Baptism on the road – by Jaipreet Joshi

The bungee net was pulled over the luggage cramped on the panniers, a last minute check of the loading was carried out, everything seemed impeccable. Being a connoisseur of a couple of rides in the past did help us to take plan the itinerary and stuff, but the name Ladakh itself is good enough to send shivers down the spine of most seasoned of the riders. The ride finally precipitated after months of exchanging information from fellow riders of our Mecca – 60 Kph – a motorcycle travel club. Counseling at times, preparations and deliberations all jumbled up to ensemble. The Last Shangri La 2007 (name of the ride), not in absolute terms but because Ladakh was once under the influence of erstwhile Chinese rulers. Since China is better known as Shangri La. When the Chinese retreated this little piece of jewel stayed with India and came to be known as the Last Shangri La in the local parlance. Tees with the Last Shangri La printed on the front were pulled over with pride by the team:
Jaipreet aka Kaptan
Rajdeep aka Raj
Vijay aka Viju
Ashutosh aka (dare we!)
Day 1
My cell phone alarm buzzed uninterruptedly at 3:00 am on 11th Sep 07, I woke up with a certain freshness and zeal. Next thing I did was to give a wake up call to Ashutosh, who thanked in a hoarse voice, must’ve been cramped in his bed then! Charu bid me adieu with a seemingly heavy heart as I was moving away for 14 days, the longest period of voluntary separation after those forced ones we had during the stint with army. I reached the rendezvous – the flyover on the NH-8 near Gurgaon at 5:15 am sharp but kept pacing up and down as neither Ashutosh nor his bike’s headlights made an appearance till 5:45 am when I saw a small figure mounted on an overtly loaded Bullet. We wasted no time in exchanging pleasantries and kicked off to the next rendezvous which was Karnal Bye Pass, where the other fellow riders were to assemble. We were behind scheduled so we revved up at 70 kph and beyond in the fresh morning breeze. To our dismay, the ring road near Azad Pur vegetable market was crisscrossed with rickety trucks which had lined up in a haphazard manner in an endeavor to gain quick access to the ‘mandi’ as soon as its gate opened. There was not a single traffic cop to prevent this mayhem, we somehow snailed ahead but were forced to stall after some time. With some support from local volunteers and others who were in a similar hurry, we waded our way through the jam. But by this time the other two impatient birds had flown further towards the destination. I got a call from Raj that they were heading to Murthal and shall wait for us over breakfast there. The troubles did not seem to seize here, next was the turn of my throttle cable which snapped and gave away. But I decided not to be cowed down and kept riding, pulling the broken cable with my fingers, with slight difficulty though. The unison finally happened near Murthal, where we had grub and the cable got changed in the mean time. The journey resumed soon, though we were 2 hours behind schedule by now. The going was perfect till Ambala when suddenly my bike succumbed to a piston seizure. “What on earth was happening?” I murmured to myself. ‘Babla ustaad’ was where we were directed to in Ambala town. The customers lined up near his workshop and did not mix words to call him a Royal Enfield wizard and true it was. He repaired the bike in a record time and put it back vrooming. Thereafter, there was no stopping till we reached Ropar and halted for the night. Since we were a day behind the schedule and had initially planned to hit Manali the first day, we pulled up our Bulls and had a long day on 12th Aug 07 when we finally reached Manali but not before the last light. It had rained big cats and dogs whole day and made us no different from wet snails working hard on the road, layers of rain suits failed to keep us dry. We were drenched to the hilt but nowhere in our determination did we feel soggy. Even at one point of time, I got stuck in a land slide. The traffic from both sides had come to a grinding halt as big boulders continued to fall amidst heavy down-pour near Mandi. I had everything in my mind but to stop and wait, so I waded through knee deep slush and over the rocks helped by some local drivers who pushed my bike as I kept looking overhead for more rocks to come. God seemed to be happy with me and my stars helped me out of this catch. It was a relief to have a much awaited and snuggy clip of sleep at Hotel Sahil (recommended by Baba Barfanai – one of our biking pals, officially known as Vivek Sharma) at Ropar a.k.a. Roopnagar, though frequent whistles of the passing trains could do nothing to break our composure. A repeat of the morning chores took a couple of minutes and we were back on the road; where we were destined to be. Day 2
The stretch from Roopnagar onwards was simply splendid; the fresh spell of rains had further freshened up the greenery on either side which was a treat to the eyes. Continuous splash of rains did its best to dampen our spirits but fell face down against our grit, till we could see clouds dispersing by late evening. The evening numbness and silence of Manali town was disoriented by our over-heated bulls which needed a respite desperately. The lamps had glowed, which added to the beauty of this mountain town, we checked into a small budget hotel. Dinner followed, which was simple though a very native affair ¬- momos and thukpa. Raj & Viju gave me company but Ashu decided to refrain from so called adventure and had juices to the hilt of his gob. We retired back to our yet another abode and fell like rocks on the bed.
