Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Day 6 : Travelin Soldier - Dixie Chicks (Khardung La)

Ladies and gentlemen, this was it – the highlight of the trip. Everything that we done up to this point boiled down to this one monumental ride. All the months of planning, the riding while slippin n slidin, the comforts of our daily life that we had willingly given up, the beating that the terrain had given our ill equipped bodies, everything amounted to this one day. Khardung La. 18,380 feet / 5602 metres above sea level.  That’s an altitude that makes it the world’s highest motorable road. The pinnacle of biking as we know it. To say that all of us were a little pumped up for this ride would be a bit of an understatement.

The day began with a phone call at around 7 in the morning, something that I found rather suspicious given that there was no reason for the guy at the reception to be calling us when we instead should have been calling him to send up some tea. Despite the phone being on the side table right next to me, I pretended to be asleep and the Man who didn’t know which football club to support (who was sharing the room with me and yes it was a large double bed!) dutifully got out of bed, walked all the way around and spoke to the person on the other end who said he was calling from the reception desk and asked him to go check if hot water was coming in the main tap at the basin. So off he went to check and returned a minute later to confirm that it was.

Next he was asked to check if hot water was available in the shower and once again he trooped to the bathroom. A minute later he was back and was then told by a very worried sounding receptionist that he needed to rush and store the hot water in the bucket before the other guests used up all of it since it was coming from a central heater. If you guessed that he returned to the bathroom to collect the hot water, congratulations, you guessed right! Turned out, it was a wide awake Man with arms longer than the law, who was calling up people in each room and pulling the same prank on all of them!

For the second day in a row we had a calm relaxed breakfast and were supposed to leave for Khardung La only by 10:30 because we needed the harsh and unforgiving sun to work in our favour for once and melt some of the icy roads that led up to the top of the motorable world. On the way we picked up the daughter of the hotels owner and her friend who wanted to enjoy the experience as well. The first half of the climb to Khardung La was brilliant, smooth roads coupled with lovely S bends made for very quick progress. See if you spot the winding roads in the picture below and you will have an idea of the ride we had!

At first I was excited about the prospect of having such great tarmac all the way to the top but given the amount of abuse that we had taken in the preceding few days, it almost seemed as though we were cheating a little bit as we were on the verge of the most anticipated part of our biking expedition. Just when I was feeling bad about the good roads (I’m sure you’re still scratching your head wondering what is wrong with me) things took a turn for the better. By which I mean the roads became really really bad. Go figure!

For a while we were stuck because an excavator occupied the narrow path and was pushing away fallen rocks off the precipice and down the mountain face. Ten minutes later we were cleared to go through and caught up with the rest of the group that was slowed down by traffic blocks. The sun was pretty sharp and we often dismounted at these frequent blocks to plonk our butts on the snow or to click pictures of the magnificent views that we were treated to.

I’m sure I’ve been saying that about every day of the trip but I can’t help it, the place is just divinely beautiful and it’s my duty to let you know so! It was when we were stuck behind a few trucks that I actually stopped to observe the work that was being done to clear the road and I realized that it was such a thankless job but they continued doing it day in and day out while people like us waited impatiently for them to take a break and let us through while rarely sparing a thought for the people who toil away. 

Finally we rumbled into Khardung La, having achieved what most bikers could only dream of doing, the zenith of biking not just in India but the world over. I expected to be overcome by waves of emotion, all my years of biking accumulating into that one moment, the triumph of human will and ancient technology over the worst that Mother Nature decided to throw at us. And yet, it never came. It was a fantastic accomplishment, one that ranks up there in terms of things that I have achieved in my lifetime. But that special feeling was missing from Khardung La.

I’ve often sat back and wondered why it was the case but it’s difficult to come up with a definitive answer. It was crowded yes, but Rohtang pass was much more of a mess with the abundance of people that were there. Then there was the loud music that was blaring from a large speaker which kind of felt out of place.  Those are the only two things that really stood out but the wow factor was surely not there. The cafeteria from which we were supposed to have lunch (having instant noodles at Khardung La is part of tradition if you bike your way up there) was rather unbelievably all out of food and we were left with the option of hot pakodas instead.

We took a bunch of pictures there and seeing as we were hogging the board that said “Siachen Brigade 208 Welcomes You At Khardung La (18380 Ft / 5602 Mt) Worlds Highest Motorable Road” we even managed to make some serious looking uncles smile for photographs with their kids. What kind of dad keeps a straight face minus the happy smile when he is on a holiday with his family, I mean really?

