Archive for 2016

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...

Day 15: Achieving the holy grail of biking in India – The Khardung La

Every biking enthusiast in India has a dream – to reach the K-Top aka Khardung La Top

Khardung La Top!
A fortnight after I started from Mumbai, I was finally ready to take on my biking life's biggest ever challenge – the Khardung La – the highest motorable road in the world. After much deliberation and procrastination, I was finally ready to head to Nubra Valley. And the only way to reach there from Leh is to cross Khardungla.

Once again, I was relatively late in starting my ride. Instead of 7 am, I started the ride at 9-9.30 am. 

Leh to Diskit is 120 km. Diskit to Hunder is 10 km. Hunder to Turtuk is 77 km. In short, Leh to Turtuk return trip is somewhere in north of 400 km. Nubra Valley doesn't have a single petrol pump. Hence, I had to make sure that I carry fuel for the entire distance from Leh. Failing to do would result in me breaking down in the middle of nowhere. The previous longest distance I went without refuelling was between Tandi and Karu - a distance of 365 km. Also, as I climb Khardungla and as the altitude increase and as the air becomes thin, more petrol gets pumped in the engine to compensate for the lack of power. Meaning, the mileage decreases even further. Despite all these issues, with a full tank and 10 liters of extra fuel in the jerry cans, I decided to march on.

The Siachen Glacier
Khardung La is not just a test of machine but also of the man. I had no clue how my body would reach at 18k+ feet altitude. If I start hallucinating and lose consciousness, I don't have a fellow rider to take care of me. Though I'm not a gym rat, I'd like to believe that I'm a fairly healthy individual with high level of immunity and above average stamina. Khardung La was the litmus test for this preposition.

The road was bad with its fair share of water crossings, U-turn inclines, vertical drops, sticky-muddy stretches and non-existent roads. Having said that, on level of difficulty, Khardung La is a lot less harsh compared to Tanglangla. However, at around 16000 ft. altitude, I started to feel light headed. I never felt any of those effects while crossing Tanglang La or Chang La, both of which are above 17,000 ft. I poped in a chewing gum (chewing gum keeps your mind active and helps the blood circulation around your brain in such scenarios) and soldiered on. At about 17,500 ft, just a kilometer before the K-top, there was a traffic jam due to landslides. It took about 15 mintues for the bulldozers to clear the way. This intervention proved to be a blessing in disguise to me. These 15 minutes helped me recuperate and by the time I got back on the saddle, the AMS was gone. I reached Khardungla Top fresh as a daisy. 

View from the Khardungla Top

Mission accomplished! The (four-year-old) dream that I had seen of riding to Khardungla was fulfilled. The holy grail was achieved. Litmus test was passed.

Khardungla has a Doordarshan tower at the top. If you have BSNL phone, you'll get flawless connectivity. For any other mobile service provider, it's a hit and miss. There's a particular spot next to the Khardungla board from where you get connectivity for Airtel and Vodafone. I was absolutely ecstatic with this feat and wanted to share it with my family back home. I called up my parents and here's how the conversation went.

Dad: "Hello"
Me: "Hi."
Dad: "Where have you reached?"
Me: "18,380 feet - at the world's highest motorable road!"

Highest Cafeteria in the World

Maggi at the world's highest cafetaria
And you can't go to Khardungla and not eat Maggi at the world's highest cafetaria. A nice, hot, soupy maggi later, I decided to ride down to the other side of Khardungla towards North Pullu and to the village of Khardung (31 km from Khardungla top). In fact, after North Pullu (15 km), the roads are fairly decent.

To give you a better understanding:

Leh--24km--South Pullu--15km--Khardungla Top--15km--North Pullu--16km--Khardung Village

It's only that 30 km stretch between South Pullu and North Pullu that's off road, rest of it is paved.

Just before I reached Khardung village, I saw a stop sign at a check post. At several places in the Ladakh region, you need to make a note of your entry and exit for security purpose. When I say security, it's not about national security but also from a personal security point of view. If there's a landslide or flashflood, the check post record will help the rescue team in knowing how many tourists are stuck ahead and they'd come looking for you. 

I parked my bike and walked up 30 steps up to the post. Since I'm not used to the tiny air, I was gasping on my breath by the end of it. It turned out, the check post was for military vehicles only. The armyman looked at my attire and started asking me about my trip, out of curiousity. When he learnt that I'm travelling solo, he told me that since it's evening time and it will be dark in an hour, if I don't want to risk going further, I was welcome to stay over in his bunker; his colleague would be back from the market soon and they can cook food for me. In fact, he even offered snacks to me in case I were hungry. 

