Why every biker should go to Pali...

Om Banna's Royal Enfield being worshipped
Om Banna's Royal Enfield

Pali is home to the Om Banna shrine where a Royal Enfield is worshipped by its followers daily

Bikers love their bikes and I'm no different. We love our motorcycles as much as anything else in the world and if you're also one such creature, you definitely must visit the village of Pali in Rajasthan.

Pali is a place where a motorcycle is worshipped literally. But there's a good reason behind it.
This image you see here is that of Om Banna's motorcycle. 

Who is Om Banna? And why are they worshipping his motorcycle?

During the December of 1991, on a cold winter night, Om Banna, a drunk villager of Pali village (Rajasthan) crashed his motorcycle on the highway and died. Police impounded the motorcycle while the case was being investigated; however, next day, the bike reached at the accident location once again. Police thought the some village kids are playing a prank and so this time they chained the motorcycle, the bike still reached the same place next morning. This kept on happening and there were stories of Om Banna's spirit roaming the highway helping distressed travellers. Eventually the villagers realized the powers of Om Banna's spirit and as a tribute to him, the motorcycle was given a permanent place next to the accident site by the highway and the place is now known as the Shri Om Banna shrine - perhaps, the only one of its kind in the world. 

Om Banna temple at Pali, Rajasthan
One-of-its-kind shrine

So, what offering (prashad) do you make at such a place?

The same stuff that consumed - Om Banna - alcohol. Yes, you will see bottles of whiskey, beer and vodka been offered as "prashad" (religious offering) at the shrine.

Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and unlike any other temple here there are strict guidelines prohibiting the consumption of the same "prashad", in this case alcohol, in and around shrine's premises.

Om Banna Temple on Pali-Jodhpur highway in Rajasthan
You can offer liquor to Om Banna's photo but can't consume it
And it doesn't end there. In fact, the tree which Om Banna hit and lost his life to is also worshipped by the followers. It's few meters from the above shrine at the side of the highway. You can see Indian as well as foreign tourists stop by to check out this one-of-its-kind place. Whenever you're travelling to Jodhpur, make sure you take out time to visit this place.

Om Banna Temple on Pali-Jodhpur Highway
The tree which cost Om Banna his life

The place is located about 20 km from the village of Pali on the Pali-Jodhpur highway. It's definitely one of the most amusing places in India.

Jai Om Banna!

Why riding solo to Ladakh makes sense

Leh-Ladakh road trip on bike
(Image Credit: Binoy Parikh)

So, you’re bitten by the travel bug and you want to go on the mother of all bike trips – The Ladakh Expedition? Super! But, should you be going there alone or with your mates? Logic says that when you’re planning a ride to long distances, especially to a place like Ladakh, you should do it in a group. But then again, logic and adventure have never really been best of friends. So, which one should you choose? I’d say, go solo!

Here’s why:

1. Custom made trip

Choose your own itinerary. Make your own travel plan. You don’t have to worry about whether others are unwilling to go to a particular place or not. If the destination exists on the map and if you wish to go, just march on ahead. You’ll be free to head off onto the unbeaten path and take the road less traveled.

2. Freedom

Ride your own trip, not somebody else’s calendar. Motorcycling trip is supposed to be fun and not something you’re forced to do because you’re with the group and they’re running out of time. It’s not a rally where you pass checkpoints and stamp your visit; it’s about taking your sweet time to enjoy the ride, the sight and the destination.

While riding solo, you’re not obliged to ride down to the next destination because others have decided to do so, when all you want to do is relax for a couple of more days and breathe in the beauty of the town you’re present in. Just because someone else has put up a tourist destination in the travel plan, doesn’t mean you have to go there. If you wish to stay longer at a particular village OR if you don’t want to go the next town but take a scenic week long detour, you’ll have all the liberty to do it. Spend more time at a location or skip on altogether, it’s totally your choice. Beauty of riding solo lies in this independence.

3. Manage your pace

You’re the best judge of your own pace. When alone, you don’t need to slow down for somebody else nor are you required to ride like a maniac to make sure you keep up with the others. Instances where the entire group slowed down because a photogeek wanted to spend 2 hours clicking pictures are pretty common. There have also been scenarios where the faster rider paid no heed to the slower ones and the entire group split in a 50 km range.

4. Make new friends

Though traveling in a group makes sure you have company at all times, it also keeps you closed, and you never really feel the need to interact with other people. At the same time, while riding alone, you invariably start mingling with others. Irrespective of how introverted you are, you will always make an effort to talk to the strangers. New friendships will prosper and you will get to meet a lot many new and interesting people. You’ll know their stories and you’ll share some of your own too.

5. Make your adventure even more…erm…adventurous!!

It’s said that safety is in numbers. But, do you really want to be safe? In that case, you’re probably better off warming your couch, drinking hot chocolate and clicking through pictures of your friends on Facebook. If you want to take the adventure quotient of your ride a notch above everybody else’s, go solo. Yes, “Brotherhood” and all that is fun; but solo riding is where the serious stuff comes to the surface.

With no support vehicle or fellow riders to fall back onto, failing is strictly not an option. When you don’t have the expertise of a mechanic at hand, or the luxury to have someone else ride your machine when you get fatigued; you’re left with just one choice – to soldier on no matter what! And at the end of the day, when you finally get the sight of the civilization; the ground reality of your adventure sinks in and you realize what you did was not standard layman stuff.

