It started as a casual discussion with Juvencio. Soon his neighbor Gaetan joined and the group began to get bigger and bigger with more high profile people adding such as Ex Ambassador of Sweden to India, Military Attaché Government of Switzerland to India, Intel Chief. The list was increasing with more Diplomats joining in and we finally capped it to 10 otherwise we would have needed the National Security Guard or a Military convoy to accompany us which would have spoiled the fun !
After months of planning, the date finally came – 8th June 2017. This was the cast off date and as it got closer, the excitement kept growing.
Raison – Jispa – Sarchu – Leh – Nubra – Pangong – Leh
10 Royal Enfield 411CC Himalayans were arranged. All were checked thoroughly for any possible material fatigue or part replacement. I would like to thank Manmohan Auto and Royal Enfield for all the technical support and stringent vehicle inspection prior to the ride.
At Royal India Bikes…we follow the mantra.. “A well maintained vehicle, never deceives the driver !”
The plan for the ride was as detailed as a Military Operation. From the captain of the Section, I put on my Quarter Master General cap, backed up tempo traveler that had to play the role of an IL 78, food & canteen supplies were loaded, oxygen cans, flasks, sleeping bags, mechanics, helpers, extra fuel, spares, extra tires and luggage. List of Dos & Don’t’s were made. Survival techniques were revisited. Everything that could make this ride a memorable one was done including pulling some strings as we had VVIPs in the entourage. BUT still one challenge remained. Getting The Inner Line Permits ( ILPs ) from MEA. Ministry of External Affairs , New Delhi issues permits for Diplomats traveling to Leh & Ladakh Region and also need clearance from Ministry of Defense. Our departure date was approaching but there was no sight of the Permits. Finally, 2 days before the departure, permits were issued without the confusion of having to treat the ex Ambassador as Diplomat or Non Diplomat who get their permits in Leh.
” The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war “ But I had to alter it a bit . ‘The more you prepare for the ride, the less you puke at high altitude.’
6th June 2017, the so called “Advance Party “ arrived at Chandigarh to stay at the Royal India Bikes Farm Homestay. We were welcomed by non other than a Python from the neighbouring forest that came to visit us specially.
On 7th June we rode on 4 bikes from Chandigarh to Raison ( www.neeralaya.com ) to prepare for the arrival of the remaining group who were flying in from Delhi to Kullu the next day. Neeralaya is an amazing resort that I have visited with my wife since we were dating till the time we had our kids. It is simply awesome and every stay has been a memorable one! We were going to be treated with Golden Eagle Beer of Mohan Meakins which reminded me of my childhood and post college days where every Fauji ( Military ) Mess served this beer with a distinct taste.
However, as a toddler I had the privilege of licking the froth and take a few gulps from my fathers beer mug. I just couldn’t get over the nostalgia of gulping this beer along the riverside dining area.
On 8th June, the Cavalry flew in. I can safely call it the UN Group even though we nick named ourselves as the “June Riders “ but we were nothing short of a United Nations Beer Drinking & Motorcycle riding contingent !!. We had good humored Spaniards who were friends since childhood – Americans, French, German, Swiss, Australian, Swedish, Singapore, PIO and Indian nationalities all United by one dream. To ride to the highest Motorable road in the world and undertake a life changing journey on the iconic Royal Enfield Motorcycle with Royal India Bikes.
There was a minor hic up . Air India decided to start the adventure a day in advance by leaving behind ( shutting out ) the riding gear of Choon Gan however the only available gear was of the Lady rider ( Pink Jacket !! ) which he had to eventually wear.
VVIP exit yes, it started with departure from airport. Our 2 Innova drivers infiltrated the convoy of the Parliamentarians who were here on a study tour. “Gora Saabhs “ somehow seemed to be more important than them and were zipping to Raison- a journey that was expected to take 45 minutes from Bhunter Airport till Raison !!! The road to Manali was undergoing an expansion to accommodate half a million North Indians who flock Manali in summers making the road condition bad.
After a binging an Himalaya Trout session at the Neeralay and gulping some Golden Eagle Beers, it was time for a test ride and fuel up. We went on a short ride near Raison, fueled up and prepare for the next days ride.
9th June was here. Some people didn’t sleep because of the excitement. I didn’t sleep worrying about Rohtang Pass crossing and the traffic jam delays that could push back our detailed and precise timings !! Air India had to deliver the bag to the Hotel in Raison and I had a dispatch driver waiting to drive it to our next stop in Jispa
At 0535 hrs, we cast off in a single file lead by a lady road captain who was called in to make the group more diverse with gender equality. I was the last man ( Sweeper ).
