Sunday, August 30, 2015

Raiding Ladakh: A solo expedition

A journey to discover myself. This was a long pending one after my horrible accident a few years back. One of the Project HIMANK's sayings says that Accidents do not happen, they are caused. I agree to it absolutely. Its caused. However, this ride was to determine my recovery. I found nothing better than to get on the top of the world to determine it.

This ride, in its real sense, started months back when the Himalayan Raids were started. They were my practice sessions just for this one. So, I was planning for it since a long time. Before I started, I was in clear dilemma as the weather didn't seem promising. The weather reports that came in stated that the rain in the Kashmir area was in excess and have caused massive havoc on the banks of Jhelum. 3-4 days before, more reports came in stating that Jammu-Srinagar via Anantnag is closed. But I had different plans. I had borrowed a still camera from a close friend Manzar, the mudguard was borrowed from Sumit (broken87 on xBhp) and great deal on maps from all over around. Special thanks to DK Pundit Sir and the Ladakh Return forum due to which I got a great deal of insight on practically everything. My good friend Kullu had suggested me the Ralco Speedblaster tire, a great advise it was.
Customary Shot

It was the eve of 6th when my packing for the trip finished. With everything in place, I setoff  on the morning of 7th. Although delayed a bit, I soon gained pace. The sky was cloudy and the first rains that I encountered was after Ambala. I got a bit confused with the roads in Chandigarh and nearly got a ticket for jumping the red as it seemed to the policeman. However, he let me go after directing me to the road to Pathankot. Even then, I got lost in Punjab and traversed through the beautiful woods of Jazz. I stopped at Hoshiyarpur for the night finally. It was pocket friendly at 500 bucks a night including food and safe parking at the Bus stop paid parking. It was cozy enough with all the amenities and TV.

I took off in the morning for Pathankot via Gurdaspur. It was barely afternoon when I reached Jammu. As the reports stated that the roads are closed, I chose the legendary Mughal road, about which I had discussed with a lot of friends. I stopped for the night at Rajouri, just beside the river after the bridge, nestled along the river bank at mere 350 bucks for the night along with food consisting of egg curry and rice and Pepsi at 100 bucks extra. . Had a lot of problems with electricity in this town.

The evening before

The day after

In the morning when I woke up, I found that there has been a cloud burst the same night. The intensity of the showers had just washed away a large part of the only road through the town. I did not want to stop here now and get caught in the rain. I continued. It was a battle to go through the town. It seemed like a river was flowing in place of the town road with a depth till the knee and the ground below consisted of big round slippery river stones. Now imagine riding through that. Bike got stuck once. Took it out somehow. It was greenery all around.

After a few kms more, the rains subsided. I was climbing the hills now and proceeding towards Poonch and Pir ki Gali at 11,800ft. The roads here were bad. I was soon informed that if I wanted to eat anything, this is the chance. I am not going to get anything for the next 80kms. And all I got to satisfy my hungry stomach was a mug of tea. It was Ramzan and nothing was available to eat. I gulped down the big mug of tea slowly while enjoying the beauty of the green hills and a great river
was snaking through the valley below continuing its course till the horizon.

I continued on my path. The road was narrow with a cliff on my left of a few hundred feet down. It was just wide enough for a tiny truck to fit and to my horror an Eicher truck came from the opposite direction. This one was the first oncoming vehicle that I actually saw since morning. Just to make way for him to pass, I had to retrace my steps to the widest point in the road where I stood hardly an inch far from the hundred foot fall to an imminent death, for the massive truck to pass.

Sometime later, as I continued on, the scenery was starting to change. The thickets and the tall trees gave way to shorter and scarcer vegetation and before long it had changed to barren vegetation with just pines. I stopped for a short break and to change the wet socks, put some tissue papers in the boots to keep myself dry and warm. Just happened to check the altitude and I was amazed at what I saw. I was over 10,300 ft. Last time I was at such heights was during my Kibber expedition.

As I continued on, the scene changed more. Tarmac ceased to exist as it became all stoney and slush and then a few kilometers more. It seemed as if the glacier had come down to meet the road until the point the road was cut through the glacier itself. 15 Feet tall the glacier's wall stood staunchly on both sides as I rode through the cold. The ground was covered with black ice around most of the corners where the tarmac had miraculously reappeared in between.

 After working through the single lane curvaceous road of this part of the himalayas, I was greeted with a fantastic view of Pir ki Gali. Its one of the highly guarded plateau on that region. There was military barracks posted all over it. Just beside the road was the lush green hills wearing a white cap on snow few meters from where I stood. Food was now available here although only corn and some biscuits, but it was really far better than traveling on with just tea.

