After resting for a night in Leh, adjusting to the climate , it was time to move to the second part of the adventure – ride to the so called Worlds Highest motorable pass – Khardungla 18,400 feet ! ( 5,359 meters )
We were two riders less from the “ Dirty Dozen “. We were down to 10 men !! Moksha had signed off and the Senior Diplomat had to return to home with a broken rib and it was sad to see him go as we were keen that he does the part two as well.
We had 9 permits for 10 people as one of the riders slept through the permit preparation request but couldn’t leave him behind and couldn’t wait for the permit to be made so we took off!!
The road from Shambha La to the connecting point was a bit tricky, we missed the turn a few times but finally were on track and first barrier was the local union check post. After clearing that hurdle, we were on our way. 40 kms seemed that we would be there in an hour as the road condition was the best so far. However 20 kms later after South Pullu, the scenario changed. First at the check post we had to juggle the permits and make them look like 10 instead of 9 which was an easy task !! Houdini at best ?
As we were climbing up, the mountains became whiter, roads narrower and road condition close to that of the Moon!! 20 kms of bad potholed roads, high altitude, bikes losing power, chilly winds and clouds, there was nothing on our side !!! This is where training on Avalanche survival was revised as there was a very strong chance of one and it did happen the next day and the week after where a South African Rider was in 4 feet of snow.
Finally, we reached Khardungla Top and there was no power left in me. I was finding it hard to walk and even park the bike. However, after taking a few deep breaths was able to walk up and take the customary snaps with the group.
Time to move on! Back on the saddle and fortunately the road began to descend but the poor condition only got worse with more snow. We were skidding and slipping. After another 20 kms, we reached North Pullu and all of a sudden the terrain changed and so did the road. I knew one thing, never again am I riding this road. Dust and sand began to greet us and it was like riding in Rajasthan and the SUV drivers on this route also behaved that way not letting us over take them. Some bit of gesturing set them right.
We reached Khalsar. It was close to 1400 hrs, almost double the time we had taken and hunger pangs were unbearable. Quick stop for the sumptuous noodles and ginger tea. We needed to rest the fluids in our heads as well as the bad roads had shaken everything !
60 kms more to go which meant we would reach by late evening. Fatigue was showing on everyones faces but with every passing km the terrain was changing, on our left with the mighty Shyok Range and the river below making it a mix of green patches and desert and some deep water crossings. The road to Nubra is also the supply route to Siachen base camp, the highest battle field in the world ! We saw some very heavy duty and loaded Army camps..ATVs and the double humped camel which is found only in Nubra Valley.
1700 hrs we were at Diskit and after another 8 kms at Hunder which was where we had to stay-Apple Cottages. Luxury I say -attached loos and great tents. Tired and hungry we got out of our gears and struggled for the bucket of hot water that came in a bit later. Till then we had filled our stomachs with chai and some pakodas.
Since we were at less than 3,000 meters, a drink was all we needed and due to religious restrictions, we got some rationed beer and fire wood for a much needed bon fire that made the evening even more interesting. Never before have I seen the milky way so clear, it was as though I am in a space ship. Not a spik of light that would spoil the view. Shooting stars were filling our wishes basket !!
By mid night the weather had changed and the rain had got heavier. So had the snoring. It was hilarious to hear polite conversations in the adjacent tent…” you need to drink water “ was the request instead of CAN YOU STOP SNORING !!!
In the morning, from a distance we could see the Khardungla mountain range covered in thick clouds. I knew this was not the time to ride back. My 6th sense told me not to. But the jeeps and SUVs were packing and leaving. As Road Captain, I had to take the right decision with due diligence and evaluation of the situation.
Spoke to the local manager of the camp, but since he was not sure, decided to go to the Border Roads Battalion post which was a km from the camp. 54 BRO Battalion was responsible for the road to Khardungla & Siachen and I knew this would be the best source of information on weather condition.
Khardungla and Pangong were shut due to landslides and rain. Only one Army supply truck out of a convoy of 8 had reached Nubra.
To make the most of the extra time we had, we set out to ride the two humped camels but the heavy rain made it impossible and we remained hidden under the small shrubs near the camel point for almost an hour before the sun was out and it was possible to ride to the Diskit Gompa, fuel up and have lunch with some strong beers !!
There was only one fuel station in Hundre+Diskit and one person to man it. He was the accountant cum filler cum everything ! We were fortunate that it was only us at the petrol station so didn’t have to wait for it. We tanked up not leaving any air space in the tanks. Needed every drop to make it to Pangong Lake since we had decided to re-route, Pangong instead of Leh. As per advise given by 54 BRO Battalion, the road to Pangong was freshly laid and had very few bad patches..plus no hilly terrain. It was all along the Shyok river and climbed up to Tangste via Dubruk avoiding the high altitude Tanglala Pass ( 17,400 feet)
Fuel was sufficient to take us to Pangong Lake and back to Leh, but the Spanish Contingent felt otherwise, while we took cat naps after lunch. They went sand dune bashing ..blowing up fuel and their stamina !! First time in the entire ride, I saw Juvencio lying flat, tired and AMS struck. Luckily, the evening had more beer, some peanut masala and Uncles Chips.
Next day was time to leave, it was still raining. My worry was the we might run out of fuel and witness landslides en-route. But there was no way we would go up to Khardungla again .
