Travel: Riding high in the Himalayas
Get Ahead reader Ram shares his experience of driving his Enfield along the treacherous but breathtaking Himalayan roads.
The prospect of a motorbike ride through the mighty Himalayas had fascinated us for long. So, finally I decided to buy a new Royal Enfield Thunderbird motorbike especially for this trip. I drove it for over 2000 km within a month and a half just to prepare it for this trip -- a 17-day adventure with my friends Naveen and Vikram.
Day 1, July 11, 2009
We had landed in Delhi the previous night and checked into a hotel at Paharganj. In the morning, we went to the railway station to pick up our bikes that were being transported from Bangalore. We laid our hands on them at around 11am after which we tanked them up. By noon we were on our way but got stuck on the Old Delhi roads, among rickshaws and scooters. With the unbearable heat and traffic, we finally hit GT Road at around 2 pm. We stopped at a Punjabi rasoi for a much-awaited lunch and continued along the NH-1.
After Delhi, we crossed Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh and entered Himachal Pradesh. Though our target for the day was Shimla, we couldn't make it even after riding till 12.30 am. We crashed at a hotel in Solan, 50 km before Shimla.
We left for Shimla as early as 7 am. We stopped for sandwiches and parathas on the way and bypassed the city by 10 am. We crossed Narkanda and rode through the beautiful hills of Himachal.
At 2 pm we were at Sainj where we also had our lunch. We took in the beautiful valley and rode along the Sutlej river for a long time, reaching Jalorie Pass around 6 pm. It was very foggy and cold with a bit of a drizzle and the garam chai [hot tea] we had there was heavenly.
After this, we faced a very steep climb on horrible roads with marshes and it was a tough time riding down at a speed of 10 kmph. Our backs and bikes were shaken and we reached the plains by 8 pm. We could hear gushing sounds and felt the cool breeze of the river Beas. The roads were not lit and we crossed a long mountain tunnel to reach Kullu. We decided to pitch our tent at a crossroad. By midnight, it was raining heavily and we tried to catch up on some sleep.
Up by 7 am, we were on our way to Manali travelling along river Beas all the way up. Here we saw the first snow at Rohtang pass at a distance. We checked in to an old-style hotel in Manali, had a few croissants at a German bakery nearby, gave our dirty laundry to be washed and headed to the garage to get our bikes checked. Cafe Amigos was where we had our lunch of yummy pizzas and pastas and then headed to a nature park along the Beas with tall trees and the Hadimba temple. After some shopping in town, our day ended with heavy rains and a nice dinner along a riverside hotel. We popped in Diamox tablets to oxygenate our blood to sustain the high altitudes that were waiting for us.
Naveen's bike tyres were punctured so we lost some time but by 9.30 am we were on our way towards Rohtang pass. We faced heavy traffic uphill and the drizzle made the marshes deep and our bikes got stuck at a few places.
We reached Rohtang pass by noon. It was very cold, foggy and the snow was quite dirty. We were all wearing two pairs of gloves each, four layers of clothing including thermal wear, jackets and raincoats to keep us warm.
There were fewer vehicles on the road after a while and at some point we were the only ones riding through bumpy roads. Soon enough we saw the majestic Himalayas.
We refuelled our bikes at Tandi as we were warned there would be no pumps for the next 350 km. We descended altitudes after Keylong and chose a place near Jespa to pitch our tents in between snow capped mountains and flowing river. It was the last place with a phone and we called up our people back home to tell them we will not be reachable for the next two days till we reach Leh.
'The light was fading, the oxygen and temperature dipping steadily'
We woke up at 6 am and had Maggi and parathas for breakfast with some glucose water. After another round of Diamox we were on our way to BaralachaLa pass at 16,500 feet. The mountains around were heavily snowed even though it was a sunny morning.
The roads were pretty good and we reached the pass at noon. The air was clean and cold. At Bharatpur were we had Maggi and parathas (again) for lunch. We then hit Sarchu, 40 km away, a beautiful tented camp.
We then had to negotiate through 21 hairpin bends also known as the Ghatta loops. We reached Nakeela pass and were now at 15,500 feet above sea level. It was 5.30 pm when my rear wheel had a puncture. Vikram and Naveen were far ahead of me and didn't hear my calls for help. Meanwhile, I also ran out of water. I tried to stop vehicles coming in from the opposite direction for help, but they refused saying the oxygen level was too low at this altitude and kept moving.
It was almost 6 pm now and I had been waiting for over 20 mins looking for help and some water to drink. Finally, a van carrying lamas offered me some water and by 7 pm Vikram came back looking for me. Naveen followed. He was carrying two new tubes and we started working on my tyre.
The light was fast fading and the oxygen content and temperature dipping steadily. We put in the new tube with much effort but with little success tried to pump air with the foot pump. We soon discovered that both tubes had got damaged while we were putting them into the tyre with our screwdrivers. I hoped for a truck that could carry my bike down but none came. Then came two saviours on Bullets -- Guru and Hanumanth. They gave us the much needed tyre levers, which we didn't have.
By now five of us worked on the tyre, fighting out darkness with our bike headlamps.
The temperature must have been around 5 degrees and we were losing energy due to altitude. With thoughts of deserting my bike creeping in, we tried a last attempt in pasting the punctured tyres. The air pump lost its nuts and bolts and we had a tough time pumping in air. We could fill up only half the tyre pressure and we decided to ride with it since there was no other option.
We started back at 10 pm. We rode through pitch darkness and bad roads. At 11 pm we had to cross an almost frozen river. With no knowledge of the depth and soil, we managed to cross it with a slight struggle. We reached Pang where we found tents for travellers and we crashed in at midnight. We were offered hot water and Maggi and slept with jackets, ski caps, gloves and two quilts each!
