My bike, a saddle bag, a couple of strangers, and the journey to Ladakh! Part 2

09 June Sat: The D Day Arrives!

Finally, 09 June did rise. I did some last preparation, paid obeisance to the various deities in my wife’s prayer closet (with she in tears, as usual…) and was dropped at the railway station. There, I met the rest of my team as also the other team. We gathered together in the Upper Class Waiting Room with our luggage and a round of introductions followed. Neville went off to help Prashant with the loading of his bike while the others minded the large quantity of baggage.

A Bomb Scare!

The Jhelum Express had pulled into Platform Number One when a posse of cops went about keeping people at a distance from the coaches. The announcer was repeating in English, Hindi and Marathi “Do not board the train, no person to board the Jhelum Express” or words to that effect. Pretty soon, Platform Number One was cleared of all persons- hassled passengers, tearful relatives, expectant coolies, idle on-lookers, busy hawkers, scratching dogs et al.

I inquired from an officious Assistant Sub Inspector as to the reason for the eviction  and he replied that there was a suspicion that there was a stick of dynamite on the train (apparently, one such delightful pyrotechnic had been found on the train preceding the Jhelum and the cops were taking no chances, so go figure…) My knowledge of Improvised Explosive Devices told me that looking for a stick of dynamite on a train the size of the Jhelum Express was the proverbial needle in a haystack preceded by the again proverbial and associated wild goose chase.

The police got in a couple of sniffer dogs (quite bored with the drama and fed up with the stink of the platform, they seemed) and in a remarkably short space of time, pronounced the train as fit for travel. The normal bedlam for seats ensued.

The RAC Drama

Amongst the five of us, we had three confirmed reservations and two were on an RAC status. I think a similar situation obtained with the other team too. The TTE was a gallant and chivalrous and concomitantly, unfair man when he confirmed the tickets for two women (it did not help our cause that these women were also pretty) with a lower RAC status than us but kept us at status quo. Later in the journey, we managed to obtain confirmed reservations for all nine of us so were able to have a comfortable night’s sleep.

10 June Sun: On The Train

Time passes fast in the company of a cheerful and interesting bunch of co-passengers as we made up.

I found that Samir and Surbhi were intrepid trekkers and as they related, so seemed their son too. Samir was a hard-nosed businessman with many a story to tell about how wheeling and dealing occurs in India. His wife Surbhi was a most cheerful and supportive lady, bubbling over with enthusiasm about the trip. And they conjured up an unending series of snacks of various types too!

Prashant struck me as quite the Angry Young Man– bearded with Leftist leanings and a cynicism quite out of proportion to his age. He was still unmarried so would not know the real meaning of Hell on Earth, I suppose. He too was a businessman dealing in compressors etc.

Henry was the eldest in the group and I had had quite a range of fulfilling chats with him about work, careers and Life in general. I found him to be an articulated, mature person with a passion for photography – in fact, when the train halted at Delhi, he sold off an expensive camera! I am a novice at photography and was amazed at some of the photos he showed me. A very nice person to be friends with indeed.

All in all, I was not bored at all.

Appointment of Team Treasurer/Banker

Whilst we had been preparing for the ride, we had debated the concept of a Team Treasurer/Banker. Each member would contribute a certain amount to the team kitty and the banker would be responsible for settlement of all bills for meals, snacks, refreshments etc except those for refueling the bikes. The unanimous choice was Fakhruddin. He was managing a business and would be good with accounts.

In the train, I reimbursed everybody with the proceeds of the return ticket cancellation. Then, each of us put in Rs 2000/- for the team kitty and we unanimously appointed Fakhru as the Banker with a toast of water and chips!

It is a mark of his own competence as also the trust reposed in him by all of us that there was not one single occasion, not one, where any of us had even the slightest twinge of misgivings about the whole issue.

As the days went by, it did not matter that Shubham was a vegetarian and yet was sharing the bill for the chicken or that Vaibhav and I had alcoholic drinks yet the bill was shared by all or that Neville always had two ice creams yet we all paid our share. If one starts bickering about such small issues on a grand trip like this, there are bound to be problems. A few hundred rupees here and there is too paltry a sum to destroy budding friendships and an emerging team spirit.

Day One – 11 Jun Mon: Jammu and then Nagrota

The train was about an hour late at pulling into the station and we disembarked at about 1130h. Then the hunt for the bikes started. They were scattered over the platform – Vaibhav, Shubham and I found ours in the godown while Neville and Fakhru found theirs in the luggage area of the platform. Jammu was very humid and hot and it was quite tiring to walk up and down the platform to get the bikes cleared. We appointed Surbhi as the sentry on our baggage while the gents went about the bike clearances.

Vaibhav and I paid Rs 660/- for the overtime charges as we had sent my bike on 06 June while Neville and Fakhru paid a bit more as they had sent theirs on 03 June. The most gratifying part of the experience was that all bikes were completely undamaged in their journey from Pune till Jammu – a remarkable phenomenon indeed!

Karthik and Gloria had reached a day prior and were at the station to help us. He got fuel for Vaibhav and some others and then Vaibhav got fuel for us four just to reach the pump. The fuel station was barely 200m away and our thirsty bikes drank the amber nectar like there was no tomorrow (I swear that I heard my bike barf too LOL)

After our bikes had been fed Indian Oil’s best brew, I called up my colleague, Colonel Mandeep Rathore who was posted in Nagrota; he had arranged a night stay in an Army Mess there. He guided me to Nagrota and we set course on the highway which would ultimately end in Leh.

In between, we had lunch at a dhaba. This was the first time after reaching Jammu that I was feeling the effect of the heat and humidity and was a bit sapped by it. We had a good meal and pressed on to Nagrota which we reached at about 3 PM.

The whole of Jammu and Kashmir is declared as a disturbed state and it was no wonder that on reaching the Army unit where we were to be put up for the night, our arrival was viewed with the correct degree of suspicion and caution. We parked our bikes outside the reinforced gates and I proffered my Identity Card to the sentry for his scrutiny. He was satisfied as the gates opened and I was let through. I then had a word with the Commanding Officer (no names, either of unit or officer) and identity established, my teammates were allowed in and we proceeded to the Officers Mess.

We had been given two rooms into which we deposited our baggage. I was already plagued by a severe headache, courtesy the heat and downed two Anacins, my Brahmastra Number One for headaches. But, I had forgotten BA Number Two, namely Sloan’s Balm.

Shubham appeared as a saviour when he brought out a large bottle of the potent stuff which I proceeded to apply most liberally. In a short span of one hour, my headache was gone and I was spry enough to enjoy the banter going on.

We went in for a drink at about 8 PM, suitably attired, as far as possible, in keeping with the decorum applicable to an Indian Army Officers Mess. Vaibhav and I shared a couple of chilled beers (God’s Gift to Mankind, I call it) while the others nursed fruit juices. Some VIP was expected and our attire comprising jeans was not correct for the Ante Room of the Mess so we moved to the TV Room.

Colonel Rathore and I go back 20 years so it was but expected that he would buttonhole me for dinner that night. He and his gracious wife Jyoti came to pick me up at the Mess. I tendered my apologies to my teammates in not being able to join them for dinner and Mandeep, Jyoti and I had dinner in a nice restaurant in town. It was a pleasurable evening, sharing old memories and news about our outfit. Yet, I felt that I would have enjoyed the evening equally well in the company of my teammates.

When I returned to my friends, they were in top form. We went to bed that night in a mode which was to be established as the pattern for the next 12 odd days – Neville and self in one room while Fakhru, Shubham and Vaibhav shared the other. Even on the first day, there was a lot of good-natured humour at one another’s expense. The tone was set for a most pleasant ride indeed.

Day Two – 12 Jun Tue: Nagrota To Srinagar

Nice sunny day outside with a fair bit of humidity, even at the early hour of 6 AM. Neville arose and went straight to his bike to expedite packing, again the start of a trend. Then I rose and then Vaibhav and Fakhru. Shubham rose last. This came to be the pattern over the next 12 odd days that we were together.

As we picked up speed, one part of my mind was thinking about what lay ahead and what had gone into making this day come true.

We had a latish breakfast, almost a brunch about two hours out of Jammu. The hotel staff was just about getting ready and they took more than one hour to get a meal ready. Parathas, omelets, toast and tea – a hearty breakfast, umm, ok, brunch, is the harbinger of a good day.

The highway was excellent and we were making excellent progress. Domel came and went by as did Udhampur.

I was waiting for Kud and Patni Top as back in 2004, whilst posted in Jammu, I had had a wonderful winter vacation there. Then, it had been my little daughter’s first feel of snow and I remember her being bewildered by that fluffy stuff. But I just did not know when these two waypoints passed by. Perhaps I was too busy in taking the twisties hard. The indication of having gone across Patni Top came when we started descending and were presented with some simply amazing tarmac. The air was cool after the warm climb to the top, the bike was fine. What more was needed; Vaibhav and self played tag right till the bottom of that fantastic stretch.

The entire patch was covered intermittently in the shade of fir and pine trees and it was superb to lean crazily and see just a blur of the trees passing by. The others came down at a more sedate pace.

We stopped for a butt break near Nashrel and then again short of Ramban.

The standard drill at each stop was to take a leak, recover the loss with some water and take photos. The busiest clicker was Shubham. He used to take in everything in sight; he must have taken thousands of photos on his brand-new Nikon DSLR which he had bought specially for the trip.

We had had a very heavy breakfast so did not feel the need for lunch today. Instead, at about 2 PM, we halted again for a cup of tea. The place was short of a bridge just after Ramban with a series of small roadside tea stalls overlooking the river Jhelum. The tea was really great and adding the flavour were wood-baked local biscuits. After the past hour and more of hard riding, this humble refreshment was superbly invigorating. One bright orange on two wheels passed us – a KTM! He crossed the bridge and went ahead. In a couple of minutes, he returned and passed us. We were short of time else would have halted to exchange greetings.

The Jawahar Tunnel. The Jawahar Tunnel links the area of Jammu to the famed Kashmir valley and Leh.  It is one of the most vitally strategic places in the country – closure of the tunnel cuts off access to Kashmir and with it, Ladakh. There are two tunnels, in fact, one each for Northbound and Southbound traffic.

Once one enters the tunnel, one has to keep moving, no stops at all. Vaibhav and I reached the Jammu – side entrance first and waited for the others. We then entered the tunnel in a sort of convoy. Yet, somehow, a few other vehicles came in between and I lost sight of the headlamp behind me.

The tunnel is supposed to be ventilated quite well; yet, no ventilation system can cope with the sheer quantity of exhaust fumes generated by such a high volume of traffic as is seen in the Jawahar tunnel. The air was hot, sticky and I was getting quite a junkie’s high on breathing the delicious diesel smoke.

On exiting the tunnel, there was a distinct change in the very feel of the air – we were in Kashmir and in the Valley. The texture was crisper, the temp was lesser and somehow, it felt more invigorating. Gone was the stifling humidity and torpor of the Jammu region.

Vaibhav and I stopped for the rest close to a guard’s post and immediately, he told us to move on. I informed him that we were waiting for our remaining 3 buddies so he smiled and made inquiries about our ride, where we had come from etc.

Titanic Point

During our chat, the others came through and we rode on to Titanic Point, which for visitors exiting the Valley itself, is the last view. There is nothing much to be seen here except that one gets a better idea of the Kashmir Valley’s alignment. The point is almost at the South Western end and I could see along the length of the entire valley, surrounded by hills from all four sides. There was a haze over Srinagar and other areas that late afternoon. A quick photo session and we were on our way.

