The plan for second trip to Ladakh was prompted by the desire to avoid the mistakes we made last year. Some key ones were a. Riding more than 300 km per day; b. Rush to reach Leh and missing majestic views on the way; c. No fixed itinerary; d. Not stopping to click pictures; e. Not well prepared to protect oneself from rains.
Around February 2016 the announcement of launch of ‘Himalayan’ – a new off-road bike, well suited for the purpose further firmed up my decision to go ahead once more. And the plans began to take shape with 4 of us (all of last year riders) had a Whatsapp group created titled “Banjaare on Wheels”. Camping on the way and trekking to some of the popular routes was also included in the itinerary. Our first meeting was at a Bar in GK-1 where Mohsin ( a young handsome businessman who has his desires defined quite well) did the honors for treating us.
Hindustan Tibet Highway is third and the least preferred route by bikers especially for riders wanting to do Leh and beyond while covering spiti and Lahaul valleys. So when the itinerary was prepared on similar lines, I hoped we were not repeating the mistake of last year but of different kind. Some videos on YouTube defined it as the 4th most treacherous road in world that ran parallel to Sutlej river – the fastest flowing river of India.
Itinerary for Leh via Spiti Valley
Note: pls ignore the typos and errors in calculating the exact distance on dates around July 14-17.
Starting on July 10 2016 from India gate we were delayed by more than 2 hours. Sunil-Aditya paired together (ex-colleagues from HCL with Sunil moving to Makemy Trip recently) on newly bought ‘Classic 350 cc’ Black Bullet. Their belongings for the next fortnight had a gas cylinder with attached burner weighing 6 kg. The bike cover that was claimed to be waterproof was soon seen to be flying in wind akin to a girl’s skirt. Mohsin-Zafar paired together. Mohsin with his ultra fit body and a clean shave looked fresh and energetic. Zafar, on the other hand, looked more seasoned to be a traveller and not as excited as all of us.
Post our halt at Gulshan Dhaba (near Murthal) on Chandigarh Highway, we were riding at a pretty good pace. “Lets reach Dharampur by 12:30 pm and then the heat and humid will be forgotten”, I said. Aditya was on his first bike trip and he was yet to get accustomed to the weight of his bullet. He chose to take the ride a bit slow. So post every 30km we were waiting for the them to make it upto us.
The ride was being enjoyed, hands being raised to one another while riding but our minds were longing to be amongst the solitude of mountains and roads of Ladakh. Some of us visualized staying in a camp and while some about the experience of returning as ‘heros’ amongst our friends in Delhi who could not make it. Mohsin was not sparing any break in journey to click using his iphone 6s and upload on Facebook. “It’s 4G and this time we will have network all of the route we take, he said. Zafar has found a companion in Sunil for the smoke break. Mohsin and I could not restrain ourselves from teasing them on their habit of smoking.
Giani ka Dhaba at Dharampur is a popular milestone for day visitors from Chandigarh. Back in 1993-94 when we use to camp in and around Dharampur, I use to relish the quality of paranthas that was served at the Dhaba. Since then the quality has suffered significantly. Giani ka Dhaba is in same state of affairs on Shimla road as is Sukhdev ka Dhaba on New Delhi-Chandigarh highway. We had parked our bikes little ahead but on the same side as Giani ka Dhaba. I was pitching the fellow riders to have lunch there but given the waiting and we losing time, I opted to instead step into a small dhaba just opposite of the Giani ka Dhaba.
Our first experience of the Hotel staff failing to understand what we ordered happened. “We will continue to face this issue henceforth”, said Mohsin. I was finishing my chole-rice while Aditya and Mohsin stepped out to have an ice-cream.
We could not reach Shimla and instead decided to find a place for camping some 30 km before from Shimla. We found a flat piece of land just above a dhaba on the highway near Khandaghat (small village on Shimla road). We did not care for explicit approval of anyone around and had to dismantle the whole thing when the owner explained his problem including the excuse of Himachal police bothering them during night patrol. We had lost 2 hours and also too tired to try any other place. Finally, in next 1 hour we parked ourselves at Dilli Gate Hotel some 5 km ahead.
We as a group never gave negotiation a miss before finalising the venue. This for me was waste of time when its just a few hours to rest and move ahead. Dinner was finished well in time and I was lying in room writing my personal diary when Mohsin stepped into gift me a pen. “I know you must be about to write your diary and use this pen to do so.”, he said.