'We were on the world's highest motorable pass'
The first thing we did next morning was hunt for a tube mechanic who plugged the holes. We started climbing again and hit Morey plains -- miles of plain, barren land surrounded by mountains. We then ascended to the second highest motorable pass in the world -- TanglangLa at 17,582 feet. It was very dusty with messy roads and we crossed this snow capped pass at noon. Once we got down this pass, it was all easy roads and we ripped past 60 kmph to reach Leh by 3 pm. We took a much-needed hot water bath, did some shopping in the market and slept early.
The day passed in Leh getting permits from the district magistrate's office to visit border areas. We also managed to squeeze in some time to shop at the Tibetan market and get our bikes serviced.
We visited the ancient palace of Leh in the evening. It was quite dusty and badly needed maintenance. The palace had ancient paintings and a small exhibition room which had photographs of conservatory work done. The roofs were not so high and all windows give a view of the small town of Leh. We then visited Tsemo Castle, had dinner and retired at 10 pm.
We left our hotel at 7 am next morning. Mr Reddy whom we had met at Pang joined us for the day's trip. Needless to say all of us were quite kicked about driving on the world's highest motorable pass -- KhardungLa at 18,380 feet. We reached there by 11 am and had to show our permits at North and South Pullu along the way. We clicked pictures and after the pass, the breathtaking Nubra valley opened up.
We reached Diskit for lunch. After lunch, we visited the 350 year-old Diskit Gompa on a hill where the Lamas were very friendly. They pointed towards a series of snow-capped mountains and told us it was the Siachen glacier.
We then headed to Hunder known for its sand dunes and double-humped camels where we checked into a hotel and called it a day.
We left Nubra valley early morning and crossed Khardung pass again and were stuck for over half hour due to a huge battalion of army trucks crossing.
We reached Leh by afternoon and had lunch at a Tibetan restaurant. After some local sight seeing at the Shey Palace and Shanti Stupa we had our dinner at La Terrace facing the ancient palace and hit the sack at 11 pm.
We decided to give our visit to Pangong Tso Lake a pass since it needed two days. Naveen's bikes bearings were broken and it was 11 am when we started our ride for the day. Our short and sweet stay at Leh was getting over.
We stopped by at Magnetic Hill, where the vehicles move uphill when put on neutral gear. It is said the mountains are magnetic and pull the vehicles though many people suggest that it is an optical illusion due to an irregular horizon.
After we crossed the Lamayuru Monastery there were no roads and the ride got tougher. Vikram and I stopped by to wait for Naveen. I untied my waist pouch and forgot to tie it back when we started again. I realised this after 5 km. I went back all the way but did not find it at the place we had stopped. The pouch had my wallet with around Rs 4,000, my camera with over 500 snaps and my sunglasses.
I went back disappointed only to find Vikram waiting for me at a teashop with my pouch! I had kept it on his bike and he noticed it after a 4 km ride!
We reached the small but heavily guarded town of Kargil at 7 pm. We checked into a government guesthouse that night.
In memory of our heroes
We started at 6.30 in the morning and on the way to Drass we encountered many memorials dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives during the war.
It was the 10th anniversary of Kargil War and preparations for a function was underway at Drass War Memorial. We felt honoured to be invited and were the only plainclothesmen around. We paid our tributes at Amar Jawan and visited the exhibition of weapons. Incidentally this was right next to Tiger Hill and Tololing Hill where the war was fought. A commander volunteered to explain the strategic places of the war and we left the place feeling patriotic.
After crossing Zojila pass in the afternoon, we rode through the picturesque Sonmarg. It started raining on our way to Srinagar. The roads were fortified with armed military men and jeeps. We checked into a decent hotel in Srinagar and spent our evening boating on Dal lake. Finally we hit our beds at 10 pm.
Day 12, 13, 14
Sightseeing at Srinagar included a visit to the Shankaracharya Hill, Mughal Gardens and Pari Mahal. The rest of the day was spent with Bullet mechanics, a stroll by Dal Lake in the evening and some saffron shopping.
We left Srinagar at 6.30 am the next day and took the Jammu highway. After crossing the famous Jawahar tunnel, we rode amidst traffic and drizzles, crossed Patnitop and reached Udhampur at 2 pm for lunch. It was a strenuous and non-stop riding after lunch. We did 480 km in 15 hrs and reached Amritsar at 9 pm. By midnight we were fast asleep.
At Amritsar, we visited the Jallianwallah Baug where we spent over an hour. After this we headed to the famous Golden Temple, which also houses the Central Sikh museum. We also had some authentic Punjabi lunch and rode to the Wagah border at 4 pm. We found a place in the stands at 4.30 pm. Both sides of the border were playing Punjabi patriotic numbers. Children and few people danced on either side of the gates and the retreat ceremony took place at 6.20 pm. It got over by 7 pm and we reached our hotel at 8 pm
Day 15, 16 and 17
We started at 7.30the next morning and rode 450 km to reach Delhi at 6 pm via Jallandhar and Ambala. We checked into Major's Den, run by an army major in Paharganj. After showering, we decided to catch a Hindi movie, Luck. It was 1 am by the time we returned.
The following day, we went around Delhi by Metro, took a glimpse of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Parliament and India Gate. We shopped at Connaught Place returned to our hotel at night.
On the last day of our trip, we went to the railway station as early as 9 am to learn that the parcel offices open at noon. We booked our bikes through an agent to Bangalore and took the taxi at 3 pm to the airport. We landed in Bangalore by 8.15 pm.
During the fortnight-long trip we drove across variable landscapes and terrains of unimaginable magnitudes. It was a great experience to meet a variety of people with different cultures, origins and languages under the single mighty roof of the Himalayas.We had envisioned it as the trip of our life and it turned out to be just that!