I politely declined his offer but I spent about 15 minutes chatting with him understanding the life they lead and the hardships they face. Since it was evening time, I had to leave to make it to Diskit before it was dark. I've always had highest respect for our forces and the people I met this trip made me respect them even more. This wouldn't be the last instance of I receiving kind hospitality from the armymen. You will read about those stories in my upcoming posts.

The photograph is clicked from the top of check post where I had an interesting interaction with an army personnel
As you reach the Khardung Village you hit the valley. From Khardung to Diskit, it's a 45 km leisure ride which you can cruise to in about 1 hour without a worry in the world. The roads are paved, traffic is minimum and scenery is spectacular. Ride along at a leisurely pace of 50-60 kmph and enjoy the valley and the surrounding mountains. I managed to reach Nubra Valley at the right time, at about 5.30 pm. It was dusk, the most pleasant time of the day and my ride to Diskit was one of the most pleasant rides of the trip. 

The first hotel I encountered was the Kharyon Guest House. It has a nice garden and a parking for your vehicle too. I enquired for rooms and they told me the room rent was Rs. 350. In today's day and age, where else can you get a hotel room with double bed, hot water and a television for 350 bucks? It was an absolute steal. 

There is just one standalone restaurant for dinner (and one more which stays open only during lunchtime) in the whole of Diskit. Most of the tourists rely on the in-house restaurant at their guest house. Hence, it's important that the place where you decide to stay serves decent meal. 

On my first night in Diskit, I went out looking for a restaurant, and found the above mentioned sad-looking restaurant. I was not alone in this misery. I bumped into a Swiss couple who happened to be staying in the same hotel as I was. These two septuagenarians are any traveller's envy. They've been travelling the world since many years and despite their age, they're fit to the extent that they go on treks in Nepal and across the Himalayan range. Last I checked their website, they had already visited 70+ countries.

After our miserable food, we retired to our rooms. Next day, I had planned to explore Diskit 30ft-tall Maitreya Buddah statue, the gorgeous Diskit Monastery and ride the elusive double humped camels in the desert of Diskit.

Day 14: Slowing things down in Leh

Time to slow down the things a bit. Time to take a breather.

Shey Monastery
With no fixed itinerary and no annoying travelling companions to look out for, solo travel gives you an opportunity to travel the way you want. That's exactly the reason why my #BombayToLeh trip lasted for 43 days. I traveled at my own pace, and a number of times I changed my plans during this trip. It happened once again on day 14. My earlier plan was to head to the Nubra Valley but since I had slept the night before, thanks in part to no electricity and partying with Israeli friends, I decided to skip Nubra Valley and stay back in Leh.

I woke up late at around 9 am and decided to do some more local sightseeeing after a nice leisurely breakfast. I bumped into an Israeli couple whom I had met the night before at the Zen Garden restaurant. We had breakfast together and I shared tips with them about travelling to Manali, Pangong, etc. 
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

The above excerpt is from a William Henry Davies' poem titled 'Leisure'; I had learnt it in school and these lines have stuck with me forever. What's mentioned in the above lins is the exact thing that I'd set out to do on the 14th day of my #BombayToLeh trip, more so than on any other day. To stand and stare. To notice squirrels and see the woods I pass.

After a nice breakfast I spent time taking a fool around the market. A while later, I headed to the Pumpernickel German Bakery for lunch. This one's a highly recommended place and I was looking forward to my meal. As it turns out, the food was fairly average. I'd give them a benefit of doubt and return back to give them another chance. 

Hey look, I'm a biker!

Something interesting happened while I was waiting for my meal at Pumpernickel. The morning peace was broken by annoyingly loud sounds of after-market air filters stuck to a single cylinder engine. A bunch of so-called 'bikers' stopped their bikes next to the tiny bakery, repeatedly opening-closing their throttle with the 'N' gear being engaged only to attract the attention of the crowd and to proclaim to the world, who doesn't give a shit about their existence, that 'they've arrived'. 

This particular breed of living creature wants to be called a biker. This species tries its best to copy the big burly American cross-country bikers in every sense of the way. From donning leather jackets in a country as hot as India to drinking beer during rides just to prove their machoism. The group, named after one of the biggest cafe chains in India, that arrived in front of me were no different. They were loud. They were obnoxious. And they wanted to be noticed. They had donned biker-esque giant moustaches, side burns and hair-dos just for the trip. To look like they're a product of Sturgis. Just because they had a bike and they rode to Ladakh, they thought it was mandatory put on an articifical tattoo sleeves which shouted 'Hey look, I'm a biker. Please look at me. Please?' 

I decided to finish my meal and leave the imposters to their shenanigans while I check out the Shey Monastery. 

