A Pillion’s Leh Travelogue: Day Fo4r ‘Pang to Karu’

The morning sun was a welcome feeling as we got up the next day at Pang. Although Pang is at a height of more than 15000 ft, it is a major stopping point on the Manali-Leh highway. Travellers can be assured of both food and accommodation here. There are always a couple of parachute tented camps with necessary supplies.

We stayed at the Army Transit camp, which is considered to be the world’s highest military transit camp situated at an altitude of 15,768 ft. The medical aid that we received was at the world’s highest functional hospital.

Since I hadn’t been feeling well when we started from Keylong the day before, as soon as we reached the Pang Transit camp, the guy suffering from AMS and I went to the MI room. We were accompanied by the other four in the group. It turns out that everyone was low on oxygen except me, mainly because I was eating light and drinking lots of water. Funny how things work out!  Some of us were having glucose water, which the doc said we shouldn’t have. The idea is to store the energy and not get burned out too fast. Also having a Diamox as a precautionary measure at Keylong or Jispa is a good idea.

Pang to Morey plains to Debring (About 50 Km)

We started early from Pang, by now we all were professionals at packing our saddle bags and strapping them on to our bikes. Water bottles – check, air pressure – check, jackets & eye gear – check, Pillion – check. There was a comfy rhythm in which everything fell into place.

Interestingly on trips like these the group dynamics builds and many roles emerge voluntarily, someone takes up the responsibility of being the  – Planner, Timekeeper, Funny Guy, Safety guy, Inventory keeper and so on. Especially on a ride like this when you push your endurance to the limits, being in a group helps. In spite of all the dangers involved, the Manali-Leh highway rewards you with great friends and spectacular memories.

So, we were off to Karu today, and we were stuck in a traffic jam within 10 min from exiting the transit camp. I guess everyone at Pang decided to leave together. There were trucks, four wheelers and lots of bikes, on both sides of a narrow road. We wriggled our way thru and within 8km we reached the starting of Morey plains.

Morey Plains’ is Phenomenal. It is a flat distance of 45 Km situated at an altitude of more than 15800 ft, a big change from the passes we were climbing and descending over the last few days. The tarmac roads were being constructed and we got about 5 km of  smooth roads. After that it was mostly like a dirt race track made by the vehicles passing through this stretch. The average speed at this altitude is not high, so one feels like you are shifting in space in slow motion.

The battery on my ipod had run out long ago, and with the helmets and other jingbang, it’s not easy to talk to the rider. Actually, by now there isn’t much to say. So you are forced to keep silent, a difficult task for me in ordinary circumstances.

Many times one has heard that people come to India for soul searching, or people going to the Art of living course or Vipasna. When we were in Pune, we met people who had enrolled into the Osho ashram and even Elizabeth in Eat, Pray Love comes to find inner peace. To all these people, all I can say is – Ride down to leh. It’s a better, more fun way – I promise. Like they say ‘In silence, find thy self’.

Jokes apart, this is actually true. Being with yourself makes one focus on what’s important, who one really is – you know, the good stuff. It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the daily grind of life, back home.

I read this sometime back and it kind of sums up what I want to say, “I travel because it makes more sense to me than not travelling. I travel because a breath taking landscape is hands down worth a 15 hour flight. I travel because I want to have a broader and deeper perspective of life. I travel because I love it.

 

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

Day 3 Part 3: ‘Ghatta Loops to Pang’

Ghatta Loops to Nakeela Pass & Whiskey Nullah (About 17 Km)

The road conditions worsened quickly. Tarmac was now being replaced by bumpy roads and soon we were left with loose gravel, stone chips, mud, slush and a lot of running streams. This was one of the worst mountain roads I had seen till now, and it was to continue all the way till Pang.

The Nakeela pass after Ghata Loops was actually a pretty soft pass, though it is just little shorter (15547 ft) than BaralachLa (16500 ft), unlike others it’s easy to just miss it. It’s one of those things that just creep up on you. That’s where the legend of Nakee La being dangerous both in terms of AMS and road accidents comes from.

