, my friend and travel mate on our two previous motorbike rides in Ladakh organized this one too. Bold Swiss motorbike rider and fellow Hong Konger, Hannes also joined us for our kick ass motorbiking adventure in Ladakh during July 2015.
Photo courtesy: Hannes (he’s a better photographer than I am). All photos are here.
2015-07-13, Chennai to Manali
- I took a flight into Delhi from Chennai. Flight landed 5 minutes early (Go IndiGo Air!) and met Prashant and Hannes at about 1945 outside the airport
- Took a pretty long taxi ride (saw India Gate, Red Fort on the way) and reached a super crowded ISBT (big intercity Delhi bus stand) at about 2100. Bus stand was a cacophony of activity
- Took a bus to Manali. Had front row seats. Hannes even helped fix a puncture en route at 3am while Prashant and I were asleep despite the rather uncomfortable seats
2015-07-14, Getting bikes plus permits in Manali
- reached Manali at 1.15pm (left at 2200 the previous day) making this the longest bus ride of my lifetime. 15 hours on a bus that stopped almost everywhere and even had puncture problems
- got the motorbikes from the Trip Advisor rated bikerentalmanali.com. Their shop was in a place called Vashisht in Manali. Luckily, the gears on the Enfield were on the left side. I got the new Thunderbird 350cc which was only a month old. Prashant and Hannes had classic Enfield 350cc bikes. Bike guy whose name was Abhinav Sood, seemed to be running a pretty lucrative business. Reliable guy but made us sign a million forms to indemnify his company against this, that, etc (guess he needs to). Bikes were in great condition
- got the permits done to cross Rohtang Pass at the SDM (not sure what that stands for) but it’s a pretty dull looking bureaucratic office in Manali City by the bus stand. We then tested the bikes out and slept like a log for 8 hours to recover from the 15-hour bus ride
2015-07-15, Manali to Jispa
- set off on our kick ass bike journey at 7am in the morning. Meandering roads, slushy terrain and dust-filled air greeted us on the first half of our ride. That and plenty of careful overtaking of heavy tucks that stirred up dust straight into our faces. The challenge of riding on slushy mountainous roads blended with the magnificence of the mountain itself
- the new Thunderbird 350cc I was riding definitely looked old after I crossed the muddy roads of Rohtang pass (about 3800m). The shock absorbers were put to good test during and after crossing Rohtang. We averaged around 16km per hour until Sissu (after Rohtang). It was rather an amusing sight to watch tourists dressed up in full blown snow suits when there was very little snow to see! It was like wearing a raincoat for protection from a small puddle of water in the remote distance
- we continued on after Rohtang and eventually reached Jispa at around 4pm (9 hours later) covering about 110km on Day 1 of our kick ass riding
- Jispa was quite beautiful. We found tent like accommodation with a proper toilet. It started to rain as soon as we were parked and settled! I even caught a rainbow from the toilet window
2015-07-16, Jispa to Pang
- Quite a hard day! We left Jispa early but got stuck at Baralacha La Pass. Two vehicles got stuck in a rather ominous looking river crossing. We waited for two hours for the army to clear the road using something called a JCB (some big crane). Later, Hannes was the first one among us to attempt to cross that stream. He rode through the bouldery stream crossing like a daredevil punk and succeeded in his first attempt! I needed help and almost fell. Prashant followed suit and made a successful attempt. More such stream crossings appeared and demanded some heavy motorbiking skills
- The lake at Baralacha La pass at 4927 meters was dazzling. Serene and picturesque. I remembered seeing this lake 8 years back in June when it was frozen. Now it appeared vast and was quite a sight. After the lake, came two very beautiful high altitude passes. Nakeela La at 4961m and Lachung La at 5097m. I almost lost control of the bike while negotiating a slope after Lachung La. Prashant had his first fall which resulted in a minor knee injury
- We finally ended up at a place called Pang at 4.30pm, which was at about 4500m above sea level. Although we did not want to stay at such an altitude, we were out of time and could not continue riding. Staying at Pang was a nightmare. We had basic tent like accommodation with many others. It was super cold and noisy (I also contributed to it through my occasional snoring). All the three of us had an altitude headache. Hannes didn’t sleep a wink. The previous two times I had stayed at Pang was in 2008/2009. Both times, I vomited and felt like someone had beaten me up. This time, the lady at the place gave me some ginger tea which really helped. I managed to spend the night at Pang without puking. I even ventured out quickly during the night to look at the stars. It was quite a sight! But, my visual treat was interrupted by my olfactory senses which detected the pungent smell of human excreta nearby! I gave the stargazing a rest and went back into the tent to try and resume my sleep despite the sharp high altitude headache
