On top of the world-The Travelogue: Part 1

It has been almost a month since our ride to Ladakh got over and yet the memory is as fresh as if the ride just got over yesterday. Four years ago, I went on a solo trip to Ladakh and since then, I have been yearning for another go at it. During this period, I had been to many more interesting places but Ladakh was no match to them. As 2011 dawned, I had resolved that I would ride to Ladakh this year and this time, I wanted to extend the pleasure to some fellow riders who were up for it.

During the one year since I revived the biking club at my workplace, we had ridden to many places. We successfully completed 8 amazing rides to places like Lansdowne, Ranthambore, Tirthan Valley, Mukteshwar etc. thereby, covering both plains and hills. In March 2011, I announced my intent to conquer Ladakh and sought nominations from people who were interested in riding along. In no time, I received numerous nominations out of which, eventually, a group of 13 riders embarked on this epic voyage. A special mention to two people from the group-one rode all the way from Pune and the other came from Lucknow to join us for the ride.

the nomads



The ride was to start on July 9, 2011 and the route that I planned was to reach Ladakh via Manali and return via Srinagar thereby, covering the entire circuit of Ladakh and Kashmir valley. However, in the week just before the ride, we started hearing news about rains lashing down on Manali and bringing the Rohtang Pass to an absolute standstill due to slush and landslides. I kept a close watch on different websites that were provided real time information about the status of the roads. I had a back-up plan just in case Rohtang did not open up and that was to reverse the itinerary-approach Ladakh via Srinagar and based on the conditions, attempt to return via Manali. Just couple of days before the ride, we received some encouraging news about rains stopping in Manali and surrounding areas. We also got to know that vehicular movement was coming back to normalcy between Rohtang and Marhi. Based on this our ride itinerary looked somewhat like this: Delhi-Mandi-Manali-Sarchu-Leh. But as they say-“man proposes, god disposes” and we were in for some surprises ahead of us.

On the day of the ride, July 9 2011, we had to assemble at NH-1 Karnal bypass at 0400 and start the ride by 0430 since we had nearly 500 kms to cover on that day. In no time, the fellow riders had assembled and the time had come for us to flag-off the ride. Our first pit-stop was McDonald’s at Karnal. It was roughly 100kms ahead of and at such an early time of the day, the roads were literally empty with no traffic whatsoever. We cruised along and reached Karnal in no time. To our disappointment, the McDonald’s was not open yet and therefore, we settled for JhilMil dhaba. One of the riders had an acquaintance who was riding a couple of days ahead of us so we were in touch with him to know the latest updates about the road conditions etc. We were also in touch with a travel agency at Manali for the same information. We had our breakfast at the dhaba and resumed our ride forward. As we crossed Ambala, we took a brief stop and checked on the road and weather condition. To our utter dismay, we got to know that it has been raining cats and dogs at Manali. This clearly ruled out our possibility of crossing Rohtang since we could guess the status of the road based on the amount of rains. So, I had a brief discussion with the group and took an instant decision to change course and proceed towards Pathankot. The plan now was to approach Ladakh via Srinagar. Luckily, we were at a point where we could have easily changed course instead of retracting. The moment we took the turn towards Ludhiana and crossed the Rajpura toll, the weather became gloomy and in no time, it started to rain. Anyone who has recently been on this road would know the state it denigrates to when it rains. With the road widening project going on, we experienced Ladakh-like water streams en route. As the rain got heavy, we decided to take a pit stop for it to relent. The rain stopped after a while and we resumed our ride. This was one of the best parts of the ride-the roads were all wet and the surrounding vegetation was all bathed in the fresh rain water and the breeze was delightfully cold. We took our next stop at the McDonald’s in Jalandhar. Post that, it was a regulation ride on plain roads and we reached Pathankot late in the evening. En route, at one of the many dhabas that we had stopped for tea, someone suggested a hotel for us to stay. We quickly spotted the hotel and crashed for the night. We had a delicious dinner at a roadside dhaba in Pathankot followed by ice cream from an ice cream parlor.

the bikes in formation

The next day, we all woke up to a bright and sunny morning. The cloudy and gloomy weather gave way to a brightly lit sky which augured well for our ride during the day. Our destination for the day was Ramban, Banihal or Batote-as all three places were very close to the famed Jawahar tunnel-the gateway to Srinagar valley. After the morning briefing, we all started for our destination. Barely, a few kms later, we realized that some people from our group had broken away and lost their way. We waited for a while trying to reach them on their mobile phones but to no avail. A little while later, we decided to move on and catch up at Jammu where we had intended to stop for breakfast. The ride till Jammu was quite dry and boring with sun shining in its full glory and the surroundings not presenting an interesting sight. We reached Jammu in a short while, caught up with the rest and proceeded towards Udhampur. One of our fellow riders met with a small accident as he was trying to negotiate a turn and ended up in the ditch by the side of the road. Thankfully there was no damage to man and the machine. As we approached sunset, it was time for us to decide where to stay for the night. Our options were Ramban, Banihal and Batote. Since it was the Amarnath yatra time therefore, it was getting difficult to find accommodation. We eventually decided to stay at Ramban. There was only one hotel available and despite it not being in a good condition, we did not have a choice but to crash in. The stay was very miserable as there was no running water available and the electricity was also a problem. For dinner, we went to a dhaba in town and had a sumptuous meal. Amongst the group, we ate roughly 50 rotis and umpteen plates of dal and sabji.