Basically, riders in just about an hour have climbed about 2000 feet, the air is getting thinner and no one has realized the slight headache yet. Plus by now everyone is tired. The thought of still having to cross another pass is looming in the head. Apart from the human body suffering from symptoms of AMS, the motorcycle will also under-perform in such conditions. A ‘critical battery’ popup would be very appropriate here!

One of our group rider encountered the classic symptoms of AMS, usually accompanied by headache, nausea, dizziness and vomiting.  We realized this when we reached a makeshift tent at Whiskey Nullah. We met a couple of other groups there, and almost all of them had one or two people suffering from AMS.  On my husband’s last trip too they had riders from the group needing oxygen.  The best way to avoid AMS is to drink plenty of water. The oxygen levels are low and H2O is 1/3 part oxygen, this is exactly what I was told at the Medical Aid room in Pang. (More about that on Day 4).

The tent owner gave us some hot lemon tea and made all of us have some glucose biscuits. We rested for a while till our friend felt a little better, but we were not sure if he was well enough to ride.  It was getting dark and we had to make some decisions – stay the night in the tent or move on. There was just one thought in our minds. Pang was just 30 km and medical aid was easier to get there. It was about mind over matter. We decided – we must reach Pang.

Although we had gathered courage and motivated each other as much as possible, things were not going to be easy. We had to deal with innumerable streams running with freezing cold water from the melting snow. The second halves of the day have the maximum streams flowing untamed on the road. The wind was howling and the temperature was reaching icy cold levels.

 

Whiskey Nullah to Pang (About 30 Km)

We crossed the Lachungla pass a tad bit higher (16616 ft) than BaralachLa within half an hour of starting from Whisky Nullah. The roads, or what was left of them were of no help and at our top speed of 30 km/h we were making slow progress.

As if things were not bad enough we encountered the deadliest water crossing yet. What makes a water crossing dangerous is not the length or the depth as much as the speed of the water. This was a raging river and deep. There was an abandoned truck on one side and a narrow gap for us to ride, naturally!

Can you hear the horror movie soundtrack yet? Listen intently to the gushing stream sound effects, howling winds and 4 bikers looking to the left and right? Now what??

Well, nothing much. The pillions took of their shoes, rolled up their jeans and walked across the icy cold water. Took out the cameras and put it on video mode. The bikers took a deep breath and maneuvered the bikes to the best of their abilities across the ragging river. We all made it.

We got to know the next morning that a lot of other bikers got stuck there at night and the Army guys at Pang had to send reinforcements to help them out. The Army, BRO and other defence forces of our country are just AWESOME. I don’t think I say it often enough.

Apart from the excitement of all the water crossings, working under time constraints and a headache from AMS, the ride is ‘Pure Bliss‘. The landscapes en route to Pang are breathtaking. It’s like you have landed on the moon or on the sets of Chronicles of Narnia /LOTR.

 

We saw some frozen waterfalls, amazing wind eroded Bagha Canyon walls and lots of dry arid features, tunnels and some things I can’t describe.

We finally reached the Army Transit camp at Pang, our destination for the day. A visit to the medical facility for a dose of pure oxygen, then dinner and off to bed. We could hardly move and the men in the Army unit were playing cricket. We didn’t even have the energy to think – HOW?

We had completed half of our six day vacation and in a couple of hours we would be starting the journey towards the highest motorable pass in the world.

 

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

Day 3 Part 2: ‘Deepak Tal to Pang’

Darcha to Patseo (About 15 km)

Deepak Tal is a man-made lake at Patseo. It is the most beautiful ‘one-slide-summary‘ I’d ever witnessed. If you are a trigger happy photographer, your day is made. Any angle, any side guarantees a perfect picture.

From Patseo, suddenly the terrain changed its characteristics. It turned to the dry arid Ladakh styled look with a blink of an eye. It was majestic. Barren land all around and leading to tall snow capped peaks in the backdrop.

Patseo to Baralach La (About 15 Km)

On your way to the mighty pass we crossed Zingzingbar. Zingzingbar is the base camp of Baralach La, most famous for the painted peace signs on rocks that some creative souls have left behind. It also has a local eating joint Peace Café.