Day 3
As decided we had to acclimatize our bodies to the new heights so we called it a day in the sunny town. All our stuff, shoes, clothes and all had drenched completely, so the next few hours saw us spreading out our stuff in the sun. In fact, I had a severe head-ache, may be due to riding wet for almost 2 days. Raj’s medicine did wonder and I felt better very soon. A bout of complete body massage by local masseurs squeezed the pain out of our aching joints and muscles. We felt much fresher and rejuvenated, ready to take on the next on the itinerary. After a sumptuous breakfast, we decided to get across Rohtang at Khoksar before night. So off we started, log, stock and barrel for Rohtang. After clocking a few kilometers I could see none except Raj, so we decided to take an egg bhurji and tea break but still there was no thump to hear. So we decided to move ahead, the road was hardly there, whatever remained was bad, slippery and slushy piece of track. We worked hard and intercepted the obstacles with some efforts, soon Raj realized that both the tent, his and mine, which he was carrying seem to have been dropped, so a hunt for it began and I decided to wait for him at Marrhi. After a couple of hours Raj came back along with the other two with a long face as he could not trace the stuff he went looking for. We held our heads down but little could now be done. Ashu’s dream of camping by Pangong Tso seemed to fade, but we carried on with same grit. Viju’s bike came to a royal halt 7 kms short of Rotang La and refused to budge. Thanks to the instincts of Ashu, who fiddled with the carburetor and the bike fired. How? We still don’t know! “Wow!” Exclaimed all of us and resumed our already troubled ride. It was 1915 hrs and we were atop Rohtang La, with not a sight of a human but a herd of grazing horses surely gave us company, which I captured through my lenses. With darkness taking its toll, we decided to move ahead and night halt at Khoksar, which was a cool 25 kms away. It was now 2100 hrs and we were hunting for a hide out at Khoksar, suddenly a bright idea came from Ashu who found out a hotel at Sissu, just 12 kms away. Though I was hungry like a pig, we took the call and moved ahead. The road was pretty bad and to add to our woes ‘Pagal Nallah’ had literally turned mad causing a flood like situation on the causeway. With the help of locals we discovered another route through the village, uphill. It was now 2200 hrs and we were squashed too by the time we hit the hotel, had some dal and roti to eat and stretched out in oblivion.
Day 4
It was a bright sunny day with no sight of clouds or rains, which had already caused enough predicament. Ashu got his pannier welded which had ripped off as a result of his impeccable riding skill (little pun intended)! The journey seemed to be taking us on a higher plane every day, the open meadows with smiling faces of locals which almost squeezed their eyes added to the excitement. At Tandi we got our tanks topped up and also the jerry-cans which were empty till now as the next filling station was in Leh, good 365 kms away. The day was long but exciting as we kept riding through the spiraled roads. It was getting noon and we were crossing Jispa, where a pretty young girl cried “Lift”! Someone missed a beat when with a heavy heart she was denied the call. The memoirs of that brief incident still linger in the minds and shall I say hearts of some of us. Lunch break happened at Darcha, which is a picturesque spot by the wide span of river Chandra Bhaga, several shutters opened capturing the elegance and splendor of nature in its truest form. We kept riding that day over – Baralach La at 16,500 ft. Baralach La means big pass where river Chandra & Bhaga originate and form river Chandrabhag at Tandi and assumes the status of Chenab in Doda dist. of J&K. Having ridden through nallas, small villages and gata loops we finally reached Sarchu. Wow! What a splendor of nature one witnesses here with huge meadows and artistic chisel in the rocky mountains, gracefully securing the environs of Sarchu. We decided to camp it out here and hired 2 tents from one Mr. Dorjee for Rs. 200/ each. The night was cold, very very cold, the wind chill made it worst but we stretched in the warm kitchen tent of Dorjee where we met some Israeli and a French guy (though he sounded more like a Briton). The French guy had guzzled couple of beers and had a puff of ‘chilam’ from the very hospitable Israelis who offered the same to us but were reciprocated with a negative. The spirits were high, so a French song of soliloquy was a treat, but only that we could not make a fig out of it. We retired in our tents and kept tossing over on the bed as we could now feel the heat oops cold, or the high altitude effect.