After Pir ki Gali, the roads became better. Was able to maintain a good speed also owing to the fact that there was a good slope. Crossing the last glacier of the road proved a bit risky. As I crossed, I got engulfed in a sudden Ice slide. Was dis-balanced but somehow stopped from falling. But the damage was done. The front rim was bent and that resulted in a total air loss. Pushed the bike from there to the nearest puncture shop, which was pretty far away. After an hour or so, huffing and puffing, finally reached the shop. The push was easy, well I now think so, owing to the slope of the terrain.

Few hours down the line I had crossed Shopian and was heading to Srinagar. At Srinagar, I was feeling like it was a whole new territory. That was the eve of Eid. I had no idea that Srinagar came to a standstill post 5:30PM. I reached a lodge in the lal chowk area. Kept my belongings at the room and went for a stroll down the bylanes around Jhelum. I was staying near the Gurudwara.

At around 6, after having some snacks, I figured out that I probably have fever. The shops were all closed by then. It was a long walk across the bridge then down the forest lane to the only open chemist shop. I retired to the bed quickly that night.

Next morning it was my checkout at 7AM. I was headed towards the dreaded ZoZila Pass today. In a matter of few hours, I was at Sonmarg. It was really a beauty. Met a gang of bikers from Mumbai aged around 40+ probably. I continued my journey with them to Zozilla Pass, the Godzilla of Passes. Had no problem climbing it, as by now I was already accustomed to it. The view of a million tents down below at Baltal was mesmerizing. It was the Amarnath season. The choppers were making rounds to the holy cave some 20kms afar.

Baltal below with camps for Amarnath Yatra

Alone...... at Zo Zilla .. nicknamed "Godzilla" of passes

As soon as I got down from Zo zilla, the terrain started changing. It was one last glimpse of the beautiful kashmir valley before it was all Ladakhi barren cold desert took over. The 'chai ki piyali' and tasty 'masala maggi' and the 'boiled egg' was all the available menu at the only shack on that road just beside the one last valley of the green meadows. The horses roamed free and wild there.

The night halt for tonight was selected at Drass or Kargil, provided I reach early. The roads were broken and dusty but the new found energy was pretty high. It was all a military roadway as it seemed. A convoy of a few scores of military trucks passed by as I took a a short break on the dusty ground below under the shade of my steed. Waved Good bye to soldiers who protect the nation and made way for us civilians to be able to visit such beautiful places.

On Kargil Road
As I neared Drass, the road became better. Drass is the 2nd coldest inhabited place on the planet. It was not so cold though when I crossed the town. Kargil was not far from here. The sun was starting to set for the day. It was not long before I reached the outskirts of Kargil. The town has a oneway going around it. Managed to get myself a comfortable lodging for the night at Hotel Siachen. Well, network connectivity and electricity are two main concerns over here. The hotels with WiFi in this town can go over 2000 bucks a night in peak season.

The following morning was a drizzly one. Rains had hit the valley hard. Got the news that there was a cloud burst the day before at Baltal which claimed a few lives. This was the second time on the trip that I barely escaped cloud burst event. I figured that I better escape to Leh before anymore nuances strikes Kargil. The rains had already made it hard to determine directions far less than see the road itself. Took some misturns to somewhere across the bridge where a great grey river flowed with horrific intensity. I was reguided but soon broke the clutch wire.

Cornering on Kargil Road

Cornering on Kargil Road

Hotel Siachen view, Kargil

After getting it fixed at a mechanic, I carried on towards Leh. After a few 40 kms I finally managed to outrun the rain. The sky was still overcast. The road towards Lamayuru goes just by a deep river on the right and a dug into hill road. As the sun set, I crossed the magnetic hills. It was a totally shadow area. I was never more satisfied to reach a destination that day. Had stopped over at a small shack run by a local who served the best steak curry I ever had. It was filling refreshing. I had to get out from there as the drizzles were starting to catch up with me.

Within an hour of me reaching Leh, the rain followed. The entire connectivity and communication was screwed. There was no mode of travel except air to reach the lower parts of India. Manali road, Anantnag road and the road I nearly pioneered, Pir ki Gali one were all blocked or washed off. Next morning came the news that there has been a landfall at Khardung La road and major parts were damaged. Hence the route was now cut off.

