Monday, 13 January 2014

The D-day! The day I got Leh'd!

I woke up at 6 AM to a bright and sunny sky. Because Sarchu is so far up north, sun comes up as early as 5. And daylight stretches all the way up to 7.30-8 PM. Post 8 PM, you experience a sudden drop in temperature. In fact, the same holds true for the entire Ladakh region. 

It was the day of reckoning. The day when I’d be on the last stretch on my way to Leh.

At the Virgin Land Of Ladakh | If there's one image that defines my journey, this one it is

After a dismal sleep in the cold night at night, I wasn't exactly 100% in the morning; but the excitement of reaching Ladakh took care of everything. Bright sunshine had draped the grasslands on which our tents that braved the freezing winds of the earlier night were standing. Despite the fact that sun was out in all its glory, it was still cold and taking a bath was out of question; one could barely brave getting their hands wet. After the early morning activities, I headed to the mess where Thane bikers had already huddled around a couple of tables for breakfast. The odd ones who disliked me left as soon as their breakfast was over, leaving few other bikers who enjoyed my company. Pleasant conversation and a filling breakfast later, I too rushed back to my tent to get ready for the ride.

As explained earlier, the 365 km. stretch between Tandi and Leh is devoid of any petrol bunk; hence, I had tanked up my fuel tank and filled up almost 11 liter of excess fuel in the cans. But there was a problem; these weren’t regular petrol cans. Petrol/oil cans have a tiny mouth so that while riding through the bad roads, there’s minimum spillage. Instead, I had cooking oil cans – two cans of 5 liter each. That’s because, while the taller petrol cans posed a size issue in the saddle bag, the square-shape cooking oil cans were an inch-perfect fit. Due to the larger opening, the petrol kept spilling out. Hence, by the time I reached Sarchu, I had lost almost 2-2.5 liters of petrol from the two cans. To avoid more wastage, I kept pouring petrol in the bike, at regular intervals. I did the same before starting from Sarchu, as well. At least, the fuel from inside the bike won’t spill out.

I pressed my thumb against the red START button but nothing happened. Did it again, but no luck. The overnight chill meant that the engine had gone cold and the self-start was incapable of waking it up from its slumber. More than half an hour before I made the first attempt of starting the bike, even before my breakfast, I rearranged my bike such that the sunrays would directly fall on the engine and it would warm it up. This may look like a silly trick but it certainly can make a difference, as I learnt few days later at one of the other places. But on this occassion, it didn't warm it enough.

Unfortunately, my bike doesn’t have a kick start. Only option left with me was to push the bike down the road and jump start by forcing it in second gear. Thankfully, the surface was flat. I ran it down the grassland and voila! It came to life! People living in colder region would know that when you start your vehicle for the first time on a wintery morning, you keep the engine ON for few minutes so that it heats up, only after that you put it in gear and start your journey. But when you’re at a place where the next petrol station is couple of hundred kilometers in either direction and you’ve already lost a chunk of the excess fuel that you’re carrying, you have to walk that fine line where you should idle the engine just enough to warm it up but not long enough that you start wasting precious fuel.

I was tying my luggage while doing this balancing act with the fuel and the engine temperature. Thane group saw me tying my luggage and they knew it’d take me only 5 more minutes to join them but they left anyway; regardless of the fact that I waited for them for more than 2 hours at Keylong, less than 24 hours before. Screw it, I wasn’t bothered any more.


The sign says it all.
I started my ride from Sarchu at 8ish. The camp owner told me that the worst was over and the road ahead is fairly decent except Gatta Loops. I’d love to go back and find out his definition of “fairly decent.” The road kept getting worse and the unruly ghats didn’t help either.
Roads between Sarchu & Pang
On the way, I came across short cuts frequented by lorries and SUV-junkies. While the road looped around half a kilometer, these short cut would cut in-between on the slope and in a matter of 50 meters, you’d reach the road ahead. Mostly, lorries used these shortcuts to go downhill. But the idiot that I am (or just blame it on the brain numbness due to the pathetic roads), I decided to use one of these short cuts to go uphill. I overestimated the power of my bike and accelerated my bike up the steep hill. I reached three-quarters of the way up and then the bike refused to go any further; and then it started going downhill, backwards. I stepped on the brakes but because the surface was fine gravel, there was zero traction. The brakes did their job of stopping the tyres from rolling but the gravel and gravity were too powerful to fight; bike was still going backwards, downhill; only this time, instead of tyres rolling, they were screeching. Crash was inevitable at this point. Couple of seconds later, I fell. Since it wasn’t a high speed fall and the fact that I was wearing full body protection, I was unhurt. Bike wasn’t so lucky, though. It kept sliding downwards for few meters even after falling. I ran and picked the bike up. Mind you, I was still on the slope. From 75% up the hill when my bike stalled, I came to about 50%. My bike was lying perpendicular to the slope; as a result, when I picked up the bike, it was perpendicular to an inclined plane; meaning, my left knee was at the level of the handlebars while the right foot was struggling to touch the ground. I carefully turned the bike and got it down the slope and tried to assess the damage.
This is the shortcut where I had my worst fall.
The front brake lever snapped in half, but still enough of the lever was in place that I could get a grip with the fingers and use it. Apart from that, everything else looked okay. I sat on the bike and tried to get in the riding position before starting; but much to my amazement, my right foot kept falling. I looked down and realized that the foot rest next to the rear brake was missing. I climbed up the hill and found the broken foot rest. Without it, my left foot would directly rest on the rear brake, which meant, throughout the way, I’d keep pressing the rear brake even when I didn't want to. I tried to stick the foot peg with duct tape and rope but it was barely hanging on.
The view from the top of that hill.