I and Mohsin woke up at 5:30 am and were stretching ourselves while others woke-up. We started our onward journey towards Narkanda. We halted for breakfast near Kufri and then we crossed Narkanda before 11:00 am. The roads till now were good and we were hoping them to be good atleast till Jheori.
I knew Jheori since I was at Sarhaan (that has a link road from Jheori) 2 years back. Some 10 km ahead of Jheroi, we were surprised by the taste of coffee prepared by an old man (must be in his 60s). He ran a coffee shop. He had spilled some hot coffee onto his legs. “When you work this happens, never mind.”, he said. “Uncle ji, we loved your coffee.”And this was sounded loud and clear by me to have a glimpse of smile on his face. And he did have a big one with his wrinkled but fluffy cheeks almost kissing his eyelids.
It was 5 pm when Mohsin sounded that he was tired riding on the rough road. The moment we crossed the hydro dam site run by Jindal group, we checked on with a dhaba owner and he agreed to allow us to camp for the night near his dhaba. There was a hot water spring near by and ample drinking water. Proximity to Jindal Hydro project security office also gave us comfort. However, the site was not an ideal one to camp for the night. The weather was surprisingly warm and spending a minute inside the tent was making us sweat.
We were done with dinner and stepped inside our respective tents, except me all other male riders had their male pillions. I wished them warm hugs during night and requested to place themselves on opposite sides inside the tent. I said, “Accidents can happen when in sleep.” 😉
My first night in a tent was making me feel cozy and happy. I could not resist smile on my face despite the hard earth below was not cushioned well by a sleeping bag and a blanket. It started raining at 2:30 am in night and Zafar had to taken the pain to step out and pick the clothes and our helmets that we left uncovered on our bikes.
Our onward journey started towards Kalpa but since we have taken a night halt at Tapri, we took bypass to Kaza. The roads were non-existent and we were already longing for concrete roads. But they were not to come before we hit the Kinnaur Valley and that too for some 30 km only. We halted at Spillow for lunch. “Aunty Daal hai, rice hai, coffee hai….”, Mohsin at his best. Sunil and Aditya skipped for their smoke break while Aditya was cherishing the ride he had. We as a group did not spare a single moment to confuse while giving order for food. All ordered for themselves and locals not well acquainted with hindi language and arithmetic were confused. Road widening project was underway some 20 km ahead of Spillow and we had to break for 3 hours. The clearing took away all our rhythm. We were now sure not to make it beyond Tabo, forget Kaza. We however, managed to be at Nako village.
A group of Israeli girls kept us engaged and entertaining and lifted our spirits when we get to see them again at Nako. Ofcourse, Mohsin ensured we were at the same Hotel as them. The basic formula for breaking the conversation remains same across nationalities; just hang around and then do not hesitate to ask nationality or journey plan. At Nako, Kinnauri Ghanti was keeping our spirits high and I was assigned the task to confirm their nationality. One of them from the girls replied, “Israel, but why?” I said, some of us doubted you all were Arabic.
At Nako, the Nako lake is more of a pond that every other house has in West Bengal in its backyard. But still the cleanliness impressed us and we had a good stay. When started from there we did not have a single km of concrete road. Our shoulders were aching, the dust from the road was onto our riding gear. Our bikes were longing for their first bath since starting from Delhi. But that was not to come so soon. I was some 30 minutes ahead of all others and decided to venture into the Kaza market to enquire about a guide who could help us trek to Koumik village – the highest village in Asia. But to our surprise we could take our bikes and it was just 30 km at 4500 mtrs altitude from Kaza. We were at Koumik via Langza and our eyes were subjected to some of the best views of hills and greenery. I was able to click a shepherd near Langza.
Finally, when we drive straight on to an open ground next to the monastery at Koumik, I was surprised to see a lady seated and chatting with a local. I got a re-assurance that we do have tourists to this place as well. We did not have to ask much and were quick to anchor our tents on the open ground. I walked to the lady with a cup of tea in hand. She enquired about us. “How come you are here?” “I am soloing.” “I mean.., how..” “Array! soloing all alone and have been hitch hiking from Kaza in a Thar.” “Oh! that’s good. Very bold of you.”