Qazigund

We descended to Qazigund and it was then a straight, plain road to Srinagar, bounded by poplars, firs, pines and other alpine foliage. At a number of places, these wonderful trees had been cut down, leaving only stumps in their passing and I am sure that their demise would have had a detrimental effect on the once beautiful climate of Srinagar and adjoining areas. Graphic proof that it has definitely become warmer was seen on the roadside – women replanting paddy from one field into the other. We had a short halt here and took some snaps. There was a curious wall like structure climbing up a hillside which on closer scrutiny thru my binos, I found to be a pipeline, taking water to some unseen place. Lots of electric pylons in place spoke of the developmental efforts being put in.

Harassment By Hotel Agents

We were riding to Srinagar when two chaps on a bike started to engage me in a conversation about our trip, where we planned to stay etc.

I gave them a smile and politely told them that our accommodation was already tied up and thank you for your help but we don’t need it etc. These pests persisted in their sales pitch “best houseboat in Srinagar, very cheap rates” etc and I was getting more and more irritated. So I told them to scram.

They went up ahead and started badgering Vaibhav who was leading at that time. He stopped and so did I. I explained to these goons that we needed neither their attention nor their accommodation. The conversation started getting ruder and harsher. Neville, Shubham and Fakhru too fetched up.

I said to these idiots “Bhaisaheb, a friend has arranged our hotels. I told you that already so why are you troubling us? Is this the way Kashmiris treat tourists? I told you once, twice, thrice and yet you went and started harassing my friend. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you leave us alone? We have heard your offer but have no use for it so please move or else we will have to report the matter to the police” or words to this effect. One of them said that he was from the tourist department and knew the police so we could do what we wanted. That is when I had to tell him off “my friend, you are from the tourist dept with friends in the police? Great ‘cause I am from the Army. This whole place is positively saturated with the Army. Behind you, in the fields, you can see 3 or 4 jawans patrolling the area. I have to just shout out to them, prove my identity and then you and your friend will be in deep trouble, get it? Now get the hell out our faces unless you want to get into the record books of the Rashtriya Rifles”.

This word had the desired effect as muttering something, the two clowns beat it. I felt bad about the threat but there seemed no other way of fobbing them off.

Srinagar and The Badami Bagh Fiasco

My friend Colonel Rathore had booked us three rooms in Srinagar Cantonment, aka Badami Bagh Cantt. We reached the cantt at around 1830h, quite tired with the day’s riding and wanting some rest. But, boy, were we in for a shock.

Badami Bagh Cantt is one of the most heavily guarded places in the country, if not the world. After the Ratnuchak incident in Jammu of 2001, security has been made almost watertight. It is surrounded by multiple coils of barbed wire, has armed sentries at every corner and kink and a tight entry procedure. The passes  for anybody entering the cantt have to be signed by a nominated officer from INSIDE the cantt, sent up outside to the guards manning the entry gate who later confirms their identity on the fone with this officer and only then can anybody enter the hallowed precincts of the cantt.

I went up to the person manning the system, identified myself and inquired about our accommodation. To my surprise and dismay, I found that our passes were not present with the person in charge at the main gate.

I spoke to the very officer who issued the passes and explained to him about our trip, mentioning all those who knew of us but to no avail. There was no info about us so he could not issue the passes. I tried all that I could to convince him of my bona-fides and that of my team but he was adamant in his refusal to help me. After about 30 minutes of frustrating phone calls to Colonel Rathore (he too tried his level best), I had to admit defeat at the hands of a paranoid bureaucracy. I hung my head in shame, apologized to my friends for the inconvenience caused and suggested that we look elsewhere. They were most understanding and cheered me up with “Aisey hota hai, Maneesh, not your fault. Some one else screwed up, so why blame oneself? You tried your best”.

We then trooped to the nearby Transit Camp where I had stayed a few times between 1996 and 1998. The Commanding Officer here was a different kettle of fish. He was most sympathetic to our needs but regretted that he did not have a single room vacant due to some batch of officers who were on some tour and were staying there. I appreciated his helpful attitude and so, it was back to the saddle and hunting for rooms.

Hotel Vikram

Now, Shubham had visited Srinagar with his family just before coming for the ride and had some fone numbers of the hotel where he had stayed then. He called up people and we got a name and address – Hotel Vikram. We moved on, riding thru the chaotic, dusty, dirty and hot streets of downtown Srinagar and went into a maze of lanes. We passed a board proclaiming Hotel Vikram twice but the gate of the purported hotel was barred with a gate and a sentry. Finally, after some directions, we went up to this gate and made inquiries to find that it was indeed Hotel Vikram. The entire first floor of the hotel had been taken over by the Central India Security Force for their accommodation, of course, for a generous rent. The owner of the hotel must have had some good links in the state govt to get such a lucrative contract which made him immune to seasonal shifts in demand. We engaged two rooms for Rs 2000 each. They were compact but comfortable with attached baths.

While we were moving our baggage to our rooms, I was asked some casual but penetrating questions by the CISF sentry – our origin, our destination, the route we planned to take. He was quite polite and diffident and just doing his job about establishing our credentials. When I mentioned to him that I had trained at the CISF Academy in Hyderabad, his eyes lit up and a huge wave of relief seemed to wash over him.

A Delicious Kashmiri Dinner

After freshening up, we debated about dinner – as to whether to have it in the hotel itself or dine outside. It seemed outright idiocy to not succumb to the temptation to savour authentic Kashmiri cuisine in the heart of Kashmir and so we rode out of the hotel in search of a nice place.

First the bikes were given their dinner at a nearby fuel station. We planned to follow this routine for the entire journey – tank up before the next day’s ride. It would save precious time in the mornings and also obviate the possibility of closed fuel stations.

Shubham had eaten at some dhaba earlier and he led us there. God, was it a madhouse there. There were three of them in one line and all packed to the gills with rowdy and hungry people. We did not fancy fighting our way thru so the search was continued.

Then, we found a good place which by its looks seemed a bit expensive. Yet, we went in and settled down. There was a grizzled old steward who sensed that we were biker tourists (from our helmets) and we took his sage advice about the courses. He was most helpful and economical in advocating just the right type and quantity of food.

The entire meal was simply exquisite. The carnivorous quartet of Neville, Fakhru, Vaibhav and I dug into Rogan Josh (lamb cooked in red sauce), Yakhni (lamb cooked in curd based sauce) and Goshtaba (extra-minced meat balls cooked in creamy sauce) while Shubham had to make do with a sad-looking mixed veg dish. I have had Kashmiri cuisine in the past and I found the preparation to be quite good. Yes, good food cooked well is worth the money paid for it and our bill came to about Rs 2000. But split five ways, it was only Rs 400 per head, a bargain for what we were able to enjoy.

Tired with the day’s journey and satiated with the sumptuous meal, we headed back to Hotel Vikram for rest. Srinagar at night is an uncomfortable place. There are few street lights in the inner lanes. We had witnessed two minor scuffles this day and this state of affairs did not improve my impression of the city.

Tomorrow would be Kargil or Drass as and how the ride went. We would be crossing our first pass – Zoji La and our progress thereon would dictate our destination for the day.

Day Three 13 Jun Wed: Srinagar To Kargil

12 Jun dawned bright and sunny but a bit humid, with a tinge of haze. It had already become much cooler than Jammu had been and much more pleasant weather for riding bikes. The day promised to be exciting with a fulfilling ride. We loaded up and moved out, the CISF sentry giving us a sad farewell – must be thinking about his home in Madurai.

We followed the road (the Boulevard Road) that winds its way all along the Eastern bank of the Dal Lake which at this time was sleeping, a light mist covering its surface. I looked about for Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore and others similar pairs, jumping around among the trees but found only early morning joggers and walkers going about their constitutional on the promenade around the lake. It was a tranquil and memorable scene, much at odds with the history and present of  Kashmir.

Soon, the lakefront ended and we were riding thru the suburb of Habak and Khaja Bagh, looking for a place where to have breakfast. Somewhere short of Ganderbal, we stopped for a break and a meal. Parathas, puris, chholey and tea – typical North Indian breakfast.

Local Louts

An unsavoury incident at the breakfast dhaba highlighted the vast chasm that separates the people of Kashmir from those in Jammu and the rest of the country in the realm of national awareness. Some local lout came up and tried to engage me in conversation about our number plates – mine was an RJ number while the others had MH registered bikes. I forget the exact contents of the conversation but it contained references to various major cities in India which this goon did not know about while I knew not only all of them but many names in Kashmir too. This irritated the chap and he started becoming a little aggressive so I had to ask him to take a deep breath. It was good that we had finished our meal and were packing up to move else we would have had to endure more of this nonsense.

The contrast between the attitude of the Kashmiris and the Ladakhis would be thrown into sharp relief after we entered Ladakh the next day and this impression would continue till the time we were in Ladakh. Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have nothing in common and would be infinitely better off as separate states. I recommend a bike trip thru these lands for the disbelievers.

Sonamarg

Soon after Ganderbal, the plains ended and the hills started. With the start of the hills came the first light drizzle. When we had started off from Srinagar, the others guys had donned the rain suit lowers and now, they donned the uppers too.  I parked by the road side  and struggled to get the gum boots off, the rain suit on, over the riding jacket and the jeans. Here, my perspicacity paid off; the over size rain suit fitted just right over the jacket.

The winding and at times unmade road led thru the famed Sonamarg valley. All our bikes, except that of Vaibhav, started feeling the altitude here; Sonamarg is closer to 9000 ft in altitude. The power was tapering off and the bike seemed reluctant to move ahead.

We stopped for tea in the middle of the valley. It is easy to imagine why this place is so famous. Pine-covered hills on both sides with a gushing snow-fed river in the middle made for a classic Alpine scene. The air was superbly bracing. I missed my wife very much here.

In winters, it would be fully covered with snow and a haven for skiing. It was indeed a lovely place. This was the location for innumerable Hindi movies of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s before the trouble in the valley shifted the romantic scenes to Himachal Pradesh. A small part of Kashmir and by extension, India, died then.

We saw a chap on a Bullet come down, stop and get on his fone. While chatting with him esp. about the condition of Zoji La (which he said was terrible), it came to light that his buddy had faced severe problems with his bike – the engine, ignition, fuel system, even chassis – and so had been delayed in crossing Zoji La. After about 20 odd minutes, this friend came down with a pillion too.

I asked him if he had a screwdriver set read at hand so that we could adjust the mixture control of our bikes and he readily took one out of his bags. I adjusted my bike and Shubham’s bike while the others did theirs. Our thanks were profusely genuine.

We bid them Godspeed and rode on, past the headquarters of the High Altitude Mountain Warfare School under whose able guidance, I had trained for the Siachen tenure. These are among the best Alpine troops anywhere in the world, even rivaling the Alpine Korps of the Wehrmacht in WWII.

Zoji La

The Sonamarg valley leads to Zoji La. The road starts climbing almost immediately on entering the valley. About 10 odd kms short of the pass, the scenery changes abruptly –  from fir meadows a la Kashmir Ki Kali to naked black soil almost akin to moraine. There was a minor drizzle as we were climbing up but nothing to break our progress. Soon, the snow line started, the air became colder and colder as Zoji La came closer.

Landslide Delay

Contrary to what the thumper had told us, the approach to Zoji La was not a nightmare. Yes, it was bad going but nowhere near terrible.

A few hundred meters short of the pass, there was a fair collection of vehicles parked by the road indicating a stoppage. I inquired from the ever-present Army soldiers and was told that there had been a minor land slide and that the pass was being cleared. So, we took a break – water, leak, fotos, videos, the standard stuff.

