By Piyush Raj Sinha, PT&D- IC
What started has a solo fantasy to scale the highest mortared road in the country, ended with a lifetime experience. Double duo pair of finest men- 4 of us and a 4 day round trip of Delhi-Leh-Delhi is what stole us for the mountains and blues. Believe it or not, there is something thrilling about Ladakh- bike trip, which is why travelers wait for the right time to don a leather jacket look and kick start their bike. And that is just one reason why bikers and trekkers love coming back to its rough terrains, outpouring spirituality and not to miss climate and views.
The topography of Ladakh verges on the surreal, yet the emotions aroused by it in the minds of the onlooker is very much real. Craggy mountains overlook the cerulean waters of lakes whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The hymns emanating from the monasteries, perched precariously on mountain cliffs, pervade the air with a sense of spirituality. At an altitude of almost 3,500 meters, this “land of high passes” throws constant surprises at you. You don’t seek adventure in places such as these, it throws itself at you. Deserts rest lifelessly against snowcapped mountains; occasional green patches are overlooked by enormous brown mountains, which often appear sagacious.
A piece of advice to the ones wanting to explore the valley- if you are not up a for bike trip, you are definitely not up to the rugged face of nature and beauty this valley is willing to show you.
Leh, the main town in the district of Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, India is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in India. Being at a high altitude, the access remains restricted throughout the year, with roads blocked for as long as 6 months. The roads usually open up in the month of May till Sept/October and June – August have become the peak season especially after the popularization of the region in the movie 3 idiots, Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
For those willing to cover the entire golden route thru bike (kinda adventurous though rough and hectic)
Route 1: Manali to Leh & Back Route Map: Delhi → Manali → Sarchu → Leh → Khardung La → Nubra Valley → Kargil → Srinagar → Delhi
Distance Covered: Approximately 2,569 kilometers
Route 2: Srinagar to Leh & Back Route Map: Delhi → Jalandhar → Jammu → Srinagar → Kargil → Leh → Karu → Sarchu → Manali →
Delhi Distance Covered: Approximately 2,295 kilometers
For those who prioritize their comfort over everything, you can choose to fly down to Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport. This airport finds its place in Leh and is just a few kilometers away from the city. It is well-connected to Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar & Chandigarh. Though flying off to the starting ledger of Ladakh trip was certainly not a priority for us, but in view of number of days left for onward exploration, we opted to fly down to Leh from an “Early morning flight”. Now flying off to destinations like these in early morning flights is always a treat to eyes.
Day-1 Let ‘We’ acclimatize!
It is often recommended to the people flying down to Leh to settle down for a day or two in their rooms to give sufficient time to their body to acclimatize with the sudden change in altitude. The oxygen content in the atmosphere being partially low, often leads to weariness and vertigo. Logic and reason demanded that we should rest. But our incorrigible curiosity kept nagging us to explore this place some more. After resting for initial few hours we decided to explore the local markets and roads of Leh Town. The market lanes are flanked by stalls selling everything from local handicrafts and souvenirs to Pashmina shawls and woolen clothes. A special attraction is the Tibetan Refugee Market where one comes across all kinds of locks with unique carvings and artifacts. There are also a lot of ideal cafes which serves authentic momos and thupkas, something I am very fond of.
Other local sight seeing include Shanti Stupa- commemoration to the 2,500 years of Buddhism and seeks to promote world peace and prosperity. One has to drive about 5km from the Leh Airport to reach this monument, followed by a climb involving 500 steps. It’s a two-level structure with the first level containing a Dharmchakra and a central image of Lord Buddha and the second level depicting the various forms of Lord Buddha.
Day-2 Ride of a Lifetime
A good-night sleep and finally we had made an early morning opening for the day. “Leave Early, Sleep Early” policy whenever in Himalayas… We had rented 2 RE bikes for covering the Leh-Ladakh triangle. Petrol is the most important thing when it comes to bike tours and especially in Ladakh. There are very few petrol pumps in the region. Therefore, on spotting a petrol pump get your tank filled. In addition of full tanks, carry extra fuel in jerry can and other containers which of course we did not do. Our Day-1 target was to head for Nubra Valley thru Khardung’ La Pass. It is never about the destination here. The route is majestic and something you tend to relish throughout. On the way, there was no mobile signal and GPS is a myth here. So if in case you get stuck due to vehicle failure then you have to wait for another vehicle to take your message. We noticed that most of the vehicles drove in groups of 2-3 or more to handle these situations. We finally reached South Pullu and submitted the interline-permit to enter into Ladakh district.