NO, AFTER READING THIS, DO NOT GIVE ME GYAAN THAT THIS IS A LESSON ABOUT HOW YOU SHOULD NEVER TAKE SHORT CUTS IN LIFE ...BLAH BLAH BLAH… DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!

As if the bad roads weren’t enough, now I even had to consciously mind my right leg and keep it hanging in the air. I somehow managed to reach to the next check post at Pang where there were a number of dhabas. I parked my bike in front of one of the dhabas and as I started to walk in, I bumped in to the Thane group. Some of them said “Hi” and asked me about the ride. They too pointed out the fact that despite the roads being terrible, the camp owner described them as “fairly decent.” Just then I told them about my incident. One of the nicer guys told me that I should exchange the rear passenger’s foot rest with the front and once I reach Leh, I should get it changed. He even went to the extent of saying that I can use their tools and if I have any issue their mechanic would help out. There’s a size difference in the front and rear passenger’s foot rest but well, something is better than nothing. I asked their mechanic twice to help me out but he was least interested. In the meantime, I had some Maggi, this time alone, and also made sure I paid for it before anyone lectures me; and then I went on to mend my bike.

At first, I unloaded the ton of luggage off my bike. Then through the petrol soaked saddle bag (when the bike fell, a lot more petrol spilled from the cans and in to the tool box and other stuff that was in the saddle bag) I had to find the right tools. Since I had never changed a foot peg before, I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. Since I knew that their mechanic won’t help me, instead of helping me out, this time, I asked him to simply show me how to do it and I'd do it on my own. Instead of teaching me how to do it, he thought it would be much easier if he did it himself. For a pro-mechanic like him, it took him less than 7 minutes to remove the rear foot rest and put it in place of the front foot rest. Though he did it unwillingly, as was clear from his face, I’d still be forever thankful to him as well as the Thane group who were there when I needed them the most.

Soon, the Thane group left; in a short while, I too started my ride. Next hurdle was the infamous ‘Gata Loops.’ Gata Loops are 21 loops stitched seamlessly to make your brain feel like it’s in a food blender. These loops drain you mentally more than they do physically. You’re constant fighting the tight hairpin turns and the dry & dusty non-existent roads. These roads are frequented by imposing trucks and they’re especially difficult to deal with when they’re coming from the opposite direction off a turn. Because of their turning radius, they take the wider turns and often gets in your lane. As a biker, you’re always pushed in the corner and at times, you only have a tiny piece of grave-ly tarmac towards the outer side of the road where you tread the thin line between the truck and the valley-drop. You're ascending the Gata Loops while for the oncoming trucks, it’s downhill; as a result, you’re always concerned that if the truck loses control, even if it’s not your fault, the 10 ton behemoth would wipe you off like a termite. Loop after loop, turn after turn, I kept going, riding at a measly 20-25kmph. It was a test of my perseverance.
The view at the end of the Gata Loops.
On the left (not visible in the pic) is the way towards the Morey Plains
After what seemed like an eternity, I reached a sign board that read, “Gata Loops end here.” The torture was over. Or so I thought. I reached the wide open expanse of Morey Plains. It’s also known as ‘The Virgin Land of Ladakh.’ It is miles and miles of open wilderness with absolutely no man-made structure in sight. There’s a grey tarmac glued to the floor and on both sides, you see miles of open stretches merging into the surrounding mountains. You try to look at the other end of the road and at the horizon you can see a gorgeous snow-covered mountain. One of the smoothest tarmac I’d even ridden, in the most beautiful region I’ve ever seen, with almost-zero traffic - I WAS IN HEAVEN!

Few kilometers down this road I reached the epic smooth tarmac where I opened the tap on Blackbird

All the time that I lost during and after my crash, and on the Gata Loops, I made it up over here. For the first time in days, I got a chance to open the throttle and touch three-digits. I threw the kitchen-sick at it and was doing 80-100 kmph. It wasn’t just me; I came across many bikers on road, who were totally smitten by the beauty of this road. Some bikers were looking at the bright blue sky lying on the tarmac because…well, because let’s face it; all of us wants to do it once – “lie down on the road and pretend that you own the world.”