The delay was just for about 30 minutes or so – really non-existent compared to what it could have been and what the pass is notorious for and soon the bikes were waved thru to the other side. We stopped just for a couple of minutes to take a few fotos and pushed on. The road was quite bad now but again, at no place did any of us feel any sense of unease about crossing any part of the puddles or slush.

By about 2 PM, we were at Matayen and it was time for a lunch halt. The rain had followed us from Sonamarg and it started raining in right earnest by the time we were in about 2 or 3 kms short of Matayen town. There was a small shack where we stopped for tea.

Towards the east, the clouds were low in the valley and I knew that it would be snowing in the higher reaches of the hills. It was advisable to wait out the worst part of the rain in the shelter of the shack.

We ordered tea and then the ubiquitous Maggi noodles for all five of us. The proprietor had a kerosene stove going full blast and the inner part of the shack was nicely warm. He was so hospitable – got in a couple of benches for us to sit on, even gave us the small tea stove to warm ourselves. A bunch of local kids, bright – eyed, shyly peeping from under their firans gathered around, as kids all over the world will, in their innocent curiosity about newcomers in their small town. We took a few fotos with them and gave the shack owner some money to give them a lollipop each.

“I am Stupid” At Matayen

If in such places, one sees poor, hard-working and sincere people like this shack owner struggle to earn a livelihood for only 5 odd months, getting supplies from hundreds of kilometers away so that they can put bread into the stomachs of their loved ones, one witnesses well-off tourists show their true colours, their so-to-say “asli aukaat” too. One SUV pulled up next to the shack and an expensively clothed, made up, perfumed and booted female alighted. She tiptoed to the shack and asked “Chai hai?”. Owner: Hai, madam. Female: “KITNE KI HAI”. I was left with a speechless sense of rage – how can one ask such a man, in a place like this, for the price of a cup of tea? Could she not understand where she was? Tch, tch. And then, the rest of the party came out for their tea. I was about to say something but the futility of blowing sunshine up the arses of morons struck me and I went off to pack my stuff.

Needless, to say, the Maggi was delicious – hot and soupy and filling. So was the tea and the cream biscuits. We left a handsome tip for the owner, in ways making up for the insensitivity of our fellow tourists. The rain had reduced to a mild drizzle and ended altogether as we rode on.

Drass

Drass has special memories for me. In 1997, I had been in Mashkow Valley which ends at Drass. There were some terrific experiences of that time still playing in my mind – the long walk up to the deployment area, the time spent with the hardy men, the mini-cloudburst scattering my mule convoy on the way down etc – as I approached the town. There were lots of changes in the setup of the Army camp there. It had grown immensely in size since the Kargil war. During those days, there was just a smattering of huts but now, there was a full-fledged township there. Yet, I was able to recognize the place from where I had started the long walk up to Mashkow.

Thasgam went by, we did not stop there but carried on to Kargil. It was getting late.

There was an interesting incident then. A bus had developed a fault and halted on the road. Another bus had pulled up right next to it and the driver and cleaner, helped by the passengers, were transferring luggage from one rooftop to the other. From the expert dexterity of the crew, it was obvious that such cases were not uncommon here!

Op Vijay Memorial

Sometime in the spring of 1997, I was stationed somewhere in the area of Kargil for about a month or so. Now, as I approached the Op Vijay Memorial, the memories of that time returned and took me back to Channi Gund, back to my men, back to the BSF company and the company of 10 GARHWAL RIFLES who had been our neighbour. It took me back to that doughty Subedar Gaje Singh, Charlie Company, 22 RAJPUT. A man almost twice my age with more than twice my physical fitness, who beat me in the climb to the top of the ridge where we were to be deployed.

The story of the Kargil conflict has been covered well enough for me to gloss over it completely. There was a battalion of the SIKH Regiment stationed in the area in the present day and one NCO gave us a brief account of the incident.

He indicated the important landmarks, which at that time used to be on the lips of almost the whole country – Tololing, Tiger Hill et al. I had been in Siachen and knew what it meant to be up there on the peaks. My friends were hushed in their conversation with each other. I could see them trying to fathom the difficulties that one could face there and how the men must have fought there. There was little I could tell them without breaching the Official Secrets Act (of which I am a signatory) and so, I pretty much left it to the NCO to satisfy their questions.

We went into the museum and looked at the maps. I don’t know how much my friends understood about the operation as a whole but I knew that it was one of the most difficult ones conducted by an Army and Air Force, anywhere in the world. The remnants of enemy ordnance by way of twisted pieces of mortar tails, shell fragments and odd detritus generated lots of curiosity and much click-click of cameras.

There were other visitors too and in typical Indian fashion, despite the attendant NCO entreating them not to do so, they removed their footwear before entering the museum, thus conferring on it the status of a temple. It is at such times that I marvel at this crazy mixture of cultures that makes us Indians. We think nothing of being inhuman to our fellow beings yet can bestow such honour on the dead. I saw some moist eyes too, especially among the ladies who must have been extrapolating their husbands/sons/sons – in – law in the names of the fallen and in the photos of the braves that lined the walls. I saw one middle-aged lady being comforted by her husband; perhaps the gravitas of the place overwhelmed her or maybe, she must have lost someone close to her in that mad conflict. I did not want to say anything to her for fear of becoming more emotional than I already was.

All war memorials, more so war graves, the world over witnesses such heart-rending scenes. Parents, in-laws, wives, husbands, children, friends – all come to reminisce about the times they spent in the company of the dear departed.

Some weep quietly, some cannot control their tears and go away to a secluded corner to seek communion with the departed soul, others appear to be overcome by shock while still some others shake their heads at the immense waste of it all – the flower of a country’s youth cut down by the circumstance of playing the Great Game.

I paid my private homage to my fallen colleagues in my own way – by resolving yet again to stand true to their faith in me, to lead from the front as I always have done, to prefer to lose MY life than let THEM lose their honour. Life is nothing, Honour is EVERYTHING.

We had a terrific cup of coffee, the first real Nescafe we had had since starting the trip and so refreshed, forged on ahead.

Kargil

We reached Kargil at twilight. My friend had arranged our stay and it took some time for me to find the place where we were to put up for the night. We parked our bikes in one line in front of the small guest rooms, unloaded the luggage and adjusted ourselves in the two-room set.

That night, dinner was Chinese cuisine was from the Officers Mess. But we had yet to refuel the bikes. The fuel station was across the bridge and a good 3 kms away. We reckoned that we would find the pump open for business as the time was about 8 PM. So, off we went and thankfully, the pump was indeed open and surprisingly, a bit busy too.

In the rooms, water for our baths was being heated by way of an immersion rod in the bathroom so while someone was bathing, the others were eating their dinner while I was having a drink of good Army rum. Tomorrow would be our destination – Leh – and we were eagerly looking forward to that place.

After dinner, I went outside for a quiet smoke. The river was a muted roar, the traffic had fallen silent, the stars were out and there was a slight breeze, cool and comforting. I prayed for favourable weather on the morrow and retired for the night.

Day Four 14 Jun Thu: Kargil To Leh

The morning was brisk and so were we. Packing up and moving off was quick. I rode ahead to get a bottle of gear oil for the bike chains but the pump was closed at the early hour of 8 AM.

The road was pretty good and it is from here that we encountered the typical phenomenon of high altitude – in the sunshine, we felt warm, even hot while in the shade, it was cool, even cold. This played merry hell with our gear. In the shade, the warm gloves were comfy but our in the sun, they made the hands sweat. The same issue went for the rest of the clothing.

Mulbekh

Breakfast break was at Mulbekh in a very well-appointed dhaba of sorts. Parathas, omelets and tea. Right above the dhaba, there was a small monastery, perched on the top of the hill. There was a quaint post office too but when we reached there it was closed. By the time we finished our meal and packed up to leave, it had opened but alas! It was only a transit store for passing mail. My hopes of sending an old fashioned telegram to my folks at home were dashed.

The climb to Namika La was relatively gradual yet, my bike was complaining. I would have to get her checked out by the mechanic in Leh.

A Surreal Scenario

In many places, the metalled road vanished and in its place was bare soil with a layer of small stones. I was grinding and sliding in 2nd and 3rd gear, avoiding the worst potholes, skirting small rocks and puddles along one such stretch when the lip of the metalled road came up. I climbed onto the lip and just sat there on the bike, blinking like an idiot at the sight in front of me – an absolutely fantastic tarmac surface, smooth as a baby’s butt, wider than its mother’s umm, similar part and curving away around the next turn. For a microsecond, I thought that I was hallucinating at high altitude so I instinctively pinched myself and was rewarded by a familiar sensation. So it meant that I was awake and the road was for real.

I gunned the bike and she responded with gusto and we were suddenly at 70 kph, zipping along, taking the curves at “oh shit” speeds and my mind in hyperdrive “ keep the line, watch the apex, feel the rear, don’t over-correct, don’t lose it, slide your butt in, get it out and in and out and knees out and in…” Within just 10 minutes or so, I had covered a distance which had taken the better part of an hour earlier. At the end of the stretch, the inevitable dirt road started off and I remember thinking “char din ki chandani, phir andheri raat” to myself.

There were about three such sublime spans of road which rivaled the best European highways and I had a complete blast on all three. The bike responded like she too was enjoying the fling with the road, an all too brief affair but an affair to remember. At the end of the last stretch, I stopped and waited for Vaibhav to pull up close and when he did so, he just shook his head to indicate “ WTF, friggin’ unbelievable” or similar sentiments. If the entire Srinagar to Leh stretch is made like these brief patches are, I daresay that it will take just 24 hours for a fast bike and competent rider to get from end to end, the surface was that good.

Namika La came and went and so did Khangral, Budhkharbu and Heniskot. My bike was now showing her age (and my weight too!) properly and I was at the tail end of the team as the others, with newer bikes, powered ahead.

I  Am Stupid II” At Fotu La

We halted at Fotu La for a BB (= butt break) when some females in a Tavera came up and started cavorting around in their noisy, giggly manner. We paid scant attention to them but then one of them came up to Vaibhav’s bike, picked up the helmet, gave a cutesy smile to nobody in particular, wore it on her numb skull, struck a heroic pose and asked her friend to take some snaps!!! No asking for permission, nothing. I was thinking “hello, excuse me, WTF do you think you are doing, sista” and so on. Now, all our bikes were parked on their side stands and if, in their carelessly buoyant holiday mood, these ultra stupido girls had caused the bike to drop and the fallen bike had developed a fault, we would have been in deep trouble. I reprimanded the offending woman in a respectful but curt manner and she was surprised to know that she had done something wrong LOL. Fakhru heard me ticking the girls off and remarked that this was typical behaviour for Indian tourists and that they always behaved like this. I think this is why the world over, people view Indian tourists with scorn and revulsion aka “We want your money but we don’t want you”.

Lamayuru came and went but I did not see the board for the statue of the Buddha, must have been looking elsewhere. Nurla too went by.

A few kms short of Saspol, we were flagged down to stop; a landslide’s debris was being cleared by a ‘dozer. This spot was on a turn to the right and in keeping with their image as the rudest, stupidest tourists in the world, some of our countrymen had ridden their bikes right up till the dozer itself. I asked one of them to move back a bit so as to give some room to the dozer driver and got a surly frown in return. I was hoping like mad that the dozer track would chew up this moron’s bike but the driver was too canny for that – he gave one heave to his control, the dozer slewed sideways and my “friend” was frantically moving his bike aside. The driver and I exchanged knowing grins (he had seen me advise the bozo biker) and he finished the job.

