Sunday 5 January 2014

I woke up in that shitty hotel in Keylong concerned about my bike wondering if the mechanic would be open or not. Though the Bangalore brothers did give me the directions to his shop, just to be doubly sure, I enquired with a couple of more people and they all pointed me in the same direction; not that I had much of a choice.

The mechanic seemed genuine and knew his stuff. Underpowered bikes like mine was an usual fare at this shop, and he knew exactly what was wrong with my bike and what precisely needs to be done. Apparently, due to low oxygen levels at high altitude, the engine wasn't able to burn all the fuel that was injected in the cylinder. This caused misfiring. Introducing a bigger air filter did cause more oxygen to enter the cylinder but still not enough. It did however, allowed me to traverse the Rohtang Pass. But the bike wouldn't have survived the higher altitudes post Keylong. 

The mechanic told me that he's tuned the fuel jet such that only the exact amount of fuel enters the cyclinder as can be burnt by less oxygen at high altitude. Sounded legit. And it wasn't like he tinkered around with the bike for a bit and asked me to pay up. He'd tune things up, take a test ride on the uphill, return and fine tune some more. He did this about 5 times till he was himself sure that the issue is 100% resolved. Only then he gave me the bike and asked me to test ride. And once I was satisfied with it, only then phe asked for money. Now that's a mechanic I'd blindly trust. Though he took 150 bucks for a simple tune up job, still, looking at his work ethics and his knowledge of the machines, assured me that my bike shouldn't have any more technical issues till Leh.

While the bike was being mended, around 9AM, I called up the Bangalore brothers, they told me they'd take an hour to get ready. I told me them that I would take about the same time to get my bike sorted, and hence we could start the ride together. I was a moron to trust those bastards even after my experience with them in Manali. While checking out, at 10ish, I called them to ask if they were ready, but much to my amazement, they didn't answer. Apparently, they started the trip without bothering to tell me about me. Nor they called to check with me even once. 

While checking out, one of the fellow guests at the hotel asked me if I was alone. He told me that they have a group and i can join them if i want. They too were from Mumbai and probably, the day before, they saw my bike in the parking lot and based on the number plate, they figured that I'm also a Mumbaikar. Everyone was elder to me and their ages ranged from mid-30s to mid-50s. Four out of the 14 in the group couldn't handle the harsh environment and the altitude took a toll on their health. The guy who spoke to me, was also one of the four who was leaving for Mumbai, but he introduced me to other group members and asked them to take care of me. 

Blackbird and one of the Thane bikers

Looking back at how far I've come.
They had a support van which carried all their luggage and fuel. It also housed a mechanic and a guide who sometimes used to act as a substitute rider for some of the 'uncles' who got tired during the ride. Since I was younger than all of them and the fact that some of them had sons of my age, they treated me like a kid. At the same time, they did appreciate my courage of attempting a solo ride on my very first trip to Ladakh. 

Booking of flight tickets from Manali, arranging a transport for the bikes as well as the sick people, took a lot of time. I had no other option but to wait with them. By the time we started the ride, it was almost 1PM. 

That's how I traveled - the tiny space in the middle was where I sat.

We passed through some of the most beautiful landscapes on our way to the next halt. During this trip I passed through BaralachaLa Pass - one of the most, if not, THE most beautiful pass of the entire journey. As you reach the top, the grey landscape starts reducing more and more, and is succeeded by the pearly white snow. Soon, all one could see is snow. As far as my eyes could traverse, I could only see a smooth blanket of ice. Only piece of grey matter was the road, where the snow was freshly cleared by the army. 
The melting snow has formed a pond at the top of the pass.

Believe me, this picture is not doing even 1% justic to the beauty of this pond. Look closely, you can even see the moon.

Such is the beauty of this place that it's really difficult to leave this place and get on back to your bike and carry on.
As the sun shone on the glistening white snow, all I wished was to stay there forever. Despite the cold winds and near-freezing temperature, I was in the awe of the magnificence of that place. Because of the sun, the upper layer of snow had melted to form a silky texture that was as flawless as it was smooth. 
The differentiating lines between the two mountains have totally merged.