6. Life-altering experience

Riding on high mountain passes with your buddies is like a rock concert. The sound of the engines reverberating off the cliffs as you gallop mile after mile is a memorable experience.

But, when you do the same feat all alone, it’s like a poetry in motion. Riding in the vast spread of nothingness - just you and your machine - listening to the music of the wind and the whisper of the stream; it’s truly breathtaking! Stop your bike, turn off the engine and listen to the nature – it’ll be so quiet that you’d hear your own thoughts, out loud. Enchanting!

Jispa to Leh route - Moore Plains

7. Master of all

For everything that can and will go wrong, you’ll only have yourself to fall back on to. You’ll be required to learn all the trades. As a solo rider, you’re the navigator as well as the sailor. You’re the paramedic team as well as the support crew. It’s all you. Irrespective of who you are, for this solo trip, you got to be Mr. Know-It-All. And when this reality strikes you, that’s when you’ll invariably start learning things, mastering them.

8. You owe it to yourself

You’re better than you give yourself credit for. You’re stronger than you think you are. To confide in your ability and to tell your distractors how wrong they are, just do it.

9. It’s addictive

This is one addiction you’d never want to cure yourself of. Do it once and you’ll want to do it over and over again for the rest of your life. A bad experience with a group might put you off but there’s no chance of that happening when the only company you have is your own self. You may fall, bleed, breakdown and get in trouble in middle of nowhere, but honestly speaking, you wouldn’t want it to happen any other way.

10. Respect

There’s no trophy or medal. The only thing you’re slated to gain from the outside world is Respect. Riding to the Top of the World – Khardung La is no mean feat even when you do it in a group, but when you do it all alone, the respect quotient raises 10 fold.

Solo riding to the gorgeous wilderness of Ladakh is all this and much more; stuff that words fail to describe. So just get out there and get going. You’ll come back with an experience that you’ll tell your grandkids about. I promise.

10 Things to do in & around Kaza

Everything you need to know about what you can do in & around Kaza

You've heard about this elusive place called Spiti Valley. You've Googled the photos and you're in love with its natural beauty. You've learnt that Kaza is the biggest town and you're planning to drive/ride down to this picturesque destination but you're not sure what you're supposed to do there. 

Worry not, here's a list of things for you to do in & around Kaza:

1. Key Monastery

Key Monastery
Key Monastery is the face of Spiti Tourism. Google 'Spiti Valley' and Key Monastery is the first thing that will show up. Barely half an hour away from Kaza, the monastery is an architectural masterpiece. As you enter the place, the monks will ask you to remove your shoes and follow them. You'll walk up to a traditional Ladakhi kitchen where you'll be treated to some snacks along with their traditional butter tea. You can have as many servings as you want. Once done, the monks (or lamas, as they're called) will give you a guided tour of the entire monastery. Since the monastery is situated high up in the mountains, you get sweeping views of the entire valley. 

2. Kibber Village

Kibber Village
Kibber is situated another 20 minutes further up from the Key Monastery. It's a sleepy little town where you can go and spend a relaxing afternoon. You can take a stroll along the fields and have some local delicacies at one of the tiny restaurants littered throughout the village. The village is also a starting point for many grueling treks. It's the last point till where you can take a motorized vehicle, from thereon, you have to rely on your feet. Hence, you'll see many seasoned trekkers get down from taxis, grab a quick bite, setup their Garmin watches and start their expeditions.

3. Buddha Statue at Langza

Buddha Statue at Langza
Langza is home to one of the largest Buddha statues in the entire Spiti. Unlike other statues, this one's not part of a monastery. You can see the statue from miles away as you're approaching the village. 

4. Hunting for fossils in Hikkim-Komic-Langza belt

The two-in-one fossil which now graces my desk
As per the scientists, millions of years ago, this area was under the ocean. When the Indian subcontinental plate collided into the what is now China, the debris rose to the surface. Hence, you can find million-year-old fossilized seashells. If you're too lazy to look around and go through the dirt, worry not; you'll find locals sitting by the side of road waiting to sell their discoveries to you. You can get a fossil the size of your fist for as low as 100-200 bucks. Make sure you bargain!

5. Sending yourself a postcard from the world's highest post office at Hikkim

Hikkim is home to the world's highest post office at an altitude of 15,500ft. While I couldn't go there myself, I've heard that it's pretty common for tourists to send a postcard to their home address from here. 

If you leave early and plan smartly, you can cross the above five things from your list in a single day. If you have more time and if you wish to spend more days, Langza and Kibber also have homestay options. 

6. Check out the millenia-old Lallung Monastery and the holy tree which is even older

With the head monk of the Lallung Monastery. Behind us is the holy tree
Situated one and half hour away from Kaza, along a dust detour is this thousand year old monastery of Lallung. Next to the monastery is a tree which is considered to be even older than the monastery - one year older, to be precise. There's an interesting story about the origin of the monastery. When you reach the monastery, make sure you knock the door of the adjoining hut, that's where the head monk lives. The seventy-something monk is really sweet and if you're a good listener, he will take you through the history of the monastery, how it came into existence as well as some fascinating concepts & beliefs of Buddhism. It's an experience you shouldn't miss. The lama is really knowledgeable and kind.