On our way down we again had to stop several times on account of the road clearing work that was going on. This time rocks were being broken in different places and progress were really slow as a result. With the really late start and the lack of any sort of lunch whatsoever, we were noticeably getting tired and the bad roads meant that once again we were fighting mental and physical battles with ourselves. Having a pillion for the first time today meant that I had to concentrate a lot more which made things a lot less easy for me as compared to the previous days. I believe that when someone else’s life is in your hands, you better be concerned about their safety and ride accordingly as against the way you ride when you are solo. The frequent breaks did act as good resting points but it kept us further away from lunch at the hotel so it was a catch 22 situation. See if you can spot the excavator in the picture below.

One very weird thing that I noticed was that cab drivers used to stop in the middle of hair pin bends to talk to their counterparts in cabs going in the opposite direction! Finally smooth tarmac was upon us and boy was I glad to be riding on great roads again. I know what you’re thinking – first he was unhappy that he had smooth roads and now he was excited to be back on them. It’s one of those Obelix tapping his head moments!

Now with heavy usage of a bike’s brakes, especially drum brakes, one will experience what is known as “brake fade”, a phenomenon where braking progressively diminishes in capability and is hence the scourge of bikers everywhere. Now you will be surprised to know that brake fade applies to all bikes that use drum brakes except Bullets. That’s because Bullets instead suffer from “brakes have left the building”, a phenomenon where the brakes seemingly get tired of working, pack up and call it a day while they let you try to Fred Flintstone your way into whatever retardation your boots can give you. I swear I experienced this on the way back to our hotel where we finally got food at 17:30. Remember what I said earlier about how meals in the mountains happened at any and all times?

Since we were heading to Pangong lake the next day and the mechanics wouldn’t have time to work on the bikes after that, there was no riding scheduled for the rest of the evening but some of us were keen on visiting the War Memorial and we called for cabs to take us there and then into town for some shopping. Now in my time I’ve given the Indian government quite a bit of flak for how badly maintained our historical monuments are and how poorly we treat our national treasures but the War Memorial is at the opposite end of the spectrum. I walked in expecting a regular tribute to our troops but walked out a changed man.

"I cried
Never gonna hold the hand of another guy
Too young for him they told her
Waitin' for the love of a travelin' soldier
Our love will never end
Waitin' for the soldier to come back again
Never more to be alone when the letter said
A soldier's coming home" 

Travelin Soldier - Dixie Chicks

The memorial contained a mock up of the local geography, arty photos of all the tourist spots, highly informative pieces on the fauna as well as the local traditions, historical details of all the places of interest, tributes to the men who had laid down their lives in service of the nation with selfless acts of courage, details about our conflict with our neighbours, proof of the Pakistan’s armys support of insurgents, weapons, insights into how our brave soldiers are equipped to fight Nature and the enemy and much much more. There was a tribute that was built outside the building with two inscriptions that read “In memory of those who set out to serve the nation’s cause and did not return. Ladakh 1947” and “Almighty Lord, in thy gracious keeping, leave we our soldiers sleeping”. 

But the one thing that affected all of us the most was a heart wrenching letter written by Capt Vijayant Thapar to his parents the day before he died in the Kargil war. It honestly took a great amount of self control to hold back the tears and was one of those “What am I really doing with my life?” moments that you can only use for introspection without ever really getting close to a meaningful answer. I walked away with new found respect for the men and women that serve our nation by courageously defending even inhospitable and frankly meaningless areas of land from insurgents, state sponsored terrorists and armed forces from across the border.

Our next stop was the local market to pick up gifts for near and dear ones and the different shopping styles of the various members of the group were out on display though not too openly. We tried our hand at collective bargaining but fell for the whole Im not selling it to you guys if this is the way you guys want to buy from me routine! Oldest trick in the book and well for it hook line and sinker. The market was a veritable photographer’s paradise and it wasn’t a surprise to find that quite a few tourists seemed to be there more for the pictures than for any actual dents on the wallet.

The t-shirt shops with stitched on local designs were our next stop and it took us quite the bit of effort to get the attention of the guy taking the orders and by this time I realised that I didnt really like any of the designs and opted out of picking up a few. There were some nice tees including one that said “My friend went to Leh and all I got was this t-shirt” but the one I liked the most was this tribute to a local restaurant – the Hard Yak. Hopefully the waiters there don’t jump onto the tables and do their version of Y.M.C.A!

We had made one of the cab drivers really late with all our shopping and he drove us back to our hotel with speeds that we had not seen since the beginning of the trip. Doing those speeds on bikes would've been one thing, doing it in an ancient people carrier that was never designed with the word safety in mind, was a whole different ball game. Of course it was difficult to have an appetite when you have had lunch in the late evening but we did enjoy the meal before retiring for the day.

I started the day thinking that the ride to the top of the world would be the best part of the whole trip. Turns out I was wrong once again as the War Memorial crept in like a sleeper left hook that knocked me off my feet. Who would’ve thought it, huh? 

Click here for Day 7 - Pangong Tso

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