It was in March 2015 when the desire to drive to Ladakh region in state of Kashmir, India occurred. Driving my bullet to some 1500 km away in Himalayas was not purely for exploiting the anxious biker inside me (who was otherwise ageing fast) but to click photographs of the beautiful place. The decision was prompted more by the dearth of good pictures that I was able to click while in Delhi. Somehow I was sensing that I had stopped seeing the way a photographer is suppose to see.
The decision was to go all alone (of course one of my friend and colleague was equally enthusiastic) so that the pace and halts on the route could be decided without worries of annoying the fellow riders, if riding in a group.
May 31 2015 was the planned start date via Manali-Leh route with complete disregard to process of checking the status of National highway on the website. Finally, June 2 2015 at 5:45 am we started from Delhi.
June 3 2015 at 10:00 am in Manali’s main market, the news of the National highway still closed due to heavy snowfall was a shock to us. I stepped into SDM’s office in Manali to check if any further permits are needed by bikers of Indian origin when he leaned back on his chair and responded, “The National highway is still closed and may take another 15 days to open for public.” Reading about the scenic beauty of the Manali-Leh highway on web and given the fact it was more adventurous compared to the Srinagar-Leh highway, I was certain to take this route.
Anyways we did not waste much time and within 15 minutes we started our journey downhill to Mandi some 120 km from Manali. We planned to take Mandi-Pathankot route from where we take the Srinagar-Leh road to Ladakh region. We halted at a hotel in Pathankot on the National Highway at 10:00 pm on June 3 2015. We averaged quite well in terms of distance and more or less made up for the loss of a day due to wrong choice of route earlier.
Some 30 km ahead of Udhampur just when we started our ascent to Patnitop it started raining. We had no plans to have a raincoat since with Delhi simmering at 48 degree C we could hardly expect rains. We continued ahead for some 30 km more but the rain did not stop. The chill was getting unbearable and given the fact that we were almost drenched in rain, we had to take frequent halts to rest and sip a cup of tea to beat the cold.
At Ramban we decided to search for raincoats and replace our sports shoes with rubber shoes. Finally, we changed to dry attire at a police checkpost some 3 km ahead of Ramban. The raincoat cover was comforting and we felt that we will now be able to speed up to ensure we end the day at Srinagar. But within an hour of drive we again sensed the wetness inside our shoes and the chill was getting unbearable.
We ended one of the most difficult days of driving. I could not even think of stopping to take pictures. We parked ourselves at Srinagar at a Hotel opposite to Dal lake. The food was not good and we were almost fasting the whole night further draining our bodies of the energy. Anyways our enthusiasm was to reach Leh the same day i.e June 5 2015.
At 5:30 am in morning we are driving around the Dal lake enroute to Leh highway at a very slow speed. We stopped to click some pictures of boats sailing but then continued our ride further. We stopped at a dhaba some 100 km ahead where it started raining again.
We crossed Zozila pass amidst land slides, long traffic jams and bad roads. The rain did not stop and our average distance covered in an hour was reduced to 20 km. I almost lost the desire to move ahead given the incessant rains and lack of cover from the rains. We did our second round of shopping at Sonamarg. We believed for the first hour post shopping that we could ride well now. But the reality was quite different. We were forced to stop at Drass to change again. The first sign of Sun peeping through the clouds gave us the hope that we will have no rains ahead.
Quite true to our expectations within 20 km ride from Drass we faced first stretch of dry roads with Sun shinning bright. We were excited and rode quite comfortably. At 5 pm we were at Kargil. At the bridge of Kargil (towards Leh) we had two fellow riders inquiring about the route. We exchanged a few words and then agreed to drive together to Leh.
A nigh halt at Mulbeck ( a village on route to Leh) was a chilling one. We were shivering and somehow we quickly creeped into our beds covered with thick blankets. Next day a perfect sunshine and just 120 km of ride pending for Leh, we decided to bask in Sun at home stay. Within an hour of sunlight all our clothes were dry and we were busy massaging our faces and hands with sunscreen.
