Tuesday, May 29, 2012

10 July 2011 – Leh

[Part of my write up for the Leh Bike Trip]

Up early as expected. Over the past few days my friends had been talking about returning through the Srinagar route. Our original plan was to return via the same route we had come but then we didn't quite know what to expect from the most difficult road in India. I had my reservations but you can't fight the majority view on such trips. The road through Srinagar (called National Highway 1) was much better than the Manali route, with excellent roads and only one difficult pass – ZojiLa. This was welcome news for my bike.

My bike was in the worst shape of her life and the first thing on the day's agenda was to find a good mechanic. For this I had to go out of town and towards the airport. The stretch before the airport is full of garages and logistic offices. Being a Sunday, many shops were closed but I found a mechanic at work on some bikes. I went in and started with my long list of problems. The guy told me that these were normal problems given the bike had done the Manali-Leh route and went on to tell me what he could do and what he could not. What he could do was essentially a change of oil and cleaning of the carburettor. The rest, he said, I should look at after getting back home. I went to another shop and picked up the oil – it was meant for cars but the shopkeeper and the garage guy said that it was better suited at high altitudes. I didn't see the point of arguing with experience.

(My bike at the garage)

I spent a good hour at the garage and the mechanics checked and tweaked a lot of things on my bike. It enjoyed all that attention after the punishment it had received. The other customer at the garage got chatting with me. Mr Dhakate, originally from Nagpur, had been working in the accounts department at the local ITBP guest house for a few years now. I asked him for help with the places around Leh and he patiently listed all the things that shouldn't be missed. I noted it all down. Thanks to him I had a notebook filled with information of places between Leh and Kargil peppered with insider tips. He gave me his number in case we ran into any problem on the way, and then also gave me his wife's number as backup in case we had trouble reaching his number. My bike was ready by now – I thanked the mechanics and came back to the hotel.

The power goes off quite often in Leh and that compounded the problem we had with limited charging points. We decided to leave our devices connected to the charging points hoping that they would be charged when the power came back on. We then headed to the market for a hearty continental breakfast. Lots of bread – served with cups of butter, jam and honey, potatoes, various preparations of egg, and exotic sounding teas. The cafe had an attached bakery and we ordered some pies to round off the meal. 

(First of the four eateries we visited during the day)

After that heavy meal, we wandered into a bookstore. It had shelves full of foreign language literature –  Japanese, Spanish, Korean, Russian, etc. Most of the books in there were used and there were very few books in English. I picked up a few maps to see the route back to Srinagar. The young Sardar at the counter came over to help us.

Gurpreet Singh, born and brought up in Leh, had manned this family-run store from as long as he remembers. He was as clueless as us about the route. Turns out he hadn't travelled much, not even the places around Leh. As he put it, "Ghar ki murgi dal barabar". He spoke about life in Leh and how it is important to be happy in your own company. Very few people stay in Leh through the year as life gets incredibly difficult in the winters. According to Gurpreet, the road outside his store has over six feet of snow at the peak of winter and they can't even open the main door which gets blocked by snow. On learning that we were from Mumbai, he told us that he had been there once. The only thing he remembered from his visit was a day spent at some amusement park, he couldn't recollect the name. Esselworld, we chipped in. Why a Punjabi family would prefer the harsh, inhospitable mountains of Ladakh to the irrigated fertile plains is beyond me.

We walked around the market, looking at souvenirs but found them too expensive. Feeling hungry again, we went into another cafe that offered a wonderful view of Leh palace from our seats. The food was average but the baked good on display looked delicious – yes this too had a bakery. After this, me, Kunal and Sanjay went out to explore the places nearby. Amey was primarily interested in the food joints and stayed back.

(View of Leh palace from our Leh cafe)

(Backpackers in Leh market)

We took out bikes out of town and towards the palace. Indians have it good here, like everywhere else – we had free entry while the foreigners were charged 100 rupees. The palace was being restored by ASI and many places were off limits.

(Leh palace)

We could see Tsemo Gompa further up on the same hill and that is where we went next. I was having difficulty pronouncing the name of the place. The guide outside the gate kept repeating Tsemo but all I could repeat was Semo-Semo. He had a tough time explaining to me how to pronounce it correctly. There's a beautiful statue in the complex that should not be missed. 