He had barely reversed out of the cleared gap that Messrs Bozo Biker and pals rushed thru the gap. I just could not understand as to what the hurry was all about. Why the bloody hell are bikers, of all people, in such a hurry. But then, I realized that these clowns were locals. Ok, granted.

Vaibhav and I moved ahead of the others, as usual. An Army convoy of 70 trucks was parked by the wayside in groups of twos and threes, waiting for the traffic to clear. It is here that I appreciated the road sense of hill folk. None of them was trying to overtake one another, none of them had his vehicle’s nose blocking the road for oncoming traffic. This is because they know that even if one person does something foolish, the whole road will be blocked for hours. And yes, people from the plains and those too in private cars were the culprits, not local taxis.

The road was excellent and after some fast riding, we reached Saspol town. The others caught up and we had a quick tea break.

Magnetic Hill Madness

Soon, we had reached the famous Magnetic Hill. There was a small crowd there, checking out the magnetic properties of their bikes. Across the valley, there was a small track leading up one of the spurs of the ridgeline. I understood that it was made by bikers riding up the spur to test if the hill could “pull” their bikes up. One bonehead Bulleteer just had to try it. Whether he was trying to impress the woman chatting with him or was eager for his insurance nominee to get rich, I don’t know. Anyways, he zoomed off and up the slope. When he started climbing up, I watched him from my binos. The bike was skidding, sliding, weaving, heaving, bucking, in short doing everything that a horse does in a rodeo. Our man was gamely hanging on. He still had some good sense left because he did not try to ride up any further and returned to the road and his buddies.

Neville Ka Engineering Bheja

From my brief but insightful association with Neville, I know that he has an incisive and investigative intellect. Here, he set out to debunk the magnetic property of the place with a simple test. He poured some water on the strip which says “Park Your Vehicles Here”. Sure enough, the water started moving towards the Kargil side indicating that there was a slope towards that side and that the magnet stuff was nothing but an optical illusion, brought about by the lay of the land.

Be that as it may, but one thing was for sure. My bike was struggling like never before. It seemed that it had suddenly become much, much heavier than what it had been earlier. And I can say with utmost conviction that, this was the only place on the entire route where she was having great trouble in moving even in 1st.

The Valley Opens Up

Around Nimu, the valley opened up into that wide, expansive vista for which Ladakh is so famous. One could see for miles ahead, the surface was excellent and all of us took that customary shot with the Sun behind us and the shadow of the bike in the frame.  The wind picked up too and it felt like one is riding down a huge, long tunnel without a roof.

The road to Leh town leads along the airport. Earlier, one could see the civil terminal and the Air Force hangers from the road itself. But now, an almost 10 feet wall with an outer layer of barbed wire had come up, denying the superb view of the other side of the river.

I rode along slowly, the bike not really wanting to move and made my way to Shanti Guest House on Changspa Road.

On reaching there, I learned that Neville and Vaibhav had reached before me and had met the owner’s wife, Mrs Dolkar Dorjey and later the owner, Mr Tsewang Dorjey. Now, I had spoken to Mr Dorjey twice earlier, once in April and the second time in May but had missed out on confirming our accommodation. Yet, he remembered our conversation and Mrs Dolkar gave Neville and Vaibhav a room for us on the top floor. It was very considerate of the couple to oblige us this way; we were in no mood to traipse all over Leh to look for rooms that evening.

Shanti Guest House

Shanti is a very comfy guest house. It has four levels with rooms on the sides and the central space serving as an open atrium from the ground floor to the large skylight on the ceiling. A significant amount of money has obviously gone into building it; there are large quantities of wood everywhere. The stairs, banisters, balustrades, window sills, door frames are all in wood. The bathroom furnishings are good quality stuff and maintained well too.

There is round the clock cold water but warm water is provided by solar heating so it is available only when it is sunny and that too in the afternoons.

On the ground floor, there is a small living room of sorts with newspapers and magazines for guests. The dining room has cozy low level seating on diwans with bolsters and tapestry. An eye-catching collection of traditional Ladakhi utensils and crockery, in spic and span condition adorns the cupboards lining the walls of the dining room. On the other side is the kitchen; I was allowed to make my coffee in it at any time I wanted. In fact, the first time, I had a terrific gossip session with Mr Tsewang’s mother so had felt right at home here.

We unloaded the baggage and lugged it to the top floor. Vaibhav was quite winded by the climb up the stairs and flopped on the bed with his tongue hanging out! All of us settled down. As usual, Neville and I shared a bed while Fakhru, Shubham and Vaibhav shared the other.

Our room had two double beds, one bath cum toilet and wonderful French windows covering almost half of the wall space. It was bright, airy and cheerful and with a good view of town to boot.

After some time and on our requests (as there were only four blankets in the room for two double beds), we got a sleeping bag and a foam mattress.  I elected to use the sleeping bag as I was used to it and so opened the outer cover and lo and behold! It was identical to the one I had used during the Siachen tenure. The brand was Richener, one of the foremost makers of Arctic clothing in the world. It bore the tell-tale black triangular stamp of the Army Ordnance Corps as being certified for condemnation and deposition to the salvage section. It must have somehow found its way to the open market, I mused.  I was nostalgic and told my friends about the freezing nights that this bag had made so comfortable for me, up there at 20,000 feet.

We went into Changspa for dinner that night as it was too late to book meals from the guest house. I forget the restaurant but do remember that the service was very slow. The meal was wholesome, though, and for the tired quintet that we were, it was very tasty with a twist – it was a fully veg establishment so the carnivores (Neville, Fakhru, Vaibhav and self) had to eat grass along with Shubham. Our post-prandial plans for ice cream were aborted as no shops selling the stuff were open at that hour of 10 PM. Vaibhav had a splitting headache so he opted out and went back to Shanti. The rest of us made do with a chocolate bar each (Neville had two, I think, confirming my impression that he had a huge sweet tooth!)

After dinner, I went out onto the terrace for a small smoke. It is strange; I gave up smoking in 2003 after my daughter was born and yet can have a couple of cigarettes every once in a very long while and yet not get hooked again. In the rarefied air of Ladakh, I found a catalyst for the slow metabolism, both of the body and mind, I supposed.

There was a light breeze blowing across the valley, fluttering the prayer flags strung across the terrace wall. Lights twinkled across the town, blurring the boundary between Earth and Sky. A vehicle would go by and in the mere flap of an eardrum, its clamour would be swallowed up into nothingness by the immense space around. And the silence of the mountains would descend again, limitless in depth, ear-shattering in volume. A strange paradox struck me here – why do we whisper when there is such immense space around us and yet shout in the confines of a closed room…

I was in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. A land of the most fantastic kaleidoscope of sights and sounds that I have the privilege of witnessing. Azure skies calling out to the Antoine de SaintExupérys, peaks with their typically cynical icy stare calling to the Hillarys and Tenzings to conquer them, sands for the Lawrences of Arabia to sweat out on and meandering among this smorgasbord of tectonics, the Jhelum River, paradise and perdition for rafters. And all through, the width of the valley, as wide and generous as the Almighty’s heart.

Day Five 15 June Fri: Leh Acclimatisation and Permits

The night of 14th was not very restful. I was quite tired and slept fitfully.

The day dawned bright and sunny. We took our time in getting ready; there was no hurry as we had planned to spend the day in acclimatising to high altitude and getting the permits necessary for our sightseeing.

At breakfast, Mrs Dolkar advised us to take things easy that day, recounting instances where complacent tourists had suffered severely due to non-observance of the rule “When in the land of the Lama, don’t be a Gama”.  The meal was diverse – traditional Ladakhi bread with butter, jam and tea and omelets. The bread was as delicious as it was filling, the Sun was streaming on the small patio and we were content.

At around 1030 AM, we split up. I went to the local Army headquarters to get permission to visit Siachen base camp while Neville and Shubham went to the DC’s office for permits to Khardung La and Pangong Tso.

At HQ 14 Corps, I met a staff officer who was quite amazed that I was doing this trip. But he understood and empathized instantly when I gave him the reason to do it. The rest was done in a jiffy – a few phone calls to HQ 102 Infantry Brigade (the Siachen brigade) and other places – and I was done. He reminded me have my identity card on my person just to avoid any hassles. After a cup of tea and some small talk, I was out in the sunshine. Leh was pretty warm that day and the light breeze was refreshing.

Neville and Shubham had gone to the DC’s office for permits and they returned in time for lunch. They said that Khardung La and Chang La were allowed but nobody was being permitted to Chushul. They had told the person at the desk that they had a serving officer of the Army with them but this did not cut any ice – only I could go, alone. This was no fun so we dropped the Chushul leg altogether.

A no-go for Chushul meant that our schedule needed to be changed. So this is what we planned:

16 June

Second day of acclimatisation. If we are feeling fine, then all of us go to Khardung La, I go on ahead to Siachen Base Camp while the others visit Hunder and Diskit. Later in the day, the others decided that there did not seem to be much to see in Hunder and Diskit barring the sand dunes and camels so they elected to return to Leh from K Top, the same day.

17 June – I return from Base Camp to Leh.

18 June – The team goes to Pangong Tso.

19 June – The team returns from Pangong Tso

20 June – the return journey starts.

The changed schedule gave us two extra days so we were happy, though I was sad at not seeing Chushul again. I had some nice memories of that place.

Dinner that evening was at the Tibetan Rice Bowl, a restaurant we had passed on our way to the main market. It was a cozy place and seemed to be managed by a husband-wife-kids team. The menu was excellent, lots of non-veg dishes and different cuisines at that. We were very hungry so asked for what turned out to be too much for even the five of us, courtesy the generous portions. And we had to eat the whole meal as none of us felt like wasting anything. The result was that Fakhru and I had tummy upsets. Well, it was all par for the course; we really could not expect to stay completely okay throughout the journey. At least we had carried medication for just this malady so would hopefully be alright in a day or two.

Day Six 16 June: Khardung La/Sasoma

In the morning, all of us were well rested and quite acclimatized so we decided to ride to Khardung La today.

At breakfast, Mrs Dolkar informed us that she would let us have our room as long as we did not check out. I found that to be really generous and caring of her. So we dumped all the extra baggage in the room and rode out with only the spares and tools kit.

There was a bit of a bite in the air and a fair breeze as we rode along the long winding road to K’La. This was a portent of good weather. But as we continued the ride, it started packing up slowly; the skies closed up, the temp rose and the wind dropped. I was hoping like hell that there would not be a storm on top as it would abort all my best laid plans – we would be permitted only till the top and not beyond. And I knew enough about weather in these parts to not attempt to move ahead to Base Camp.

South Pullu

As usual, the others had gone ahead of me on the climb. I ground my way up, slowly, laboriously, coaxing the bike onwards. They also went ahead of South Pullu. I pulled up alongside the Corps of Military Police check post and registered the details of the team. There was a fair crowd there.

One Qualis pulled up to disgorge its load of tourists. As the doors opened, the strains of a very familiar song which I cannot recollect now, wafted through the air.  It lent a festive touch to the scene.

I caught up with the rest of the team and now, I moved ahead. The snow started becoming thicker on the ground as I climbed and it became more difficult to breathe normally yet, I was aware of this issue so did not face any difficulty.