The loos here are basically ‘find a big rock and hide behind them. Ok! That was the last of my bathroom stories. I promise !!

Mountains continue to grow taller and more arid as the road progresses north towards Baralach La. We had heard some horror stories the previous night from travellers crossing the pass,of the snow having melted and weather being really bad, due to which vehicles got stuck and so on.

But little did we know that this part of the journey, that we feared the most, would turn out to be a box of chocolates. A really pleasurable ride with sunny weather, good roads tunneled between 10-12 feet of snow. One of my favourite parts of the journey.

Suraj Tal, another lake at Baralacha is bigger than we had recently crossed. It stands against a backdrop of views of snowy peaks. The road runs along Bhaga River all the way to the pass where it emerges from the middle of rocks as a small stream. To the other side of these rocks is Suraj Tal, probably connected to the stream through an underground channel. When we crossed it, it was completely frozen. I was told that in the later part of the year, camping agency operate camps & tents at Surajtal. There is also a trekking expedition via this route.

Baralach La to Sarchu (About 40 Km)

After driving on the fourth highest motorable road in the world – Baralach La, we were on our way to Sarchu. By now the vegetation had thinned considerably from the first day. The mountainsides had no green covers and were primarily nude rocks which made the erosion carvings look spectacular.

Sarchu is a tented camp in on the boundary between Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Situated between Baralach La to the south and Lachulung La to the north, it’s a comparatively low-lying area at an altitude of 4,290 m. We needed to register at the check post in Sarchu before proceeding further, so made a mandatory stop here.

Sarchu has some Army lodging, one can see barracks and even a Medical Room, but other than that you can just find tents and make shift arrangements. Although, I did notice, that the only other permanent brick structure here was the liquor shop and as you’ll see all along the trip, ‘Godfather’ ruled the advertising word.

We had lunch in a tent owned and run by two ladakhi women. The warm dal chawal and Maggi were our saviors by now. Actually just hot water would taste heavenly in the windy cold weather outside. After lunch we were on our way to the loops.

Sarchu to Gatta Loops (About 10 Km)

The other side of the canyon from Sarchu was the base of the Gatta loops. The mountain surface were now in all hues of brown – chocolate brown, muddy brown, reddish brown. There were so many shades of brown that dominated the landscape, you’d think you are looking at an artist pallet as they mix and match to create a new shade of brown.

The Gatta Loops are a series of 21 consecutive switchback climbs; they are actually really sharp bends, one loop leading to another; through which one gains 1800 feet in 7 km or so. I had read a lot about this seeming to be a never ending feature, and I knew now why it was bestowed with a legendary status. Gatta Loops was an amazing sight from top; the 21 hairpin bends look like some mischievous boys drew a race track for their toy cars.

When biking to Leh it is advisable to travel at a slow pace to allow acclimatization but most importantly to enjoy the stunning locations. Where in the world can you cross a river, snow capped mountains, dry arid land, windy canyons, kids maze and still have half of the journey left for the day??

Two more passes to cross and it was mid afternoon already !

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

A Pillion’s Leh Travelogue: Day Thr3e ‘ Keylong to Pang’

Every year bikers from across the globe plan to ride on what is termed as ‘one of the best routes in the world’ and we were already half way on that trip. This was promised to be the most exciting of all the days. Not that we weren’t already in wonder and admiration of the beauty and simplicity of each and every minute of the trip.

As the day unfolded we had crossed a handful of passes, seen a frozen lake and another one that looked like a mirage, travelled through 10-12 feet of snow and reached the world’s highest transit camp. Yes, it was surely an eventful day. No amount of stories and blogs can prepare you for this day. You had to be there to understand how I felt and what I saw. Still, I’ll try and capture it for you.

I must mention the overwhelming feeling one gets from the camaraderie among the bikers. There is a sense of community and togetherness as one comes across any biker. You’ll notice riders dimming their lights or honking and giving thumbs up to others riders all the way. As if to say ‘Best of Luck’ or ‘We did it’. I guess it comes from the passion for riding or the fact that one is in a larger than life environment. Such camaraderie is without precedence!

