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Sunday, May 16, 2021

The ride of my life

Undertaking a five-day journey through the treacherous conditions of the Himalayas takes courage and a sense of adventure, writes PRAKASH SUBBARAO

Reading Time: 11 minutes
Back in July, while my wife Anu and I were on our daily walk, I mentioned my plan to ride a motorcycle from Manali to Nubra Valley… solo. She took a quick breath and said, “I am not comfortable with this, but, having known you for over two decades, you will not sleep well until you do it. Go for it, but prepare well and don’t take risks.” And so the planning started…
Day One: Manali to Keylong
I was in my riding gear, helmet in hand, in front of the Hotel Mayflower in Manali. It was cloudy and looked like it might rain at any time. I stood in front of the bike. Suddenly, the enormity of my decision to ride a motorcycle solo through the high altitudes of the Himalayas hit me hard!
The Enfield jumped to life quickly, which was a good sign, and I volunteered for a selfie while warming up the engine. I texted the pic to Anu knowing my connectivity was going to end in minutes. I rode out of Manali town (at an altitude of 2000 metres) in the direction of Rohtang (3980m) through Gulaba and Marhi.
Initially, the road winds next to the fast-flowing river Beas. As I lost sight of the river, the road climbed steadily, winding through the green landscape of Lahaul. Soon it started to rain. The beauty of the lazy clouds hanging over the mountain was mind-blowing, and there were countless streams and waterfalls to captivate my mind.

I came across a beautiful cottage next to a stream, partially hidden in the clouds. It made me hallucinate that I may be in heaven already! Possibly the Himalayan poppy plant I had touched a few minutes earlier?
I was soon above the clouds and close to Rohtang pass when my nightmare began. The road disappeared, mired in slush, and converted my Enfield into a drunken whale. Experience kicked in and I had to keep the bike in low revs, keep my feet up and just keep moving at a slow pace. I crossed many hurdles and reached the top of Rohtang pass at about midday. It was wet, windy and cold and my drenched gloves stuck to my fingers like a second skin.
I started off towards Khoksar and soon found, to my shock, that the last hour had simply been a preview of things to come. Often the track fell away steeply into the river Chandra, which looked like a fast moving snake in the valley below. I took a sharp bend and, coming across some unexpected track conditions with deep slush, committed the Himalayan blunder of front braking. The bike and I parted company immediately. Luckily, I landed safely on my feet as the Enfield kissed the soft ground. I was surprised at my reflex, but lifting the bike almost broke my back. I negotiated the rest of the treacherous track and reached Khoksar aching for a bit of rest and ready to kill for a cuppa!

I had noodles and chai at a picturesque Himalayan dhaba, located in a valley surrounded by tall mountains and waterfalls fed by the glaciers.
After Khoksar, the terrain became rough again and my arse got the beating of its life. On the way I topped up fuel at Tandi, as there would be no gas stations till Leh, and I reached Keylong by 6pm, checking in to hotel Dekyid.
The steep down gradient had scared the hell out of me and it seemed to ask insolently, “How will you cross me tomorrow?”
I called Anu to let her know that I was still in one piece after Day One, but didn’t tell her about momentarily losing the bike (guess she’ll find out now!)
Skin started to peel off near my fingernails and my hands throbbed every time the gloves had to come on and off. My body ached tremendously, but it all melted away and I dropped into a peaceful slumber.
Day Two: Keylong to Sarchu
My wet gloves were kept in the kitchen by the friendly staff at the hotel and felt warm and dry in the morning. After breakfast, I had a quick catch up with Kapilji who was passing through Keylong towards Manali. He is a friend born with adventure written into his DNA.
I met a group of Austrian motorcyclists who were heading towards Leh and we exchanged some notes. As I packed my bags onto the motorcycle, a couple of the Austrians seemed quite eager to see how I would climb the steep gradient in front of the hotel. I started off bravely with a full rev and took off.

The road ahead twisted and weaved through tall mountains with the river Chandra somewhere, thousands of feet below. Turns were sharp and dangerous and I made my way cautiously, crossing Jispa and headed towards Darcha.
The road was unpredictable, switching between good, bad and ugly conditions, catching me off guard many times! Later I stopped at Darcha for a cuppa and met with a couple of riders from Chandigarh on fancy motorbikes like BMW1200Rs and Triumphs.
I bobbed over a bad patch of road and crossed a metallic bridge when I realised that my backpack, containing camera, money and passport, was missing from my back. I quickly turned back to Darcha and found it resting on the table of the dhaba where I had my tea. I was profoundly relieved, but somewhat embarrassed that this entire act of irresponsibility was caught on my GoPro camera.
I took off towards Baralacha La and the road was anywhere between bad and bad. After some time, I ran into the team of Chandigarh riders, one of them with a flat tyre. I loaned them my tyre lever to fix it.
It was a bright noon as I sped off towards Patsio. The path was unpredictable, with lots of loose gravel on the road making it difficult to go faster. The road started to climb steadily, the peaks grew bigger and I began to see snow-capped mountains stretched in front of me. I had to cross several streams and landslide zones before reaching the picturesque Deepak Taal.