She at first impression seemed to be very talkative. I was spared from the glance of her sharp eyes when the strong winds at Koumik flew the flicks of her hair on her face. She did not spare a moment to get our long fingers to remove the flicks back to where they are supposed to be. I was lost in conversation when the laughter from my fellow riders ( a deliberate attempt from the jealous lot to distract me and call me) distracted me and I moved towards them. I said, “She is soloing and she out here all alone from Delhi. She plans to head some other villages walking if she does not have any other mode of traveling.” “Hats-off to her”, said Sunil. “Bade waale hain”, said Mohsin.
The wind was strong and somehow my stomach was upset. I was in my tent taking a nap while Zafar was ready to cook for the night. Strong winds did not allow him to lit the LPG stove out in open. We instead to used the kitchen of the Home Stay owner at Koumik. At 8 pm I was still not in best of condition and was surprised to see Madam P engrossed in conversations. She was in a way killing her anxiety before strangers by talking and chatting with us. “Zafar, we will cook enough so that the ‘Ladki’ (girl) does not end-up having maggi.” He said, “Of course Sir.”
“If you all do not mind, can you give me lift till Demul.” I said, “We head to Kaza back and then trek to Zaskar Sumdo. But since you say it’s a beautiful place, we do not mind changing our plan.” We were later joined by a trekker from Kochi who worked as a consultant with Cox and Kings. He was trekking from Demul and he had similar words as Madam P. Madam P later offered me some Hingoli medicine that helped cure my stomach ache. I was feeling better but skipped a heavy dinner. Madam P said, “I loved the dal tadka. The aloo ke subzi is also very good.”
Next day, when I walked towards my tent from the kitchen where I slept, Madam P was sitting alone, staring at the morning Sun rise. She was sleepy but also looked unsure of few things. After I re-confirmed her that we would accompany her to Demul, she went back to take a nap. We were done with our morning breakfast and then we headed to Demul. Demul was a 2 hour ride and we were at the village well before noon. Madam P on the way was shooting videos using her hand phone. “I am moving”, she use to say before settling back properly on the pillion seat. The saddle bags were not placed well and she was having little space to manage the ride comfortably.
Demul is at 4000 mtrs far lower than the Koumik but with 500 plus population. All the villagers have option for Home Stay and the tourists are allocated turn-by-turn. It had a post office where we stepped in to enquire about the home stay option since there were no signs outside the houses in village that indicated so. We were directed towards another house where the owner stepped out to say that he is finishing a prayer. Once the prayer is done he will get us the accommodation. I had already firmed up my mind to sleep in afternoon. All of us were part of a prayer that lasted some 30 minutes with the messaging from the Guru to live in peace and cooperate with each other at all times – as decoded by Nawang Suman, the son of the owner who coordinated the Home Stay in Demul.
Most of the houses had solar roof tops. While the village smelled of cow dung (ofcourse of Yak) the village was clean and people were seen smiling. We were provided accommodation across three different houses. Madam P in 1 house, Sunil-Aditya-Zafar at other and Mohsin-Jaspal in one. Mohsin was asleep even before we could park our bikes well within the safety of the village. We had heard the kids out of curiosity pulling out some of our belongings from the bikes.
Mohsin continued to snoar when I stepped in to take a mattress adjacent to his. I was asleep in no time especially with the fact that I was accustomed to last year home stay at Pangong Lake. The hosts are also well versed with the behavior of tourists and do not barge into our rooms but then are readily available to provide tea and food as and when we ask for.
Madam P and I had lunch together at our stay and then we chatted about multiple things. The color TV was playing a dubbed South movie which was occasionally seeking our attention. Madam P enquired, “Have you been to any place outside of Demul?” “I have been to Manali post my marriage and then Kaza is where we frequent more often”, she said. A mid 30s is what she looked in a slim figure. She served us rajma-rice for lunch cooked in a pressure cooker. She walked past the kitchen to help us with pickle and local chutni that they prepared. The treatment was selfless with no regard to the money they make from us. They just wanted to be good at what they had to offer. I talked about hygiene Madam P. May be the smell of cow dung i.e. Yak dung was bothering us.