(Our bikes parked at the entrance of Tsemo Gompa)

(Tsemo Gompa)

The entire town could be seen from up here. Little white rooftops dotting a desert background with the snow clad Zanskar further beyond. There's a little hill at the entrance of the gompa that is covered with Tibetan prayer flags. The climb was through a narrow ridge and I wasn't feeling too confident about reaching the other side. Kunal went first and I followed ,slowly, on all fours at some stretches. Got many awesome photos from here of the town, the palace, and the Stok Kangri range.

(Leh town and the Zanskar range in the background)

(The hill with prayer flags on top - MUST VISIT!)

Before sundown we were back in the market, in yet another rooftop cafe having pretty the same stuff and loving it! While returning to our hotel, we saw a rather interesting looking place next door. I went in to check it out and the place resembled Mocha before the hookah ban came into effect. The place was open-air and the Zanskar range, lit by a full moon night, could be seen from all the seats in the house.

(Our enclosure in the lounge)

Called Elements, this place claimed to be a lounge and was a stone's throw away from our hotel room. I went back for my friends. We couldn't believe we hadn't discovered this place earlier. The night was chilly but we got a nice enclosure filled with red gaddas and pillows. We had a chess board and sketch pad on our table to keep us busy. The food and drinks were great. There was some brilliant music playing and I discovered many awesome songs that went on to become regulars in my playlist. There was a noisy Punjabi group in the next enclosure but we were in a world of our own. After we were done we stayed back till closing time. I am sure no one wanted our last night in Leh to end. I lay down with my feet up watching the bright little holes, the stray cloud, and a snow clad mountain range painted on my Leh sky.

(Imagine there's no countries, easy if you try)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mumbai International Airport, Departures Gate 2 at 5 PM

A man with an clumsily tied navy blue tie tries to walk out of the terminal building. His shirt is a light shade of yellow contrasting his grey pants. His balding forehead doesn't hide his age -- late 20s. The policeman at the gate stops him, as he has stopped every one else who tried to leave the terminal building. The man mutters something as he is held by the policeman's arms that spans his chest. I am not sure what happened between the two but the policeman lets him go. Maybe the policeman just forgot all about him when he got busy checking the flight ticket and passport of the next person in line.

The man looks around at the crowd. His Mongoloid-looking friend spots him and calls out to the man's wife. The woman holds a baby in her arms and has another spunky kid at her feet. She comes to the crowd barrier that separates the terminal building from the street outside. The barrier is as high as her neck and is placed in an awkward manner which doesn't let her husband come closer than two feet. The man notices that the barrier on the side of the terminal, the one that is placed on the pavement, is much shorter and allows easier access. He asks his wife to meet him there. He walks over and waits for them. I notice they have a taxi waiting when the driver honks. The friend acknowledges the honk with a raised hand, like a stop sign.

As soon as his wife reaches the barrier, the man hugs her and kisses her on her cheeks. I can see her back. She is dressed in a bright shiny salwar kameez. Her brooch and earrings are shinier, with white drops that look like pearls, but are just cheap plastic. The kids act disinterested as their father, standing on the other side of what is essentially a fence, tries to take them in an embrace. I see that his eyes are red now. He's continuously talking to his wife, who now looks down, unable to meet his eyes. He has tears in his eyes too but the smile doesn't leave his face. His friend is now standing some feet away, with a film camera in his hands. Long time since I saw one. He stands, waiting for the wife to look up and at the camera. The husband tries to get her to look up, and then tries again, and in the third or fourth attempt she wipes off her tears and looks to the camera. She even manages a slight smile and there's a flash.

The man then takes his younger kid in his arms and there's another flash. The kid looks at me. I look away and gulp -- that stops the little water molecules unifying into a tear. I take a look at the other people around me, circling the terminal, terminating back at the scene I was at. The man is now hugging his friend -- to the left, then on the right, then to the left again. Peculiar. He then shakes his friend's hand, saying what looks like a goodbye for the last time.