A Really Bad Ditch

About 500m short of the pass, there was crunchy snow and ice on the road. The bike was slipping and skidding a bit but as the tyres were quite new, I was able to get a good grip. As I crested a small rise, there was a big ditch in the road. What made it especially problematic was that it was filled with an Arctic soup of water and pieces of ice. I tried to ride through it normally but the bike slid back as the departure slope was coated with ice and the bottom too seemed to be coated with the stuff. So, I bounced up and down on the seat a couple of times to get the rear tyre to grip the bottom and then got off the bike. Using the throttle and clutch and sheer brute force, I pushed the bike ahead and upwards and she was out of the ditch in one fast maneuver. The effort made me hyperventilate like a thirsty dog in summer but I had the decency to not hang my tongue out! A few minutes of deep breathing later, I was ready for the final stretch, making a mental note to tell the authorities on top to fill in that ditch before some chap skidded and had a bath in it.

Khardung La

I had saved my video camera’s battery for the final lap (in between, when I once tried to power it up, it gave a low battery warning owing to the cold so I had to shut it down) and I halted to power it up. The battery was ok, thank God and I was able to film the last few meters to the top.

Some persons are really attention-hungry and are desperate to be photographed or filmed. Even if the said person is taking a pee against a snow wall at the highest motorable pass in the world. Even if the said person is a male and he is holding his member with his right hand and yet wants to wave and so has to transfer his member to the left hand so that the right hand is free to wave to the camera!!! ROFLMAO. Watch the video and you will see this happening. What a genius.

K’Top had expanded considerably since the past decade and a half. There were many new huts and the strength of the Army on top was much more than what one had seen in the earlier days. It had become a pucca touristy hot-spot – a souvenir shop, a tea shop and what not. And there was even a mobile tower on the farther side! Great, so I would be able to speak to my wife, I thought.

I met the JCO in charge of the pass and after the intros, we had a good chat over a hot cup of tea. An officer of the Navy and his family too made my acquaintance.

After 10 minutes or so, Vaibhav and Shubham came up, looking quite tired and out of breath. Vaibhav told me that Neville thought that I had been left behind so he and Fakhru had backtracked to get me up to the top. Also, he and Neville had fallen while negotiating the icy ditch but were okay.

I had already spent about 15 odd minutes on top and time was getting on. If I did not move soon, I would reach Base Camp too late in the evening to take any fotos and meet people there. So, I decided that Vaibhav and Shubham were competent to help Neville and Fakhru in the last stages if need be and that I should move on.

Earlier on, before moving out of Shanti, I had taken Neville’s cell fone so that I could be in touch with the team even after Khardung La. Now, after descending a few odd meters from the pass, I tried to call my wife to tell that I had finally reached Khardung La and was on my way to Base Camp. As luck would have it, her fone did not respond. Some time later, while negotiating the ditches and mounds, the fone vibrated. Thinking that it would be Vaibhav or Shubham with some bad news, I hurriedly stopped and checked the number. It was my wife! I took the call and told her that I had crossed Khardung La and was on my way to Base Camp. She was very happy and wished me all luck. This small chat with her, in the midst of the snow and ice and mud and peaks did wonders to refresh me and I forged ahead with renewed energy.

North Pullu

The descent from Khardung La is quite fast and within a few minutes, I was approaching North Pullu. It was nothing like I remembered from all those years ago. Then, it comprised a collection of just a couple of huts. Its function then was as a reporting point for Army convoys transiting Khardung La and as a checkpost for civilians as is the usual practice in these areas. Now, it was much more extensive.

I parked in front of a curious gazebo-like structure with glass walls and a sloped roof; I could see some track suit clad people playing table tennis inside.

When I opened the door, a blast of hot air hit me in the face, bringing a feeling of instant comfort and well-being; I had forgotten as to how cold I had become on top of the pass and on the descent.

Introductions followed and I was pleasantly surprised to meet two regimental officers there. It transpired that their battalion was slated for the tenure on the Northern Glacier at that time and these officers with their men were acclimatising in North Pullu before starting the long walk and climb to the posts.

It was a great feeling to be amongst officers and men of the same thread. We exchanged some regimental gossip and news about our units etc.

It was about 1230h now and despite the tea and biscuits in the gazebo, I was quite hungry and requested the Officer Commanding North Pullu, a Major, if he could get me a quick slapdash meal. He not only agreed but opened the Officers Mess and arranged a simple lunch for me.

The RAJPUT officers saw me off after lunch. I wished them the best of luck for their tenure on the glacier; they would need it in the months ahead.

Khalsar

Khalsar is the place where the road splits into two – one going towards Panamik, Sasoma and Base Camp and the other towards Hunder, Diskit and Partapur.  I took the right side from the fork and headed for the bridge over the Nubra.

The check post men had evidently been told about me; they even identified my bike.. There was a JCO of the Gurkha Rifles on duty and he asked me to register myself. The men on duty were curious about me as all Army personnel are in such remote places and I chatted with them in the time that my details were being filled in. And in the best traditions of the Army, they offered me a choice between a cup of tea and a glass of cold fruit juice. I opted for the latter; the day was hot and uncomfortably so and I was dehydrating fast despite the regular intake of water. The men bade me farewell and I promised to meet them on my return the next day.

The Nubra Valley

Some Googling reveals that the word Nubra is a corruption of the word Ldumra, which in Ladakhi, means valley of flowers. And I must say that to a substantial extent, the valley lived up to its name. Right from the time that I left North Pullu behind, the valley below was in bloom with a myriad of wild flowers in mainly Arctic pastel shades and at times typically tropical ones. Now I am no botanist so can identify only the most basic flowers and plants and I was happy that members of my limited floral lexicon were indeed present in the Nubra Valley. There was a riot of bougainvillea, wild roses in red and white and other small and large blooms, all basking in the bright sunlight and waving their heads in the balmy breeze. The long and bitter winter was over and Summer was here and nowhere was it being celebrated with greater carefree abandon than here, thousands of feet above sea level, in the Nubra Valley.

Sasoma

I stopped again at Sasoma and a problem reared its head. Apparently, no personnel who was not posted to that area could stay overnight at Base Camp. It would be dark by the time I reached Base Camp so would have to fall back to Panamik for the night after visiting my friends there; I could not spend the night there.

This hassle was solved by the staff officer at 102 Infantry Brigade, the controlling headquarters for the Siachen Glacier. He called up the resident artillery regiment at Sasoma and requested it to accommodate me for the night.

This valley had been windy right from the time I had entered it at Khalsar but I had been shielded a bit by the lay of the road which hugged the right side of the valley. Now, as I turned off the road and entered the unit area, the wind’s full blast hit me. It was about 1600h, the sand was billowing off the valley floor and far ahead, nothing could be seen towards Panamik but a huge wall of dust spanning the whole valley.

I was settled into accommodation typical to this area – a Shelter, Large, Snow aka SLS (named in the back to front format so ubiquitous to armies all over the world) converted into guest rooms. It rattled in the stiff wind and did not seem to have been inhabited very much in the immediate past but to me, it was like the Presidential Suite of the Waldorf Astoria. Inside was an ultra comfy bed with a goodly thick mattress and a blessed quilt. Gunner Ramu of the regiment got me some tea and we chatted amicably for some time. He was from Madurai  and expressed relief that his unit was in the process of moving out to a station in the plains. I could understand his sentiment completely – the mountains have a way of getting to you after some time.

After last light, the unit’s generator was powered up and I had light. Ramu got me a simple dinner from the cook house of the men. It was delicious and wholesome and I cleaned up my plate really well.

After dinner, I went out to stretch my legs. The wind was still playing its threnody in the tin sheets and the landscape was desolate. The sky was faintly visible through the dust and I could dimly see the canopy of a billion stars beyond that curtain, the same stars which had looked down on me from their high perch all the time I was there earlier.

Day Seven 17 June: Base Camp and Leh

17 Jun dawned bright and cool. The wind had blown itself out during the night and there was a soft stillness in the air. The striated stratocumulus scudding overhead promised a superb day for voyaging. I could not have asked for better conditions to reach Base Camp in. I was on time, departing at about 0800h. It would take an hour till Base Camp, an hour for looking around and I planned to start for Leh at 1000h.

Mess bill paid, baggage saddled up, visor cleaned and Ramu waved me a somewhat forlorn farewell; I had been a welcome interlude in his humdrum life and he seemed sad to see me go.

Panamik

Panamik was the place where we had staged to after our tenure on the glacier for a rest and recoup period. I did not remember much of the place and rode through, at one place seeing a sign board for the hot springs. Lots of flowers growing wild, gurgling brooks by the road side, the Sun bright over my head, a fresh breeze flowing like a balm over the valley and my trusty bike powering through the turns. Life was indeed beautiful and I thanked the Almighty yet again for these privileges He gave me to take in the splendour of His eternal creations.

Summer was on and at many places, the road was crisscrossed by mountain streams filled with snowmelt rushing to join the river Nubra. I had no problems crossing them, they were gentle and in the permanent run-off areas, there was an underlying layer of concrete which did not break with the passage of seasons. At one place though, there was simply no road at all, not even a dirt track. The diversion was a river bed of stones beaten down by the Army convoys’ trucks with the faint tyre marks indicating the path to be followed. So, it was complete off-road riding on this patch and it was quite bad with lots of jolting and hammering for bike and rider.

First View Of The Siachen Glacier

As I came round a curve, I saw the Sun shining on an odd black mass nestled at the far end of the valley, as if a huge mass of coal had suddenly oozed out of the valley floor. The rest of the landscape was in varying shades of brown and I realized with a shock that it was the snout of the glacier. I stopped and got out the binos and there it was, framed in the lenses, that mass of rock and ice and snow and moraine, left alone for a million years and now despoiled by Man in the furtherance of his petty egos and ambitions. I sat there in the seat, thinking of the walk up, the stop-overs at staging camps, the climb to the posts, the nights of calm and others of tumult and of the good friends who lay entombed for ever in the icy breast of their final resting place.

There was nothing to it but to shake my head, turn my eyes to the heavens, pray for peace for their souls and the safe-keeping of their followers and ride on to meet their memories again.

A feeling of urgency came into me now and without consciously realizing it, I was riding faster, the glacier drawing me to it as if by some unseen force.

Base Camp

I reached the check post and inquired about the location of 16 RAJPUT and the Siachen Memorial and I was directed by the JCO on duty to go across the bridge over the Nubra. Base Camp was a much bigger place now than I had ever known it to be.

The road was lined on both sides with small units and a varying type of huts and shelters. I followed the signboard indicating the way to the memorial. In my days, it had been on the other side of the river and must have been relocated to its present spot sometime later.

The Operation Meghdoot Memorial

I rode up to the memorial and parked my bike in the lot. A virtual maelstrom of thoughts and emotions was whirling about in my heart and mind as I mounted the steps of what to me were hallowed grounds.

The memorial is beautifully laid out in a rectangular shape. It has short pillars on which are carved the details of units which have participated in the conflict. At the rear stand marble slabs with the names of the fallen braves engraved and it was to this place that I gravitated. In an inadvertent, macabre act, there are extra slabs with empty faces flanking those with names on them. Obviously, this conflict would extract more lives before it was over.

One slab in particular was of very, very special interest to me and this was the one with “22 RAJPUT” on it. My video and still camera were out and I was filming the slab, fighting the tears back and losing the battle. I touched the names on the slab and reminisced about each man. Capt Diwedi used to come to my home quite often. A good officer with a capacity for back-breaking work, an honest laugh and a prodigious capacity to put away humongous amounts of whisky. His astrologer had predicted a life of 94 years for him. My other brother officers and I had such great plans for him after the tenure. And all of it had come to naught on that post at 20,000 feet when he had been struck by the splinter of an enemy mortar shell. Rakeshmani, you live on in our thoughts till this day.