2015-07-17, Pang to Leh
- with much difficulty, we got out of our horrible tented accommodation in Pang. I got out to look at the toilets and immediately averted my eyes! First of all, I had trouble deciding where exactly the toilet was. The pungent smell my nose detected seemed to come from pretty much everywhere! Pieces of feces lay strewn around like landmines beyond a distance which was hardly a stone’s throw away. I decided that my own excreta was best contained within the confines of my intestines. Hannes proudly announced that he had gotten a nice one out the previous day on the mountains just before we got into Pang. Anyway, we got back on the bikes, happily left Pang, and it was then one relatively fast ride into More Plains, a 50km stretch of flat roads in the high altitude plains. We then hit another high altitude pass called Tanglang La pass at 5353m. Stunning. There was a temple there but I didn’t have enough energy to remove my shoes and go in, so I skipped going inside
- after Tanglang La pass, there was a meandering road that took us to Rumtse (4300m). Then we hit Upshi after another 50km of riding. The roads all the way from Pang were very good
- riding into Leh from Upshi was such a pleasure! There was a river hugging the winding road and I managed to hit 90kmh on the Enfield on many occasions
- upon reaching Leh, we found good accommodation in a hotel called Grand Willow (finally had access to a good toilet again!) After checking in, showering and getting rid of intestinal waste, we walked around to try and get permits done to visit Nubra Valley and Panagong Lake. (Since these places are close to border regions, one needs to get permits). Getting permits for Hannes seemed like a struggle initially. Apparently, non Indians can only get permits if there is at least two of them traveling together! I am not sure what a solo non Indian traveler would do! Anyway, some money and a travel agent up the road solved this problem for us by combining Hannes’ permit with some other non Indians. It was funny to see that they wrote down that Hannes was from “Swaziland” and not Switzerland in the permit!
2015-07-18, Leh to Pangong Lake (aborted Nubra Valley attempt)
- armed with permits, we set off for Nubra Valley at 7am. However, around 10km into the journey, we were stopped by some local punks who insisted that we could only go to Kardung La (we had to cross this 5400m pass to get to Nubra Valkey) on Jammu and Kashmir rented bikes, not Manali rented bikes. Hannes unleashed a slew of verbal abuse at the guy which made him get on the phone to his boss. (For a couple of minutes, I thought Hannes was going to get himself killed!) However, the punks won and although illegal, they managed to turn us around
- after having been turned around, we decided to attempt Pangong Lake, although we felt we would be turned around there too by the punks there. As we were riding, at some point during the initial ride to Pangong lake, some local punks shouted at us and asked us to stop but we continued on regardless. After several hours of hardcore biking and several stream crossings which rendered by feet numb, we reached Chang La (5378m). As usual, there was a temple there but I couldn’t summon the energy to take my shoes off in that altitude for a quick note of thanks to God!
- the ride into Pangong Lake wasn’t easy. Although it was only around 50km from Chang La pass, the road was super busy and we had to cross many more mini streams. There was also some occasional desert like surface, and a lot of bouldery bits which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me on the bike. Hannes seemed to have no problems and even gave his beloved Enfield a pet name, “Black Beauty”. The desert like surface sent my bike and I dancing dangerously on many occasions
- eventually, we reached the beautiful Pangong lake after several hours of riding and found ourselves a nice warm Swiss style hut with a proper toilet. Upon Hannes’ insistence, we took a cold shower (my butt froze)
- it took me a while to get myself warmed up again as I had wet feet from not wearing proper biking boots. I was wearing Gorerex running shoes and all the streams en route were no match for these shoes. I was thinking of ways to make some makeshift poncho-boots for the next day’s ride to avoid getting frozen feet again!