Day 5
The day was bright and sunny but Ashu was on the contrary. I found him puking badly in the wee hours, though he was uncomfortable the previous night too and we had given him our share of medicines which I & Raj had carried but we found him deteriorating. So I rushed him to the nearest Army Medical unit at Sarchu where he was attended by a nursing assistant, in the meantime Raj & Viju made use of the time capturing nature in it prettiest form. Day 5 was presumably the toughest so far, we crossed 3 more passes – Naki La, Lachung La and Tanglang La. Before the quest for Tanglang La began, a request came in from all 3 to take a break at Pang but I pestered them all to pull a bit more and cross over the pass and halt the other side. What I had in the back of my mind was a day by which we were behind the schedule and the need to compensate for that. Whether the decision was right or wrong still hovers in my sub-conscious. To add to all the psychological and physiological misery, my bike got flat 5 kms short of Tanglang La with Raj & Viju nowhere in sight, the only help which was available was in the form of wounded soldier – Ashu. The removal of the wheel and the replacement of the tube followed by pumping air in it at a height of almost 16000+ feet, still sends shivers down my spine to this day. Ashu put in his best in assisting me, without him I probably could have not done it… thanks buddy! After riding 5 kms beyond Pang we were welcomed by the mighty Morre Plains. Scenic and simply awesome, heaven on earth, and I mean it. A mix of sandy hills, rocky vertical cliffs, roads through sand dunes, sleet, wind chill, sun burn all combined into orgasmic beauty, absolutely untouched and unheard of. There was no stopping thereafter till Rumtse where we decided to take a night break. Raj too took a brief break atop Tanglang La for reasons best known to the foursome! Raj now speaks with authority on the medicinal values of wild herbs of Himalayas for the valuable time he spent atop Tanglang La. The spine chilling bends and curves of the road from Tanglang La finally brought us to Rumtse, a small sleepy hamlet amidst the mighty Himalayas with a couple of houses which welcome guests. The night halt was a luxury as we slept on proper wooden beds followed by a brief round of rum in hot water. We also wished Charu (my wife) happy birthday as that was the best we could do sans telephones, cells or any other sort of communication whatsoever. Though we were far away from civilization the feeling of achievement kept us going all through out.
Day 6
The morning breeze was fresh and revitalizing. The homely atmosphere of our guest house was magnetic and we felt like stretching ourselves a bit more. The local kids gathered around us when we tied our luggage and giggled innocently. They seemed to be absolutely untouched by cunning and astuteness as prevalent from where we come from; all in all it was a treat. Viju bought some sweets from a small shop and distributed it amongst crackles of smiles and dimple cheeks. The warm sun elevated our energy levels as we rode our way to Leh. The first sight of civilization happened at Upshi, where we saw scores of defence establishments and personnel. As we rode along the river Indus, which is the origin of our civilisation, we found heading to Karoo, one of the biggest military stations in the country. It was a strange feeling to see such a beautiful terrain smeared with very cosmetic military green huts and barracks, what a pity! But except for feeling bad there was little we could do, so we decided to concentrate on the generous garnish of beauty bestowed upon by nature on Ladakh. Our average riding speeds had now revved upto phenomenal 45-50 kmph which was exhilarating after clocking 12-15 kmph in the past 2 days. Entry to Leh was marked by giant Photangs and Thiksey, majestically standing along the national highway. Though none of us had faint knowledge of the architecture it was a treat to the eyes to see the very pragmatic and exquisite designs undaunted by the sands of time. Soon we were thumping up the Old Leh road, where after brief hunting; we decided to spend the next few days at Hotel Kang-La, which we later realized was actually ‘Kangla’ (impoverished) hotel. The owner, Saleem Bhai, was a peculiar character, a smart young man of about 30 yrs of age who would not know when to stop once he would start yapping. His narration of the horrors of Jozilla Pass still echo in our ears – “Jozilla bahut khatranak hai, thik hai na! Bhaut oonchi pahadi hai, par itni oonchi bhi nahin, thik hai na. Wahan, baap bete ka nahin aur beta baap ka nhin. Agar gir gaya to haddi nahin milta, thik hai na”? ‘Thik hai na’ was a jargon which he would make use of unhindered in all his conversations. The mouth watering helpings of butter chicken, dal, naan and papad made us hog like pigs. It was a treat to devour a delicacy called ‘roti’ after morning to night rounds of noodles or rice. A chilled bottle of beer each, acted like a wonderful appetizer. We retired to our rooms after the lavish extravaganza to soothe our spines and all those bones which moaned. Evening was spent leisurely strolling thought the streets of Leh, curiously picking and appreciating various artifacts exhibited on the road side. The night was a welcome retreat and we gave it the honor it deserved by sleeping till late the next day.
Day 7
The bikes moved fast and furious in the vicinity of Leh without our trademark – luggage, tank bags and rickety tarpaulins. Our bulls never felt so light and energetic riding in the plain roads of Leh. The day was spent visiting Himis Gonpa near Kaaru – the biggest Gonpa in the whole of Ladakh which houses more then 500 monks, Thiksey, Zoravar Fort near the airport (hardly a fort, its more of a decaying stable for famished horses), Shey Palace and host of other not so conspicuous places of interest. A part of the previous day was spent with Juma (the bike wizard) who inspected our bikes and carried out minor repairs/ adjustments etc.