My next stop was Zingzingbar which is a lovely place at the foot of Baralacha La peak, with nothing but a few tents and a couple of homes. The sky looked ominous at times, but occasionally the sunlight struck through breaks in the clouds to light up the peaks.
Reaching Baralacha La (5030 metres) was a magical experience; the view magnetic. All alone at the top, I had a fabulous conversation with nature before I started the climb towards Bharatpur. The track was quite tricky with two treacherous stream crossings and I could hold a speed of 30 km/h at best.
I reached Bharatpur, with its colourful tents, amidst dry and high altitude desert conditions where the wind slapped your face with no mercy. I had a modest lunch, snapped a few photos and took off in the direction of Sarchu, my destination for the day.
The ride was enormously challenging, with a track covered in stones, boulders, rocks and gravel, all enticing my bike towards a fall. It was getting late and I realised Anu would be anxious if I didn’t check in. I rode at the best speed I could and reached Sarchu.
I was told this is a place to avoid for an overnight stay as altitude is 4300 metres, it is windy and cold and people are known to suffer altitude sickness here. I camped in a tent for the night, with the view outside lit by the cold light of the stars. It was an eerie atmosphere and I felt like I was close to Mars! Sleep was hazy and I tossed and turned waiting for the morning.
Day Three: Sarchu to Leh
Having completed two days on the bike, my mind was filled with a kaleidoscope of images. The previous day’s ride was hard on my legs, shoulders, hands and back, not to mention my neck, carrying the helmet filled with my head!

I woke up and there was a chill in the morning air. The sun was coming up fast and had started to light up the mountain behind the tents. The Royal Enfield fired its lone cylinder quickly and I was off. It was going to be a tough day; covering 250 kilometres in a day is not a joke. In addition, I would be crossing the Geta Loops, Nakeela Pass, Lachlung La and Tanglang La.
Sarchu is a valley at 4300 metres altitude with the river Tsarap Chu flowing along the broken road. The sides of the river are wind and water carved, and the whole place is closed in winter except for the army camp.
I reached the border of Jammu and Kashmir where I had to fill in some official paperwork to enter. The ride was fantastic with stretches of winding road among tall peaks. I crossed the Whiskey Bridge and took photos of the wind carved side walls of the river Tsarap Chu. Then I began the climb through the Geta Loops, which consists of 22 hairpin bends while ascending the mountain.
There was a fair amount of truck traffic carrying supplies to the army. I was watching the truckies manoeuvering those curves, with their wheels almost over the edge, and wondered if they ever have a chance to admire the beautiful landscape?
The road climbed and climbed and I reached Nakee La pass at 4800 metres, before I continued and crossed Lachulung La pass at 5065 metres. Today was the day for big peaks!

The landscape was barren and the route more suited to a 4WD. The sun was very bright; I was very thirsty and ran out of water. Closer to Pang, I crossed some of the most treacherous tracks for motorcycles and cars. It is hard to imagine how this place would feel in winter, with temperatures diving to as low as -30 degrees Celsius.
I reached Pang at noon and found a nice dhaba for lunch. I was hungry and thirsty, and did a decent job of polishing off a full plate of dhaal and rice. The family running the dhaba was very friendly and we chatted about their life. They were so happy with so little, despite the daily uncertainty. They lived in Pang only during June to September and moved to Leh during winter.
It was hot and dry as I rode off to Tanglang La, which is the second highest motorable pass in the world at 17,582 feet (5,328 metres). The road from Pang to Tanglang La was smooth, especially considering the conditions of the previous two days! For the first time there was a straight tarmac road and I could touch close to 100 km/h! But my enthusiasm was short lived.
The road had too many causeways which dipped suddenly, throwing me off my seat for a short, breathtaking moment. I reminded myself of the promise made to Anu that I would not drive fast and recklessly. My dilemma was resolved as the road became rough as I started to climb Tanglang La. This climb is truly something special, one to be experienced with your own eyes.
I reached the top of Tanglang La and got off the bike. The air was thin and cool, but the sun was blazing hot. I stayed there in solitude for almost half and hour, during which time many cars came and went, after the inevitable selfies. This place is heavenly and unusually quiet except for the wind.