Shey Monastery

The village of Shey is situated 15 km from Leh. And it's biggest attraction is the Shey Monastery. The Shey Palace was once the royal residence of the King of Ladakh and subsequently it got moved to the village of Stok where it remains till date. 

The monastery steps are some of the steppest steps you're ever likely to encounter. And even the fittest of us would run out of breath by the time we complete a single flight of stair. The main attraction of the Shey Palace/Monastery is the 39 ft tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue made out of copper. The monastery also features wall paintings from 18th(?) century. The paintings are in precarious condition and hence photography in the inner sanctum is strictly prohibited. 

Prayer wheels

Pro tip: Carry sunscreen
Besides this single room which houses the giant statue and the wall paintings, there isn't much to explore inside the monastery. Only other thing you can possibly look at is the 360-degree panoramic view of the valley. The monastery overlooks this lush green meadow which is almost a protected sanctury. The meadow also has the 'Holy Pond' which is home to some of the biggest salmon fishes you'll ever see. Since fishing (or any sort of hunting) is strictly prohibited, the pond and the surrounding areas have flourishing flora and fauna. In fact, the 10 ft tall fencing around the pond is only as far as one can go, if you're an outsider. Only a select few locals are allowed to step inside this protected habitat as caretakers. However, you are allowed to feed the fishes and ducks from outside the fence. 

Shakyamuni Buddha at Shey Monastery
It was late noon by the time I got done with Shey Monestary. Right opposite the entrance to the monestary is the Holy Fish Pond, which runs parallel to the road connecting Shey to Leh. The road is lined with tall trees providing shade to the tourist cars. I parked my bike under the shade and lay my 6 ft frame on the bike, taking a breather from tourist-spot hopping. I spent nearly and hour doing nothing except for looking at the fishes and ducks and hearing the melodious chirping of the birds. The cool breeze blowing from the pond only added to the sweetness of the moment. I spent almost an hour doing nothing. That's correct, I did absolutely nothing and I was truly content with it. Because in that one hour of nothing, I was with nature. Just listening to the birds, looking at the fishes fighting for bread crumbs, noticing the shape of the leaves as they swayed with the breeze and gauging the pitch of a duck's quack - simple things. William Henry Davies would've been proud of me.

Shey Monastery overlooks the Holy Fish Pond and lush meadows
The Holy Fish Pond
The rhythm of tranquility was broken by the sound of the screeching tyres. A jeep full of 4-5 young boys stopped next to me. The 'party people' asked me if I knew the way to the Rancho School. I had no clue what they meant. They tried once again and asked me differently, "Do you know where's the 3 Idiots school?" 
"No," I replied.

They speed away. Just then it hit me that the school featured in the movie '3 Idiots' is right around the corner - had read about it on forums before coming starting my Ladakh trip. I enquired with the next door general store and learnt that Druk White Lotus School aka Rancho's School aka 3 Idiots school was barely 1.5 km away. The time was 5.30 pm and by 6, the school's gates shut for visitors. I raced to the famous school and reached just in time for the last session of the day. The sessions explains the qualities which make this school such a special attraction. The school has employed a number of indigenous methods such as solar panels, positions of classrooms and hostels to keep the indoors warm during winter and cold during summers, rainwater harvesting, natural filteration systems, etc. After the 20 minute session, the school personeel takes you on a trip around the school showcasing more features about the school including the famous window underneath with Chatur was electrocuted in 3 Idiots. 

Druk White Lotus School
Saw this 'lion king' chilling in the Druk White Lotus School's campus. I tried petting him but he was shy, ran away

India can be quite amusing if you're not from here

I returned back to the hotel from Druk Lotus School. At the hotel, I caught up with two of my Israeli friends. We decided head out for drinks. After a couple of beers, we decided to order food. For one of the two, this was his fourth visit to India while the other guy was visiting India for the first time. The newbie wanted to try some Indian food and since I was with them, he decided to rely on my recommendation. The more experienced fellow wanted to eat his favourite comfort food - Pizza. 

The Pizza guy ate his food and wiped off his hands with a tissue paper. As we got done with our India food (roti & sabzi), I asked for a finger bowl. Both were truly amused. They had no clue what it was. Once I explained them the concept of finger bowl (curry sticks to the fingers and hence you need hot water and lime to cut the stickiness and wipe it off), they too wanted to try it. To the extent, even the guy who ate Pizza and didn't really need it (though he had been to India thrice before, he had never experienced this) asked for a finger bowl just to try it out. 

It's amazing how the simplest of things - the things which we take for a routine - can be totally fascinating for an outsider; may it be a simple finger bowl or homegrown beer.
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