The customary shot of K-Top
With a heavy heart and a wet Leh outside, I stayed indoors. It was not the climate that pissed off me, but the cold drops of rain that the monsoon came with. The rest was fruitful as I nearly forgot the pains of the mortal body as the new sun shone. The clouds were finally dispersing. With communications restored, found out that manali and other roads were still blocked. A friend, Nishigandha was also coming but was stuck down. Took the opportunity to get to Khardung La and proceeded to Panamik. Was the first one to cross over the landside that blocked the Pass for last 2 days. It was really a tough job to cross Khardung La without the carburetor work. The Nubra valley was the scenic most point here but the Bactarian camels took the pie. Camera battery had failed me this time as it drained away.

I returned to Leh the following day via Agham. It was both easier and scarier altogether. The fact that I din't need to climb Khardung La with a low oxygen supply to the carburetor was the easy part. The nearly-submerged road with a gushing river barely inches away was scary. The next day was the much needed rest day. Idled around the town and went to places in the city. Met a hot army captain from Allahbad who was also roaming around the Leh palace area. She was a pretty cool lady and was scheduled to leave the place the next day. Had a small lunch at the restaurant bang opposite to the Army base, Leh and then dropped her at the gates. She looked beautiful in the cheetah printed skin hugging dress as she strided past the army jawans guarding the gates. That was the last time I saw her ever!

The next morning was the Pangong day. Got up early and left the place to get to Pangong with an acquaintance, Vibhu from Saharanpur. This guy is the most crazy ass and daring person I ever met. Way more crazy than Savio!! (Savio is the all-crazy moody Parsi with a golden heart and no brains, like literally no brains)
Vibhu, a doctor by profession, had a quarrel with his wife and left the house with his 2002 Pulsar, round headlamp one, for Ladakh. I can only wish I had such dare in myself.

The journey to Pangong was challenging too. The road through Chang La and then through Pagal Nala was exciting and beautiful. I stayed at Lukung for 2 days as I looked for a way to get to Marsmik La, but the political problem only ensured that I get no chance to travel across Chushul or even Marsmik for that matter. I was turned down at both the checkpoints. With a heavy heart, I returned.

It was around a week or more that I had last communicated with anyone outside the realm of Ladakh. I had no idea that Nishigandha had managed to cross over into Leh and was on route to Pangong. That's when I barged in on her. Although I had unknowingly stopped to help, but it turned to be her. A few chit chats and photos followed. She carried on to Hanle and Chushul and I carried on my return. That evening, I stayed at Leh. Vibhu was already on his way to Saharanpur and I was all by myself again.

The next day I met with again with a KTM guy, Abhay from Mumbai. This kiddo had come to Leh on his spanking new KTM 390 with track tires, had accidents and was lurking in Srinagar-Leh area for the past 2 months. Well the last time I met with him was at Pangong where we shared a tent, to reduce costs. The KTM fellow and me, were starting return to Delhi that afternoon. I had got the T-shirts that are the symbols of Ladakh. That day, I met various legends at the Leh cafe, marketplace who had come around the world on their bikes. Never knew that they were on some meet up.

Notice that?

The KTM guy filled up fuel in his tank and a can of 5 litres. The next 400-so kms had no fuel station, the next one was at Keylong. Met an Australian who was on his Kawasaki KLR650 for a trip around the world. Got a few tips from him for travelling cheap and maintaining expenses for a long travel.

Filling Fuel at Karu; He is from Australia and has ridden via Myanmar to India.

Soon after, we left. The road was straight and the sky, clear and blue. I had 2 liter Pepsi bottles that I had found lying at Pangong and one near the fuel pump which I used to fill up fuel. It was pretty enjoyable stretch. One could open the throttle completely, but then, control over oneself to resist does pay off by saving fuel. In this stretch, getting fuel is a very tough job. Habitation is scarce and one just may manage to find fuel in Sarchu but purity of it would be doubtful.

Around noon, I reached Gya. The sky was darkening and I could see the snow laden lands of pass we call as Tanglang La. Abhay had been doing unreasonably high speeds and had reached before me and was waiting for me. We started again towards the 2nd highest pass Tanglang La. The sky went dark and began to drizzle. I stopped near the foothill and hurriedly put on the rain gear. Helped Abhay with covering his saddle bags and carried on. Abhay stopped for a few pics and said he would catch up.

The road was twisty and it was raining. At that altitude, even the rain drops are harsh and super cold. Almost they were feeling like bullets when they hit my face. I had opened my helmet visor, as ice crystals had frozen on the visor making vision challenging enough. The gloves were doing no good. The windchill was making matters worse. And then came, black ice.  I had absolutely no idea about what was to come or even how to cross the stretch of black ice atop Tanglang La. My shoes had no grip, front tire had no grip. Somehow the rear tire was managing a very slight grip. No idea how. It was a Ralco. Got off the bike, put it on stand, and I fell. Tried to get up, and I fell again. Happened twice before I managed to get on my feet. I had only one rope and I tied it on the front tire to get some grip.