PS. The irony of the day was that no one had asked us for our permits! All that time we spent getting a Swaziland permit for Hannes was unnecessary!
2015-07-19, Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley via a challenging shortcut!
- we decided to take a shortcut to Nubra Valley from Pangong Lake. The shortcut was questionable as the road conditions were unknown but it promised to save us around 50km of riding as we would directly end up at Nubra Valley instead of going through Leh again
- the “shortcut” started off with a stream though which half the bike got submerged. Again, hero Hannes somehow managed to cross the stream without killing his engine. My bike stalled. I waited for Prashant and Hannes to rescue me. My feet got totally wet. It took me a while to get the engine going again. Then I met two army guys who told me that the road ahead was extremely bad and that it would be wise to turn back to avoid punctures. We dismissed his suggestion and rode on
- at some point, the “road” was non existent. Each boulder I guided the bike over felt like the next sureshot setting for a fall. And, fall I did. Two times. First one was in a stream where I misjudged the size of the boulder. Luckily, it was a minor fall. The bike was still standing although my right mirror broke. What I found harder was to gather myself and recover in the high altitude conditions after each fall!
- I have to say – the shortcut was beautiful no doubt but to admire the beauty was a challenge, especially when I felt like I was losing control of the bike. On serval occasions, it felt like I was on a camel, not an Enfield. Fortunately, the bike behaved and it seemed like we were somehow going to make it to Nubra Valley but just a mere 5km from Nubra, we had our first major unstoppable force of nature greeting us. A part of the road was blown away by a recent Made by Nature stream and the resulting deluge meant only two things (1) stay there and wait for the army guys to clear the stream (2) ride back!!! I definitely didn’t want to go back. No way in hell was I going to go through those boulder roads again (I had just narrowly escaped falling down more times than I could recall!) Staying there was a questionable idea as well as there was no guarantee of a foreseeable fix. The army guys couldn’t divert the stream channel as some sacred tree was in the way. So, we improvised on (2) and decided to get to Leh via a “Wari La” pass. Some random truck driver told us that the road condition to Wari La pass was “ok”
- I was expecting a puny 4300m pass but Wari La turned out to be the mother of all passes. At 5300m in altitude, it was snowing on top, there was ice on the road and quite some streams were pretty hard to negotiate. My hands were frozen. The views were simply superb but only when admired in hindsight! I saw two gigantic vultures but didn’t have the energy to get my camera out! Hannes managed to get some pictures of them
- we lost daylight and had to ride back into Leh in the dark. I was blinded by the powerful headlights of oncoming traffic in the night but it was manageable
- we reached Leh at 9pm and covered roughly 254km in one day and went over a 5300m pass where it was snowing! Quite a “shortcut”. We were finally back in Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel in Leh
2015-07-20, Leh (rest day)
- today being our well deserved rest day, we got up late and went on a leisurely walk to a donkey sanctuary. Some kind person set up a place for old and injured donkeys where they could spend the last few years of their lives in comfort instead of letting them die a painful death outside
- we then visited a rock museum which was quite impressive. I had no idea that Ladhakh was home to so many precious minerals
- the evening was spent watching a movie about Ladhakh. Quite a good introduction to Buddhism and the beauty of Ladhakh. Did you know that Ladakh comes from the Tibetan word “La Dags” which means Land of Passes? After the movie, I went to the market to buy rubber boots. My goretex running shoes were no match for the intense stream crossings!