Blackbird's breathing in the beauty of the place.
As I looked up in the opposite direction of the sun, I saw a white semi-circle dominating the cloudless sky. It was the moon. The moon, the sun, the snow and the clear blue skies; it looked like I had made it to the VIP guest list of the red-carpet event where the nature was showcasing its best artworks.
How can one ever get tired of riding when you have such a view?
Take a look at the road, or rather, the lack of it. Yes, this is the surface on which I rode.

Snow, snow and more snow!
Believe me, if you've shown the city skies to your kid and told him that it's blue, you've lied to him. After looking at the sky at Baralachala Pass (and in Ladakh region, overall), you'd understand what the BLUE sky actually looks like. 

Clear blue skies and the bright sun
Can you differentiate where one mountain ends and the second one begins?

A piece of advice for everyone who's planning to ride: WEAR SUNGLASSES EVEN IF YOU HAVE A TINTED VISOR. It may sound funny but the sunlight bounces off the snow and hits you like you've never experienced. F1 drivers talk about 'blind crest' at the Buddh International Circuit; here, because the background, side of the road, as well as the mountains - everything is covered with snow, there's a blind crest at every second instance. As they say, beauty can be lethal; and it holds truest in Baralachala (and in most part of Ladakhi wilderness).

After descending the Baralacha La Pass

After being wowed by the beauty of Baralachala, we ascended into the valley and reached a check post. Other side of the checkpost housed a couple of tents where the hungry travellers could recharge their batteries and take a breather. I as well as the Thane group decided to rest a while and fill our empty stomachs before heading further. Couple of Thane riders was feeling a bit dizzy due to the high altitude. I was starving and my childhood friend maggi came to the rescue. I had an entire bowl of maggi and shared the second one with one of the Thane guys. 

Old friend to the rescue - Maggi.

Just then I realized that I had left my bag outside on the bike. I rushed out of the cozy tent to check if it was still there. Much to my relief, it was untouched. In fact, at altitudes where riding your own bike is a task and carrying your own luggage a trauma, the possibility of someone else running with your stuff is almost zero. Just then I meet a couple of guys from that disorganized group. They asked me if I saw any of their friends on the way. I told him that I did see some of them clicking photos at the top. He was furious; he had been waiting since almost 2 hours at the check post while his other friends were busy enjoying the nature, least bothered about where other members of the group are. One of the other riders from that group arrived and confirmed that the so-called photographer of the group was in a complete photoshoot mode - complete with a zoom lens and tripod and was clicking away to glory with complete disregard to others' time. You see, this is the exact reason why i didn'ttravel with that group and the very reason why one shouldn't ride with a big group; morons like him screw up the entire schedule.

Sums up the 'hardship factor' of the people living in this region.

In the meantime, Thane group's 'treasurer' approached me and informed that I hadn't paid money for maggi and that they won't be paying it since they have a budget and every paisa is accounted for and blah blah blah. He thought I left the tent slyly because I didn't want to pay the money, which clearly wasn't the case. He said, "Because you're also from Mumbai and you're all alone, and we have a support van, if you need anything we'd help you on 'humanitarian grounds' but we can't pay for your food." So much gyaan for 50bucks? I told him, I'd pay the money and he didn't need to worry about my food or stay. He's the same guy who shared half a bowl of maggi with me. I went and paid up for two bowl of maggi though he insisted his group would pay for the second bowl since he shared the other half; I decided to show him who's the bigger man and paid for both. Since then, his and some other guys' behaviour changed towards me. They'd no longer wait for me before starting the ride or even talk properly. Not that I was banking on them anyway.
The place next to the check post where we had maggi.

While I was still tying my backpack on the bike, they left. Real mature!! 

I started the ride solo and would finish it the same way. 

Blackbird is taking a breather after the gruelling descent from the Baralacha La Pass
Unfazed, I marched on. Just before the light faded, I reached Sarchu. Let me explain Sarchu. It's a region without a single man-made structure except, for military presence in Pang which is few kilometers from there. In Sarchu, you have mountains, open grasslands, a highway passing between the grasslands and that’s that. Tents come up on these grasslands during these four months (June-Sept) to provide night stay to the tired travellers heading to Leh.

