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.
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.
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!
(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.
(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.