A Small Prayer

I had taken a candle, a cigarette lighter and an incense stick with me. In the windswept memorial, it was hard work to light the candle and keep it burning but I managed. Ditto the incense stick.  The fragrance of the incense was carried away by the wind and the flame of the candle was guttering in the thin air. But, the presence of both was sufficient for me to say a small prayer for the men

Finally, the memories of the men on my own post who had perished overwhelmed me and I sat down on the wall of the centerpiece, too overcome to do anything for a few minutes.

Havaldar Suresh, Naik Dharamveer and Sepoy Ranjit had died in front of my eyes under an avalanche which was triggered by a cornice breaking off of a wall of ice. There was nothing, absolutely nothing I could have done to save them.

I had blamed myself for a few days after the incident and it was the incredible support of two of my toughest NCOs, namely, Havaldar Narender and Rajender which had given me the strength to carry on. They told me that I had done all that could be done and it was the will of the Almighty which had prevailed.

Yet, we had not let the glacier have it all her way and we had been able to save Naik Ramniwas, horribly injured in an artillery shell burst and bleeding heavily, from her deathly embrace. Today, he is alive and well and when we meet, he gives me a bone-crushing hug and with tears in his eyes, thanks me for saving his life. He is like a brother to me. This is the Indian Army – where relations between officers and men are forged on the anvil of blood and snow and ice and fire.

Aim Achieved, Objectives Attained, Mission Complete

I had been preparing for the past one year for this very day – the day when I would stand at the memorial and see the names of my friends there. I had achieved my aim of reaching Base Camp and attained my objectives of seeing the memorial and the glacier. In a sense, my mission was complete. It would be fully so when I returned home and wrote this travelogue.

Interaction With 16 RAJPUT

I was stopped by some men while I was riding back to the bridge. They were a bit pissed off to see a civilian bike with what they thought to be a typical biker on it here in restricted territory. When I introduced myself, they were struck as though by a bomb shell! “Arrey wah, sir. What josh to ride up to Base Camp to meet us and remember your old times here”. What spirit you have and so on and so forth. As luck would have it, one of them was the Adjutant of 16 RAJPUT and he was overjoyed to meet a regimental officer. He urged me to meet the Commanding Officer, have lunch, stay the day and return in the evening. I was sorely tempted to take up the offer but that would mean that I would be reaching Leh on the next day. We were to go to Pangong Tso on 18th. Also, I would not be permitted to stay overnight at Base Camp but would have to stay at Sasoma again.

This did not seem very appealing to me so I elected to just have a few words with the Commanding Officer and move on. There were few issues which he did not know of and I did not want to sound presumptuous to give him advice so we just chatted about regimental issues, about General V K Singh and his battle with the bureaucracy and politicos and so on. I felt great to see my familiar colours and hear the salutations and greetings of my men. Again, I was urged to have an early lunch but the clock was ticking and so, I requested for and got a packed lunch of aloo paratha and pickles.

Earlier, I had planned to ride right up till the snout and take a few fotos. But now, I was running out of time. Also, there was no appeal to re-visit the place; I preferred to retain the old memories rather have them substituted by newer ones.

At the check post, the JCO was smiling at me. “Kaam ho gaya, saheb?” he asked me, with a wry expression on his face indicating that he thought me to be a bit unhinged to come here, on my own time, on a bike. I replied “Han, saheb. Mere shahidon ki yadon mein kho gaya, unke naam dekh liye, unke liye ek deep jalaya, bas ab laut raha hoon

As I rode off, he had a wondering look on his face which soon changed to a knowing one and I left him there, nodding his head in agreement with the sentiment of my visit.

A Chance Encounter

I re-crossed the bridge and headed back on the road I had. I was happy that I had achieved what I had come here for and the lovely weather swept away the dark clouds of sorrow and mourning that had enveloped me at the memorial. My friends were happy in the Other world and would be looking down on me from their heavenly abode and I would not be doing justice to them and their work if I were to stay unhappy. So I smiled and rode on, a feeling of infinite content and wellbeing flooding me as if sent from a divine source.

At North Pullu, I saw an Innova with a Brigadier’s pennant flying and recognized it as belonging to the Brigade Commander of 102 Infantry Brigade. I asked the JCO at the check post and he confirmed that the officer had halted there for lunch on his way to Leh. It was but natural that I went in to meet him.

He was eating his meal when I entered the Officers Mess and got up to greet me with “Kahan ghoom rahey ho, bhai?” Again, some snafu had caused him to not be informed about my visit. I did not want to show his staff in a poor light so made some light remarks, picked up my plate and ate something. He asked me about the purpose of my visit and when I told him, he was quiet for some time, nodding his head as he thought of the times I must have had on top. He was quite profuse in his compliments and I got out before I was embarrassed any further. The two officers from 16 RAJPUT saw me off again with a hearty “Bajrang Bali Ki Jai, Hanuman Key Hoon Pyare”, my regimental war cry. I started the climb to Khardung La feeling on top of the world as indeed I was.

The Sun Smiles On Khardung La

In sharp contrast to yesterday’s light snowfall and chill breeze, there was bright sunshine on Khardung La, playing hide and seek with the fair weather clouds. The Commander had overtaken me on the climb and he had halted to meet the detachment on top. I waved to him and rode on.

After descending, I took a few fotos. The valley was bathed in intermittent patches of sunlight. Even the snow-clad peaks were gleaming with fresh snow melting and winking in the brightness as if conspiring with me to keep this sight to ourselves.

South Pullu passed by with nary a sideways look and I was on the last stretch of the descent, following the winding road as it changed from broken surface to good tarmac. The bad ditch of yesterday had been closed well and I noticed it only because I had been looking for it.

The Sweet Kahira

About 5 odd kms short of Leh, I stopped for a quick rest by the side of the road next to a small village. As I took off the rain cover trouser and gave my feet some air, a couple of curious kids gathered around. I gave them some sweets and they went off to their pastime of tail-sliding their bicycles down the slope. I had my rest and returned to the bike when a young girl asked me if I was thirsty. She was very polite and courteous and hospitable.

I was quite taken aback when she started conversing in reasonably good English apart from excellent Hindi. She said her name was Kahira and she liked to speak with tourists in English so that her skills in that language could be practiced.  I found that she was a student of Std XI at the Govt Secondary School.

She was just 2 years elder to my son and we struck an excellent rapport, chatting away about academics, work and play, even boyfriends! There in Pune, my son had no responsibilities other than doing well at his books and here in Leh, this young girl was hauling large empty barrels single-handedly onto the road for the passing water tanker, cooking meals at home, caring for her younger brother and sister and yet managing to get excellent grades at school. She dreamed of going to an art school in Delhi. I wished her all the best and gave her my last bar of Perk and that really perked her up. Hill folk are like this – simple, hardworking and full of beans, always striving to make their lives better. Hats off, Kahira and Co.

It was about 1800h by the time I reached Shanti. Vaibhav was in the room; the others were out sightseeing. All of them had spent yesterday and today in taking in the nearby tourist spots of Thiksey Gompa, Hemis Gompa, Shanti Stupa etc. We chatted for some time till they returned and then, all of us saw the fotos and videos of my trip.

In the evening, we decided to have some take-out dinner and a few drinks. But none of us wanted to get ready and move out; the others were tired after their visits all over town and I was quite fatigued with the ride to and from Base Camp. So, Neville, Fakhru and Shubham volunteered to get some nice dinner plus some spirits. Before moving out, they managed some crockery and cutlery from Mrs Dolkar and her girls.

The party that night was on my tab; I had achieved my aim and was in top form. There was lots of joking and leg-pulling going on. Shubham was harassed mercilessly for his Jain eating and (non)drinking habits but he was young enough to take it all with a laugh.

I went to bed thinking of the past two days, about Base Camp and times past and new.  Tomorrow, we planned to go to Pangong Tso and return the day after.

Day Eight 18 June: Leh/Pangong Tso

Yesterday, in the euphoria of the experience of the ride to and from Base Camp, it had not occurred that within the past 48 hours, I had ridden 400+ kms and had crossed Khardung La twice in the process. Now, with the adrenaline having worn off, when I awoke, I was feeling a bit tired still and frankly, the prospect of riding to Pangong Tso did not seem very attractive to me. Perhaps it was because I had seen it on numerous occasions whilst on my trips from Leh to Chushul via Chumathang. (Once, I had run into a sandstorm, slid into a crevasse formed from ice formed overnight along the track, had the radiator of my truck leaking, suffered a puncture, driven the truck ¾ of the way as the driver had been too fatigued to drive safely – all in a long 18 hour day.)

I asked Neville and the others if I could be excused from the Pangong Tso trip and they told me to just relax for the day.

I saw off the others and went down for some delicious Ladakhi breakfast. Mrs Dolkar was up and about and she was curious about me and my mates so we had a good chat about the team. Her husband too joined in and we had a cup of tea together in the warm turning to hot sunshine. Both of them were quite perplexed that I had taken this ride despite having seen everything there was to see in these parts. Also, they did not seem to be much concerned with the Siachen issue. All in all, we had a pleasant morning.

After the breakfast with the Dorjey family, I returned to the room for some housekeeping tasks. Today was the first break I had had since we started this trip and I wanted to replenish my energy for the return ride. So, I just lolled around the room, fixing the baggage, rearranging the items. It felt good to be off the saddle for a day.

An Israeli Repast

Soon, I was hungry and went down to the market near Changspa where a cluster of eateries and restaurants jostled for space. Earlier on in our wanderings, I had spotted a   relatively large place; it was at a lower level than the road and had tables laid out in the open. It seemed to be a multi-cuisine place with a good selection on the menu. After consulting the stewards, I settled for an Israeli dish known as a falafel. I in no way am a gourmand so had to question the steward quite extensively in order to understand what it was that would constitute a falafel. But my fears were unfounded. The dish was simple, very tasty and very filling. I had the non-veg variant and it was really good; with generous portions of roast chicken, hummus, sweet peas and other vegetables. The portion size was also very generous, so much so that I was able to eat only half of it and had to carry the remainder half back to the room. The icing on the cake, so to speak was the price – only Rs 80! It was really good for the price, far better than the Subway sandwich which is a poor cousin.

I was quite drowsy by now so headed back to the hotel for a nap.

A Philosophical Evening

In the evening, I went down to the kitchen to prepare my coffee as had been my wont for the past 2 days. A gentleman was seated there and I got talking with him. One meets such interesting people in tourist places… I forget his name now. He was in the petroleum business in Canada and used to come to India for meditation sessions.

A foot-loose, fancy-free bachelor with money to burn and what does he do? Attend classes for yoga and seminars on spiritualism (obviously linked to divinity and not to Bacchus!) and seek audiences with the Dalai Lama. He was very friendly and a good conversationalist and we had a fine time. It helped that his father had been an officer in the Army so there were some points of commonality between us. I was quite amused when he said that his spiritualism had become a barrier between him and prospective brides and that was the reason for his prolonged bachelorhood. I congratulated him for having seen the light without having to switch it on!

Neville And Gang Are Back!

I had returned to the guest house and was chatting with Mr Tsewang about our plans for tomorrow when somebody in a helmet asked me for the room’s keys. Wondering as to whom it may be, I asked and to my utter surprise, there stood Fakhru! He said that they had changed their plan and had ridden back after taking in Pangong Tso. He was followed by Vaibhav who huffed and puffed his way in and then by Shubham and Neville. Now, I had impressed upon my friends that it was downright dangerous to travel at night in these parts – some many things could go wrong, landing them into deep trouble – that I had been sure of their stay at Spangmik or Tangtse. And here they were, all pepped up with the ride and the sight of Pangong Tso.  Well, I did mention my unhappiness but did not belabour the point further.