There are 3-4 camps, each one organized by a different owner. I stopped by at the first camp but it was outside by budget. Each tent has two beds. The owner wanted me to pay for two beds though I wanted just one. Half a kilometer down the road was the second camp. As soon as I approached the place, I came across the Thane bikers. Apparently, they had already made their booking at this place months in advance. I went about my business, negotiating the price and checking out the tents. Someone from Thane group (not the treasurer) told the camp owner that they know me and he should charge me reasonably. Since they had booked 8 odd tents, the camp owner obliged. He told me that he’ll charge me only half the price since I’ll be using only one bed but in case any other single traveler like me arrives, he’ll use the other tent and I should be ready to share the tent. I was prepared for that. Thankfully, half an hour later, one of the camp’s helpers arrived and took the other bed. Apparently, someone else needed an extra bed so they took it from my tent. Now I had the entire tent for myself for half the price. Sorted!
Sarchu: Tall mountains, huge grasslands, open road and flimsy tents.  
The tents are pretty basic, just a couple of beds and a small bulb which which doesn't have a switch. But because the camp owner keeps the generator on only between 7.30 and 10.30, you need to make sure all your packing gets done in that time, or you should do it in the morning. The two-sided zip liner is the main door of the tent. The other end of the tent has a similar zip liner which open in the loo area who has an English toilet and a wash basin which provides ice cold water.

Speaking of the camp’s helpers, I came across this European guy who kept asking me if I wanted him to carry my luggage or get me water or required any other help. At first I thought he was an over-friendly foreigner who was just being nice but later I realized that he was working there. Out of all the places in India, why would a Scottish guy travel to Sarchu and work in freezing conditions to earn a living? I got intrigued and started talking to him. Apparently, he got involved with some NGO which placed volunteers to help people in far-fetched regions. Hence, this Scottish (I think) guy got a chance to help people at this particular camp. He was there since June 2013 and was planning to stay there for the reminder of the tourist season till October.
I’m not exactly sure about the temperature but it was nearly freezing. Even washing hands was a task. Dealing with high-velocity chilly winds was the biggest issue. It would take some mental preparation to step out of the tent if you needed something. My tent was right next to the dinning tent. I’d take a deep breath, rub my hands, getting myself mentally prepared and just rush out of my tent and run to the dinning tent that was about 30 steps away.

Biggest tent on the extreme left is the dinning tent. First tent on its right in the foreground (with gray canopy) was mine.
The dinning tent had a TV set with a Tata Sky. Though I personally hate Tata Sky, it was commendable to see that even in such a remote location, one could watch TV; despite the fact that nobody’s mobile phones were working. Simple reason for that is, mobile phones function with towers while Tata Sky functions due to the satellite and because Sarchu is situated at higher altitude, the DTH services is not an issue. It was there, at Sarchu, where I first saw the visuals of Uttarakhand calamity. We were watching news while having our dinner and that’s when I first realized the enormity of the tragedy.
One of the conditions that my parents set for this trip was that I’d call them at least twice a day, once before starting the ride and once after reaching the destination in the evening. But at Sarchu, I simply couldn’t make any form of communication. There was zero network for all the mobile providers. I even asked the tent owner if I could use his BSNL mobile but even that wasn’t working. There was no way for me to contact and tell my parents that I had reached safely.
The Immovables!
It was cold as hell. I’ve experienced temperatures as low as 4C in the past, but I’ve always been in the comfort of a house, protected by solid brick walls. Here, a thin piece of fabric was the difference between me staying warm and freezing to death. Even the surface of the blanket was ice-cold. As a result, though the thick blanket would relatively keep you warm, the direct contact of the blanket to your skin would give you a terrifying shiver. I made sure I covered ever part of my body. I was wearing three layers of clothing in addition to two thick blankets and yet I was feeling cold. Just to give you an idea, on my lower body, I was wearing woolen inner and jeans; and I had kept my socks on. Yes, the same smelly socks that I wore the entire day, because on that night, survival was more important than the cleanliness. On the upper part of the body, I was wearing two thermal inners, a full sleeve tee and my double-layered biking jacket. Yes, biking jacket has all sort of protective blades around the shoulder, elbow and back portions but again, on that night, survival was more important than comfort. Mind you, I’m someone who enjoys cold and would be one of the last person to complain about the air-condition in the office or the open window in a car. It was so cold, I could barely sleep an hour or two that night. But more importantly, I survived!

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