25 minutes into the ride, we had the first fall. Rider number 7 misread the road and felL. luckily it was a minor one and the Royal Enfield Riding Gear played the role of a Samurai’s armor. No injury , no damages and we continued riding but not without the trauma on the rider who showed signs of fatigue and had his second and third fall ( crash ) By this time, we got separated from the rest of the group as “instructions (orders)” to the lead rider were to Stop ONLY at Rohtang Top.
The Road to Rohtang was patchy, cold with visibility down to 20 feet. Someone had clearly faultered the 1200 car rule. There were clearly a lot more !! Thanks to the war horse the Royal Enfield 411 CC Himalayan that we were off roading, cutting and crossing the serpentine ques, Gulaba Check post and then Marhi. These two hurdles were cleared and the roads began to get narrower and colder. Now, Rohtang was in sight with Border Roads Organization welcoming you with their humorous sign boards ‘Careful on my curves’ !!
By the time we reached Rohtang Top, it was just the last 3 riders and we were hit by a Snow Storm. There was no time for ceremonial photographs. AMS was setting in and we could not have another fall so we commenced our journey ! The other riders carried on ahead of us.
2 kms down Rohtang and the weather began to change, clouds went off and sun was out but the road was slushy and mucky. Every riding skill had to be used to maneuver down. One touch of the brakes and it would be soap in the bathroom fall.
With extreme care and caution, the three of us were descending. My only worry being no more falls for the senior diplomat and they say if you keep thinking of something, it bloody happens. There he was down in the puddle of slush and mud. luckily we were on flat ground and again not much damage but a few bent things. At the high altitudes, with riding gear that is as heavy as a bridal gown, our weight is 10 kgs more but body is working at 65 – 70 % efficiency and then the weight of the bike !!
Together, we lifted the bike and began our ride down to meet the rest of the team who I knew would be waiting for us at the exit check-post at Koksar.
It was almost 5 hours since we left Manali and gliding down Grampu ( Grumpy ) to Koksar checkpost where we linked up with the rest of the group and ate bread and some chai. After sharing our brief encounters on the road, while every one was in awe of the terrain and humbled by the mighty Himalayas, I had to get them to roll as our next stop was The Ibex Hotel in Jispa which was 2 to 3 hours from here.
Refreshed we moved further to Jispa not before our ceremonial stop at the LAST petrol pump till we reached Leh where all bikes were fueled up. The petrol station was under construction and had rubble to ride on till the Fuel dispenser !! I thought the roads at Rohtang were better than this.
We left the Indian Oil pump to arrive Hotel Ibex by 1330 hrs in time for lunch.
Manali to Gulaba was 20 kms and from Gulaba to Marhi was another 15 kms from here and Rohtang Pass 18 kms. Total = 52 kms.
Rohtang to Gramphu = 16 kms
Gramphu to Koksar = 6 kms
Koksar to Jispa = 77 kms
We had the choice of staying at Keeylong, but found it to be a bit crowded while Jispa was more scenic and quite.
Jispa – Height 3142 meters = 10,300 feet
By the time we reached the Hotel Ibex, team building/buddies/bonding had commenced and I faced my first “ revolt “ as the Section of 10 men in chorus wanted to have beers and I couldn’t blame them as there was fridge stocked with Tuborg Beers staring at our faces !
Since none had headaches or any signs of Altitude sickness, limited and controlled consumption of beers was permitted !! Australia and England were playing a cricket match which was being telecast live added to the reason !!
Getting hot water for a bath is a bit of a challenge in the hills since all by energy is Solar. So if you reach by mid day, there is no hot water and it has to be requested. We get hot water for a bubbly bath at 1500 hrs is !! As we went along, it was the same issue every where…!!
By evening, the wind had picked up speed, and temperatures were down to 2 or 3 degrees. Thanks to the in house winter clothing shop, we could buy warm gloves and caps that were made by the local village women. This way, we helped the village economy as well !
The Master Chief Petty Officer and his apprentice were busy checking the bikes and repairing the damages due to the falls. Luckily, we had no punctures and no issues with the bikes besides the normal fatigue on the roads..
Before Pipes Down, I wore my Quarter Master General cap, ensuring that all had oxygen cans, water and Gatorade for the night.
10th June 2017 – Roll call at 0700 hrs to check if all were fine. We had Tea and some light breakfast and rolled down the river bed opposite the Hotel Ibex for our customary snaps. It was an area where many SUVs drivers were checking their 4 x 4 skills.
Next stop – Sarchu ( 80 kms ) also called Puke point (4,253 – 4,630 meters ) = 15,300 meters above mean sea level.