Day 8
After a lavish breakfast at Garden Café, we vroomed our way upto Kardung La. The road was a treat till we were 10 kms short; thereafter our machines were put under terrible grind and test. But, none could hold us back, because this was what we were there for, atop Khardung La. Various rounds of photography, frames after frames till we finally decided to venture into the other side of the pass into the Nubra valley. There was a certain amount of elusiveness and mysticism in the air, something which pulled us faster into the exotic Nubra valley. After getting our permit checked at North Pillu we rode upto Khardung village where we decided to halt for meal – hot magi complimented with a cup of tea. The ride resumed after a 45 minutes of well deserved break. The night halt happened at Hunder – a sleepy hamlet where the sand dunes and Bactrian camels were a sure treat to the eyes. Viju & Raj spent time angling various subjects in the splendid environs.
Day 9
It was time to return and we crossed over the mighty Khardung La standing tall at 18,350 feet and reached back to our Kangla hotel by afternoon. The evening was spent picking up things for our near and dear ones and finally retiring to our rooms.
Day 10
Till the previous night we thought Pangong Tso was ruled out as self and Raj were not feeling sort of well. But as luck would have it, things turned out fine and we finally started off for Pangong Tso. The entire length of journey was interspersed with meetings with hosts of military personnel who offered lot of hospitality on knowing my antecedents, rest of the gang would surely have felt bored for those brief durations of meeting I am sure? If there is a heaven which you could see here on earth then it is Pangong! It was simply mesmerizing and awesome – in fact is a very small word to define Pangong. The icy blue waters which turned green and kept changing colors with passing time, was awe inspiring. The boat ride was a welcome change from the bulls. The jawan from the Corps of Engineers – 235 Regmt took us 6 kms into the river, what a ride it was! Sea gulls quacked at us in amusement and chased us as we returned to the banks of this mighty river at a height of 4403 mtrs, 145 kms long, with as deep as 205 mtrs at some places. This salt water lake at this mammoth height is an absolute wonder of nature, why should it not be include in one of the natural wonders of the world? With heavy hearts we bid adieu to the army detachment who offered us dal, sabzi, rice and rotis. We reached back to Leh by evening and started preparing ourselves for the descent which was to come the next day.
Day 11
Leh to Drass was a long ride. We crossed Kargil, a beautiful town set along the river bustling with activities. The left over bunkers and fire walls reminded us of Operation Vijay in Kargil sector where our troops vehemently threw out the adversaries from our motherland. We reached Drass, 2nd coldest inhabited place in the world by night. Raj was offered a stay in the army camp but we decided against the same considering the liberty we would have to lose. So we checked in hotel Hotel Hill View and retired to freshen ourselves for the next day.
Day 12
Crossing Jozilla was a little tough (as guided by Salim Bhai) due to the bad road and slippery descent into Sonamarg. We had a nice hot cup of tea and halwa at a small time dhaba in the picturesque town of Sonamarg – it was awesome, but the only grudge was that we could not enjoy its beauty beyond our breakfast. Our machines had also gotten a well-deserved halt and we were thumping again on the roads. Reaching Srinagar happened without anyone realizing so as the average riding speed was 60kph. Viju was to stay at Srinagar for a couple of day as he had his train from Jammu on the 28th. So we hugged him and took leave from him after a lunch near the famous Dal Lake. Infact, Srinagar is no parallel to the beauty of Ladakh and surely Pangong beats Dal by 100%, so there was no inkling to see Srinagar. By 1900 hrs we were at Ramban, a small place 35 kms ahead of Banihal where we decided to night halt.
Day 13
Now it was three of us, and the volume of thump had obviously mellowed down a bit. Now everybody wanted to be home as quickly as possibly, there was no attraction left in the ride now after having crossed over J&K. We kept riding and finally reached Ludhiana. Ashu caught us a little later as his bike had gone bad and he had stopped near Udhampur for repairs. A hot water bath was a treat to the tired frame and after a lavish dinner we retired to our beds with dreams of being in the arms of our beloveds.
Day 14
We kicked off from Ludhina at 0830 hrs and after cruising comfortably re-entered the environs of Delhi at around 2:00 pm. It was back to madness but this is where we belong. The ride was amazing and nothing short of being superbly awesome. Though I have ridden before this too, the real baptism into riding happened during this ride to Ladakh. The enlightenment which ushered on to me after this nostalgic ride may be bulleted as:
~ If you love riding – ride through Ladkah, there can’t be a more pious baptism as a rider than this.
~ No plan is best plan – though prepare for all eventualities meticulously.
~ Welcome COPs – Change of Plans, because in hills that is one thing which works.
~ Last but not the hills – ride without inhibitions, ride tough!

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