The good part is that rider who is travelling back offer advice about the do’s & don’ts. Everyone is generally extremely helpful. One great advice we got was that – we should aim to cross the majority of passes before mid day, before the snow starts to melt. This was especially important for Baralach La, thankfully it was the first on the map.

Keylong  to Jispa (22 Km)

It looked like I got up from the wrong side of the bed on day three, for starters I was not feeling well and within 10 minutes of our ride we came across a water crossing, and lo-and-behold, my feet got cold & wet and so did my shoes and socks. This was no time for sulking, we had a long long day ahead and things would get better. Hopefully!!

Being a pillion is hard work too you know, I agree that the rider has a lot of weight to carry on this shoulders (pun intended). But – sitting still is no joke, try it yourself! Every time you need to move your aching bum you have to wait for a clear road, take formal authorization and stand on the foot-stand for barely a few seconds. Also, keeping quiet the whole way is no easy task. I’ll elaborate more on that when we reach Morey planes.

For now we’re off to Jispa.


After breakfast at Keylong, we had started towards Jispa, a beautiful 22 kms ride. 4 kms ahead of Ghemur, Jispa has a very large dry river-bed, a rarity in Lahaul, with river Bhaga flowing at the edge.

We were surprised to see a large number of rest houses and hotels. It looked like, most buses and taxis prefer to break journey in Jispa rather than Keylong. I have heard that Hotel Ibex is a nice place to stay, we just used their restrooms.

Jispa to Darcha (about 7 km)

The downhill 5-7 km to Darcha was a smooth ride. We saw a couple of tented accommodation and some cyclists on our way.

Darcha is basically a police check point where all vehicles crossing the area need to register. The only way for the authorities to track travellers I guess. There are a few shops that are open all year long here and store almost everything. I bought some nice colorful warm socks, chocolates. There was red bull available too.

What I found fascinating was that to use the loo, one has to ask the owner, take the key and go to the back of the structure to a door that is locked. Nothing fascinating there, but as you open the door you realize that there are only 3 walls to his bathroom. An Indian style loo, the structure was fitted on a big pit with a drain pipe kind of a formation leading down the slope. There was water with a bucket and soap – so everything else was just fine. Just never had the wind-in-your-face and one-with-nature kind of a feeling like this before.

There was also an air pump available to check the air pressure on bike, at a charge and self service – naturally!

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

Day 2 Part 2 ‘Rohtang to Keylong’

Rohtang – Sissu – Tandi (55 Km)

The descent towards Keylong took us via the Koksar village, the first village of Lahaul. Then to our first major water crossing at Sissu.

 

Now that I look back, I feel water crossing are unique, they are kind of the highlights of the day. Mainly for two reasons

A:  It’s a great team activity, everyone around gets together and strategises the best way to conquer the obstacle.

B:  This is one place where the pillion gets a piece of the action, because they are actually off the bike. Taking off the shoes and walking across the cold water or hitching a ride on a 4+ wheeler, there is so much to do. Everyone is excited about the adventure that gets heightened here.

This particular crossing was more of crossing a small stream feeding into the river Chandra Bhaga. A little dam was broken by the strong current of the water. This is where I lost my cell phone (another story for another time).

Sissu lies on the bank of Chandra, 15 km after Koksar. I’ve heard that every spring and autumn wild geese and ducks halt here on their way to and from Siberia. (Just a little trivia) Our next stop was Tandi, known to be the last point to tank up if travelling north of Keylong.

Tandi to Keylong (8 Km)

Tandi is supposedly,  the only village on Manali-Leh highway which has a petrol pump. The next petrol pump is 365 kms away in Leh, although we did see one near Upshi, I think?!

I’ve read that the petrol pump is owned by Lahul Potato Growers Co-operative Society. The region is part of the ancient trade route; potatoes from the Lahaul Valley played an important part in the barter and trade with locals at that time. The important thing is to get a tank full at this Potato Petrol Pump and advisable to carry extra fuel since most of the time one is riding in lower gears and taking frequent stops, esp. if one is riding with a pillion.