After 12 kms, we had the second check post where entries had to be made. We commenced the climb to Darcha Patsio with some small water crossings and then towards the big water crossing at Zing Zing Bar where one of the Himalayans was made to behave like an angry horse and almost jumped off the fall. Out of 12 riders, 10 cleared without any problems whereas 2 fell. The trick on a water crossing is go on to low gear and take the LEFT or RIGHT paths as these are flatted by passing trucks. Never put your feet down or stop, just ride through. Like taught in horse riding school, look between the ears of the horse for balance and you will never fall !!
Interestingly, along the entire route from Rohtang, we saw hordes of men. darked by the unforgiving sun, chapped lips and blood shot eyes Working rigorously and continuously picking pebbles to rocks to even ice cubes from the road Border Roads ( BRO ) as they are called truly BROs !!
Second thing that caught the eye of many of the riders was the change in attitude of truckers who would pull along side on being honked at pee pee peee peee to allow bikes to pass. And it was awesome to see how they too realized that in the abode of the Gods, one must respect life and YES, I would raise my hand and raise a thumbs up as a gesture of thanks for their kind consideration which usually doesn’t exists on roads.
After crossing a frozen Suraj Tal lake and some amazingly cut snow corridors, we arrived at a deep water crossing Camp Drojee which is at the start of Sarchu.
Heads were getting heavier and fatigue was showing. Stomachs were rumbling for food. Thanks to some miscommunication within the camp, they were not expecting us and had not prepared lunch so galley was asked to hurry up and here is when we had our first bowl of noodles, something that was to become our staple diet for the next 9 days and help lose weight around the belly ?. I lost 4 kgs after the ride.
The sun was shining bright and we were sitting around basking and soaking in the sun listening to the very knowledgeable and interesting conversations of the group who were masters in their fields. It truly was an honor to be part of such a knowledgeable forum. My knowledge on current affairs and India’s history and diversity improved.
Spain had the largest contingent in this UN group. They were lining up to hoist the Spanish Flag in the camp while the rest were trying to sleep and acclimatize to the high altitude. We could hear UNOS DO UNOS DOS, Spanish One Two One Two and like Jawans, they unfurled the Spanish Flag. This flag hoisting at almost all the places we stopped could have changed Indo China relations !! At sun down, true to Military traditions, the flag was lowered and folded ceremoniously.
Bathing here was a luxury as by the time the runner boy would bring hot water from kitchen to the attached bathroom, it would get cold and the bucket of water for toilet wash had ice cubes in it !!!
Garlic is known for its blood purifying properties and acts as a blood thinner making it easier to absorb oxygen and reverse effect being of aphrodisiacal nature !!!
Our bodies were getting accustomed to the altitude. Now, the headaches were less and only 1 rider was feeling sick. We administered some puffs of oxygen that kind of helped and made him feel slightly better and good enough to participate in our high level conversations.
Temperature at night was arounf 3 degrees. For our comfort, the camp owner gave us 12 hot water bottles that we cuddled and slept They helped us release the pain and act as a heater, heating up the blankets and bed. Some slept with their riding gear on as it was indeed and effort to put on riding shoes or for that matter the jacket too !
11th June 2017 – Mission of the day – Reach Leh by 1630 hrs.
First hic upp, the back up Tempo Traveler was not starting as the high altitude and cold put in moisture in the system. After many attempts to self start, we threw hot water on the fuel pump and battery and it cranked.
All bikes had been fueled up and gotten ready with minor repairs.
After about an hour of riding through some terrain out of Jurassic park, our climb began. luckily for us the weather was clear – partly cloudy, but cold
First stop was to be at Pang ( 4630 meters ) almost the same level as Sarchu but after passing through the 21 gata loops that was 25 kms after Sarchu where we had another fall, we had a bent handle. Any stress to straighten it could break it making the bike a dead duck. But hats off to the skill of the rider, we rode on. Slowly and steadily we cleared the first two high passes, Nakeela and Lachalang La. Crossing the Whisky Nalla and the Brandy Bridge was “intoxicating “ The air was thin, the feeling of being on the top of the world was overwhelming and the mightiness of the Himalayas humbling.
My first mistake as Captain – I tried to take a short cut up the hill at Nakeela not realizing that the Himalayan Bike had lost power and could not negotiate the steep gradient. 6 bikes that followed me met with the same fate ” all fell down “ but we were lucky that the bikes didn’t topple on us. We got up, brushed our gear and broke into a contagious laughter as the fall reminded us of Ringa Ringa Roses…. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but two bikes had bent brakes and clutch levers. We were well stocked with the spares and the back up was in nik of time to get the replacement done and we were off again.