7. Shortcut to the Dhankar Monastery

Dhankar Monastery
To reach Lallung or Dhankar Monastery, you'll have to take a detour from highway on to roads which branches out towards the mountains. On the map, it may seem that both these monasteries are situated on unconnected, parallel branch roads and to reach Lallung from Dhankar (or viceversa), you'll again have to came back all the way to the highway, drive for few more miles and then take the parallel branch road inwards to the next monastery; but that's not the case. There's a shortcut from Lallung to Dhankar, but this road is not for the faint-hearted. It's one of the most treacherous routes and only the most-seasoned drivers/riders should take it. But once you've reached the destination, it does fill you up with a sense of achievement.

8. Enjoy the vistas of the Pin Valley

Pin Valley
Pin Valley starts just few kilometers after Dhankar, as an offshot along the river. Depending upon how much time you have, you can either go all the way to Mud village and spend a night at one of the homestays OR you can do a short visit to the Kungri Monastery (which is half-way to Mud) and return to Kaza the very same day. We didn't have much time to go to Mud, so did a shorter trip only till Kungri. Additionally, the day when we had planned to go to Pin, we learnt that it was the birthday of the head monk of Kungri Monastery. Which meant, it was a day of celebration for the monastery and the whole town had turned up to partake in the festivities. We were really lucky to witness the action. 

9. Stay where you get Wifi

BSNL is the only phone network that works in Kaza. The only hope for you to get any sort of connectivity is either you go to Manali or stay in a hotel with stable Wifi connection. Let's be honest, from Langza village to Pin valley, it's wilderness out there. If you wish to stay in touch with your loved ones and want to inform them of your well-being, make sure your hotel has good wifi and not many guests. 

10. Local experiences

The structure on the left is the accommodation for tourist willing to get a taste of a monk's life at the Key Monastery
Many hotels in Kaza have tie ups with adventure groups that can provide you with experiences that are unique to the region. From mountain biking around the valley to spending a day with female monks and experiencing their daily routine, there are a bunch of things you can do. Speaking of monk life, you can even stay at the Key monastery and get a first-hand experience of what's it like to live like a monk. But make sure you know what you're signing up for. Over here, you'll need to get up at dawn, eat at the mess at a stipulated time, wash your own vessel and switch off the lights at night when you're asked to do so. 

Kungri Monastery
BONUS: Playing with cute, little, furry fellows

Cute af
If you're a dog person, Spiti Valley is heaven for you. It being a cold region, only the dogs with thick fur survive. Hence, all the four-legged fellows over here are fluffy af. I might have to write a separate blog post if I start mentioning all the dogs that I've met during my trip to Spiti.

Pro-tip: All big monasteries have their own festivals. Try to plan your visit around one of the festivals. Even if you can't, when you reach Spiti, ask the locals, if you're lucky, you might be able to witness a celebration of some sort.

Day 21: Ladakhi hospitality

First hand experience of Ladakhi hospitality

The Stok Palace
After fixing some minor issues with my bike, I headed to the Stok Palace. The Stok Palace is situated 15 km from Leh and its the current residence of the royal family of Leh. Part of the palace is converted in to museum and it's a great insight into the history and the culture of the Ladakhi people. It's a relatively small museum and it will take less than half an hour to see it. 

There's a cafetaria next to the museum. Since it was lunch time, I decided to order some momos and other Ladakhi snacks. Even if you're not hungry, I suggest you take time out to sit in the outside courtyard, have a coffee and enjoy the 360-degree views of the entire valley. 

There were no other customers and the cafetaria manager had free time to talk to know and ask me about my trip. During our chat, he asked me if I've had "Chung". I had no clue what he was talking about. Apparently, Chung is the homegorwn beer which the local make. It's not your average country liquor, neither it's the dirty-disquisting-overhyped Feni that you get in Goa. Chung is not sold in wine shops. It's made and consumed by the members of the house. It's also one of the drinks at the weddings. 

I asked the cafetaria owner to source it for me. He shouted from the top of the cafetaria to some of the workers busy renovating part of the palace and asked them if they had some left. But it was futile exercise. He told me that on my way back, I should stop by in the village and try to get it from someone's house. I might have to shell upto Rs.50 for a bottle but it's worth trying. 

I stopped at a general store down the palace and asked the store owner from where I could get Chung. The kind lady asked me to follow her and took me to the next door house. She asked me to wait out while she went in the big compound and asked the people if the had some Chung. Though they were talking in Ladakhi, I could almost make out the conversation based on the tone. The home owner seemed apprehensive to allow a stranger in to their house and let him consume their stuff. I was wearing my biking jacket and I didn't look anything like a Ladakhi. At this point, I pepped inside the gate and requested the lady of the house, "I'm a traveller and someone had suggested that I should try Chung. If you have some, perhaps, if you can give me a small portion of it to taste, I'd be grateful." Reazling that I'm a genuine person and not a troublemaker, she looked at the grandmother - the head of the family. The grandmother nodded and they let me in. 

