Vacation, 2009-06-25 to 07-11, 1600kms Himalayan motorcycle drive

All pictures here.

June 25th 2009:

Took a cheap Air India flight (HKD 4,100) to Delhi. They were playing some movie from like 50 years back but luckily I had my Bloomberg magazine for in-flight entertainment. The flight attendants were pretty much old ladies and guys on the fringe of retiring.

Reached New Delhi at 10PM and transferred to the domestic terminal at 1AM.

June 26th 2009:
The flight we were supposed to take to Kulu was called MDLR Airlines. Completely unheard of! I was preparing myself for the strong possibility that the flight may never take off! But, much to my surprise, it took off at 7.10AM (more or less on time) and the economy seats were fantastic! The flight attendants looked as pretty as some Bollywood actresses and they even served a quick in-flight snack! The snack was tasty. At the end, they handed out some leaflet promoting MDLR’s new casino in Goa and a free admission to it! (not for me, I don’t like contributing to casino revenues).

We reached Kulu airport at 10AM and decided to avoid a INR1000 bucker taxi ride to Manali, instead choosing what we thought would be a quick 30-minute bus ride to Manali. The weather was hot (30 degrees) and the bus-stop turned out to be more than 10 minutes away. We eventually boarded a bus that started out empty but soon passengers were packed inside like sardines. I could smell sweaty armpits and a frequent and generous fart every now and then from a passenger with apparent bowel problems. Two grueling hours later, we reached Manali.

Lunch was at Swamiji South Indian restaurant and our bike hunting mission began soon after. Hardev motors, Anu Autoworks and the other bike shops did not have any bikes. Disappointed, we decided to come up with a Plan B and headed over to a juice bar. As we casually asked the “bartender” if he knew a bike shop, he immediately directed us to a buddy and our mission caught traction. We were soon acquainted with a dude called Dev who owned Bajaj Autoworks 50/50 with the mechanic called Ashok. The deal was this:

2 Pulsars @ INR 700 a day
2 Yamahas @ INR 500 a day (1 for a mechanic who was to accompany us all the way. The bike shop guy highly advised this in case we ended up with mechanical faults on the way. Roads are said to be in a very, very bad shape with some snowfall somewhere along the way).
700 a day salary for the mechanic.

It was time to buy petrol canisters, ropes for tying the bags to the bikes, gloves, helmets, etc!

Armed with bikes, honey (for altitude sickness) we got all set to start for Keylong on 27th June 2009.

Fact Information:
The bikes were obtained at Bajaj Auto Works (Contact Ashok Verma @ +91 98167 74078. Ashok is the mechanic who was to come with us on a Yamaha. He also owns the bike shop. You can call him for details). He has 1 fantastic Pulsar with a digital speedometer but the rest of his bikes were awful and the good ones unavailable.

27th June 2009:
We got up at a leisurely 10AM and reached the bike shop at 11AM. The Pulsar was fantastic (one of them) but the other Pulsar sounded like a Bullet (thanks to a so-called “silencer”). The Yamaha had a leaking fuel tank. There was a further delay in getting everything fixed and we left for Keylong at 2pm!

After being stuck in traffic jams, we reached Rohtang at about 4.30pm. It was ice cold, there was snow everywhere and it was raining! As we hurried on the way down to reach Keylong, a beautiful rainbow was out.

My legs and body were freezing and I was on the verge of getting hypothermia! We only reached Darcha at 7PM (Darcha is on the way to Keylong). Pushing ourselves further, we reached Keylong only at 9pm! In between, there was a mechanical failure as well on one of the Pulsars (good thing we had a mechanic with us otherwise we would have frozen to death out there).

28th June 2009:
We left again at a leisurely 11am for Sarchu and we had to cross Baralacha on the way. Baralacha is a beautiful snow capped high-altitude pass. The road was TERRIBLE and that is an understatement. On many occasions, we were driving on potholes full of snow/ice/ice-cold water and our feet started freezing. The view was simply spectacular. Despite frozen feet, forceful winds and a mild headache because of AMS, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty that I stopped to take several photos. It was a very short stop though!

Driving on further, we met two guys on a Bullet who told us that there was a stream 1 KM away that they could not cross it because the current was too strong and the boulders too big. We drove anyway to take a look. Our mechanic was determined to cross and he got stuck half way. I had to immerse my feet in icy waters to help him and help myself later on when I attempted the same feat on my Pulsar. My feet were numb soon after. I had to hit my feet and jump on stones to resuscitate my feet. A car guy tried the same gimmick a few minutes later but much to his despair, he got stuck in between! His engine got turned off and the seats were filled with water. Not sure what happened after that as we left!

Tired and exhausted, we reached Sarchu at about 8pm. Sarchu is at 4200m and I could feel a mild headache coming on. In preparation for the AMS, I was drinking water laced with honey intermittently. Energy levels were low and I was tossing around in bed trying to sleep but of no avail.