Now what’s fascinating was that when we had started the climb, the mountains and culverts were green with pleasant breeze surrounding. But within an hour ride the region was covered with thick blanket of snow. Climatic predictions are vague here. The traffic from South Pullu towards Khardungla had been shut down due to excessive snow fall. We had waited over two hours in the permit camps. Finally the traffic was led open with trucks heading first in order screech out the snow from the roads. The real adventure was what we encountered here. At an elevation of 75 degree, with blind turns, temperature dripping below 3 degree Celsius, altitude crossing 3500 mtrs. and bitumen all rugged with snow. That was one hell of a climb we had made on our motorbikes. But Crossing the Khardung’ La Pass is what adventure in Ladakh all about.
Situated at an elevation of almost 18,379ft, this pass brings you some of the most incredible sights you will come across throughout your journey. It is the gateway to Nubra and Shyok valleys. Leaving the pass is as dramatic as arriving at it. A narrow road, punctuated by sharp bends, is flanked by steep cliffs covered in snow with boulders resting carelessly on them. A twist in the tale was when sudden snow fall had started again. The vehicles are prohibited to make a halt for more than 30 mins. With dead slope, snow covered roads and chilling cold out there, we had made our bikes take a leap of faith and decided to crawl down slowly. My pillion had to walk down almost 5 Kms resisting to the fact that it was the most difficult steep stretch with our bikes being pulled towards gravity. Finally we had made our way down to the valley. Of 160 Km stretch between Leh and Nubra we had covered the 60 Km run with over 100 Km still to go. It did leave us totally exhausted but then everyone was embracing the beauty of Nubra Valley as we drove deep into it towards Diskit by passing other villages of Nubra Valley including Khalsar in the afternoon.
The Nubra Valley is on the other side of Leh and is a flat dry dessert. The Border Road Organization has done a meritorious work in maintaining the roads. There were hardly any rough patches that we had encountered. 10 Hours of mountain biking and finally we had made our way to the gateway of Nubra. Looking to the fact that our bones were on the verge of getting disseminated, we decided to make out halt for the night at Diskit, 8 Kms from Nubra- Hunder Dessert. On the way was Diskit Monastery where the 106 feet tall Buddha Statue was installed few years back… but will to climb another 400 stairs were hindered by obvious reasons. We checked into a local Hotel and thereafter the only thing I remember is waking up next morning.
Day-3 The Road not Taken.
Strategic planning for the day had been done over breakfast. We were to visit the Hunder Sand Dunes where our Insta Stories and Matrimony photoshoot of few were awaited. I decided to walk over around the Sand Dunes alone… It was such a lovely feeling which cannot be expressed in words here!! It was pure solitude sitting up the hump of a sand dune, seeing the majestic back drop of cold desert, a small rivulet and double humped camels walking in the foreground with tourists/travelers from different parts of the world… Just like a dream place, much like childhood drawings!! I enjoyed my little peace before leaving for our next destination- Pangong-Tso. There were sand dunes and high barren mountains for few kms, then suddenly we reached the green valley with a stream flowing.
There are two, the Wari La route and the Agham-Shyok route to reach Pangong. Wari-La route involves returning back to Leh via Khardungla and further goes through two high altitude passes (Wari La & Chang La). It is longer of the two and easily a 12-14 hours journey at the least. The other route is via Agham-Shyok road, involves no steep climbing but still is riskier, dangerous and difficult. It is off beat with stretches passing from boulders and woods. We had preferred the latter since we were short on time and were pretty comfortable riding our bikes off-beat. The distance to be covered was over 220Kms. On this route however you need to be extremely careful as road for most part is non-existent between Agham and Shyok. You will be travelling right next to Shyok River and at several places; you will be driving right through the river.
Nubra Valley – Khalsar – Agam – Shyok – Durbuk – Tangste – Lukung – Pangong Tso
One such road that did not even exist like 7-8 years ago. Back then, if you wanted to reach Pangong from Nubra, there was no second choice but to either return to Leh or take the Wari La road which would save you some kilometers but you really got to have a strong vehicle to make to Wari’ La top. One probable reason of Pangong being so beautiful is that it is untouched by many. If there was ever a nightmare of a road than this is it. It was carved out sometime in 2010 I believe but there is still no road. For most part it is just a trail of dirt and rocks next to a river. This is a road (if it can be called at road at all) that is probably one of the least travelled one. The small distance and temptation of reaching Pangong within a few hours lures people to take this road but please think twice before doing so. The first thing you need to keep in mind is to never travel here alone. Four wheeler rarely make their way out. So it’s only the riders wishing you luck every time they cross each other on this route.