This house belongs to the family who opened their hearts and beer taps for me
Mostly Ladakhis understand and speak Hindi very well. Except for the grand mother, everyone else in this house knew Hindi. A stranger/traveller coming to their house and asking for beer was perhaps a new thing for them - heck, it was new even for me to approach someone randomly and ask for their local brew. 

To give you a background, this was a big compound, on left was a section to keep their cattles and to the right was the farm. We were standing in the front yard, with steps leading to the house. I waited in the front yard while the daughter-in-law got a bucket from inside the house. It was one-thirds full. They poured it into a white mug as if pouring water out for cattles. 

Whitish in colour, Chung tastes a bit on the tangy side. But overall, it's pretty smooth. After finishing my first drink, I shamelessly poured myself a second one. The second son, only man present in the house at that point, of the family asked me to "take it easy." 

Bro-sis duo with the grand mother
The pre-teen brother-sister duo were most amused by me. As a token of appreciation, I asked them if I could click their pictures which I would later send it to them. At first, the younger one - the brother - seemed apprehensive but when the grand ma said "ok", she readily started posing. Their mother (daughter-in-law) of the family was busy talking to me and taking care of her toddler. Though the cafetaria owner told me people would charge Rs. 50 for a bottle, the way this family invited me in their home and gave me beer, offering them money would be disrespecting them. Instead, I clicked their picutres using my DSLR and promised to send hardcopies of their photos. 

Protective mother with her cute toddler
All this while, my mind kept flashing images of those travel shows where the travel host goes to a remote village in Africa or Vietnam and visits a local house and dines with the villagers. This was exactly like that. In that moment, I was Ian Wright

I stayed there for about half an hour discussing various things such as my travels, Chung, hobbies of their kids (the son loves WWE, John Cena is his favourite), life in Ladakh, etc. I didn't want to overstay their welcome, and anyway I didn't want to tempt myself with a third offering of Chung; hence, after the last sip of my drive was over, I clicked a few pictures of the kids, took down their address with a promise of mailing hardcopies of their pictures and headed back to Leh. I left their house with a wide grin on my face. I kept telling myself, "This is what I had come here for. To meet such people and to know their stories." 

Thank you for the memories, Leh
This was one of those moments that differentiates a tourist from a traveller. I am a traveller. I have always been. But this moment certified me as one.

I headed back to my hotel room, to pack my bags and bid adieu to the city the next morning. But the city wanted me to celebrate one last time. Post dinner, I reached the hotel and as I was heading to my room walking through those corridors, I heard music and laughter from one of the rooms. The door was wide open so I looked in and smiled at a bunch of foreigners who were partying there. They smiled back and 2-3 of them simultaneously asked me multiple questions: "How are you?", "Are you staying next door?", "Would you like to join?", "Come on in."

How can one say no to it? There were 7-8 of us when I joined, a few guys were headed for a hard trek the next morning, so they started retiring to their rooms. In the end, it was 4 of us (one New Zealander, one Australian, one Israeli and myself). We exchanged our travel stories over few drinks and couple of hours later, after exchanging our email ids with a promise of staying connected over Facebook, all of us retired to our respective rooms.

I packed my bags and tried to go to sleep but flashbacks of entire trip kept playing on loop for next few hours. I barely got 3 hours of sleep during my last night in Leh. But, I wasn't complaining. 

A lifelong dream of riding to Leh had been fulfilled!

Day 18 - 20: After Diskit's humbleness, it's back to Leh

Day 18: A humbling experience in Diskit

My #BombayToLeh trip did indeed teach this to me - that Sky is the limit!
After returning from Turtuk, I decided to spend one more day in Diskit before bidding adieu to the Nubra Valley. There's isn't much to do in Diskit except for the monastery; I decided to explore the tiny village nonetheless. But before that, it's breakfast time. I stopped by at this lone bakery to buy some biscuits. Here's how the conversation went:

Me: "How much for these?"
Shopkeeper: "Rs. 150 per kg."
Me: "Kindly get me 100 gram."

*Shopkeeper gave me 100 gram and asked for me. I gave him a Rs. 20 note."

Him: "But I don't have change"
Me: "Neither do I."

*He gave me 10 bucks back*

Me: "But I don't have Rs. 5 for you."
Him: "It's okay, sir. You've come to our town and you came to my bakery to buy the bisuits, that's more than enough. You're our guest. We don't want to make profit out of you."

I was dumbstruck. I should've asked him to keep 20 and give me biscuits for the entire amount to make sure he doesn't suffer a loss. Or could've bought something else for those five bucks. But honestly, I was so speechless looking at the shopkeeper's humility that I didn't know what to say. Today, when everyone hates tourists visiting their city or tries to fleece them by overcharging, here's a man who truly considered tourists as guests. 

This baker was a true embodiment of 'Atithi Devo Bhava' (Guests are equivalent to God)

If you're every in Diskit, please go to this bakery (probably there's just one bakery in the village) which is on the main road which leads straight to Hunder and buy biscuits from him.

After this, I went around exploring the village. I went along a backroad and reached a Salmon farm. Curiosity kicked in and I knocked the giant wodden door. After about 10 minutes, the caretaker opened the door. As with everyone in Diskit, the caretaker was more than happy to show me the breeding tanks and explain the entire process. While most of the villagers are vegetarians, still there's a Salmon farm over here in the middle of nowhere; and all the fishes are sent out of the village. And by the way, it has received government grant. Do I smell something fishy here?