2015-07-21, Leh to Manali (first attempt)
1) the plan was to get up at 6am and head back towards Manali. We did that and left at 7am. I learned that the trouser goes over my newly purchased rubber boots, not under. My boots got wet as I rode the bike through a deep puddle of water. We reached Upshi (50km from Leh) at around 9am when Murphy’s law (what can go wrong will go wrong) greeted us
2) the guy at the checkpoint told us that “Brandy” bridge near Sarchu has been washed away by the torrential downpours the day before. Hence the road was closed. We needed to turn back. We still waited. And waited. Many other bikers and cars were stopped and given similar news. What followed then was a melee of mixed messages. Some guy said that the road would open at 1pm and another guy insisted it would take three days for a new bridge to be put in place. Messages were as confusing as they were ample. Everyone had supposedly heard something. We turned back towards Leh at 1pm after being told by the police guy at the checkpoint that “there was absolutely no point in waiting”
3) having lost our backup day and without any signs of anything improving, we decided to explore buying our way out of the situation. Meaning, we had to book expensive flights out of Leh and pay our bike rental guy many more thousands to get the bikes back to Manali on trucks. We reached the airport at 3pm or so to explore buying tickets but only to discover that it was closed (all planes fly in the morning only). Murphy’s law struck again as Prashant’s bike stopped working. We then split up. We used the remaining two bikes to get to the local mechanic. The mechanic went back with Prashant to the airport to fix his bike while Hannes and I went to the sole travel agent in Leh with a working internet connection to inquire about flight prices. It was INR 25k for a fight to Delhi!
4) after lunch, we asked several more people (police headquarters, Manali taxi stand) about the road condition and eventually, there seemed to be some sort of consensus on the latest news, which was that small vehicles were now being allowed to go through!
5) with this newfound information, we decided to leave at 5.30am the next day to attempt to get to Manali one last time before considering the expensive flying option. To add to the confusion of the route being open, we had another fresh problem to deal with. Apparently, Leh was going to be on strike the next day from 6am to 8pm. No vehicles were to be allowed on the road during this time. To tiptoe around the Leh lockdown, our plan was this: we would leave at 5.30am the following day and reach Upshi by 6.30am. If the road to Manali would be open, we’d take it. If not, we would hang out outside Leh, wait for the lockdown to end, somehow book flight tickets in the interim and come back into Leh after 8pm to try and make a Thursday/Friday morning flight!
6) nature, strikes, breakdowns… We had seen it all in one day! Getting out of our room 403 at Grand Willow hotel was a challenge!
2015-07-22, Leh to Manali (second attempt)
- We got up not at 5.30am but even sooner, at 4.30am ready to take on the 450km ride to Manali. We said another sly goodbye to the hotel room and hoped we wouldn’t see it again anytime soon
- Less than 25 minutes into the ride which started at 5.20am, we saw many bikers signaling us to turn around. We eventually figured out that the guys who were striking had created a road block up ahead. No vehicle could leave Leh! It was not even 6am (the supposed beginning of the lockdown) but the striking hooligans seemed to have gotten themselves an unfair early start. About turn. Hello again Room Number 403 in Grand Willow Hotel. Looks like we’ve met before! Time: 6.15am.
- We had lost our contingency day and one day of our actual journey to Manali! Now, we had to do the ride to Manali in a mere two days to make our Hong Kong flight in time. And, that didn’t allow any room for error at all. A breakdown, a fall, more road blocks and we would get stuck in India! Our flight out to HK was on Saturday night and we still had to get to Delhi from Manali
- we thought up a series of plans. Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc, etc. We again opted to buy our way out of the problem by purchasing air tickets to Delhi and paying the bike guy to send someone to Leh who could take the bikes back. New challenge: there were no flights available until the week after! Our only other solution was to ride back to Manali in two days. No room for error
- In order to while away time, we visited Leh Palace in the afternoon
- Thanks to the strike, we had one less day to return to Manali
Target: Time: Two days. Distance to cover: 450km
2015-07-23, Leh to Manali (third attempt)
- Get up time was 0330. Departure time 0400. We were ready to kick some serious butt today. Two days of intense riding through to Manali to get us the heck out of Leh! Thirty minutes into our cold and damp morning ride, I almost got caught in a muddy section of the road and my front wheel got ensnared. I was revving my engine real hard and real loud at 0430 to extricate myself and my bike from this newly formed slush. Prashant did a dance tune on the slush while Hannes almost ran into a cow!