Neville explained that they had initially planned to stay the night at Spangmik or Tangtse but only if they were late in reaching Pangong Tso. As everything went as per plan, they found no reason to stay on and so, had decided to return to Leh.

The Team At Pangong Tso

Here is the log for Pangong Tso, in Fakhru’s words.

After Maneesh returned from Siachen base camp on the evening of 16th June, the team got down to discussing the next day’s plan. Pangong Tso was the major pending place that could not be missed!

Maneesh was really tired after the Siachen ride and had already seen Pangong Tso a couple of times during his posting here in Ladakh in the 90’s. So he decided that he would take 17th June as a day off and do some local sightseeing. Neville, Vaibhav, Shubham and I had already visited the major monasteries including Druckbeat school (where “3 Idiots” had been filmed). So we decided to visit Pangong Tso and spend the night of 17th there or at Tangtse.

The team got on their bikes on 17th morning. The ideal time at which we were supposed to reach Pangong after crossing Chang la (one of the highest passes in the world) was around 1pm. The road towards Chang la was smooth, however, it became terrible some 5km towards the pass. The bikes were in 1st or 2nd gear for most of the time and the team got really tired. We descended from Chang la and around 4-5 hrs had passed from the time we started but still there was no sign of the lake, only grey, barren mountains lay ahead. Suddenly towards a turn, we saw a car filled with foreigners who were taking pictures of an entity many kilometers away. The gang stopped and finally realized that Pangong was giving them its first glimpse – pure blue.

The effect of seeing the lake after hours of riding was mesmerizing. As we approached the lake, the colours kept changing from deep blue to sky blue to green. It was like the lake was alive.

We decided to have lunch in one of the army cafeterias, rajma chawal to the fullest. It took some time for the men to cook it up, so the team decided to do some photography. Shubham and I with our young blood were not satisfied with the glimpse of the lake, filled with people alighting from their SUVs and playing in the water and thus spoiling the entire view.

We went on far ahead in the direction of the China border, where the road was just sand. After a couple of kilometers when the bikes were no longer to fight against the sand, we decided to give up. It was pure peace without any living being around.

Finally we decided to return. There were a couple of eco tents opposite the lake, charging Rs 3000 per night with dinner and breakfast for a gang of four. The team was still not sure about their stay as there was not much to do near Pangong and a night stay would spoil the next day which could be used to start the return journey.

Shubham and I joined Neville and Vaibhav who had already consumed enough of the delicious rajma to make them immobile. A quick gulp of some hot tea and we were rejuvenated. The gang after a lot of discussion decided to return back to Leh on the same day.

Shubham wanted some pics, Neville and Vaibhav wanted to look to some souvenirs and I wanted to collect some garnets from the Garnet Hill. So the team split up and decided to meet up again in 20 mins. Ultimately, Shubham got some good clicks, Neville and Vaibhav some good souvenirs but I couldn’t get any garnets, though I got some 20 odd pink stones, none being garnets.

It was already 4pm by the time the team got back together and there were no cars to be seen around the lake. It was completely isolated with just a group of two bikers almost ready to leave. The weather near the lake started to become funny, with sudden winds blowing and a storm building up.

Everyone decided to leave asap. I took the lead and Neville instructed everyone to quicken up the pace as we had to cross Chang la. Maneesh had told us about an unsaid rule in Ladakh. “Never cross a pass after 3pm”. This is because there is no help available in the post noon hours.

When the team reached Chang la, we were surprised to see that there was no living soul there. We wasted no time and quickened our pace further. The weather was turning bad, with the cold increasing every second. We were touching 70 kmph at one point of time in the mountains. We were able to save 30 mins while approaching Chang la from Pangong Tso and 30 mins while reaching the Manali – Leh highway on the other side of Chang la.

It was around 7.30pm when we touched the Manali Leh highway. The sun had set and it was pitch – dark. Vaibhav took the lead and guided everyone towards Leh in the darkness. The highway is notorious due to the speeding cars and trucks so we had to regulate our speed to low 60s for safety.

Finally, after an hour, at around 8.30-9.00pm we reached Shanti guest house. Maneesh was having a conversation with the owner Mr Dorjey. I was still wearing my helmet and  approached him and asked him for the room keys. He couldn’t understand who was it.

On removing the helmet he was taken aback to see me and the rest of the gang. He couldn’t imagine us here. It was difficult for him to believe that we had returned back to Leh on the same day. He took our case in the room and scolded us for taking such a risk. If anyone’s bike had given some trouble, the whole team would have been stuck on the pass for the entire night without any help. Thankfully, nothing of that sort had happened.  When I revealed my collection of 20 odd stones, we all could only have a hearty laugh. None were garnets, they were just mountain stones with a pink/red tinge that I had mistaken for garnets.

The gang was back safely, exhausted but I could see that they were behaving differently with a slight shimmer in their eyes. It could have been the amazing effect of Pangong Tso!

That night, dinner was in the guest house itself, a traditional sit-down Ladakhi affair. A wholesome meal of standard Indian cuisine comprising rotis, rice, vegetables, lentils etc. It was served piping hot in large bowls and one could eat as much a one wanted. I am normally not a rice eater but here, I found the rice to be simply delicious.

Day Nine 19 June: Leh to Pang

The day had finally dawned for us to bid farewell to Leh. We had seen the sights of town, I had been to Base Camp, the others had seen Pangong Tso and now, it was time to return. The conversation in the morning was muted as each of us went over our individual and collective experiences.

The bills had been cleared the previous evening so we got the baggage down, strapped up, fired up the bikes and turned to take a last look at Shanti Guest House. We had wanted to take a group foto with the owners but they were busy with other customers and would take a lot of time to be free so we moved on.

It was a bright sunny morning as our team streamed out of the market and headed for the Leh – Manali highway. En-route Karu, I passed some familiar places. Choglamsar (where, back then, I had bought a large, rough but extremely warm goat wool sweater for my wife) came and went by. So did Shey and Thiksey (where I had seen a gompa for the first time in my life).

Karu

I had stayed in Karu for about a month or so back in 1996. But it had changed so completely over the years that I was not able to recognise anything at all. We passed through the headquarters of 3 Infantry Division, the HQ for Siachen and Leh, which is spread out over both sides of the road.

Earlier, Karu used to end quickly and there was a stretch of empty road after which came the right hand turn to Upshi. Now, I had to be really careful not to overshoot the turn; the HQ had spread its flanks all over. Thankfully, the sign posting was adequate and we took the turn for Upshi correctly.

Miru, Lato, Gya and Rumtse went by in quick succession and we were at the climb for Tanglang La.

Tanglang La

This is reputed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world. The approach road is standard fare for these parts – part tarmac, part dirt and part a crazy mix of the two. One aspect which had struck me almost from the time we turned off at Upshi was that the roads on this axis seemed to be less maintained as compared to the Srinagar axis. In many places, the tarmac looked pretty old, the width was not much and all in all, this appeared to be a low-priority axis.

I reached the pass first and immediately, got the first taste of what lay ahead – a steady, chilled, high speed head wind. Tanglang La had always been windy and gusty but today, it seemed more so, perhaps to welcome us! The wind came up the valley of the Moreh plains and was funneled up to the pass. Tanglang La is unique in the sense that it is one of the few passes which lies almost perpendicular to the road axis. On the northern side lies the Upshi valley, the line of sight unbroken right up till the Jhelum and on the southern, the Moreh valley, again a straight line till the plateau over Pang.  Also, the pass is narrow and short so one can walk from one end to the other and take in the vistas on both sides quite well.

The many memories of Tanglang La came to me as I strolled around the pass. We ate some biscuits, drank some water, took some fotos and videos and then moved on.

Nightmare On Moreh Street (Plains)

We moved from the pass and the descent was a rock-strewn path passing off for a road. By now, both rider and bike had got used to the road conditions but that did not mean that we were any more comfortable!

Now, when I had been here earlier, the road from the base of Tanglang La till Pang had been pretty passable. In places, the tarmac had worn off but the dirt track left behind had been smooth. We used to meander around the main tarmac road, off-roading at times but not much so.

This time, the road was a living nightmare. The BRO had elevated the entire road above the general level of the plains which is the usual practice while constructing roads in areas prone to flooding. And it was covered with small pebbles in prep for laying down the tarmac. If this bed of pebbles had been covered immediately after it had been laid, the result would have been what I saw at the fag end of the stretch. But that was not done and the prolonged hammering under SUVs and heavy vehicles meant that even the underlying layer of larger pebbles stood exposed. For 3/4th of the entire length, this pebble-strewn path was hell for the rider and the bike. At places, concrete bridges had been laid over the known streams and as the approach and departure were not ready, we had to go off the road and come back, repeatedly.

The wide open valley was Disneyland for the evil wind which came at us with a force which at times threatened to get us airborne. It would be blissful to celebrate Makar Sankrant here – one could hang on to the kite and reach Aksai Chin! And it was an icy wind, knifing through gloves and jackets with impunity. The time of the day – late afternoon – meant that we were in the lee of the mountain side to the west and so were in shadow, further adding to our misery. Our speed was barely 30 odd kph; any faster and we risked a tank slapper in that atrociously capricious wind which shifted directions almost as fast as a woman shifting her moods (ummm, maybe a bit slower than that…)

I was just holding on to the handlebar, blanking out any thoughts of warmth, comfort, bed, bath, food. My bike too was complaining and refusing to go beyond 2nd. I diverted my mind from its current state to coaxing and nursing the Pulsar on, whispering sweet nothings to her and thinking about completely disconnected issues like Indian politics, global warming etc. But it was hard going and I kept coming back to the pain in my hands and butt. The SUV chaps were merrily doing 80 or so and throwing millions of tonnes of dust straight into our faces. My visceral hatred of SUVs of all kinds went up many notches that day.

Towards the end of this Hell on Earth, I experienced the same surreal feeling of Mulbekh; a road lip came up and the road became a superb tarmac dream. I could see valley of the Pang River pretty soon and after a few minutes, the descent started for Pang.

The moment I turned right for the descent, the wind stopped, the sun bathed me with its kind, warm, benevolent glow and I felt human again. As usual, I had been tail end Charlie and I could see my buddies looping around the turns. We had reached Pang.

This stretch, for me personally, was the toughest of the entire trip. Khardung La etc had been a walk in the park compared to this horrible patch from Tanglang La to Pang and I think my friend shared my sentiments. The fight against the wind had seemed never-ending and I was really tired of it when Pang came.

Pang: The Real Army

We reached Shireen’s dhaba at about 1800h. I introduced myself, told her about my time at Pang in July-Aug 96 etc. Over the years, she had expanded herself (:-)) and her establishment to include a tent at Sarchu too. We were settled down in the tent adjoining the kitchen and unloaded the bikes.

I proposed to Neville that we should check out the Army detachment close by; I was curious to see it after these many years. We went down to the main gate and I got talking to the sentries on duty, only to find that it was being manned by 17 RAJPUTANA RIFLES, the unit from which I had taken over an operational role in Jammu. The sentry spoke to the Officer Commanding of the det, Major Atul Srivastava who was out on an evening walk and he promised to meet us at the dhaba.

When we returned to the dhaba, the others had taken off their boots and were digging into omelets.