But then the story from Durbuk onwards is total twist. The roads are two lane and paved with bitumen. BRO has maintained the road so well that the roads of many metropolitan towns fail in front of them. The ride is smooth. Horizon is right aligned in front of you. On either side you have high rise snowcapped mountains whispering the hymn of cold breeze. En-route is the shooting location of movies like Jab Tak Hai Jaan making the destination and local tea shops more popular. Finally after an 8 Hour ride we witnessed the bizarre shades of Pangong, more than dreamlike like we had perceived in pictures. The intensity of the place is felt less how much ever exaggeration people do. It was already evening and sun was on the verge of saying ‘sayonara’. A ride of further 10Kms and we were destined in the home stay where we had decided to spend the night.
Day-4 All is well!
Once again after rejuvenating our bone joints, early morning we left our homestays and bumped into the Pangong. The morning ode of the lake was downright different of what we had professed in the evening. Situated at a height of 4350 Mtr. The lake is one of the biggest tourist attractions. The one factor that makes this Lake so popular is the fact that it keeps changing colors.
Situated in the Himalayan range it is unapproached for almost 6 months of a calendar year. One third area of the lake lies within our country and the other two third portion lies with Tibet and is controlled by China. The view is indeed surreal. You have got guts! Take a dip amidst freezing water of the lake. The hectic ride to reach the location is every penny worth. The place appears absolutely pure and serene and amidst breathtaking scenery. It was much larger than what I had imagined. The place is calm and one can spend decades sitting idle gasping the tinted shades of blue water summiting the sky. Unlike other lakes, the crowd of people was scarce (Tapping my own shoulders for making so far). I remember my first encounter with Pangong. It was from the movie 3 Idiots. Phunsukh Wangdu (Amir Khan) saw his dream girl Karenna Kapoor come in on the scooter, dressed in as his bride in the climax scene. I could see the scooter parked but could nowhere locate my dream girl. The place is brick-by-brick similar; in fact, more stunning than what appears on the silver screen. Extensive photography was the motive to keep the memories of this place safe.
From Pangong, one can either return to Leh or continue driving all along the lakeshore until Chushul and head to Tso Moriri / Hanle. To us, the sun had showed us 2 splendid shades of Panogng since morning and now it was time to head back to Leh. Pangong had kept our ‘Josh High’, which was indeed very much required because we were to scale the second highest motorable pass- Chang la on our way back.
Halfway, until the route ascends is lush green and sceneries resembles the one we see on wall calendars. The climb was tough. Though, the weather did not defoliate likewise scaling Khardung’ La but steep turns and dirt road made it difficult to avenge the climb. You could see truck trolleys and SUV drifted from the road accidently and fallen from the track into the valley. Probably, the left over accidental vehicles were a sign of caution riding. Finally we had made it to the Chang’ La located at 17,590 ft. It is called Mighty Chang’ La because of its steep and “tough near the final ascent” climb. We sipped a cup of tea with noodles and made our way back to Leh via Shey & Karu
We had reached Leh by evening and decided to hop into an Hotel for a rest-no-rest scenario. In the night, we had managed to get a pleasant seat in a good ambience café where I could smell all assorted Non-Veg dishes that we had avoided during our last 4 days on the matter of fact that digestion could be a problem on our long stretched bike trips. However, tonight was the night of feast.
The next day early morning, we had left for Delhi and thereafter I remember sending mails by the very same afternoon.
Not after death heaven, but here on Earth heaven. The experience has left a part of memory estranged with the mesmerizing thought of the place. The people, the roads and the destinations- a wanderlust has nothing to complain about but only to dwell into its enchanting beauty.
3 days … over 700 kms … 18380 ft … What would you call a ride traversing three of the five highest motorable passes in the world with a region touching two borders, the second highest saltwater lake in the world, the second coldest inhabited place in the world, three different terrains, three distinct cultures and five mountain ranges, possibly accessible for only three to four months in a year? Leh Ladakh & glory …
So what are you waiting for?
Time to pack your bags, and take the Roadtrip of a Lifetime and get Leh’d .