This place is so barren and remote that the workers who're paving the new tarmac, often wave at the cars asking for water. I was being cautious while riding past them but fortunately, no one bothered stopping me. Every few kilometers, I’d come across an ugly bump where the road would loop over the pipeline that’s laid for the safe passage of mountain water from one side to the other, so that road's surface doesn't go waterborne. After a couple of ‘in-air’ moments at 80 kmph+, I decided to be a bit more careful and kept my eyes affixed to the road, but this was difficult task given the natural beauty that surrounded me. I thought the road would continue till the base of the mountain from where the Tanglang La Pass starts, but I was mistaken. 30 km. into the Morey Plains, the road ceased to exist. If the first 30 km. was the best piece of tarmac I’ve even ridden on, next 30 was the worst. It was a never-ending array of bumps. Yes, bumps. You must’ve encountered the multi-bumps (speed breakers) before a railway crossing; they’re generally in a set of five. Now imagine that as a set of five million, spread over a distance of 30 km. Yes, that’s how bad it was.

No exaggeration, I was actually having a difficult time controlling my bike even at 20 kmph. And this was not even a ghat, it was horizontal land. There were times when I stopped my bike and gave my back some rest time, because it was so bloody harsh on the entire physique. If you don’t know the meaning of ‘battered’, you can either consult the Oxford dictionary OR you can ride on this road. This road taught me what it would feel like being tumble-dried inside a washing machine. Compared to this road, Gata Loops were a spa session.
One of the views on the Taglang La Pass, just before I reached the top.
I saw a number of bikers returning from Leh on that road, and they all would give me a “thumbs up” sign or just wave at me. It’s an Unofficial Bikers’ Code. Leh is the holy grail for all bikers and in the biking community, you’re looked up with respect if you ride all the way to this Biking Mecca. Hence, every biker over there will wave to every other biker as a mark of respect and appreciation. Not just that, any time you see a biker standing at the side of the road, you stop by and ask if he needs help. In this arid countryside, every biker is aware of the fact that the closest mechanic is often few hundred kilometers away, hence, if a biking brother breaks down, you always stop by to help him. That’s called the brotherhood. And riding to Ladakh, certainly made me a part of it.

See the demarcating line on the other mountain? Few kilometers & half an hour earlier, I was there.
After 30 km. of torture, the disastrous surface finally ended and I managed to reach the base of Taglang La. But it was none the better. This pass was arguably the worst of all the passes that I encountered during the course of my 43-day trip. Riding to the top of Taglang La is no different than riding inside a coal mine. It’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s black, it’s uneven and from top to bottom, you get covered with dirt. By this time, I almost felt like I’m riding in a never-ending wormhole where I’m going to ride till infinity and then just drop dead out of exhaustion. Again, I kept my focus on and continued riding patiently. Many hours and a spinal-cord pancake later, I reached the world’s second highest motorable road – Taglang La.

World's Second Highest Motorable Road - Taglang La -- Conquered!


View from the Taglang La top

Prayer flags!

It’s the only pass among all the top passes where there’s no army presence. Nor you see a single dhaba or a food vendor. Except for a lone temple, this place is completely barren. In fact, there's evidence which points that someone once did make an attempt at a cafetaria but its haunting walls and non-existence shelter is a harsh reminder of the fact that the nature at Taglang La is as lethal as it is beautiful. While most people who reached the peak wouldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes, I strolled around for more than half an hour. I braved the Grade 1 tornado winds to admire the beauty of the place with my camera lens.

Abandoned cafetaria atop the Taglang La Pass
The non-existent roads

Just then, I saw a white Scorpio and three bikes arrive at the scene. There were five foreigners and one India guy in that group. I saw one of the girls from that group entering the temple with her shoes on. I politely told her that she’d need to take off her shoes before entering. She immediately rushed out and apologized. I too apologized for being so blunt and told her that I’m not much of a believer and that I wasn’t acting like a fanatic, it’s just that one needs to respect all religions. She agreed to my ponit of view. She seemed like a matured and an understanding girl; she told me that she had earlier been to many temples and she's aware about the rules and customs but she was so awed by the beauty of this place that she totally forgot about the shoes. We got talking and shared some biscuits, at which point she introduced me to her friends. They soon left but not before deciding to meet at the foothills at the first dhaba that we could find. The decent from the other side of Taglang La was much better than the ascent; the surface wasn’t so bad and about 10 km. downhill, I found freshly-laid tarmac. It was a fairly smooth ride from then on.
The love of my life - Blackbird.