Diskit Monastery

Anyway, with not much else to do, I headed to the monastery one last time during the trip to get fleeting glimpse at the vast expanse of the Nubra Valley. While I waited for it to be dusk and to catch a glimpse of the setting sun over the horizon, I tried my hand at meditation. Not my cup of tea. Having said that, the peace that you feel at such places is something else. I'm not a religious person, but peace and tranquility is not something I'm averse to.

Nubra Valley

By evening, I returned back to my hotel, had a quiet dinner and packed my bags for my return trip for the next morning.

Day 19: Crossing the Khardungla - v1.2

With clear blue skies above me, I started my ride by 8-8.30 am and reached North Pullu shortly. I stopped by for some hot Maggi and Samosas. I was surrounded by 100+ riders of the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey. All of them supported by support vehicles, mechanics and a highly-organized management that's taken care of their stay, food, wet wipes and diapers. Much badass!
Maggi at the world's higest cafetaria 

Leaving them to their shenanigans, I marched towards Khardungla top. At the top, a weather was brilliant. It was breezy but the sky was clear and the sun was shinning bright. I bought myself a Khardungla Coffee Mug - I believe I'd earned it. I got talking to a couple of boys around there and they were highly impressed learning the fact that I've been riding alone all along. After clicking a few pictures and performing the holy ritual of eating Maggi at the K-Top, I started my way back towards Leh.

Enroute Leh

Day 20: More Leh

The day started with a filling Yak Cheese Sandwich and a goey chocolate ball. On agenda that day was the Leh Palace and the Old Namgyal Tsemo Monastery (aka the Leh Monastery). 

Leh Palace
The Leh Palace is centuries old structure which has been refurbished and converted into a museum. The museum houses various artifects including Ladakhi colthing, weapons, utensiles, jewellery and a lot more. 

Shanti Stupa as seen from Namgyal Tsemo Monastery

I suggest you wear your best trekking shoes while visting the palace. The approach to the palace is fairly straight forward. But above the palace, situated on a cliff is the Namgyal Tsemo Monastery. A steep pathway connects the two. You can either hike up this walkway or take a 3 km detour on your motorized vehicle. I wanted to hike it up but thanks to my heavy biking shoes that kept slipping on the gravel-laden track, I had no choice but to ride it up to the monastery. The monastery gives great view to the city below. Towards your right, you can see the pristine white facade of the Shanti Stupa. If you're not afraid of heights, climb to the adjoining hill next to the monastery and capture panoramic view of the city of the Leh and the surrounding mountains.
Shnati Stupa
From thereon, I headed to the other end of the city to checkout the gorgeous Shanti Stupa. 

View from the Shanti Stupa

Best time to visit Shanti Stupa is either early morning (which I couldn't do) or during sunset (which I eventually did).

Do note, while there's a road leading right up to the monument, many adventurous kinds prefer to take a more testerone filled route by hiking few hundred steps up from the base of the hill where the structure is situated. You can find this entry point at the other end (not the market end) of Changspa Road.

Day 17: Turtuk: The last village on the Indian border

Turtuk: A village with equally interesting history and geography

Somewhere btween Hunder and Turtuk
Post my breakfast at Hunder, I started my 77km-ride to Turtuk. Diskit/Hunder-Turutk is one of the most beautiful joiurneys you'll ever undertake. On this route, apart from the army trucks, the only other traffic that you're likely to encounter are the buses and cabs plying between Diskit and Turtuk to ferry the villagers. Tourist cars/bikes are few and far in between. As a result, this route is 100% traffic-free, to the extent that in case your vehicle breaks down, you might have to wait a while before help arrives. But it's best to not think about the dangers lurking and simply enjoy the nature. Because that's exactly what I did during my ride. 

The road is curved out of the mountain with the river on the other side, and your vehicle pointing northwards towards Pakistan. Since you're riding in the valley and given the fact it's border area, you do get a feeling that you're being watched, but to be honest, I didn't feel unsafe even once. On the contrary, given the fact that I'm just an innocent traveller, the fact that the army is watching over me made me feel safe. 

About 20 km from Hunder is an airbase. While riding from South to North, you come up to a hill and ride downwards right past the airbase. From the top of the hill you get a great view of the entire airbase which is nearly 50 meters down. Of course photography is prohibited here but when you see this you realize what pains our security personnel are taking to keep us safe. While passing by this airbase, all I was thinking was Jackie Shroff's character in the movie Border, not sure why. 

Half an hour in to my journey (about 30 km from Hunder), I encountered a picturesque bridge. On of side of the bride was a waterfall, rising way about the bridge. The waterfall was landing into a gorge which was flushing out in to the Shyok river. I stopped by the bridge to click a pictures. About 100 meters down the road was an army post. I saw a couple of armymen waving out to me asking me not to click. Hence, I put the cam back inside and started riding towards them. I stopped by to ask the reason, half expecting someone to yell or talk to me rudely. On the contrary, they adressed me as "Sir" and explained that that bridge is the only connection between Leh and the border. If the connection is broken, all the supplies will get frozen, hence, it's a high-risk target for the enemy. One of the jawaans asked me to come inside, sit with them and have tea or some snacks. I thanked them for their offer and respectfully declined. In the meantime, another jawaan, went in and got something for me - tropicana juice in clean glass on a tray - as if it were a high-end restaurant. I was truly humbled by this kind of hospitality. On top of that, they, "Yahan pahado mein aur kuch toh zyaada milega nahi, isliye sirf ye juice hai. Aur chai chahiye toh woh bhi milega. Hamare layak aur kuch seva ho toh bataiye?" (Translation: We don't get much else [to eat] in these mountains. We can make tea for you if you want. If there's anything else that we can do for you, do let us know.)

