Archive for April 2016

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.
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