Sometimes numbers tell the whole story. And this was definitely going to be one of those times. Over 250 kms, including 3 passes and the More plains, stood between our tents in Sarchu and a warm hotel bed in a nice hotel in Leh. We would have to start early, ride smartly and maintain a decent pace all day if we wanted to make it to Leh before the sun went down. So the last thing on anybody’s mind was the first thing that we heard that morning - we were completely snowed in. I woke up and staggered out of my tent, barely able to comprehend what had happened. Thick snow had blanketed absolutely everything in sight and we hadn’t had even the slightest of inklings of what transpired overnight as we had all slept like babies. It’s times like these when you realize man is frankly powerless if Mother Nature decides to rear her occasionally ugly head.
To make matters worse, the lack of running water meant that you had to go request for filled up buckets to be provided and given how cold it was you had to brace yourself before washing your face and freshening up. And here, we were supposed to be on a holiday! Despite being out there in the middle of nowhere, the camp had cable television and as some of us switched through the news channels, we realized that massive floods had hit a nearby state and over 80,000 people were stranded with an unknown number missing, presumably feared dead. In times like this, one gets overcome by a sense of helplessness and just hopes for the best. There really is nothing you can do and that is a humbling lesson.
We had to wait for the snow to melt and more importantly for vehicles to come across from the other side through the passes and give us the green signal which meant that we had some time on our hands which we spent climbing a nearby hill to take pictures from a semi aerial vantage point. With our schedule completely out the window but with clear weather ahead of us, we eventually started riding but within the first five minutes the Man who was on a mission had a fall from his bike which ended up pretty close to the edge of the road but physically he was all right.
Having being through a similarly small fall (though the damage I suffered then was much worse, I ended up burning my right ankle on the silencer leaving a scar that will never go away) nearly a decade ago, I knew that the toll it took on you mentally was much more than any physical damage and the Man who was on a mission admirably got up and continued riding. Respect! We also spotted a truck that had driven off the road, though the incline wasn’t anywhere close to steep, it did provide a grave reminder of the dangers that we chose to keep off our minds but not ignore.
We crossed an Army camp where our fine soldiers were playing a cricket match and as we rode on, once again I realized that my mind could no longer keep track of the striking natural beauty that lay in front of us. With multiple sharp hairpin bends to cover (someone mentioned 21, not sure if that’s the right number) and most of the riders stopping for pictures, the physical gaps within the group started to widen and we had to stop once and wait for everyone. Which was exactly when we saw that the Man who didn’t know which football club to support had fallen over while trying to take one of the hairpin bends. Fortunately he too escaped without a scratch but he saw us several hundred feet and a handful of bends above him and started waving to us for help. Given that his camera was with Vishal, we first used it to take pictures of him and his fallen steed before we sent Vishal to ensure he was back on two wheels in no time. There is a delicious sense of irony about the following photograph!
The first of two passes that we had to cross was Nakeela pass at a rather high 15,547 feet, a place marked by a set of stones placed one upon the other which made for quite the serene setting. Lachulungla pass, with its prayer flags and copious snow was next and was at an even higher altitude of 16,616 feet. It's funny how these probably just seem to be numbers but out there the difference between the two passes meant numerous bends and riding up and down mountains, something that had seemingly become second nature to us city slickers over the course of 3 and half days.
One of the more entertaining bits of the day involved reading the names of the bridges that we crossed. One was named Twing Twing Bridge, another Whiskey Bridge and a third was Brandy Bridge! I kid you not. On sobering days like this, sometimes even the smallest of things can bring a big smile to your face.
Given that we were on a tight schedule and that we had really started late, we ended up riding continuously till we stopped for lunch and boy oh boy, did it ever become a physical endurance test from hell or what. Despite the upright seating posture that kept fatigue away (as compared to other Indian bikes), the bad roads took a massive toll on the base of my neck which felt like it was on the verge of snapping off and every bone in my body was rattling so much that I was pretty sure that my insides had completely rearranged themselves in the space of an hour.
"I said shake rattle and roll (x4)
Well you'll never do nothin'
To save your doggone soul"
Shake Rattle And Roll - Bill Haley
It seemed as though I switched to a new found auto pilot mode as I pushed the physical pain into a distant corner of my mind, to be ignored as much as humanly possible for as long as humanly possible. After a point, it didn't matter as I rode on, mindful of signboards which acted as a countdown to my self-inflicted agony. Well it’s not like someone held a gun to my head and told me to go biking across the Himalayas or anything so I shouldn't really complain.
Lunch was finally upon us and we just sat out there in the sun, fully covered up of course, glad that part one of the torture test was finally over. By today most of the group had sun burnt skin that made us ideal candidates for the 'before' portion of a sunscreen advert and we liberally applied our protection whenever we could. Plates of dal – chawal and chowmein were polished off leaving the plates cleaner than they had been in ages. By the time we were done with our lunch, the Man who was on a mission arrived with the back up van in tow and treated themselves to a most well deserved meal.