I was humbled and speechless. I told them that they're already serving the nation in the highest manner by protecting the borders and keeping all of us safe, we can't ask for anything more. 

The jawaans who offered me juice
You see that light box in the background and the box attached to it? They keep their mobile phones on that box touching the pole - that's the only way they get mobile signal.
Don't know the name of the place since it's in middle of nowhere but this post comes on the way while going to Turtuk from Hunder, about 40km before Turtuk. I spent 15-20 minutes chatting up with these jawaans before heading further north. 

To put it in the Game of Thrones terms: Nubra Valley is the 'North of the Wall'

As discussed in one of my previous posts, Nubra Valley opens up for only 3-4 months in a year when snow melts on the Khardungla Pass, for rest of the year it's cut off from the rest of the world. For this reason, the jawaans who're positioned here are always hungry for human interaction. Hence, whenever they see any outsiders, they're more than eager to talk to them. I met one more jawaan at one of the other checkposts who stopped me not for a security checkup but only because he was curious looking at a solo biker all the way up north. He insisted on clicking a picture with me. 

The jawaan insisted on taking this pic

Protip: Don't let the village kids bully you, use force, push them away to make way.

There are 3-4 villages enroute Turtuk. Village kids are the rowdiest specimens I've ever seen in my life. These kids actually are wildlings, in every sense of the way. They block the road and don't let you go till you pay them. They look like 6-7 year-old innocent kids but they're smarter and more evil than you can anticipate. They hold hands and block the road. When you stop the bike, they'll grab your clutch tightly so that even when you try to accelerate, the clutch is not engaged and you can't move. In the meantime, rest of them will swarm around you and grab you till you don't pay them. You will have to physically push them away to make way. 

Finally, I reached the magical land of Turtuk. When you reach there, you'll realize that you've been magically transported to a parallel universe - a completely different sphere.

Turtuk is as far north as north goes

Turtuk is a relatively new town when it comes to tourism. Only in 2009, the Indian government opened the village up for tourism. This tiny place is the last village on the Indian border. Sitauted on the banks of the Shyok river, it's as beautiful as any place you've seen in India. But it's not only it's geography that would interest tourists, it also has an interesting history. 

The green belt to the right is Turtuk

Turtuk wasn't always a part of India. Till 1971, this village belonged to Pakistan. During the 1972 war, India won it from Pakistan. For this reason, the locals has distinct features. They're as different Ladakhis as night and day. While Ladakhis have more Tibetian features, the people of Turtuk, with their rosy cheeks, fair skin and sharp features look similar to the Pashtuns of the North-West Provinces of Pakistan. 

Crystal clear water trickling down from the mountains merging into the muddy river; snow-clad peaks all around and all you hear is chirping of birds and flowing of river rapids. Away from the pollutants of city life, Turtuk seems to have stuck in time for good. This village has still allowed the nature to run its course and have curved out a settlement cradled into mother nature's lap instead of barying her underneath malls and skyscrapers. I still hate myself for not staying here overnight and spending more time in this beautiful village. 

I started chatting with one of the villagers about their lives. As asked him a question which you hear as silent whispers but is rarely asked point blank - I asked him if they're happy under the India rule or were his forefathers happier when they were with Pakistan. Without blinking he replied, "We're happy with India. The army helps us a lot. We have education and earning opportunities. There was poverty when we [his forefathers] were with Pakistan. We often speak to our relatives who're still in Pakistan and tell us about the situation there. There they don't have any of the facilities that we enjoy." Take that separatist bastards!

This 20-something young lad said it out loud his feelings without any intimidation or pressure. He wasn't even put under a spot infront of a camera on a news debate. This was just a casual one-on-one chat he was having with someone who's just met. No reason for him to lie or feel pressurized. 

The blue waters of the melting glaciers meets with the muddy water of river Shyok

I wanted to go as far north as I possibly could. I kept on riding further north from Turtuk and about 3km later, I was stopped at a military check post. The jawaan told me that it was the furthest civilians were allowed to go. I was happy! I had made it to the last checkpost a civilan could travel. On my humble 150cc city commuter, I had made it to the northernmost point of India. 

The jawaan saw my 'MH' series number plate and asked me if I had actually come from Maharashtra. He couldn't believe that someone would be so crazy to come all the way just for tourism purpose. My riding gear was enough to convince him that I'm someone who takes his travels seriously. He told me that he was from Nepal. "Don't mind sir, but who is a Nepalese in the Indian army?" I asked. Apparently, Nepalese form a large demograph of the Gurkha regiment. That's something I never knew. Besides this, he told a few things which I couldn't disclose on an open forum like this blog. He said, "Just because you've come from such a far distance and because I can't allow you to go any further, the least I can do is tell you a few things about our army so that you may feel that your trip was worthwhile. But make sure you don't publish this info anywhere."