Temple and prayer flags, because most people need a false sense of safety.
I reached the pretty village of Rumtse at 4ish and joined these bikers who were sitting by a dhaba. First thing I asked the dhaba owner was where I could find an STD booth. The shop next door had one. For the first time in almost six years, I was using an STD phone. Called up my parents and spoke to them for the first time in over two days; I hadn't spoken to them since I left Keylong. They heard my voice and were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Since the news of Uttarkhand floods started coming in, my parents were beside themselves and because I couldn’t call them for two days, they feared the worst. My dad was on the verge of sending out a search & rescue party. I told them that I was safe and was only 80 km. from Leh. Once I assured them that the bad roads were behind me and rest of the journey to Leh was fairly smooth, they were no longer fairly okay.

The cute+friendly dog at the dhaba.

Dhaba owner's daughter.

She was super cute and she absolutely loved posing for the camera. Not to mention, super naughty too.
Back at the dhaba, I started chatting with the fellow bikers. The sole Indian guy in that group had his business in Delhi and the white Scorpio also belonged to him. His chauffeur was driving the car and he used it to carry the luggage and fuel, and it also acted as the backup van in case anyone felt tired or need a nap. The other five foreigners were his friends (not sure how). Typical Delhi boy, in short. They weren’t planning on going to Leh; hence, after some maggi and coffee, I marched on; all alone. 

First view of the Ladakh Valley, filtered through the trees.
Rumtse, Gya, Shang, Upshi – one after the other, I crossed all these quaint little beautiful settlements, moving ever so closer to Leh, one village at a time. Riding next to rivers, on the roads carved inside the mountains and the overhanging cliffs providing shelter; I was gobbling down the miles at decent speeds. I soon reached a sign board that read, “First view of the Ladkh valley.” I knew I was on the victory stretch, I was doing 70-80 kmph on these tiny roads with swooping bends since I couldn’t wait to reach the city of Leh. I came across the famous petrol pump of Karu – the first petrol pump after 365 km. Even with all the spillage, I had made it to the other side. But I didn’t stop (except for clicking this pic). I wasn’t required to. I still had enough petrol to last another 100 km., meaning, I needn’t waste my time refuelling; I could do the next day too.

Passing by Shey & Thiksay, I took an account of the places that I needed to visit the next day. 35 km. after Karu I read the three-letters for which I waited for so long – LEH. I made it!

Solo ride to Leh on my very first attempt – MISSION SUCCESSFUL!
The famous Karu Petrol Pump. First one in 365 km. after Tandi.
Guess who I bumped into at the entry gate of Leh? The unorganized group. The same photographer who delayed the group by two hours at Barlacha La was the first one to reach Leh. Like a cranky kid he said, “The whole group blamed me yesterday for the delay at Barlacha La since I was clicking pictures, hence, today, I didn’t stop even once to click any pics. As a result, I’m the first one to reach here. Now I’m waiting for others.” What a moron! Couldn’t he find a fine balance whereby he could capture the nature’s beauty in his lenses but at the same time, he doesn’t waste too much time? Time and again, I was reminded of the fact that I made the right decision by riding all alone.
LEH
I reached Leh at 6.30 PM but it took three more hours to find a hotel room. Most of the hotels were either full or too expensive. It seemed like a bikers’ fest on the day I reached Leh. Everywhere I went, I saw bikers checking in the hotels of varying levels of room rent. Since I was new to the town, I ended up spending the first hour trying my luck at the hotels in the more expensive part of the town. Then one of the hotel owners advised me to go to Changspa where there are cheaper guest houses. Most cheap hotels at Changspa were already full.

I had to resort to asking other tourists on the streets about where they were living and if it’s a decent place to stay. One of the biker directed me to his hotel but I got lost on the way. I asked a Chinese girl who told me that her hotel was nice and clean. But the small walkway leading up to the hotel was so narrow that my bike got stuck. It was barely few inches wider than the length of my bike. On one side were nursery and on the other side was a water canal, Only I know how I managed to take a u-turn on that narrow, slope-y walkway. Petrolheads must be aware of the three-point-turn; on my bike, I had to take thirty-point-turn to turn my bike around that narrow walkway. I bumped into three bikers who were asking for directions, with their helmets on and their (fake) accent, I mistook them for foreigners. They seemed pretty kind, since it was already past 9 PM, they asked me to join them for dinner and after that, they’d also help me find a room. Right opposite the restaurant where they headed for dinner, there was another hotel, turned out, they did have vacancy. At 9.30 PM, I took possession of the room, dropped my luggage and joined those bikers for dinner.

Ladakh – the hallowed land was finally claimed. I was finally a part of this exclusive club of riders who rode to Ladakh SOLO on their very FIRST attempt.

The long cherished dream of riding to Ladakh had finally been realized. That night, I slept like a baby. 

I was content knowing the fact that I was no longer a Ladakh-virgin. I finally got Leh'd!

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