- the day seemed fine and we were all ready to do around 200-something km on the bike. We reached Upshi with bated breath and were quite surprised to see a bunch of Enfields waiting before us! They managed to get up even before 3.30! One of them told us that she had gotten up at 2am in the anticipation of a long day ahead! BUT… Nature had its final say! There are two ways out of Leh. One of them got hit by a landslide (road via Tso Moriri) and the other one had a section of the road swept away! (Road via Rumtse – the way we came). Meaning, we were once again (for the third time) stuck in Leh! The Tso Moriri route might have not been an option to begin with as it was 170km longer. Not something we could do in two days anyway!
- three days, three attempts. Three failures. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. We had to come up with a Plan D to get us out of Leh and in time for our Hong Kong flights. We didn’t sit at Umshi waiting for the roads to get fixed (as we did two days back!) Instead, we rode to the airport to check for available flight tickets out of Leh. None was available. We then went back to our usual hotel where the staff once again greeted us with a smirk on their faces. “Never has someone been unsuccessful so many times”, said the hotel guy. It didn’t make us feel better. What did make us feel better was the news that Ladakh was experiencing a “cloud burst” which only happens once in about 5 years. At least, we weren’t carrying any jinx. It was not our rotten luck but it was Leh and the unique weather that was to blame for our inability to escape from our beloved hotel room!
- after showering and “downloading” at Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel, we went to a travel agent hoping for last minute cancelations. Finally, Lady Luck smiled at us and we got three tickets out of Leh for the next day at an exorbitant price of INR 24,000 each ticket. The price of freedom!
- we negotiated with our bike rental guy to send someone over to our hotel to pick up the bikes. Then we went for our final joy ride on the bike to a place called Nimmu on the national highway #1. We saw the Indus Valley river and a hill called Magnetic Hill which is somehow supposed to pull vehicles upwards against gravity, towards its peak. It seemed like a bunch of baloney
- we came to know later on that the landslide on the Tso Moriri route wasn’t fixed until about the evening. So, waiting at Rumtse would have been a waste of time as we would have been out of time anyway. We had made a good decision by choosing to return quickly upon discovering that the roads were closed. That way, we at least got the last few seats on the plane to Delhi the following day
- we concluded what seemed like our final day in Leh (this time for real) with some sumptuous dinner in celebration of our bike ride into Leh and our three attempted rides back! Hannes added that “if I come back to this hotel room tomorrow, I will hang myself”
2015-07-24, Leh to Hong Kong, via Delhi
- we got up at 4.30am to catch our 7am fight out to Delhi. Hannes asked if he should leave some luggage behind just in case. We had come back 3 times in the past 3 days anyway. Would we really be able to leave Leh?
- I wanted to get the pilot to do a low flying pass over Upshi. If we could see both roads to Manali open, we could always parachute down to ride the bikes back to Manali
- all the three of us said goodbye to Room 403 at Grand Willow hotel and hoped that the plane wouldn’t get canceled! If the roads can shut two times in two days and if a strike can stop us on the third day, then a plane cancelation isn’t really far off the realm of imagination
- the sky was clear blue outside and the day was perfect! It probably was a good day for riding but … it was also one for flying! We were ready to fly home!
- we reached Delhi without incident at 8am and said bye to Prashant. Hannes and I flew out to Hong Kong in the night
Snow capped mountains, lakes, desert like landscape, ice, snow, high altitude passes… we had seen it all by riding 1255km around Ladakh on Royal Enfields. We’d also seen man made pollution, landslides, experienced plans being forced to change due to nature’s intervention and plans being disrupted due to man made strikes.
This trip has definitely had the hallmark of yet another kick ass adventure in our beautiful Planet Earth. The more I travel and immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the more captivated I become with what our planet has to offer! I will miss my Royal Enfield. And, next time, I think we should avoid biking in Ladakh during the July monsoons!
Thanks to Hannes for the photographs.
Julley. (That’s some kind of greeting in Ladakhi).