Ride from Mulbeck to Leh was with several halts to click pictures and first feeling of being on a photography holiday. The roads was smooth with several flat stretches. The curves were not sharp and we could enjoy racing as well. We were also sensing peace in surrounding with occasional speeding vehicles and kids returning from schools raising their hands to wish us. All this was arousing a feeling of well being and happiness within. It was a different world. The smiling faces of locals gave an impression of being satisfied with their lives while their region was cut-off from rest of the country for 6 months at a stretch.
We reached Leh at 5 pm and all our over-optimism to drive further ahead to Nubra Valley were put to rest. Key reason for our decision to halt was tiredness while maintenance of our bikes was the other excuse. It decision for halting at Leh for the night was proven right in the morning while ascending to Khardungla pass.
Its termed as highest motorable road at 18380 feets above sea level. The snow on both sides of the road was heavy while water from the melting snow flowed on roads in multiple mini streams leaving no trail of any road. We stopped briefly at Khardungla to have some snacks and black tea on sale by the army canteen. Our drive down the hill towards Nubra Valley was equally painful due to bad road and heavy incoming traffic – army vehicles and local cabs plying tourists around.
Our destination planned for the day was Turtuk – a village claimed to be 800 years old on the border of India-Pakistan. The village was in a valley formed by the Himalayas on one side Karakoram on the other side. It had a flowing river (name I do not know) that flows in the territories of Pakistan. Gorakha regiment 5 km ahead of Turtuk did not let us have a peek into the Line of control since no visitors are allowed.
We reached Turtuk at 9 pm in the night post marking entries at several checkpoints controlled either by army or police. In the night with no street lights, we heard sound of stream. We checked in at a home stay suggested by a policeman at a checkpoint some 45 km before Turtuk.
Next day was spent moving around in the village and resting. We opted to give a wash to our bikes at one end of the village where the stream water flowed across the road. The chill of the water as expected was unbearable. We chatted with locals, and visited the village, interacted with some senior men. The village has couple of schools with army vehicles providing the bus facility. All women including girls wore a hijaab (covering their head). They all were fair in color with blushing cheeks. Most of them refused to get clicked except a girl who I managed to click. The green color hijaab over the red color top made for a perfect color portrait. The brightness in our eyes and a innocent smile added to her beauty.
Next day we started early and were guided to take an alternative route to reach Pangong lake – our next destination. A 30 km stretch of the alternate route was on a river bed with big rocks. We cursed the ones who told us that the road is ok for the bikers since even the taxi drivers ferried tourists and locals using the same route. We opted for the alternate (via Shyok) route in order to avoid the Khardungla pass and also save a distance of 120 km. We could avoid visting Leh again to reach Pangong lake.
I was sensing a problem with axle of my bike. Despite a several twists at several point on the route to tighten the axle, I faced problem in controlling the bike. I was speeding at 70km/hr plus when the axle broke and let the rear wheel to wobble vigorously. Its a lucky escape since its a flat stretch of road and with no vehicle approaching from behind, I could apply brakes in a controlled manner to halt.
Mohsin – our fellow rider drove further ahead some 15 km to find a mechanic. During his inquiry at a police station he saw a bullet that had met with an accident a year back. He decided to return and take us back to the police station and convince the station head for letting us use the axle of the bike parked at the station. The station head luckily gave in to our request and we were up and running within 30 minutes.
The drive to Pangong lake from Durbuk is a drive with greenery all around. It was 6 pm when we reached Pangong lake. We decided to drive further ahead to a village where we halted for night at a home stay. The morning was chilling and strong breeze made the chill unbearable. That did not deter our spirit to venture out early morning before sun rise.
The aunty at the home stay served us butter made from yak milk. We exchanged pleasantries and phone no just in case we happen to contact each other in future. We had to ride through Changla pass which was at 17680 feet above sea level. The road was good in condition and we were at the top in 2 hours. The downhill was even faster and we managed to reach Leh by 4 pm. We spent the evening getting our bikes serviced.
We left Leh back to Delhi via Srinagar the following day.