Then just as he is about to turn towards the terminal, he stops to hug his wife again, and plants a kiss on her cheek again! This time he turns and moves purposefully to the terminal. The policeman lets him in without rechecking his papers. He walks past the metal detector and is walking towards the glass door that enters the terminal but then suddenly looks back, as if he had forgotten something, he rushes back past the detector looking towards the barrier where his wife was. She has already moved into the waiting taxi. He raises his hand and shouts. I look towards the taxi. The doors are closing and I don't see them looking back. The man stares at the taxi as it pulls away, and then he turns and is quickly inside the glass door.

I look up at the flight information display board. It flickers as the status refreshes. The destination column of the board is full of Gulf destinations -- Kuwait, Riyadh, Dubai, Bahrain, Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat. Dream destinations for countless Indians with nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Good luck man!

I managed to sneak a pic when they were not looking

Sunday, May 27, 2012

9 July 2011 – Leh

[Part of my write up for the Leh Bike Trip]

The night was similar to our previous nights, incredibly cold but we had the warmth of some fantastic hosts again.

(the owner of our tent)

We again started 2 hours after the planned time. We were at the base of the TanglangLa climb and from here it was a hour long twisty climb. The scenery, goes without saying, was fantastic and changed every two minutes. In spite of being the highest pass on the route to Leh, the roads were better that expected, good solid tarmac at many places and no river crossings.

(View before TanglangLa)

The air was very thin but my bike was holding up surprisingly well. The snow patches got denser as we approached TanglangLa. The final ascent was quite innocuous, we turned a corner and there it was – at 5328 meters - we were at the same altitude that planes fly. This was also the highes me or my bike has ever been and the view was incredible.

(Da man posing at TanglangLa)

(Da machine posing at TanglangLa)

(View on the other side of TanglangLa)

We had an extended photo session on top and then, without warning, it started to snow. It was light at first, but the memory of the previous night's storm was on our minds and we decided to head down quickly. The roads were being laid out on the other side and were dusty at the patches where the old tarmac had been stripped off. The road that had been laid out was fantastic though and we cruised down till Rumtse. At Rumtse we stopped for some tea and met a rather odd looking dog.

(Cruisin' together)

(Landmark at Rumtse)

(Yes, I am talking to you)

Next up was Gya which has a monastery perched up on a hill overlooking the valley below. From here on till Leh there were chortens/stupas everywhere – some tiny, some huge, but all white in colour. Gya is the start of the red mountain zone. It was the predominant colour of the landscape with even the rivers taking on a pinkish hue.

(Gimme red)

(My friends waiting just ahead of Gya)

A while later, there were fields of green dotting the houses along the way and some trees too. Welcome change after five days in the desert. We have arrived in Leh - Julley!

(Welcome to Leh)

(Crossing the Indus river)

We crossed the Indus river and a check post after which the road ran parallel to the Indus till Leh. There were some amazing canals next to the river but at a height of 10 meters from the river bed. Here it started to rain. We took shelter at a petrol pump – again the first in 5 days.

(You can see a monastery perched on a hill towards the left.)

The rain didn't last for long and didn't trouble us for the rest of our stay in JnK. The most exciting part of our journey was behind us. There are a couple of monastery's on this road to Leh. We first saw the Thiksey monastery, a 12 storied complex, around 20 kms before we hit the main town. A while later we came across Shey palace, which used to be the summer residence of Ladakhi kings.

(Thiksey monastery)

(Shey monastery)

(Long straight roads to Leh)

(Just before Leh, the landscape changes with meadows and horses .. Kashmir?)

Leh is huge, at least when looked at in comparison to the other towns on our way here but it was very difficult to find a room here. We couldn't find anything available near the main market and a policeman told us to try the hotels on Changspa road. It looks like we had come in absolute peak season because we couldn't find anything on Changspa either. Everything was booked.

We met a Wangtuk, the extremely friendly owner of Rigzin Guest House (9622152606) who had a room for us the next day. His hotel was good and I am sure it will be the same with his hospitality.  At Changspa, we saw a place offering paintball in the woods – we made a note to come back the next day (but couldn't find the time for it later).

During our search we had also gone to Padmaling Hotel which comes highly recommended online and in guide books. They had one room which was meant for 3 but the owner didn't have any problem if the five of us squeezed ourselves in there. Not finding any other option, we went back there and settled there for the next two days. The three single-beds in our room were pushed together and it wasn't as uncomfortable as we had originally thought it to be. With accommodation out of the problem list, we went to explore the market. It is a vibrant place with lot of backpackers which means some great world cuisine. 

