Table of contents for On top of the world-The Travelogue
The best thing about a round trip is that your return journey is not a replay of your onward journey. With new places to see and new challenges to overcome, a round trip ensures that the excitement lasts till the moment you reach home. For our Ladakh ride, our initial plan was to go via the Manali-Leh highway and return via the Srinagar-Leh highway. However, as we got to know about the weather on day-1, our discretion took the better of us and we decided to hit Leh via Srinagar. This meant, that we had the Manali-Leh highway at our disposal for our return journey.
The 450-km long Manali-Leh highway is considered to be one of the 10 toughest roads in the world. I was obviously nervous thinking about the various predicaments that we were bound to face during our journey. The entire stretch is usually divided into two parts. First part is to reach Sarchu from Leh-a settlement located at a distance of 220 kms from Leh. In between the two places, lay some very notorious spots-Tanglang La, Kanglajal Nallah and Lachung La. Once you reach Sarchu you would give your aching spirits some rest only to prepare them to face the Baralacha La, the dreaded Rani Nallah and Rohtang Pass. Each year when this stretch is let open to the world, hordes of people take, what can only be termed as a pilgrimage on two wheels. This was our pilgrimage, our offering to the god of wanderlust. And so it began..
Following the best practice of making an early start, we planned to begin our exit from Leh as early as 0530 AM. But then, when have plans actually materialized? We lost about an hour getting everyone up and running. Finally, at 0630, we were on the road to perdition. I ensured that all of us had our tanks filled up the previous evening from Leh itself so that we did not have to waster valuable time on the day of the ride. We briefly stopped at the Karu filling station where it proudly states “last petrol pump till Tandi, distance 450km”. After the customary clicks, we moved on till Rumtse. The road to Rumtse was in shambles due to the flash flood last year. It was broken from all around and the maintenance work only ensured that there was more mud and dust on you than on the roads. We carefully negotiated the bumps, loose gravel, stones and pits and made it to Rumtse. It was not a planned stop but given the exertion caused by the damaged road to Rumtse, we were forced to get some rest at this dhaba. Rumtse is a very scenic place. If one were to be carried blindfolded to Rumtse then it is quite possible that the person will be convinced that he is in the slopes of Switzerland. I strongly recommend a night stay here if one has the luxury of time. Anyways, we stopped at this dhaba that was being managed by this old lady. As was the ritual with The Nomads, all of us got to work to prepare breakfast for ourselves. We even served a couple that was waiting for their food. While we were having our food, I started chatting with this couple who were also having food over there about the road condition ahead. He said that he comes here every year and this year, due to the floods the roads have been very bad. At Rumtse, we were still not sure if we would be able to make it to our destination for the day-Sarchu. The gentleman assured us that we can actually make it till Khoksar or Keylang that were another 100kms away from Sarchu.
We quickly wrapped up our breakfast and started towards our first pressure point of the day-Tanglang La Pass. This pass is located at a height of 17582ft above sea level making it the second highest pass in the world after Khardung La. And higher altitude means two things-AMS and ice on the road. Till a short distance from Rumtse, the roads were pretty good but as we came within 15 kms of Tanglang La, the roads started to give way to loose gravel, potholes and water on the road. As we gained height, we started to notice snow on the side walls of the mountain. The temperature was now dropping and it was getting very cold to ride. The only thing that was on our side was the time of the day. Since it was still early in the morning, the ice had not yet started to melt so there were no water streams on the road. Usually, when such high altitude passes are negotiated, what is common is the short distance in which such heights are gained. For example, Rumtse is probably at a height of around 14500ft above sea level and in the next 15-20 kms we would have gained nearly 3000ft to reach Tanglang la. This means, the ascent on the roads are usually very steep. And at such high altitudes, the air is very thin making it very difficult for the bike to climb. The speed is reduced to 10-15 km/hr. You not only need determination, courage and perseverance, you also need patience.
With lots of patience and determination we were moving towards Tanglang La. After nearly an hour, I could finally see the prayer flags fluttering from a distance. We have made it. We have conquered our first task. We have reached Tanglang La.
As soon as the relief of finishing one task sets in, what also rushes in is the anxiety of the next one. We spent around 20 minutes taking pictures and savoring the landscapes from the top. We also quickly inquired about the road ahead. From what I read before and heard now, I was quite comfortable to know that the worst was over for now as the road ahead would mostly be a descent since we are already at the highest point on the Manali-Leh stretch. We began our descent from Tanglang La and in a short while hit a flat patch of land. The roads were absolutely straight and leading into the horizon. For a moment, I thought that we have hit the famous Moray Plains.