29th June 2009:
Woke up feeling some nausea, got out and puked but felt awesome after that. Had to take a “natural” dump later and I was out of breath after the dump!! As usual, left at a leisurely 11AM for Pang. (We lost about 1-hour everyday because of tying our backpacks to the bike and given the altitude, that made the job even tougher!)

BRO (Border Road Officers) pride themselves at building the highest roads in India. The Manali-Leh leg is of strategic importance to India. This road is built every year and natural forces subsequently destroy it. On the way, they had several cheeky signs installed at strategic points. Here are some of the signs:

Project Himank:

1) If you love her, divorce speed
2) I am curvacious, go slow
3) Drive on horsepower, not rum power
4) After whisky, driving is risky
5) This is a highway, not a runway
6) Feel my curves slowly
7) It is better to be Mr. Late than Late Mr.
8) I like you darling but not so fast

In order to get to Pang, one has to cross another high-altitude pass and 21 sharp bends! Altitude is about 4700m and it does not feel good!

The roads were awful (avg speed is between 15-20KM). We finished the 77km drive from Sarchu to Pang in about 5-6 hrs. Pang is slightly higher than Sarchu (4500m). For some reason (no complaints), I felt fine and had some great sleep although the natural high-altitude dump wasn’t easy!

30th June 2009:
As always, left at a leisurely 11AM to get to Tanglang La (50km from Pang). (btw, incidentally Pang is only 50km away from the China border). The roads were as usual awful and Tanglang La was scary with ghastly winds. It is the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world at 5200m. I wouldn’t dare get my helmet off to stop for a photo. I left in less than 2 mins and rode down to a lower altitude point (Rumtse) as fast as I could.

The drive from Rumtse to Upshi is an easy 50km and an experience of a lifetime. One can drive at 50km+ on excellent roads alongside the Indus river.

Upshi to Leh is 50KM and we were driving in one hell of a sandstorm. The winds were so strong that it blew away my helmet on several occasions. The sand hit my face so hard that it felt like someone was slapping me! My eyes were red and I could barely see!

We reached Leh at 7.30pm and checked in to Karzoo Guest House (INR 350/day).

1st July 2009:
After having experienced a sandstorm, ice, snow, sunshine, streams and not to forget AMS, today was a rest day. We also decided to do Pangong lake, Nubra valley and fly back to Delhi from Leh on the 9th of July 2009 instead of driving back to Manali! As beautiful as the drive was, it was so strenuous that doing it twice within a span of 2 weeks is no laughing matter!

2nd July 2009:
Started as usual at about 11am for Nubra Valley (despite having had plans for starting at 8am). On the way to Nubra valley, one has to cross the highest motorable pass in the world called Khardung La (18380 ft). We got there in 2 hrs (40km from Leh) and took some quick photos and left before AMS could sink in!

The road for 10km after Khardung La was awful but upon reaching North Pullu, the roads were fantastic. Driving was an absolute pleasure and the landscape was spectacular. BRO guys put up more interesting signs on the way.

1) Love thy neighbor but not while driving
2) Overtaker beware of the undertaker
3) Driving in the hills is a pleasure only if you drive in leisure

Nubra valley has 2 big attractions other than the drive alone. One is Hunder and the other Panamik. Hunder is famous for its sand dunes and special camels (they have 2 humps).

We reached Hunder at 6PM and checked out the camels (they needed some teeth cleaning). We stayed overnight at Camp Hunder (INR 350/day).

3rd July 2009:
Started the day at 9am by driving to Panamik. Great drive and the attraction here was a natural source of hot underground water.. We were 100kms from the Pakistan border. After touring Panamik we headed back to Leh crossing Khardung La one more time. The sunshine over snow-capped mountains made for some dazzling photos.

4th July 2009:
Today was supposed to be a trip to Pangong lake but we changed our mind because Tarun was sick and decided on a “flat” drive to Kargil. It is 250km from Leh and it is also the area where Pakistan and India fought a war in late 90s.

The first 100km was a breeze (we started at 11 again despite numerous efforts to quicken the departure time). After that, the mechanic and I lost the rest of the group due to minor navigational malfunctions. We were also worried about the rest but like all happy endings we were reunited after an anxious 5-hr drive. We reached Kargil at 9.30pm! Kargil, in my opinion, is worth a visit because of historic reasons and a fantastic drive. Other than that, there is nothing there.

5th July 2009:
Tarun decided to cab it back to Leh (he was too exhausted) while the rest of us decided to drive back on a different route called Batalik. Batalik is 2km from the Pakistan border and several parts of the road were guarded by the Indian army. The drive was fantastic along the Indus river up until the point where an absent-minded lady suddenly moved sideways and ran into my bike. I fell and she did too. I was educated by Prashant to plead guilty and apologize and get out of there pronto. The lady had a drama-queen for a partner who cried as though someone had died (neither the lady nor I was really injured). A quick self-appointed fight-for-the-weaker-ones gang soon showed up with threats. Prashant diffused the tension through cajoling and I was asked to apologize to the lady. I did so reluctantly and we were out of there!