At 4 pm when Mohsin woke-up, I stepped out alone to look for the house where Sunil-Aditya had stayed. Aditya was peeping from the window of house and called me when he sighted me. They had the best of stays in terms of cleanliness. But the best thing about their stay was the 7-year-old attraction of the owner of the house. She loved English and was very open in talking to us. Within the next 1 hour Demul’s sky was covered with dense clouds. It rained for an hour and in no time we had a pleasant weather to step-out. Some one pointed out at the rainbow when we were out touring the village. The 7 year lead us to all key places around the village.
Aditya despite the headache from the smell in the village was finding the 7-year-old angel sweet enough to talk and play with. They shot videos of her being introduced. I was able to take some good portrait shots of all fellow riders before returning back the home stay of Sunil-Aditya-Zafar. The group kept of specifying the type of tea and the recipe for the same but they could not get what they were looking for. But then its no fault of hosts as well. When we asked, “Aunty a little strong tea.”, we had tea with extra sugar. Nawang stepped into collect money and take stock of our stay. He shared the reference of his cousin who ran a camping site at Chandra Tal Lake. We had requested for dinner at one single home stay.
The family of the hosts was around when we had dinner. We dispersed to get up early the next day. Solar roof top had charged the batteries the whole day and when the ‘sarkar bijli’ was not available the solar charged batteries added to the night beauty of Demul. Our next day was to be at Chandratak Lake and were hoping to make it well before the evening.
We were quick to leave the next day and were at Kaza. Our fuel tanks were filled and jerry cans were loaded with extra fuel as well. We had lunch and ended-up wasting some precious time before setting forth to Chandratal lake. We enquired the locals about the quality of road ahead. Most of them said, “It’s sheesha (mirror) post the first few km.” What in reality we found was ‘toota hua sheesha’ (road akin to broken pieces of glasses). When we ask the locals about the time to reach Keylong from Kaza they said, ” Aath ghante lagenge (it’ll take 8 hours)” which translates into 11 hours atleast for bikers and non-locals. The link road to Chandratal lake is narrow and has not an inch of concrete road.
When we reached the camping site the nearest to Chandratal lake it was well past 6 pm. We hurriedly negotiated with the caretaker of the camping site who accidentally turned out to be the cousin of the caretaker at Demul. We showed them the pics of Demul – his village- and he was delighted like a soldier service away from his homeland. Coffee was prepared, tents were placed and Madam P managed to secure a separate tent as well. She was ready to travel with us for rest of the trip and return to Delhi on July 23 as planned. “Aap dekho apna convenience ke aap ke saath chaloo ya nahin.”, she said. Next 30 minutes we talked on the trip expenses and her readiness for the trip.
At dinner time we had clear sky and oblivious of the fact that it will rain soon, we had planned night trek to lake since it was also a full moon night. But to our surprise most of the aspirants dropped by the time we finished dinner and when we turned our heads towards the sky the clouds had covered the moon and we had to call-off our night trek to Chandratal lake.
It rained the whole of next morning and we were already regretting to miss the true beauty of the lake on a sunny but non-windy day. When we walked towards the Chandratal lake, Madam P had preferred to go ahead and climb the hill unlike rest of us who were more eager to touch the shores of the lake. I from the lake side could see her in her flourescent jacket taking a pause after a couple of steps to absorb the calmness of the place. Here, near the lake rest of us were in a hurry to complete the photo shoot in no time. We had in our mind to reach Keylong well in time. I wrote Monica on the sand and then of my two angels.
Aditya was delighted to his best and when he reviewed his pictures with jumps in air. He said, “Thoda stomach dikh raha hai.” “I love you too.”, his remark was a common place by now. Mohsin and he were having quite a bit of fun. Zafar was the most silent of the lot who however, was eager to have his pictures clicked. By now, Madam P like a butterfly swinging her wings slowly and steady reached the shores of Chandratal lake. “Sir, meri photo click nahi karee.” Then within moments she was rehearsing group shoot will all of us jumping in air.
We walked towards our bikes parked a km away from the lake. Little did we know what the rest of the day had in store for us. We crossed the link road in 1.5 hours after crossing two big nalas (stream flowing through the road) and went downhill towards Bataal. The route was very bad and we were reminded of the Skyok-Diksit route we had taken last year while reaching Pangong Lake directly from Turtuk via Nubra valley. Our speed was slow. We crossed 1 more nalla. Our shoes were wet and all our plans to remain dry went for a six. One after the other we crossed more than 7 nallas and each one bigger than the other. At Chatru- the first place where we could find a restaurant to catch-up on some food we realized that we had taken 2.5 hrs to cross 15 km stretch. Our enquiries to locals including the restaurant owner on road quality ahead gave us hope (the sheesha thing) but then we also did not trust any of their assurances.