(Dinner at the main market)

(Leh market at night)

(Tshirt shop - I picked one that said How I got Leh'd)

There was a travel agency that took you up to KhardungLa in their jeep and then gave you a cycle, to be ridden downhill till Leh. At 900/- per person I thought it was a steal. 

I got online and informed my parents and friends that things were well – this was the first time I spoke to them after Rohtang. Dinner was a quiet affair and it was an early night for us but not before we all picked up a "How I got Leh'd" t-shirt in the market. After 5 days and all that excitement, we had finally been Leh'd and it felt great!

Friday, May 11, 2012

8 July 2011 – Moray Plains

[Part of my write up for the Leh Bike Trip]

At the start of the fourth day of our ride from Chandigarh and we hadn't even covered half the distance to Leh. According to the original plan we should have been in Leh by now. Undeterred, we got up early and braced up for the next set of passes up ahead. We had only covered two passes till this point of our journey – Rohtang and BaralachaLa.

Amey had been racing ahead of us for the last four days so me and Sanjay decided to get a head start. Amey assured us he would overtake us before the next corner. We started rolling along the river, turning corners, and after 5-6 kilometers came to a strange looking landscape. We were in Killing Sarai. The mountains around us were getting more jagged than ever and the road undulated up and over the many small hills. 

(Killer roads at Killing Sarai)

There was no sign of Amey and we realized that something was amiss. I told Sanjay to wait while I went back to check on Amey. I had ridden all the way back to our campsite when I saw Amey – his bike wasn't ready to start in the cold morning. The lack of a kick-started would come back to bite him again and again over the rest of the trip.

We came back to Killing Sarai and there was a climb up till we saw a river to our left. The river was much larger than the small streams we had seen earlier. The river had cut deep into the sandy valley and there were deep gorges with strange weathering patterns. This picture will describe it better.

(The Yunan river bank)

After a long time along this scenery, we saw some camps along the side of the road. We were approaching Sarchu. Sarchu is the border of Himachal Pradesh and there's a checkpost at the other end of town. We had to register ourselves at a checkpost. Prepaid mobile cards don't work in Jammu and Kashmir so this was the last place to make any calls... that is if there was any network. My mobile had last seen network at Keylong.

(Check post at Sarchu)

I stopped at the army medical camp to see a doctor about the pain in my right leg. Sanjay joined me to see if he could do something about his dehydration – he was still just recovering from his AMS. There were a couple of cycles outside the medical camp and the owners, from Bangalore, were inside. One of the cyclists had severe AMS symptoms and the in-house doctor had put him on Oxygen. We were also checked for Oxygen levels and it turned out that we were fine. I got a couple of medicines for the pain in my leg. The doctor laughed when I asked him if the wound had any signs of septicaemia. All these facilities were available for free!

(Inside the Army medical camp)

We also stopped for a quick bite. The shop next door had a air pump where we checked the air pressure in our tyres and I got him to clean my air filter. The river next to the road was called Yunan and it created some breathtaking landscapes along its path. 

(Yunan river)

At some places the ground was cracked, which probably meant that it had held some glacial water before it was evaporated. The scenery never let you forget that Ladakh is after all a high altitude cold desert.

(Parched earth)

Before you hit the Gata loops, the road suddenly deviates from the river path and starts climbing the adjoining mountain. The Gata loops were glorious. Some four wheel drive vehicles were cutting through the loops and heading right up the mountain slope. While tempting, one look at the gradient got us back to our senses.

(The 22 loops of Gata)

(A little after Gata)

We climbed up and down more mountains. NakeeLa (4739m) and LachulungLa (5065m) were mere blips when compared to the horrors of Rohtang. The road was well paved and the scenes were good, but again not extraordinary like BaralachaLa. Even my bike was doing marginally better with the effects of bike-AMS wearing off!

(At LachlungLa)

(Bike, hills, sky, etc)

As we descended from these mountains and got close to Pang we came across a river crossing – a rather tame one at that. The stream collects in a small lake called the Kangla Jal. The river that flows down from here runs along the road and leads to Pang.

(Approaching Pang and the weird rock formations)

(Are we there yet?)