Ah! The blissful thoughts that I had about Moray Plains about zipping on the straight roads with vast expanse of empty lands on both sides. I could have actually ridden with my hands off the handlebar..!!! But it was not meant to be like that. When we hit the plains, we were like-“excuse me, where is the road by the way?” So there we had our next surprise package. It looked like the place was hit by a nuclear bomb. There were no roads. What lay ahead of us this vast landscape with pockets where we had ankle deep mud and we had to find our own way to reach Pang. It was like this massive puzzle or a video game where one had to find his way out of this remote landscape. What came to our rescue were two things-small patches of the existing road that was being repaired and trucks that were on their way to Manali. So we had to carefully connect these small patches of the roads to figure out the direction in which we were supposed to move and also keep an eye on the trucks to verify if we were going in the right direction or not. Now where there is mud and sand, there will be its closest ally-dust in the air. Due to the oncoming traffic, visibility was reduced to barely few meters ahead of us. On top of this, we were on bikes who are usually given the least priority on the roads so we had to get off the main track on the dirt tracks on the side innumerable times giving way to the oncoming trucks and buses. Now and then, we would hit this group of sun tanned people who were working on constructing the road. Our bikes skidded in the mud as if we were riding on a sheet of ice or a layer of oil.
When we thought the worst was over, a tragedy struck us as Anil’s bike had a flat tyre. We were in the middle of nowhere, a veritable moonscape and we have a flat tyre to overcome. None of us had the tools to remove the tube and put on a new one although, many of us had a spare tube..how ironic..!! We stopped at the side of, well since there was no road we just sidelined on the track where we were riding. I stopped a few trucks to ask if they have an air pump with the hope that we pump air into the tyre and remove all the luggage we might just be able to make it to Pang where we could get the puncture fixed. Unfortunately, none of the trucks had a pump. As we were loosing hope, I spotted this Toyota Fortuner coming from a distance. Somehow, I had a hunch that these guys would have a pump. I waved and stopped the car and spoke to the guy who was driving the vehicle explaining our predicament. There were four guys who were traveling all the way from Mumbai on this road trip. They were jolly good folks and we were more than relieved when one of them took out this electric pump that runs on the engine of the vehicle. It took about 5-7 minutes to fill air in the tyre. We thanked our hearts out to these godsend folks and they proceeded on their journey while we were figuring out how to capitalize on this incentive that we received. We quickly decided to remove all the luggage from Anil’s bike and rearrange them on other bikes. Pang was roughly 25-30 kms from where we were halted and with a flat tyre which was letting out air, it could prove quite a distance. With the load of the luggage relieved, we figured that if someone as thin as a feather could ride the bike it would further help the cause of getting the bike in one shape to Pang. And the obvious choice was Harsh Gupta with his razor thin body and rock like spirit. Harsh took on the arduous task of riding Anil’s bike all the way to Pang. Prajosh was following him and the direction to both of them was to get there as quickly as possible. With the issue almost solved, the rest of us started our ride. Anil was now riding Harsh’s bike. We slowly ambled our way on this very difficult terrain. I was also very disappointed to experience Moray Plains like this. But then no experience is a bad experience especially on a Ladakh ride. This patch taught was how to find quick solutions to problems rather than getting intimidated by them. We also learned how to negotiate on near desert like terrain and find a path out of nowhere.
So after a never ending struggle across Moray Plains we finally made it to Pang. Harsh and Prajosh had already reached there and were getting Anil’s bike fixed. In a short time, all of us regrouped at the mechanic shop and after a brief stop to dust ourselves off of all the mud and sand, we began our last leg of the day to Sarchu.
Sarchu was roughly 80 kms from Pang. We were dog tired after riding through the Moray Plains and desperately wanted to hit the sack. It was around 1pm when we started from Pang for Sarchu. The road was barely fine with tit-bits of good patches here and there. Drawing courage and inspiration from the surrounding landscapes we moved on to Sarchu. After riding for nearly 3-4 hours, we finally reached Sarchu. We quickly found a tented accommodation and were very lucky to strike a deal for one single big tent for the 11 of us. We quickly washed ourselves and sat down for a late lunch. We were fed with dal, rice and a humble aloo-gobi ki sabji. When you are hungry and tired even a porridge would taste like Turkish delight. After having the meal, we enjoyed a wonderful sun down and crashed for the night. Eleven men in a single tent and we had so much fun pulling each other’s leg and having a hearty laugh as called it a day.