Last stop for the day – Keylong

We didn’t make it at 6pm and all the rooms and tents were full. We did however; manage to get a dorm for the 6 of us to stay in. The hotel was a good bet, a little away from the main market, but that made it easier for us to start the next morning. We realized that we should have made an online booking for the place Hotel Chandra Bhaga – Keylong, Lahaul District, Himachal (HPTDC) . The best part is at additional cost you can hire room heaters etc. There is hot running water and a restaurant, which is all you need after a full day of travel and just a night to rest.

It is vital to have a night to acclimatize before venturing to higher altitudes. This means not going for the tent camps at Sarchu or Pang directly from Manali. Making the first stop in Keylong drastically reduces the risk of altitude sickness.

A special note here, this is the last stop for making all the phone calls, after this the network becomes unpredictable even if you do have an IDEA Sirji.

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi


A Pillion’s Leh Travelogue: Day T2o ‘Mandi to Keylong’

There are two possible ways of getting to Leh by road. The first is the Leh-Srinagar highway. The second route is the Manali-Leh road. This road weaves in and out among the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Western Himalayas over a stretch of nearly 485 kms . The road is open from mid-July to mid-October every year, depending on weather and road conditions.

This second land approach to Ladakh can be made more adventurous by taking the Spiti Valley route, although it takes more time, I believe, it’s worth it! (See my husband’s 1st trip travelogue for details)

Anyway, our mission today was relatively simple – reach Hotel Chandra Bhaga at Keylong before 6 pm so that we can get a few rooms to stay for the night.

We were to start our day at 5 am, and surprisingly even for a late riser like myself, this was not a daunting task. The excitement and enthusiasm was still very high and so was the fact that I needed to eat soon.

Mandi to Manali (110 Km)

On our way to Manali we encountered a dimly lit, really long tunnel, unexpected but enjoyable. In about an hour we reached Manali and had some eggs, paranthas and tawa bread. We had to do our last checks on our bikes, petrol, and other supplies here, as this was the last township. The next bike workshop after Manali was Keylong our destination for the day.

Manali is located at the confluence of the Beas & Manalsu Rivers in the northern Kullu valley. It is a popular tourist destination and hence the market is full of hotels, guest houses and restaurants . One can rent bikes here – and everywhere you look, you’ll see or hear an Enfield.

We avoided the market, and ate at a small dhaba across the river. On our way to Rohtang, we came across hundreds of River Rafting camps and trekking tours, something to plan for the next trip.

Manali to Rohtang Pass (51 Km)

As soon as one leaves Manali, the climb for Rohtang Pass starts. After about 50 kms of continuous ascent you reach the famous Pass.

Rohtang pass is a high mountain pass across the Pir Panjal range. It has the infamous reputation of unpredictable weather and traffic jams that last for hours. We encountered both  – a never ending traffic jam and cold constant rain.

Rohtang La means a place where spirits freeze. Ro means spirit and tang is short for tangmo or cold. The Rohtang Pass weather certainly lives up to this reputation. Although I must admit, the ride till the pass was breathtaking, we saw our first of many – waterfall, cloud cover over the mountain, snow and an unexpected para sailing duo.

The permission to travel on this highway is given by Indian army after they clear the snow and inspect the road for its fitness and safety for movement of person and the vehicles. As it is the only road link between the Kullu Valley with the Lahul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh the traffic problems are inevitable.

As you pass the pass you realize sharp contrast in the terrain and how quickly things change. The range acts as a natural, cultural and ecological divide between the lush green Kullu valley and its Hindu culture vis-à-vis the dry desert regions of the Lahaul/Spiti/Leh and its Tibetan Buddhist culture. I was in awe of it all.

They day we were to cross the pass was also the day that Sonia Gandhi laid the foundation of the 8.8-km-long Rohtang tunnel at Dhundi at the base of Rohtang. The tunnel is expected to provide all-weather connectivity and reduce the distance between Manali and Keylong by at least 48 km. The tunneling is expected to be completed in 2015. But the traffic of  party workers and tourists was not a good omen for us. It took us almost 3 hrs to reach the other side.