We had reached Pang at 5 PM. It reminded me of the American deserts with the huge canyons – the landscape is very similar. The rock and soil formations were weird but extraordinarily unique. This place has a small settlement and here were got our first real flavour of Ladakh. Almost all the tents were run by Ladakhis and we had a rather late lunch at one such place. There was only one man manning the counter and all others were women.

(Signboard cum menucard cum feedback form)

(Inside our tent)

The sky had surprisingly turned cloudy but there were hints of blue and the wind made a sound like it had just ripped up a storm in the distance. We did not want to stay at Pang as that would put us massively behind schedule.

Ahead lay the Morey plains and we had unconfirmed reports that there were tents at the end of Morey plains where we could halt for the night. I got talking to a group from Delhi and they said that they were planning to cross Morey and halt at the tents on the other side. But what if there were no tents? The people at Pang claimed that they had no idea, which was odd. We still had a couple of hours before nightfall and the Morey plains were a long straight plain – like a partially unpaved highway we thought. Over a plate of Maggi and a cup of Chai (yet again) we decided that taking chances had worked well for us so far in the trip and this was a risk worth taking. Unprepared and unaware, we decided to carry on. The clouds were still above us and if it started to rain, we knew we would be completely stranded. The great Morey plains stretching over 40kms with an average elevation is 4000m is one of the highest plains in the world and has no population, permanent or temporary.

(At the start of Moray plains)

There's a steep 5km climb up from Pang to Morey after which we were once again blown away by the scenes. The landscape changes every few kilometers on this seemingly endless expanse.

(Grand Canyons anyone? This is the Sumkhel Lungpa river that flows along the plains)

(Lake at Morey plains)

(My friends far away)

(Fantastic paved roads at the start - looking ahead)

(and looking back)

There's a tar road at the start but after a point there is nothing by dust with several crisscrossing tracks left by earlier vehicles. It was incredibly dusty and being last it was difficult to see what lay ahead. 

Suddenly, it struck me that I was running my bike without an air filter and these dusty conditions would screw up the engine. I stopped and got my tools out. I could see a Jeep in the distance moving towards me. My friends were long gone and I got a bit worried about being robbed (or worse)! I tried to get my mind off these thoughts and on to the task at hand. The Jeep came closer to me and stopped when it was right next to me. I looked up and saw that it was filled with men in army fatigues. Huge sigh of relief!

They began asking me questions, which I answered patiently. Their questions reflected the kind of concerns parents would have on hearing their children's plan of doing the Leh circuit. One of the first things they asked me was "bike ka ad kar rahe ho kya?" (Are you working on a bike ad?) Not used to seeing riding gear, they thought that it was only worn by racers and those doing bike ads and since it would be ridiculous to have a race on the Morey plains they assumed it was the latter. 

On hearing my background their retort was "kya milta hai yeh sab karke" (What do you get by doing this?) I just smiled, like I do when my parents and relatives direct similar questions at me. They asked me if I needed any help but I was done by then and tried to tail them to feel safer.

(Detour for Tso Kar)

I finally met Sanjay and Amey at the turn towards Tso Kar. Amey had seen a camping site near the lake and had come back to the main road to tell us about it. We wondered if these were the tents we had heard of but then remembered that the tents we wanted were not on a detour. The tents we were after should be further ahead.

Meanwhile, the cloud was getting more menacing and up ahead, I could see that a dust storm had broken in the distance.
Shaky video of the dust storm taken from a moving bike
From 2011-07-02_Leh
Just as that happened, we saw some tents up ahead and sped towards them. The Delhi group I had met at Pang had already booked accommodation for us at Rs 50/- per person. One couple from the Delhi group was sharing our tent and we exchanged notes of our trips so far. The girl had been riding pillion and had developed a massive back pain over the last few days. I thought I would see at least a couple of girls riding bikes but didn’t see any. This campsite, which is at the base of TanglangLa (I think) is called Debring.

(Close to our camp site)

At a height of 4800m, we were really pushing our bodies. This was our second consecutive night close to 5000m and to think that in our original plan, we had decided to take night halt at places that were all below 3500m.

The night was again super chilly and there was a strong wind which thankfully didn't reach us because of the canvas tent. I got up once at night to go to pee and couldn't manage more than 10 steps outside the tent. The chill would immediately take over your bones and I ran back in as soon as I was done.