I asked the jawaan, "Sir, someone in Turtuk told me that from this checkpost you could see Pakistan. Is that true?" 
Pointing towards a bunch of peak to the north, he said, "Do you see those peaks? Do you see the three rocky peaks? Do you see the tall snow-clad peaks behind the rocky ones? That's Pakistan. The rocky ones below to India while the snow-clad peak is Pakistan." 
I've seen Pakistan from the Wagah Border but seeing our neighbour is such a natural environment is something else. I returned back to Turtuk with a wide grin pasted on my face. I had lunch at one of the local restaurants and headed back towards Diskit.

The peak in the background that's covered in clouds, that's Pakistan. All the other rocky peaks in front belongs to India. 

On my way back, I once again stopped at the same check post (where I was offered juice) to say goodbye to the jawaans. But then, the duty had changed and a new jawaan was manning the post. Surprisingly, he was even more chatty than the previous guys. He asked his colleague to get juice for me. It almost seems like a ritual that whoever stops here gets juice. Unlike the other fellows, this guy has actually served as a border patrol and was posted high up on the mountains manning one of the peaks. He shared some of the most interesting stories of how they survive so high up and how spineless Pakistani army is. No prizes for guessing that the stories that he's shared with me can't be mentioned on the blog. 

While we were chatting a local taxi which ferries between Diskit and Turtuk passed by. The jawaan gave him an angry look. I asked him what happened. Apparently, when you're posted at such sparely-populated regions, you end up knowing every person in the village and viceversa. He told me that few days back, he had given Rs.500 to the taxi driver and had asked him to recharge his mobile from Diskit. For weeks he didn't do it and everytime he asked, he would give an excuse and run away. One day, the jawaan caught hold of him and got his money back. He was visibly pissed at how some of these villagers are cheats and doesn't respect them despite the army helping them out in every way. In fact, the Gurkha regiment jawaan at the last checkpost had also told me the same thing.

Just then, this guy remembered that his mobile is running low on balance and he needs to recharge it. "Since you're going to Diskit, if it's not too much of a problem, can you kindly recharge my phone from one of the mobile shops there? I'll pay you the money right now," he requested. "Give me your phone number and tell me how much you want me to recharge it for," I said. After taking down his phone number, I told him that I'm not going to take a single penny from him. I will go to village and recharge his phone but he needn't pay me for it. 

"Sir, you guys are putting your lives on the line for us. This is a small thing I'm able to do for you, please let me," I said.
"But how can I let you spend you money for me?" the jawaan asked.
I was adament. I said, "Why not? Our corrupt politicians eat away thousands of crores from the common man and we can't do anything. You guys are the real heroes of the country. Look at how nicely you guys treated me. This is the least I could do for you. Let me do this as a token of my appreciation." 

It's not about spending Rs. 200-250, because what they're doing for our country is invalueable. It's about me getting an opportunity to be helpful to them. I wouldn't inslut it by taking money from them.

I've always had the highest honour for our armymen but after these encounters and hearing their stories, my respect for them has increased 10 folds. 

Somewhere between Turtuk and Diskit
For me the day was not over yet. While riding back towards Diskit, about 15km outside Diskit (and 8 km before Hunder), as I looked at the valley in the distance, I saw a grey wall heading towards me. If you’ve seen the movie ‘The Mummy’, in one of the scenes, the reincarnated mummy of Imhotep raises a sandstorm in order to engulf the hero who’s in a tiny aircraft. I’ve witnessed something similar. Only in this case, there was no mummy involved and instead of running from the sandstorm, I too it head on. While returning from Turtuk (the last village on the Indian border), on my way to Diskit, I saw a brown wall heading towards me from the Southern end of the Nubra Valley. What looked like rain clouds at first, turned out to a crazy sandstorm. Due to its unique geographical location, during evening time, the hot air rising from the deserts of Hunder had created a sandstorm of sorts. As you see in any Hollywood movie, I was counting down the ‘Distance to impact’ while riding straight into the storm: "T-1 km", "T-500 mt", "T-100 mt", "T-10 mt", "BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

As the sandstorm hit me, my bike slowed down: from 60-65 kmph down to 30 kmph. I had engaged the fourth gear and even then my speed couldn’t exceed 35 km. With visibility less than 10 meters, stopping at the side of the road was not an option. The mayhem lasted for about 20 minutes and by the end of it, I was completely covered in desert sand at 9000 meters above the sea level. Had it not been for my tough riding jacket, riding gloves and balaclava, the sand particles would’ve ripped some of my skin off.

I finally reached Diskit, headed back to my hotel, poured myself a beer and reflected back on the events of the day gone by. 

Easily, one the most eventful days of my entire Ladakh trip. 

Day 16: Exploring the Nubra Valley: Diskit and Hunder

A 14th century monastery, giant Buddha statue, Dalai Lama's bedroom, desert at 10,000ft and endangered double-humped camels; Nubra Valley's got it all

Maitreya Buddha as seen from the Diskit Monastery

Nubra Valley is situated at an altitude of 10,000ft while Leh is at a height of almost 11,500ft above the sea level. Hence, the climate of Nubra Valley is much more pleasant compared to that of Leh's. Even at night, you can roam around in your comfort wear - shorts/track pants and tee. In fact, for this very reason during summer months, they send the yaks to higher altitude.