Slowly and steadily we began our ride to Pangong lake, passing by even deeper water crossings and getting drenched as there was no let up in the rain. After about an hour of riding, we came across the first traffic jam that was almost 3 kms long. The advance party rode as far as they could, returned and reported a landslide.
We went into a huddle. The only way we could cross the landslide was on a All Terrain Vehicle or a Tank or a Royal Enfield Himalayan. If we wait for the jam to clear that would delay us but how do we get to the mouth of the landslide. After a quick survey, found a road parallel to the jam which was blocked by a hillock of clay. So to access the road we had to climb up this hillock which was just about 10 feet high. Found a spot and one by one we maneuvered the bikes and got on to the road. Stones were still rolling down the hill and we could see the Border Roads personnel working to open it asap. A bulldozer was making its way to the spot. 15 minutes we had to roll again before a 6 km traffic jam would open up.
It was a decision of the Unified Command at 10,000 Feet. Quickly, had the sun bathers gear up and we rolled. First the expert riders had to cross, then the rest. As we were getting closer to the spot we were being cheered by the border road workers and their advisory calls too. ” Don’t stop…keep rolling “ watch for stones…go go go….
One by one, we just crossed the worst 1 kms of the entire Leh ride starting from Manali. True to the advise of the sentry at 54 BRO Battalion Base, the road was so newly laid that the tar from the road was gripping the tires making them look like new. We also saw how a group from Border Roads was picking up pebbles and fallen stones from the new road to ensure that these don’t spoil the beauty of the road, so passionate were they on their creation in this hostile and unforgiving terrain.
Was able to pick up speed and accelerate to reach Tangste Check post where once again I did the Houdini trick to get the 10th rider through to Pangong.
A strange thing happened with me, this was the first time I was riding from Durbuk to Tangste , never before in his lifetime had I been here on this road. As we rode past a well fortified Military camp, ( Armored Regiment ) tears began to roll down my cheeks for this entire 20 odd km stretch. I had been here before, I had seen this terrain before. Every twist and turn on the road seemed like I have been here before, what was even spooky was the presence of a huge fuel dump that I knew was on the right side.Was I here in my past life !?? Long back a past life regression session did tell me I died in a battle. Was this my battlefield??
Soon we were at Pangong Lake and thanks to the Hindi movie 3 Idiots, we saw many idiots spoiling the serenity of this magnificent lake, women dressed as in the last scene of the movie, perching themselves on a bright red/yellow colored Italian Vespa Scooter, getting photographed as through they are to make the sequel of the movie or claim the actress’s place. Unfit bulgy couples running in slow motion towards each other to get clicked, boobs and bellys colliding, small road side Dhabhas proudly displaying “ Shouting point of Sharukh Khan in xyz movie “ it was all so disgusting how populated the area was and the rampant commercialization and abuse !! Plastic bottles, empty chips packets, shoes, plastic bags, it was sad to be here. Luckily, our camp was 12 kms further down this road and was the only camp nearest to the lake.
After some communication gap between the staff of the camp and us, we checked in our luxury tents that were slightly warmer than the close to zero temperature outside BUT true to the Protocol adhered to by the Spanish Contingent hoisted the Spanish Flag in the camp which confused the Chinese Soldiers who were watching us with binoculars !! Pangong Lake is a disputed area between China and India how have Spaniards Captured this and taken possession and hoisted their flag !! If I understood mandarin, may be I would have written more details !!
Siva and me decided to do our CSR part by picking up plastic bottles, beer bottles, paper etc ( including some condom packs ) from around the camp area and giving a sack full to the camp manager for rightful disposal. What amazed us, Pangong is a high altitude zone ( 4,250 meters / 14,000 feet ) …breathing is a challenge HOW ON EARTH DO PEOPLE MAKE OUT HERE and drink Strong beer that tastes like Horse piss !!!
With the bar of expectations really high, bonfires being a evening routine since we left Leh, I urged/ordered the camp manager to light up whatever was required to give us a bon fire, even though there were high winds. We needed it to keep ourselves warm .Fortunately, he obliged and after searching for about 20 minutes we found a spot which had a stone wall that protected the fire from the wind and we lit a strong fire that lasted for about 45 minutes. It was needed as the fire warmed us up, relived us from the aches and pains…and assured us of a good night sleep. We did have two riders complaining of breathlessness, but nothing major as the oxygen cans we carried were able to give some relief but gain, not from the snoring !! In the still of the night, sound travels with humor. To gulp water to avoid snoring was a first for me but same line second time !!! I died ?
It was the first time in our 6 years of operation that a customer asked me to raise a supplementary invoice for “ adventure surcharge “ as never before or rather no amount of team building exercises and workshops and adventure boot camps came close to what the Leh ride experience was. People not known to each other since Adam, met and rode together on this trip to build bonds that were stronger than their strongest friendships, multi lingual, cultural riders. All got along like a house on fire, camaraderie as seen on the battle field. Javier, Fernando & Juvencio from the Spanish contingent were hugging and thanking each other with a true sense of achievement and joy all over their faces. They had ridden together all over the world, but nothing seems to have come close to this ride.
For me, as the Road Captain / Group leader, it was fulfilling and overwhelming to see how well we connected and how close all got to each other. What started as a “ Professional Tour “ ended up as a group of friends meeting after many years and out living their dreams, ticking their bucket list and planning their next ride !