It was also the first time that we sat down and discussed the various birds (the feathered kind obviously!) that we had spotted on the way, something I never thought I would've done. Pigeons, small red breasted birds and ravens that seemed to have dipped their beaks in a tin of yellow paint were some of the different varieties that we had noticed but didn't know the names of. Soon after lunch we pulled off the road for the mandatory line up of all the bikes in the Himalayas picture that every biker has to click to prove to the world that he made it up there and lived long enough to put it up as his cover picture on Facebook!
The majestic More plain were upon us which meant nearly 30 kms of roads that were as smooth as a baby’s bottom and were arrow straight as well. This resulted in a slight change in our group riding sequence as the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet (her skills weren’t to come to the fore just yet) took over riding duties and Boney took the pillion seat for a good portion of the stretch. Soon we rode past what we first thought to be a shepherd on the side of the road but was actually Stone standing there like, errr a rock, with a straight face that would have made even Arnold Schwarzenegger proud. It was like I was an extra on the sets of Terminator – The Himalayan Odyssey or something.
The good roads obviously had to end and it turned into terribly bumpy straight roads that were seemingly created with the sole intention of destroying the suspension of all vehicles that drove over it and the backs of all humans who dared sit in / on those vehicles. Once again, the auto-pilot switch was engaged and I rode on, oblivious to the throbbing pain from different parts of my body with no idea of what time it was or even what day it was. We started climbing towards Tagangla pass which was at an altitude of 17,587 feet, the highest point of the trip so far. Tagangla even had a large board that read “You are passing through second highest motorable pass of the world. Unbelievable is it not?”. Seriously, how could you not love the boards that we saw all day?
The worst of our riding was obviously behind us though we still had a fair distance to cover before we could hit the showers. As we rode on, the terrain once again changed and it looked as though we were riding through rather red mountains (one half of My favourite couple of all time christened these rocks Rubicon much to my amusement) and the setting sun made riding a little difficult as the stretches with sunlight were blindingly bright but the areas that were in the shade of the mountains were rather dark.
By 7 o’clock we stopped for some very well deserved tea and biscuits and though we are all exhausted, we wanted to make it to Leh before it got too dark. It was there that I realized that during the course of a normal day at work I drink 3 – 4 cups of coffee but barely feel any difference and up here in the Himalayas, a hot cup of tea does wonders to a worn out soul. The next 50 kms were a battle against the setting sun and fortunately the roads were in excellent condition which meant that progress was more than brisk. Despite our best efforts, it was dark soon but the excellent lighting provided by the bikes made sure that we were well within our safety boundaries. Say what you want about the ageing bikes, the lights certainly do their job without any fuss.
On the way, I almost got driven off the road and into the obituary section of the next day's newspaper as a manic driver in an SUV tried overtaking our single line of vehicles and got his right rear view mirror knocked off by a car from the opposite lane for his efforts. Fortunately I was keeping a close eye on my rear view mirror and had seen him weaving in and out of traffic dangerously and hence I was able to avoid him as he swerved in and nearly drove into my rear end (figuratively speaking of course!).
We stopped a few miles outside Leh as we waited for the Man who who didn’t know which football club to support and the Man who was on a mission, both of who had slowed down to get the headlight on one of their bikes fixed. With the hard riding and rough terrain, most of the group had completely lost sensation in their behinds and we were glad to be able to pull over and rub some circulation back into our backs. Our hotel was a sight for sore eyes and ever more sore bodies and all of us had just two things on our minds – a hot water bath and a nice dinner.
The day still had a bit of drama left in it though as available rooms were allocated to the group minus the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet and given the amount of time it had taken the two ladies to get ready when they had shared a room in Sarchu, it was probably best that they were kept apart in Leh. Forgive me for speaking the truth, ladies! We tried working out some different accommodation combinations with the organizers and the guys at the reception and finally were able to get a room for the pride of Punjab.
A hot water bath seemingly washed away half the aches and pains of the day and dinner was good though we could have been served an undercooked and tasteless meal and given the state that we were in, we probably would have said that it was equally good if not better. One of the advantages of returning to the civilized world was the presence of an unstable wi-fi connection though I still didn’t have mobile range anywhere. The instant messaging software Whatsapp came to my rescue and I was able to let my family know that I was still in one piece and more importantly that we were not in any danger from the heavy floods that were seemingly on a rampage in north India.
I also replied to messages from a few friends of mine, one of who was concerned about my safety and wanted me to do the smart thing and forget about the rest of the biking and head back. I couldn’t help but marvel at how such a simple gesture could make such a big difference to someone even as pessimistic as me. In this cynical and independence driven world of ours, almost everyone is accustomed to having only their immediate family being the only ones who genuinely care about their well-being but moments like this were welcome signs that all is not lost and hope springs eternal.
In terms of my all-time memorable days, I think this ranks right up there above the rest but 2000+ words cannot tell the story of what actually transpired. Numbers do not give any sense of the scale of what we actually went through. The devastation scripted by nature in a neighbouring state, the falls by our bikers, the abuse our bodies took as the miles rolled on, almost getting killed by the errant SUV driver, the touch of humanity at the end of it all, how does one even begin to successfully cover it all?
It doesn’t happen too often but boy, was I wrong about numbers telling the whole story.
Click here for Day 5 - Leh
Click here for Day 5 - Leh