I woke up to a glorious morning in the town of Diskit. First order of the day was to call my family back home and inform them that I've safely reached Diskit. I had seen an STD booth next to my hotel, the night before. But it was closed at that time. To my surprise, it was closed next morning as well. Luckily, I found a cyber cafe. I messaged my cousins on Facebook to inform my parents about my safety. 

I had planned three activities on that day - Diskit Monastery, Maitreya Buddha statue and desert safari atop the double-humped camels in Hunder. Since the best time to do the camel safari is in the evening (taking a stroll in the desert during afternoon is not a great idea), I decided to check out the monastery and the statue first. Also, given the fact that both the places are practically next to each other, it made sense to cross these two off the list together.

The majestic Diskit Monastery

Diskit Monastery
A view to die for
Diskit Monastery
Founded in the 14th century, the Diskit Monastery is one of the oldest and most majestic structures in the whole of Ladakh. From the top of the monastery, you can get sweeping views of the entire Nubra Valley as far as your eye can see. Being situated on the other side of Khardung La, it's not as easily accessible as other monasteries such as Shey and Thiksey. For this reason, the peace and tranquility of the Diskit Monastery is maintained. You can even spend an entire afternoon sitting on those colourful carpets and meditating. 

View of the Maitreya Buddha from inside the Diskit Monastery
A peaceful place to sit and meditate

Maitreya Buddha 

The monastery overlooks the 32 meter tall Maitreya Buddha. Both the structures are situated in the same compound and hence it's advisable to keep about 2 hours and get done with both the spots. Next to the statue is a two-storey structure. The ground floor is a museum dedicated to the Panchen Lama. Here, you will see fabric paintings from as late as 18th and 17th centuries. But the more interesting part is the floor above this museum.

Maitreya Buddha

Dalai Lama's residence in Diskit

Since it was afternoon time (about 3.30 pm), there was nobody besides me checking out the museum. Such scenarios give you a chance to have a one-on-one discussions with the caretaker and know more about the rich history of the place. As it turns out, the floor above the museum is used as a residence of His Holiness Dalai Lama whenever he visits Diskit. I was keen on checking out his rooms and the caretaker, Lama Lasang Keudok, was more than happy to show me around. Dalai Lama's meditation room, his bedroom, meeting room, the living room where he receives guests and meets devotees  I saw it all.

Lama Lasang Keudok, caretaker of the museum as well as of Dalai Lama's Diskit residence


Post 4pm, I left for Hunder, a 7km ride from Diskit. Hunder is a desert situated at an altitude of 10,000ft. The story goes that almost a hundred years ago, there were floods in these plains and the water dragged all the silt down here. Hence, the sand dunes. 

Sand dunes at Hunder
The approach road from the main road to the desert safari is not the easiest road to ride on. It's laid out from rocks and pebbles reclaimed from the nearby river. This misery lasts only for a couple of hundred meters but in case you've chosen to stay at one of the riverside accommodations, this hellish ride can continue for more than a kilometer depending on where your camp is located. 

Double-hump camel at Hunder
The desert safari is less of a safari and more like a ride on a sandy beach. The biggest attraction is not the sand dunes but the rare and endangered double-humped camels. There were camels of all sizes - from the young ones, the size of ponies, to the elder ones, slightly bigger than zebras. I couldn't find a single full grown majestic double-humped camel, the kinds I've seen in pictures. However, my eyes were on that one particular camel which was the largest of them all. Thankfully, when my turn came, I was assigned the same guy who happened to be the biggest of them all. There was a group of friends who were also taking turns on other camels. I gave my camera to one of the guys and requested him to click my pictures while I was on the camel. After I was done with the ride, I thanked him and we got talking. He was part of a group of about 8-9 bikers from Delhi. They asked me if I wanted to join them to Diskit Monastery. Again? Well, since I had nothing else to do after the safari, I joined them to go to the Diskit Monastery once again. To be honest, the real reason was that I wanted to see the sunset from the top of the monastery and since I had their company, I thought, why not. 

Diskit Monastery by dusk

River-side camping

By the end of the evening, they invited me to join them at their river-side camping. There was no reason for me to turn down that offer. The camp was located in Hunder and this was my second return trip of the day between Diskit and Hunder. This camping place was a setup of about dozen odd tents, each one with a capacity for upto 3-4 individuals. We had three tents to ourselves. I was already starving from the day's excursions and the cook had prepared some delicious Indian food. By the time we got done with dinner, the weather gods had also decided to join the party. Thunderstorm at this time of the year (June-July) in Nubra was unheard of. If it's raining in Nubra, it means, there's surely snowfall on Khardung La. Luckily for me, unlike this Delhi group, I had no plans to leave the next day. 

Next morning, post the breakfast, I thanked my new friends for letting me be a part of their group and bid adieu to them. These guys started riding down south towards the Khardung La while I headed further north towards Turtuk.

My single-day visit to Turtuk was one of the most memorable events of the entire journey. More on that, later...
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