My shoulders were tested for their endurance to keep the balance of the bike on the muddy-rocky track with loose gravel while Madam P was regretting that her hand phone had conked off. She wanted to halt for some clicks and I was subjected to some very discreet-indirect nagging for not doing so. I apologised by citing reasons for hurry since we were to reach Keylong in day light. “Kya faayda if you can’t wait and cherish the beauty of the place. Will you ever come again to this place?”, she remarked. Madam P was right since I won’t venture again on the same route.
Within 30 km of crossing Chatru, we took the Manali-Leh highway but the first smooth stretch of road was not reached before Koksar. Then was the time to speed and get our bikes to kiss the 80 km/hr and above speed. I was cruising along the curves with BRO signs asking to “Be smooth on my curves.”. I thought, “I am sharp on smooth curves.” We reached Keylong by 8:30 pm and were in our hotels to take a bath and off to bed ASAP. At the dinner table, we all talked of the toughest day on bike. And yes, Sunil with his remark again, “Hats-off to Madam P.”
Next day, we started at 11:30 am taking the day too casually. Soon after crossing Pang we realized that the rains and chill in the wind will not let us drive beyond Sarchu. From this point, we were sure of not making it to Leh on July 17 – our 2nd target date. Antrek camps is where we halted and negotiated a dormitory with 6 beds. The bags were left packed on the bike and we leisured around clicking pictures. We moved on to reach Leh on July 18 at 4:30 pm- a full 8.5 hrs ride. The final stretch of 120 km was actually a sheesha and we loved speeding on it. Himalayan was teasing the classic owners with its agility and speed.
July 19 was planned to be at Pangong lake. We were told that the roads were good this year to return the same day. July 20 was to be the bike maintenance day and local sightseeing. However, laziness had its say and I fail to wake-up my fellow riders on time for the Pangong lake ride. We instead opted to swap the plans for July 19 with July 20. On July 20, I was supposed to skip Pangong lake and instead focus on writing this blog. But when I returned from a solo trek to the Leh palace at around 8 pm the riders were still around counting on Mohsin to join them as well. Madam P was getting upset was sure to return the same day. Pangong ride unlike as told my locals took us more than 5.5 hrs and we were too late to spend more than 1 hour at Pangong lake. The changla pass and its road is a tricky affair in night. 4 of us stayed back in Pangong for the night, while I had to ride back the same day and Madam P and I reached Leh in 4.5 hrs. Again the patience exhibited by Madam was exemplary but the moment we reached hotel room, she was falling asleep as if an anaesthetic had done her magic on her.
Dinner was skipped and I managed with 2 glasses of milk. We were asleep in to time. Next day at 8:55 am Mohsin called to say that Zafar and he had lost track of Sunil-Aditya. I requested to him to start for Leh the same day since as per schedule we were to be leaving Leh for Delhi the same day. I messaged so that they could read when they had the network that Madam P and I were leaving Leh and they should follow us towards Delhi and meet us at Pang where we do the night stay. But then we changed plans and decided to wait for others. At 11:00 am Sunil-Aditya reached. We ultimately deferred our plans to leave Leh by one more day. “I have now realized what not to do when I next come to Leh.” The disappointment on Madam P’s face was evident. She had to be home by July 23 and had she an alternative she would have moved ahead leaving us alone. This may sound rude on our part for her but later, the same day she was talking, having fun with us and I was reading out the select days from my personal diary that spoke about the preparations we made for the trip.
The itinerary as shared above was now subject to quite a bit of criticism. We missed trek to Zaskar Sumdo, trip to Tso Miriri but anyways we made to Demul which was an experience to cherish later in our lives. Aditya, Mohsin, Madam P and I treat ourselves mouth-watering samosa-chole and jalebi- a rare cuisine to have in Leh on Monica’s birthday (my soul mate).
July 22 we start from Leh and reach Keylong the same day. Our next stop was at a place near Mandi. We drove on July 24 to reach Delhi. We were all home safe and sound by 9 pm. The trip came to an end with requests for sharing pictures on whatsapp starting to pop.