Military Style!!

By then, the cold moisture was starting to take its toll on my poor fingers. took them off partially to see that they were turning bluish. Now I had an experience with blue fingers and I did not wan't to go through all of that again. Hurried away from that spot. It was still raining heavily. While spiraling down the roads, I saw the road worker's tent on the roadside. Parked the bike and dashed in. I needed heat for my fingers, urgently. They were very helpful and gave me a spot to fix up. I was there probably for half an hour while they were looking at my stuff and camera. Had a quick chat with them and found out that they were from Murshidabad area of West Bengal. I took off as soon as the rains lightened a bit.

I had crossed Tanglang La and was going down when the rains worsened again. To make matter more worse, black ice patch came again. This time I was prepared but this lasted for around a kilometer or more. I cold and rain combo was making it trouble to think clearly now. I needed a place for the night soon. The sun had set and it was dark with the last of the celestial light visible through the nooks of the dark clouds of the vast space beyond. I was riding slowly and steadily.

I reached a camp site in the dark near Debring. Nearly frozen, walked up and inquired for a place. They did have one and I took it without a word. It was a small tent and with food I was charged 500 bucks only. could see some bikes around, mainly Bulls. Could hear loud music as some were partying. I just managed to take off my wet clothes and boots somehow, put tissue papers in them before rolling off to sleep covered in the warm blankets.

I must had dozed for an hour, when someone woke my up. It was for food, served piping hot. I was wondering and worried for Abhay though. I had parked my bike near the road hoping he would see the bike and know that I was there. But he never came. Although, while having food, I felt like I heard a distinct KTM sound passing by. I dozed off soon.

Next day, the celestial bulb greeted a generous morning. It was refreshingly enjoyable with the aroma of grass and the ground, filled all around. I started up and it was barely a few kilometers when I saw Abhay's KTM. Woke him up. Came to know that he had fallen once more on the black ice and had reached late night. He was feverish. We started at almost 9 or 10. It was now water crossings that we had to tackle today.

Within 15 minutes, we came across a waterfall. A Scorpio had got stuck. I crossed over, Abhay waited. I was thinking about 'Pagal Nullah' and it's water level. As the name suggests, it's a mad water crossing. I was worried because of last night's rainfall might have increased the water levels. Increased water level of Pagal Nullah meant it will become more risky than it already is. Reaching it after 2PM would mean guaranteed increase. I was just occupied with thoughts of mine, when it came to my notice.

Abhay was nowhere in the horizon. I turned back. A few kilometers back, there was the luxury tents on the right but the KTM was nowhere. Finally, I was not in a good position to continue the search for Abhay due to less fuel and due to time. I was dreaded of the pagal nullah. I turned and continued towards Manali. Met a few bikers going towards Leh. Told them to keep an eye out for a guy in complete orange (orange tank bag, orange bike, orange jacket).

Crossed a numerous water crossings here on. The beauty of the barren landscapes were amazing. Around 1, I reached a nullah. The water level was rising fast. A few local people were there standing to help. Asked a guy to help. I was taken aback when we said, 1k for crossing safely. I had nearly zeroed down on cash. Saw a bullet take a patch through  and he crossed. I followed so.

Another RE rider came on just behind me. I somehow managed to cross over although got stuck for a moment as it seemed. Revved up, dislodged a few stones in the process and it was over. Looked back to the shouting around and saw the bull rider was not there anymore. His bike fell over and he was down all on his four. Stopped to help him. It turned that when I crossed, he went to the edge side and lost balance. He jumped off and his bike washed off. Made sure that he had transport back and he was okay. He was there with a group, so no problem, except that he lost his luggage.

Continued there on. Was stopped abruptly at the check post soon after. A large group of bikers were crossing. Had to sign that I had crossed over. Had a chat with the military personnel there and left my own bottle of petrol for Abhay, just in case he was travelling late. Once that was done, I continued.

Crossed Gata loops. Clicked a pic. Saw my battery was down to just 4%. I had last recharged it at Leh. I had wrenched out the last juices out of my 10k mAh power bank recharging my video cam. The weather again was starting to get bad. I hurried. Reached at a shack before anything happened. Stayed there, they had a few cots for the travelers.

'The wind has corroded the rocks into such art

The Tibetan couple managing the shack were gleefully delighted and cooked me a supreme dish of steak. In my entire travel, I never had a better steak curry than her cooking. Loved the meal. They were too modest about my appreciation about the meal. That night, it did not rain. I strolled outside. The view was amazing. A straight road on both sides, with view of a billion stars and galaxies up and quiet all around. I thought of clicking a photo. I had the battery to click one photo. But then, I personally liked that moment of peace. Just wanted to stay in that moment, absorb it as much as I could, in my memories, never to forget, forever. I was sitting on the cold ground and was experiencing and experience and then it dawned on me. This couple enjoys such beauty all time where as I slog my day in and day out in the dusty polluted jungles of concrete surrounded by people, who care nothing for something like this. I started pitying them. And the night rolled on..

The next morning, I woke up pretty late. Jispa was nearby. The old couple fixed up the breakfast as I freshened up at a nearby lake. It was small but beautiful as were everything else. Last night did had an effect on me, as I started looking at things very differently. Started at around 10AM. Keylong was very dusty and by-far the most boring part. Around 2, I was crossing Rohtang. It was a mess, and I am being very lenient on it. People were spotted drinking, playing loud music and making the whole place, more of a mess. A man was so enthralled, that he was dancing to the loud punjabi music playing in the background from his Toyota Fortuner, bare bodied with a bottle of alcohol in his hand.

I continued my descend and reached Marhi. I am in love with this place, like totally. Thin hilly road with a great tarmac, covered with pine trees on both sides with the high hills behind playing peek-a-boo and the grandest of road welcoming back to the plains. One must visit this place, atleast. I had lunch here, at a restaurant, with the view of the cloud covered hills all around. The second best eating experience enough to last a lifetime.

Battery at 2%, I made a call to Mom. She was worried as ever. The food soon arrived. It was not delicious, but the view filled my heart. I said to myself, "If I ever run away again from home, I will stay around here".

Around 5 in the evening, I reached Manali. Was thinking of a place to stay but the rates were sky high. Not in a mood to spend more than required, I carried on. My first problem rose as soon as I crossed Manali and around 20kms from Mandi. The Clutch cable broke! I had one extra and I managed to put it on without much of a hassle. But that did not stop.

It broke again. This time, in Mandi. I took it to a nearby mechanic and he fixed it up, charging only 20 bucks for labor. It was 8 PM and I continued. For the last time, it broke in the dead of the night near Barmana. Never found another mechanic who could fix it up nor did I manage to find a place to stay. After a few tries, even I became reluctant to try and focused more on reaching Delhi. I rode through the night, tearing through the darkness with the glaring headlight. The travelers peeped through their glassy windows of their Volvo buses to have a glimpse. Around 1 AM, I found a group of bikers with KA & MH numbers stopped. A few Harley Davidson motorcycles were also with them, loaded with luggage. Stopped for a quick chat. Turned out that they were from Chandigarh and were heading towards Manali for the weekend. Till this time, I had lost track of time, day or month for that matter. Maybe that's what it is to be like a traveler, just the road and you. Destination, it matters not, journey it is.

I rode, without clutch through the night. Never for a moment, did fatigue take over me. Maybe that's what it's like when you feed the soul and heart and not your stomach and bank accounts. Loved the freedom. I do not remember much of this part apart from going past the glaring lights of the ignorant drivers driving in high beam. It was at the break of dawn when I pulled up alongside of the road and washed my face. One look at the mirror and I came to know my face needs more water and soap to wash off the dirt and grease that I managed to catch with my face. After wasting half a bottle of precious water on washing my face, I drank the rest.

I reached Delhi outskirts after crossing Sonipat at around 8. Headed straight to Suman Bajaj Service center near Sector 18, Noida. When I reached there, it was 1PM. It was raining that day in Delhi. Had lots of trouble crossing Delhi's traffic and traffic signals without the clutch. Everytime the bike stopped, I had to push start it. Completely covered in mud, the bike and me, I must had been a sight to behold.

I reached home that day in the evening with the battery still going strong at 0%! I just crashed on to the bed. Just a funny side, I was very much relieved to see a proper toilet after so many days!

Life consists of moments, of what we choose to do, of what we love. Wasting such a beautiful gift on working, paying the bills and then perishing, isn't what one should choose. I want to extend-quote The Dalai Lama here "Once a year, go to someplace you have never been before, to experience, to feel and to feed the soul."

-----------------------------------------------Extra Shots------------------------------------------------

Notice the Landrover

At Gata Loops