The rest of the drive was great and we reached Leh at 7pm.

More project Himank signs:

1) Shortcuts make your life shorter
2) Driving faster causes disasters
3) You might not believe in superstitions but you better believe in traffic “signals”

6th July 2009:

Tarun left for Mumbai today morning while Prashant and I decided to drive to Pangong Tso lake. This lake runs from India to China (1/3rd is in India and 2/3rds in China). In order to do this 150km trip from Leh, one has to cross a 5300m high-altitude pass called Chang La.

The drive up to this pass was easy till Kharu (35km from Leh). After that several diabolical curves follow and when you eventually see snow and start to freeze, you’ll know you have reached the summit!

The drive from there to Tangtse (village 30km from Pangong) is spectacular. Roads are largely good and there’s some wildlife as well. The scenery reminded me of Inner Mongolia with yaks, mules, horses, cows and sheep herding on endless patches of greenery.

30Km from Tangtse, we caught our first glimpse of Pangong Lake. She was a beauty.

The lake is very, very long and glitters in blue. It was the highlight of the trip and a treat to the senses. We stayed overnight at a guesthouse for INR 400.

7th July 2009:
The sun was shining amazingly bright at 5am. Woke up and took a drive to catch some spectacular photos. Drove some 10km more to catch a glimpse of the China border (an army guy pointed at some mountain, the other side of which is China). Left at 8.30am and reached Leh at 2.15pm.

More project Himank signs:

1) Go on, drive like hell and you’ll be there
2) Safety here is “safe tea” at home
3) Safety and speed never meet
4) All will wait, it’s okay if you are late

The bikes had to be shipped back to Manali after this. So, this trip concluded 1600kms of driving. It was a memorable, fascinating experience which I am sure to remember for a lifetime. Expenditure went through the roof (about HKD 11K including flight fares) but it was well worth it.

8th July 2009:
A well deserved rest day.

Woke up at 10am, did some shopping from 12 to 3pm. Slept at 4pm, got up at 6pm and went to the internet center!

9th July 2009:
Our flight out of Leh was at 8 in the morning. We were to reach Delhi at 9.30am saying goodbye to snow-capped peaks, high-altitude passes and sandstorms for good. We decided to spend 2 more days in the holy city of Haridwar. That”s where the holy river Ganga flows.

At 7am when we reached the airport, we looked outside and it looked like it was going to rain. Winds were strong. The full realization of that came when our flight that was to arrive in Leh was reverted back to Delhi! Announcements soon followed about a new “estimated” departure time because of “continuously bad weather in Leh”. I was more or less convinced that the flight was to be canceled and was preparing to hire a taxi to do the Leh-Manali route again! Tanglang La, Sarchu, Pang all played rounds in my mind again. This time with the added pressure of reaching Delhi by 11th July 2009 to make the trip back to HK.

Somehow, I looked outside and could suddenly see sunshine. The weather cleared up just as suddenly as it turned bad. The incoming flight landed in an hour and we boarded Kingfisher Airlines to Delhi. Vijay Mallya (chairman and CEO) seems to employ a similar fashion in running his Airlines like the MLDR Airlines guy. Refreshing snacks, young & pretty stewardesses.

The fight itself was a thrilling experience. Soon after take off, the pilot has to maneuver around sharp snow-capped mountains standing almost as tall as the altitude at which the plane was flying! Now I now why these guys don’t fly when the visibility is bad!! I took some nice photos from the plane as we flew a little higher over staggering peaks and a snow-filled valleys.

Upon reaching Delhi, we took an INR 250 cab to the ISBT (bus terminus) and boarded a state bus to Haridwar (INR 200). In the bus where some super religious folks smoking, shouting and dressed in saffron-colored clothes.

Haridwar itself was somewhat of a chaotic place. We covered the 230km in 6 hrs. We took a walk to holy river Ganga going past numerous crisscrossing motorcyclists, devotees carrying large religious structures and pedestrians trying to steal some road from the vehicles. The area surrounding Ganga was a mess. Smoking, littering and loitering devotees were everywhere. Many jumped into the water like it was a swimming pool. It was a mess. But, just as beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder so does piety and purity. The human mind has the gifted ability to discern and ignore. With that attitude, we were set to visit some temples and take a dip in Ganga the next day.

10th July 2009:
After a fantastic sleep at an air-conditioned hotel, we spent the day visiting temples and soaking up more of the Haridwar atmosphere. Unfortunately, due to laziness, the dip in Ganga didn’t quite materialize.

11th July 2009:
Back to Delhi and to Hong Kong.

End of vacation 2009!

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