After Rohtang, the road descends into Chandra Valley passing through Khoksar and then to Tandi, where the Chandra river meets the river Bhaga.

On our way down we stopped at Gramphoo’s only visible dwelling, where we had piping hot Maggi. This was the same place my husband had stopped 3 years back when he took a trip via Spiti. We then realized the strategic location of this ‘Lama Dhaba – we now call The Only Place’ were the two paths met.

We were off too quickly for my liking, but we had already lost a lot of time and the 6 pm deadline was soon approaching.

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

A Pillion’s Leh Travelogue: Day On1 ‘Delhi to Mandi’

The six of us on our four bikes were ready as we would ever be on the morning (more like 3 am at night) of the first day. There were rumors that due to heavy snow fall the roads were not open in some parts but we decided to take our chances as rescheduling would have been impossible.

 

This is the day that we covered the longest distance of the trip, over 450 km on the very first day, but that by no account implies that we were on the road for less than 10 hrs any other day. You learn, the difference between theoretically and practically while you ride in the mountains!

 

We reached Panchkula for breakfast, well in time at our parent’s house, this was our first halt. Some yummy chana-puri-halwa was a great start to our trip and that was the last home cooked Punjabi meal for the next few days.

 

Delhi to Chandigarh took us about 4-5 hours and we hadn’t even reached the foothills yet. It was warm and dusty but this was soon about to change.

Within an hour of leaving Chandigarh we hit the winding roads and the cool breeze. The road to Manali was still being repaired and we found ourselves in some long traffic jams, which we got ahead of since we were on bikes. One should count their blessings – Right!

 

 

By the end of the day my back side was aching, the battery on my ipod had run out and my body’s battery needs some charging. We stopped short of Manali at Mandi, as we had been riding almost continuously for about 10-11 hrs and were sure that another 45 min was going to just stretch us out. All I could think of was the famous quote by Donkey from Shrek, “Are we there yet ?”

We stayed at a nice clean budget hotel (about INR 2500/night/room) called Hotel Valley View, Mandi. The service was decent, there was hot running water and had a 24 hr Restaurant & Bar.

An early dinner and we were off to bed, and trust me it didn’t even take us a minute to fall into deep sleep. The painkiller I had must have also kicked in too, not that I needed it too much, but prevention is better than cure.

Dreaming of day two, is all I could do.

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi

A Pillion’s Leh Travelogue: Where it all started

Let’s be totally honest, when you hear stories about going to Leh on a bike there is a little part of you that says, I wanna do that some day. And if these stories are relayed to you every few weeks for 3 years or so – nothing can stop you from taking the trip.

My trip to Leh was a result of just that, a persuasive husband and his love for biking.

As a pillion rider I have a couple of new tales to add to the Chronicles of our Road Trip. But before I start let me just say a Big  Thanks to my dear husband and my friends for organizing a ride on what they call The Road to Heaven.

This was not my first ever long bike trip. The longest I’ve travelled was a three day trip from Pune to Ganpatipule with a day stop-over in between. This was a six day trip  as we were planning to fly back because we didn’t have enough leave. I am sure this was gonna be a little bit more exciting!!
The plan was simple, 6 people4 bikes. Ride down to Leh from Delhi via Manali. Take a couple of hundred snaps. Spend the last 2 days in Leh for sightseeing and fly back to Delhi. And all of 6 days to do it!

The route was essentially – Delhi – Panchkula –Mandi – Manali – Rohtang Pass – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa – ZingZing Bar – Baralacha La (Pass) – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Ghata loops – Nakee La – LachLung La – Pang – Morey Planes – Tanglang La – Upshi – Karu – Leh- IGI Delhi.

Luckily for us we stuck to the plan and had just a couple of minor hiccups, because no matter how much one plans, trip like these – the climate, road conditions and The All Mighty are very unpredictable.

I shall try to recount my side of the story in A PILLION’S LEH TRAVELOGUE series, hope you guys enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the trip.

(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi