Sometimes it is the journey that defines the destination and the voyage teaches you a lot about yourself than anything else in life. 25 years ago, on 17th July, 1989; I took a leap of faith and undertook one such expedition myself. Little, did I know what lay ahead and eventually, four days later; I returned a different, much wiser person. A trip down the memory lanes to a chequered trip that was as uncanny as the idea itself!
The Idea, the Challenge and the Enormity of it!
What would be more offbeat than travelling all alone on a motorcycle on the highest motorable road in the world? The 470 kilometre Manali-Leh road covers the most formidable mountainous terrain passing over five high mountain passes – the Rohtang Pass (13,050 feet), Baralacha Pass (16,100 feet), Changle (15,010 feet), Chalangla (16,616 feet) and last but not the least, Tanglangla (17,580 feet) above sea level. It’s much worse than crossing the infamous Zojila Pass a hundred times over; and combined with the fact that, after Keylong, there is absolutely no habitation at all. If I had an inkling to what was in store for me, I would have never attempted this journey!
Day 1:- The uncanny beginning of an arduous expedition.
Passing through Delhi, Kasauli (the calmest and the cleanest hill station in the country) Solan, Shimla and Kullu, I reached Raison, where Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (H.P.T.D.C) runs a camping site which is snuggled in apple orchards. I pitched my one-man tent for the night, with a little help from the caretaker, Brahma Dutt. Raison is an apple orchard country and according to a legend, the Pandavas frequented this place atleast thrice in their chequered lives! Next to the camping site runs the river Beas (derived from Rishi Vyas), where I had an exhilarating cold bath.
I barely slept that night as this was my first night out in the wild, without the proper protective “four walls”, the eeriness enhanced by the cold wind blowing and the gurgling waters making tremendous noise. Early next morning, leaving the apple orchard behind, I reached Manali for breakfast.
After meandering around for a couple of hours, I had to stock myself with 25 litres of petrol, since there would be no petrol pump for the next 470 kilometres! And after Keylong, absolutely no civilisation!
The next 41 kilometres drive to Rohtang Pass is a driver’s delight. On the way, one has to pass through Marhi, where I had some delicious aloo paranthas with chutney and curd. Rohtang offers an unrestricted panoramic view of snow-capped mountains. This is the place which sees a beeline by the tourists and their journey comes to an end. But, not me! Beyond this is the military road which had been thrown open to civilians for the first time since its construction. I was thrilled to learn that I was the first person on earth to travel alone on this road, that too on a 100 cc motorbike!
I met two youngsters who also intended to traverse on this very road. One had with him, a brand new bike which he had purchased in Chandigarh but unfortunately for him, he found this to be too much of an adventure and completed the rest of the journey on a truck onwards from Sarchu. (The only traffic on this route is the movement of troops and occasionally, trucks carrying aircraft fuel for the Leh airport). The other, Karma the Prince of Leh was riding a bullet motorcycle which later developed snags. Heard of the adage – Too many cooks spoil the broth – Well, here too many mechanics did the same with the bike! It resulted in the bike catching fire at Keylong!
The tarred road had tapered off and it was tough to handle the bike as the rough track was extremely slippery and on either side were deep gorges. After getting my documents cleared at the police outpost at Khoksar, the road got worse and that was just a foretaste of what was about to unveil in the next three days. At twilight, we were in remote Keylong, the district headquarters of Lahaul. This is where the bullet motorcycle was charred beyond recognition and with sadness, I retired for the night at the travellers’ bungalow.
Day 2:- Icy weather, broken bike, inhospitable terrain and stunning Patseo Lake
Next morning, I met a Danish couple on their Yamaha 600 cc’s bike and learnt that they too were attempting the same journey. After a heavy lunch, we were on our way, hoping to reach Sarchu by evening. But the road was so tough that even after seven hours of driving, we could barely manage 75 kilometres where we came across a deserted tin shed.
During this journey, I got stuck in an icy cold stream about three feet high. During the day, the snow melts resulting in a rapid stream of cold water gushing down the roads ending up in the valley. Panicking, I pushed the accelerator to its maximum. But, without traction and the rear wheel spinning, I managed to burn the clutch plates! With a lot of lady luck and tinkering, I managed to ride the bike in the first and second gears for the rest of the journey.
That night the temperature dropped well below 0 degrees celsius. The only pleasant sight that day was the extremely beautiful Patseo Lake, with its unnaturally bluish water. As one enters Ladakh, the colour of the sky changes dramatically into a heavenly blue, nothing like I have ever seen before.
A few words about this treacherous road would be in order. The General Reserve Engineering Force (G.R.E.F), the construction wing of the Border Road Organisation lost almost one life for each kilometre of the road constructed, hence is a ‘memorial’ to more than four hundred of its personnel. The terrain is utterly inhospitable and the weather extremely unfriendly. The mercury suddenly plummets below 0 degrees celsius and during winter, the normal night temperature hovers around -35 degrees celsius and during daytime, shoots upto 45 degrees celsius. It meanders through five high mountain passes and is the highest motorable road in the world. G.R.E.F ploughs about 1.7 lakh cubic metres of snow for every hundred kilometres which takes over three months, employing over two hundred personnel and about a dozen snow cutters. Though, open for hardly hundred days in a year, it assumes importance because of its strategic location, being so close to hostile neighbours.