I was about to start my bike when I caught sight of a plastic bottle being thrown out of a car window parked downhill. I got off the bike and walked towards the car, in full gear, and tapped on the window.
“Why did you throw that water bottle?” I asked the guy in the car. He was upset by my question but seemed afraid to challenge me. After a long pause he replied, “I didn’t throw anything.”
I insisted that I saw a water bottle thrown out his window. “This is not a dump!” I told him to get out of the car and pick it up, and he grudgingly obliged. By this time I was fuming and walked back uphill to my motorcycle. At this point, I noticed the lack of oxygen at the high altitude and felt fairly breathless.
I took off quickly. The ride all the way to Leh was simply beautiful, but when I finally reached my guesthouse it was almost 8pm. Anu had been seriously concerned, knowing the long ride I had, and she had called the guesthouse as well as my brother to enquire after my whereabouts.
Upon settling in, I had proper phone calls with Anu, Appu, my brother, millions of sisters and my mum. After what felt like a lifetime, talking to them was a balm to my aches and pains. That’s why sometimes it is good to get away from all the people we love! My mind became crystal clear, peaceful and refreshed after three gruelling days in the mountains.
Day Four: Leh – Khardung La – Hunder

I woke up to a lovely, bright morning in Leh and, after the usual rounds of tea and breakfast, set off to collect my second motorcycle as unions in Leh forbid the use of hired bikes from Manali. I collected my Enfield 500 and set off towards my dream of climbing Khardung La – the highest motorable pass in the world! Today was also very special as it happened to be 15 August, the Independence Day of India!
I took off in the direction of Khardung La, inhaling plenty of dust along the way. The climb was steady and steep and the picturesque valley of Leh was soon in my rear view mirror. After a while the road became a track, covered with rocks, and the going got tougher. But you know what they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going!
This was a serious ride with many challenges – sheer drops, rocks, boulders, and heavy traffic due to Independence Day. I stopped many times and had chats with the soldiers on duty at regular intervals. It was noon when I reached the top of Khardung La, with clear, blue sky, tufts of soft white clouds, bright sunshine and cold wind. The altitude was 5602 metres! I was overawed and couldn’t get enough.
But the recommended stay on top is a maximum 20 minutes, if you are not already suffering high altitude sickness. I stayed for about 45 minutes to soak in the atmosphere. I met a number of motorcyclists from various parts of India and a few of the bravest who pedalled their way to the top – three cheers to those heroes! I couldn’t delay much longer as my destination, Hunder in Nubra Valley, was a few thousand kilometres away.
I started off towards North Pullu en route to Hunder. It took only 200 metres from the top for the road to become tougher and rougher. The track was terrible and I had to cross a fast-flowing stream coming down from the glacier. My hands, wrist, shoulders and neck hurt from the innumerable jolts. But the view and the cool air and the adrenaline of crossing Khardung La kept me going.

I came across another stream crossing which was nasty with deep water. The rocks underwater were not visible and hitting the edge meant a fall. I crossed this stream without incident and stopped to take video of another motorcycle crossing the stream. Unfortunately, he fell down and a few of us fellow riders had to help him to his feet and lift the bike. He was badly shaken. I would have been too in his place.
The curves returned, the road improved and I had to rein in my impulse of opening the throttle. Soon I came across the intersection where one road veered off in the direction of Pangong Lake. The landscape was stunningly vast and the green Nubra Valley was like an oasis in the midst of a desert. The river Shyok meets the Siachen River to separate the Nubra Valley and the Karakoram range. The Siachen Glacier lies to the north and I took a left where the straight road snaked towards Siachen base camp about 90 kilometres away. It was a strange feeling to think that India and Pakistan fight an everyday war to keep the vantage positions there along the Line of Control. I took another turn and the beautiful sand dunes of Nubra came in sight. It was amazing to see in the evening light and soon I reached the comfortable guest house at Hunder.
Day Five: Hunder to Leh
I had a lovely stay at Hunder and left the next morning on my journey towards Khardung La and onwards back to Leh.
As I crossed Khardung La, I didn’t want the road to end. It was my last day on the motorcycle and I wanted to hold onto the memories like a child to its mother. It is difficult to explain my feelings on that day, but it was a potent combination of happiness and melancholy. I missed my family but knew I would miss the mountains.
As I rode into Leh, I stared longingly at the imposing mountains and the lines that carved across them as roads.
Until we meet again!

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