For some reason, the bikes consumed more fuel than expected and after reaching Pang we refueled all bikes but there was a problem. The Master Chief Petty officer was a bit disillusioned with the altitude and forgot to fuel up two bikes. After a short chai break at the tents in Pang, we moved ahead to cross the highest pass on the stretch – Tanglang La but not before a super flat surface of Moore Plains which is 25-28 kms of flat roads with some tricky dips . We recommend never to speed up here as you could land into a “road pocket” and hurt your back… ( The road we hit before the Moore plains was the worst so far )
The Moore plains were scenic and breathtaking withs lots of Ibex, wild horses and mountain goats. The locals here seemed from a very Mongolian stock.
The two bikes that missed fuel up were on fumes. We had to do what Captain Haddock did in Secret of the Unicorn- blow into the tank to take them 6 kms further as that’s were there were some dhabhas who were selling fuel. INR 560 for 5 liters 70 % margin !!
After a quick chain and refuel, we moved ahead to climb the Tanglang La Pass ( 5,360 meters ). We could see the fatigue and surpressed fear on the faces as some of the curves and turns before Moore Plains were nice !! The bad roads made it worse.
30 kms more to go before we descend. After the last minute briefing and reminders on avalanches, we set off. As we kept getting closer, the mightiness of the pass was intimidating. By this time the bikes were spluttering and gasping for air. Speeds were down to 40 kmph and we began to climb. The clouds were building up and we could feel the cold snow flakes hit us like needles. The temperature gauge on the bikes began to drop into single digits…9…8…7… – 3 !! Hats off to the Officers and Jawans of the BRO. This stretch was recently metaled making it easier to ride but not without some slips and slides and skids. Trails of snow were falling like waterfalls with snow along the road and water crossings. All skills were put to use to maneuver and get out without getting feet wet.
Finally !! Thank God, we reached the Tanglang la pass only to be greeted by a high wind snow storm that made us run for cover into the only open Chai & Coffee shop. Moksha’s regular chanting of WaheGuru WaheGuru helped us as god almighty protected us all through out.
As soon as there was a let up in the cloud cover, we mounted the bikes. It was 1300 hrs and we needed food and fuel desperately. In 15 minutes, we were descending. The sun was out, rain and snow didn’t exist and we were feeling more wholesome and bikes more powerful !! To save fuel, we began to shut engines and glide down.
The terrain was changing rapidly and raw desert was getting greener as we came down to Rhumste Dhabha ahead ! Ahoy !! Pulled over and jumped inside this cute room of a dhabha which was being manned by a elderly Ladakhi woman and boy. She was ambidextrous. 12 bowls of noodles, tea, food was flowing in. Never before have I enjoyed a bowl of noodles as much service with a smile. She kept serving us. till I looked at my watch to see time to Leh !!
Water takes a long time to boil up in the hills due to low atmospheric pressure…so how are they making noodles so quick ??? well there were many flasks full of hot water so every time you ordered a packet of noodles she would pour the hot water in the pan and start from 80 degrees and in less than 10 minutes you get Hot noodle.
80 kms more to go. Fuel sufficient to take us till Leh but with no margin of safety !! We rode on and the terrain was once again breath taking ! Roads as smooth as butter, we were able to ride at 60 – 80 kmph and the ride in was a SOFT breeze…
Upshi Check post – where all foreigners have to make an entry. Not to forget a small tax barrier operated and manned by some teenagers who seem to be making their pocket money from this !! When I asked them for the official gazette on tax, the barrier bar was lifted !!
Fuel situation was critical. We were 40 kms from Hotel Shambha La our final destination and took a calculated risk and just zipped.
Entering Leh or were we entering Greater Kailash II or some road of Bombay.. ??? Traffic seemed same !! Roads were dug up to lay sewerage pipes., boy oh boy, this was not the Leh I knew off…
Finally, we rolled into Hotel Shambha La greeted by the ever smiling Mrs & Mr Narboo. We have been staying at Hotel Shambha La since 2006.
High fives, hugs and happiness! Mission accomplished. All were safe and the bikes were in good condition. The first leg of our June ride 2017 was over. After 7 to 8 falls, the senior diplomat had a broken rib and had to fly back home and was not able to complete the remaining two legs of the ride.
It was a life defining ride for some- sheer raw adventure and something never done before. Riders in the section had ridden in Dakar., Colombia, Route 66 but none came close to this Himalayan Adventure. and more in store as we have to ride further to Nubra Valley & Pangong So Lake.
Our sincere thanks to Border Roads Organization ( HIMANK & DEEPAK ) for keeping the roads clear and working 24 x 7 in rain, hail and snow ensuring that a Tourist reached his holiday destination, Supplies to the Jawans, letters to the detachments far and high above- keeping J & K connected with the rest of India.