The next morning, after the briefing, we made an early start. Our intent was to cross the famous Jawahar tunnel and later, the Zoji La. In due course of time, we approached the famous Jawahar tunnel-a man made miracle. It was such an amazing experience with 13 bikes riding in formation inside the tunnel. It was scary too as the entire tunnel lasts for almost 10-15 minutes depending upon the traffic. As we moved slowly, the 9 bullets out of the 13 bikes gave out such a reverberating thump. Then we saw the end of the tunnel and as we came out, we witnessed the amazing and spectacular sights of the Kashmir Valley. Just up on the road is “Titanic View Point”, a vantage point from where the entire Kashmir valley was visible and this point was like the edge of a ship and that’s why the name “Titanic View Point”.

Here we also decided to have breakfast. We also did something here that ended up becoming a norm for the rest of the ride whenever we stopped to have our meals. With a group of 13 people, it was obviously very difficult for the dhabawala to cook food for us instantly. We also did not have the patience to wait so, we started pitching in with a helping hand. A few of us took up small chores to help the guy who was cooking the food for us and this made it easier for the guy to manage his work. And, we also got our food on time.

lending a helping hand to cook food

We quickly finished our food and proceeded further to Srinagar. When we entered Srinagar, it was a bit of a disappointment with so much of traffic and jams all across. Some of us also had to withdraw cash and since this was virtually our last stop for an ATM therefore, we had to negotiate with some very “Delhi-like” traffic jams before leaving the city behind. We meandered through some places like Ganderbal, Anantnag etc that were always in the news for all the wrong reasons. Despite all the threats regarding constant terrorist attacks, we never felt safer. The surroundings were heavenly, almost ethereal and one cannot stop but wonder how some entities can even think of ravaging the landscape with explosions and terrorist attacks and that too in the name of god. Then, we reached the beautiful town of Sonamarg-a tourist attraction just at the lap of Zoji La.

We reached Sonamarg at around 1500 and with enough daylight ahead of us, we decided that we should cross Zoji la and try to reach Drass. In the entire ride to Ladakh, I knew that there were certain crucial points that would prove difficult to cross. One of them was Zoji La pass. The name Zoji La means “pass of death” and is usually considered a little difficult to cross due to non existent roads and high altitude. However, as we were crossing the pass during late afternoon therefore, I was not anticipating a lot of problems. But we were in for a pleasant surprise when we saw a serpentine line of trucks standing on the road to Zoji-la absolutely blocking the path for the traffic. Initial inquiries indicated that the traffic was blocked due to heavily loaded trucks gradually negotiating the ascent to the pass. We tried to move forward precariously taking up paths that were in between the stationary trucks and the valley below. After a while, when it looked that we have to do this endlessly, we decided that we should retrace our path and stay at Sonamarg. However, on our way back, we were stopped by the truck drivers who advised us against the idea of moving back to Sonamarg. They instead suggested that we should try and move forward as these days, the jam was an everyday scenario so if not today, we were bound to get stuck tomorrow. To our relief, one of them actually pointed to the top and showed us the spot till which the jam was there and the same was not very far away. We mustered up the courage to move further and after a struggle that lasted nearly 3 hours, we made it to the top of the Zoji-La pass. We stopped at the Zoji La top for a while for customary photographs and then resumed our ride.

Zoji La Pass

the nomads at zoji la pass

As we started from Zoji La pass, our hopes of getting some good roads were dashed as the terrain started to deteriorate just a few kms away. Add to this, it was getting dark and cold and riding on those roads became a difficult affair. One of the riders tried to talk to an army base in-charge for accommodation but was politely refused. We had no choice but to move ahead since there was nothing available till Drass. After riding for nearly two hours in the dark and cold, we eventually made it to Drass. I took the group to the same JKTDC guest house where I stayed the last time I came here. We got the accommodation and that too at a very cheap rate. As we were taking our luggage off, the hotel caretaker suggested that we pre-order our food for dinner. I went to a nearby restaurant and placed the dinner order comprising of multiple plates of dal and sabji. I also told the dhabawala to make atleast 50 rotis to begin with. The food was unbelievably delicious and the service was so quick that none of us had to wait for a roti for more than 2 seconds. The total bill came for about 1500/- including a hefty tip for the young boys who waited on our table. After a really tough ride and a sumptuous meal, we all crashed in for the night.

12 Comments

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  • anilmisra says:

    Brilliant. Waiting for next post.