Day 3: Hailstorm, high altitude, No food or water and breathing issues
The next morning, we experienced a hailstorm and rockfall as we started for Sarchu, 28 kilometres away. At the military checkpost, we parted company and I decided to make it alone (do or die was at motto at the moment) at any cost. The next two and a half days was a harrowing experience and as I had expected to complete the journey in a single day from Keylong, I was left without any food or water. A few months earlier, I had undertaken the Bangalore-Pune journey (860 kms. in seventeen hours flat, NONSTOP, riding throughout the night.) Since, Leh was 470 kilometres away, I presumed that however tough this road, I might be able to complete it in a day’s time. But that was not to be. It took me exactly 4 ½ days to reach Leh!
Life was never more complicated. Because of the high altitude and rarefied air, I had severe breathing problems and could hardly think straight. During the night, I had awful dreams of being, found by the soldiers, totally frozen! I realized how ill-equipped I was, without proper clothing, or even as essential necessity like a torch.
Practice makes a man perfect. To be fit enough for a journey, I had started jogging in right earnest a month earlier. To ‘rough it out’, I wore hunters without socks resulting in a big shoe-bite lasting over three months. And minus the pain-killers for the shoe-bite, it was hell. The only solace was the breathtaking landscape and the sun grinning at me throughout the day but in the process, drying up my drenched clothed.
Due to rarefied air, the sun is scorching hot and its ultraviolet rays caused deep sun burn. The rainfall being hardly five centimetres per annum, life is sustained entirely by the meeting snows during summer. The landscape is totally barren and desert like as high aridity and low temperatures lead to sparse alpine vegetation booming in clusters. Hence the name – Moonland. One comes across milestones every 40-50 kilometres probably just to assure you that you are still travelling on a road! There are times when you find yourself on a glacier without realising it! Due to lot of silting and avalanches, the ice gets covered with loose rocks, stones and soil. Another horrid experience was biking through the rapid flowing icy cold streams. As the snow melts on top of the mountains, the water travels over the road and by 2 PM, its height increases like anything and the flow gets dangerously rapid. A slight miscalculation and one is down the valley.
Due to the clutch problem of my bike, I had to travel around twelve hours a day and came across more than a dozen such streams, some above knee height! Due to the shoe-bite, half the journey had to be done wearing flip-flops! Since my entire luggage used to get drenched several times during the day, I had to spend the nights in wet clothes.
My morale had reached rock bottom and with the thin air breathlessness added upto give a massive headache, three days long. It got so bad that I could not muster enough strength to even remove my cameras from my rucksack. On several occasions, I stopped the bike and just flopped down right in the middle of the road! Just imagine the sight! But great was the bike (RX 100 Yamaha) which took this (mis) adventure in its stride except the clutch issue, which was entirely my fault.
By evening, I was at the next military checkpost, Spang. The military police were helpful enough to let me sleep in their tent as I had no strength to pitch my own. The next morning, I was given some pills for the headache at the MI room. MP Dayananad offered me a cup of tea and some kheer. That was the only food I had in over two and a half days!
Day 4:- Renewed vigour, sand, prayers, and curfew!
I braced myself for the journey ahead. I had to cross the formidable Tanglangla Pass and the pace that day got further slowed down because of tracts of sand. For a few kilometres, the road disappears and one encounters several kilometres of sand and travelling through with the clutch out, was an adventure on its own! I had to invoke all the Hindu Gods to help me proceed further and their mere number brought me through. By night, I was at the Upshi checkpost, which is just 60 kilometres away from Leh but could go no further as vehicles were not allowed into Leh after 6.00 p.m. as a curfew was clamped in the town. So, near yet so far.
After four and a half days of hard riding, totally famished, a groggy head and bloodshot eyes, I entered Leh. In these four and a half days, I felt like I had grown older by ten years and wiser by twenty. A piece of advice to a would-be traveller on this route (with the present situation in J&K, it seems a remote possibility of reopening this road for civilian, ever) – maintain a dairy, as the saying goes ‘Dead men tell no tales’.
Leh was under curfew for about a fortnight due to some violent incidents but unfortunately, as I entered Leh, there were police vans going around announcing the relaxation of curfew during the day. After such a tiring journey, Leh was paradise where I spent the next three days, relaxing.
The destination was worth the journey and the excruciating pain!
Leh reminds one of the utopian Lost Horizon. The Tibetan and Ladakhi cuisine is mouth-watering especially the thukpa, a soup with meatballs, Mokmong, noodles with meat and Momoes – meat covered with bater and deep-fried. A visit to Khardungla, the highest point on the highest motorable road in the world is a child’s play after those four and a half days. All tourists make it a point to treat themselves at the famous Dreamland hotel. I didn’t meet a single Indian tourist though I came across several foreigners especially the French and the German.
The most attractive and rewarding feature of Ladakh are the innumerable Gompas, the Buddhist monasteries dotting the landscape. The most popular among them being the Hemis – the wealthiest, Thikse which is architecturally the most impressive, and Shey which houses the 15-metre high statue of Buddha made of copper and is plated with gold.
The people of Ladakh are very friendly and hospitable and you are always greeted with ‘Julley’. The always present smile on their face makes one feel at home, instantly. Leh has innumerable guest house priced at Rs 30/day. It lies a little away from the bustling crowd on the main square.
Met Karma, the Prince of Leh again who had hitchhiked on a jeep from Keylong. He had loaded his bike on a truck on it’s way to Leh, never to see again! We made a trip to Stok palace belonging to his royal family. It has a museum housing exquisite period costumes, jewellery of the royal family, frescoes, precious jade, weapons, coins, porcelain jars, antiques and thankas – representing the life of Sankuya Muni.
After feasting on the exotic cuisine and aesthetically pleasing and interesting gompas, it was time to move on to the other parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and a trek to Umba Pass, wondering, given a chance would I travel on the same route, again? Julley, Leh!