  • Vibha says:

    One word. WOW!
    Very engaging write-up. Last minute changes in plans for a destination like Ladakh sound really adventurous. But once you’ve made up your mind for the trip, it is difficult to cancel or postpone it especially if you’ve got people who’ve joined you from faraway places.
    The meal at the end of the story sounds delicious. But my! Does 1500 sound expensive? The service would’ve been amazing for you to offer a hefty tip though. Waiting for the second part.

  • Vas says:

    thanks. the meal was indeed delicious and when you pay 1500/- for a meal consumed by 13 grown up men then am sure you would agree that it was not quite expensive…and we did add a generous tip for the young boys who had to stretch their working hours just to feed us…very dedicated and sincere lot.

  • traveller says:

    Hey .. amazing trip dude.. inspiring.. btw I was looking for some reliable sources of info to know the current state of manali – leh Highway.. specifically Rohtang pass.. would you know of any ?

  • Vas says:

    hey traveller…thanks for the compliments. you could look at bcmtouring.com for the latest info on the manali-leh road status. currently, due to the rains, the conditions of rohtang pass is very bad with lots of slush and mud on the road and obviously a lot of traffic jams. what’s ur plan? what’s ur conveyance? let me know and i will see if i can help you with some useful info :-)

    Vas

  • traveller says:

    thing is we don’t have much of a plan.. other than this outline..:P we leave delhi tom. night by bus.. reach manali sat. afernoon.. and take a taxi for leh from there.. then pangong.. nubra etc… so any suggestion would be a good one.. ok tell me if we can travel to zanskar directly from nubra valley.. how long does it take ?

  • traveller says:

    thing is we wanted to cover zanskar.. nubra and pangong.. what would be the best route after reaching leh.. ?

  • Vas says:

    am not too sure about zanskar since i have not covered that area. as far as nubra and pangong is concerned here’s my advise. after reaching leh, you should go to nubra first since crossing khardung la would be a touch easier than the dreaded changla. start early from leh. you should reach khardung-la in about a couple of hours time. post that the drive to nubra valley is reasonably ok. do make sure you have the relevant permits.

    you could spend the day reaching upto turtuk-the last village before the indian border. you could either try and find acco in turtuk or come back to hunder or diskit for stay. the next morning, you could try and go uptil Panamik and Sumur and make your return to Leh via khardung-la. The timelines are basis the assumption that you are taking a taxi. If you plan to hire a bike then its still doable. we did it.

    Going to Pangong will solely depend upon the condition of Chang-La. do check before you leave. between leh and pangong, there is a stretch of roughly 20km that is the worst part. the rest of the journey is very very nice and scenic. but then its this 20km stretch that will test your endurance and it can get nasty if there is snowfall. if you have time, i recommend an overnite stay at pangong. if not, you could easily come back to leh the same day.

    Zanskar is towards srinagar which is on the other side of Leh. so if you have plans to return to manali, you would need additional time to cover Zanskar. Since i have not zanskar so i don’t want to misguide you by heresay.

    btw, r u from delhi? you could call me at 9811860054 if you need to know more info. i will be more than happy to help..!!

  • Nandan says:

    Glad to see and read your stuff Vas, you were away for a while. :-)

    Very well described. It must be a one big project to manage this kind of event, with 13 bikes and more bikers. Talks about the perseverance and passion you and your team has. Very cool.

    Tell me something. If one is looking for a Srinagar (and closeby places), is it possible to do Dli-Srinagar in a single day drive, car that is . I know that it is around 850-875 KM but I think its mostly flat till Jammu (more than 2/3rd of total) and if one starts at 5 in the morning, can one be there at Jammu by 3 PM and then may be another 6 hours for Srinagar ? I think I know the answer but since I have never been to Kashmir roads, hills, better to ask one more time ?

    If not one day, then what would be a good place to break ?

  • Vas says:

    Delhi-Srinagar in a single day would be a bit of a stretch. Although its plains all the way till Jammu yet constructions around Ludhiana and Jalandhar make it impossible to drive beyond 20-30km/hr. also, after jammu its all hilly terrain that is mostly uphill so there also one cannot go beyond an average 40-50km/hr. I would suggest taking a break at Patnitop which is roughly 50-60km from Jammu. From there on, srinagar is roughly 200kms till Srinagar. so if you start early then you can easily make it by afternoon. as far as the roads are concerned there are a few stretches that are in a pretty bad shape: 1.Rajpura-Ludhiana-jalandhar
    2. About 20km ahead of Pathankot
    3. Anantnag-Srinagar due to single lane road and traffic

    rest of the roads are pretty decent. i hope this information helps.

  • Nandan says:

    OK. I have not been to Patni top , guess even Jammu might be a good place to break if one has to explore the city. I heard about NH1 state from quite a people. Thanks again for all the info. Someday I hope to have a driving holiday in Kashmir, though I do not know when it would be a reality.

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