Maj Srivastava met us there and we chatted about Jammu and related issues. When he found that I was from 22 RAJPUT, the connection dawned on him and he insisted that we stay in the guest rooms in the det. I demurred, stating that we had already booked Shireen’s tent but he was not to be deterred. So, we gave Shireen some money as compensation, loaded our luggage into the officer’s Gypsy and rode down to the det.

Earlier, where there had been two huts here, now there were three. Where I used to stay was now the No 1 Guest Room meant for senior officers who happened to visit this place while the other two were for juniors; Maj Atul had a hut for himself which he shared with the base doctor. We were given these two and when we entered them, they had already been warmed by the kerosene fired heaters. An orderly got buckets of hot water and we had a wash.

Dinner was in the Officers Mess by ourselves; the OC was supervising some work and would be late so had left word for us to carry on. What a difference even small levels of comfort can make – a warm room, warm water for a wash, a change of clean clothes and now, a warm, simple and tasty meal for the weary wayfarers. We tucked into our meal without much ado and found the strength returning to our tired minds and limbs. Before leaving the Mess, I profusely thanked the staff and paid the bill.

Back to the hut, Neville was my partner and we chatted for a bit about my time here all those years ago before sleep overtook us. Neville’s coal miner’s lamp was very useful when the generator was switched off so we did not have to stumble around.

Day Ten 20 June: Pang To Keylong

We had had an excellent rest the prior night and Neville and I were up pretty early. We changed fast and I went to check up about the other three. Shubham was still dopey and I had to tease him a bit to get him going.

The bikes were loaded up and after an excellent breakfast, we took some fotos with Maj Atul. I told him about my humiliation at Srinagar and he agreed with my views that the real Army was to be found at remote outposts rather in big HQs. All of us were quite profuse in our thanks, especially I.

We rode out with glad spirits, ready to take on the notorious Baralach La. For, many riders had told us stories about deep slush and non-existent roads in that area. We had debated about how to tackle the pass and had decided that, if need be, all of us would ride across bad patches without the baggage and return on foot to pick up the baggage piecemeal.

Lachung La came and went without any cause for concern.

Sarchu

We halted for a break at Sarchu. There was considerable accommodation here for the Army convoys plying the route. Some tea, some biscuits and we were now ready for Baralach La.

Baralach La

The approach to the pass is rife with numerous water crossings which are quite deep in places. I used to go ahead, reconnoiter the place, decide upon a route to follow and ride through. The others would then follow my path. This way, we eased up the ascent, on the lookout for the infamous slush and bad patches. But, they never came up!!! The road was really quite good with lots of water crossing it from the snow melting on the sides and the pass was crossed before we realized that Baralach La had gone by. There was one place which had the ubiquitous Tibetan flags all covered with slush and mud which we later deduced had been the saddle.

It was actually the most beautiful pass that I had seen among all those we had crossed since our trip began. Pristine, untouched and unspoiled by man, the place was bathed in the evening Sun’s mellow rays. Immediately after the pass, there was a semi-frozen lake on the left; I forget the name now. The entire area was calm, peaceful and divinely tranquil and there was only the sound of our bikes as we trespassed into this lovely land. Sadly, none of us stopped to take any fotos but the memory of that vista will stay with me for many, many years to come.

Darcha

Many years ago, Darcha had been infamous for the bridge over the Pagal Nala which used to get washed off ever so frequently. I did not recognise this nala at all; we must have crossed it among the innumerable streams in that patch. We crossed the now permanent bridge and were on the other side with no fuss.

At the police check post, we entered our details and moving ahead, saw a line of dhabas where we stopped for lunch. All of us were a bit tired and hungry and the dhaba was warmed by the Sun’s rays filtering through the fiberglass roof panes; it was a cozy place. We had a solid lunch of potato curry, lentils and scrambled egg.

Gomur and Stingiri came and went by.

Keylong

When I had been chatting with Mr Spirituality back at Leh, he had mentioned some hotel at Keylong near the bus stop so we started looking out for the sign boards leading to the bus stop. On the outskirts of the town, there was a decent hotel which we chose as the night halt. Neville and I went in to check it out and spoke to the chap behind the front desk about room rents etc (later, he turned out to be the cook!) The rate was Rs 2000 for the night which we haggled down to Rs 1800.

Actually, it was a suite of two rooms so Neville chose the outer room, the three bedmates of Vaibhav, Shubham and Fakhru chose the large double bed while I elected to sleep on a mattress on the floor.

The view outside was quite nice. The hillsides were dotted with cottages and houses with sharply sloped roofs to take on heavy snowfall in the winters.

The hotel chap helpfully gave us a shuttered shop to park the bikes. We hauled the baggage to the rooms and relaxed for some time. After a couple of cool beers, we went for dinner in the restaurant on the mezzanine. The meal was not at all tasty; the noodles were downright pathetic. Obviously, our cook seemed to be better suited for front office duties than behind his stove!

There was some very soft music playing on the hotel’s PC-based music system and I found that it was a collection of Tibetan chants. The music was magically soothing and then Neville told me that he had got a CD of this stuff from Leh and would give me a copy when we reached home.

Day Eleven 21 June: Keylong To Bhuntar

We anticipated good roads from hereon and so were relaxed in getting ready. Thankfully, the breakfast of omelets and toast was infinitely better than the previous night’s dinner and we were soon saddled up and on our way.

The famous fuel station at Tandi came up; we filled our tanks for the leg as part of our usual practice. I got chatting with some tourists who had come up from Mumbai.

Gondla, Sissoo and Khoksar went by in quick succession.

Rohtang La

The approach to Rohtang La is a long plain stretch of road from Khoksar till Gramphoo where the climb starts for the pass. The weather was just purrfect for biking – light clouds scudding in an otherwise azure sky, a light breeze across the valley and a good road surface. The traffic picked up a bit here though it was mostly minibuses and trucks. Also, as the climb started, the road progressively deteriorated to places where there was just a dirt track.

When we reached the pass proper, we got the shock of our lives. Nothing in the previous days had prepared us for the sight of such a huge mass of humanity crowding one small area. There were tourists doing every conceivable thing there except bonking one another. They were climbing the snow-clad sides, throwing snowballs at each other, sliding on it, jumping on it and some geniuses were even eating it! And at every 10 meters, no, every 1 meter, there was a stall selling packaged food – chips, wafers et al – and beverages. Women in sarees trying to get into insulated snow suits, kids running around screaming with ecstasy with their parents looking on indulgently, young couples (so obviously newly wedded) getting all touchy-feely, ATVs meandering around on the snow, newbie skiers sliding down nervously, everybody’s jaws chewing something and the taxis trying their best to kill anybody on the road and plastic bottles EVERYWHERE – it was a real-life Stygian nightmare.

There was a small helicopter flapping about, giving rich tourists a panoramic view of possibly the filthiest and most horrible mountain pass in the whole wide world. (Much later, I got to know that its crew was two of my colleagues, erstwhile Army Aviation pilots)

A word about the taxis here. This place seems to have the rudest and most insulting taxi drivers in the country. And to top it, they have atrocious driving skills. Vaibhav and I were almost sideswiped by one stupid Alto chap; we tried to catch up with him but he vanished in the melee.

None of us stopped, and as if by some unsaid consensus not one of us took a single foto. We had seen the might of Khardung La and Chang La, the heavenly beauty of Baralach La and this place was Hellish in comparison. We just hunkered down and rode on, trying to avoid the stalls and the kids and the murderous taxis.

It was after descending the pass and having stopped for lunch that I realized that I was perspiring, for the first time since leaving Keylong. The Sun was hot and the place dusty with the constant passing of vehicles.

Our lunch was very good – rotis, vegetables and lentils with Amul flavoured milk for starters.

Marhi, Gulaba, Kothi and Palcha swept by and soon, we were in the outskirts of Manali.

Manali

I had last been to Manali in 1997 with my wife, again on a bike (then, my beloved KB – 125RTZ) and had not liked the place one bit. This was true even now. If anything, Manali had grown more crowded, dusty, dirty and hot over the past years.

As we were driving along the main road which I think is called The Mall, I saw the signboard of the Himachal Tourism hotel on the right. I turned back and drove up the road, followed by the others. Vaibhav and I went in to ask for rooms and we got an emphatically negative reply. The hotel was chock-full for the next whole month and the receptionist recommended some place down the road called Apple Valley and so we rode on.

Back on the road, I was barely able to see the sign for Apple Valley, so I overshot and turned back. My turn-off was so quick that only Vaibhav was able to follow while we both saw the rest 3 ride by serenely. No amount of shouting halted them so we decided to check the hotel out and meet up with the rest later.

The place was quite expensive-looking and this apprehension was confirmed when the receptionist quoted a rate of Rs 3500 for one room without meals. This was a bit too much for us as it would entail an expenditure of more than Rs 7000 just for one night. We passed it up and turned back to the road. The others halted some distance ahead and we decided to look for rooms in Bhuntar instead where we anticipated more appealing fares.

When I saw it, I was unable to believe my eyes the first time so I went up close and confirmed the identification. Yes, it was a Volvo bus, stopped by the roadside to take on passengers. A Volvo bus, here, on the road between Manali and Kulu, where at places, it was dicey for two Maruti Altos to pass each other. And when the driver started off, I was really terrifyingly impressed. He was handling the bus with a combination of the skills of a Rossi, a Loeb and a Senna. What a sheer waste of talent, I thought. Here was a man who could win the 2013 MotoGP, WRC and Formula 1 title while chewing his betelnut and smoking his beedi and what was he doing? Driving a Volvo bus. Tch, tch, such a waste. His passengers must have been one privileged lot, though. I am sanguine that an ECG taken there in the bus would have taught cardiologists the truth about the limits that the human heart can endure and yet keep ticking and in this case, hammering away…

Katrain and Raisen went by.

Kulu

We stopped for a rest on the embankment of the Beas River, short of the main overbridge just before Kulu. Nicely, one ice cream cart came by followed by a second which had Amul ice cream. As usual, we had one each while Neville had to have two, to soothe his sweet tooth!

All along this patch, there were numerous rafting stalls, offering short thrills over the reasonably turbulent waters in inflatable dingies. I remembered the rafting expedition during my cadet days at the IMA when an officer’s wife had gone into the drink and he had hauled her up by her hair, very much akin to a caveman dragging his mate into the cave. Some memories never die…

Bhuntar

At one place, we halted and looking up, I saw a hotel named Malabar on the left. Shubham, Vaibhav and Fakhru went to check up another one on the other side while Neville and I checked out “Malabar”. It was quite nice and the management offered us the family suite when they heard of our needs. This was the second time I had heard of such an entity as a family suite; the first had been at Shanti in Leh when we had occupied similar rooms. It comprised a two room set with double beds in each room for hubby-wife and the kid(s). The fare of Rs 2000 for the night was par for the course. But before committing anything, we also looked at the other one; it was no patch on Malabar so we decided to stay at Malabar.

The room was pretty nice as can be seen in the video. While I freshened up, Neville and Vaibhav went looking for some good take-out dinner and Fakhru and Shubham went shopping for exotic fruits. They got back with dinner, chilled Fosters cans and an assortment of plums, raw almonds, peaches and bananas.

We had a nice evening there in Bhuntar. For us, it was warm so the AC was going full blast. Dinner was out on the patio of the room and we hit the sack pretty early.

Day Twelve 22 June: Bhuntar To Ambala

In the morning, I was packing my stuff when I heard the familiar sound of aero engines. When I went out to the rear of the room, I found that the hotel was almost touching the boundary wall of the Bhuntar civil airport. There was a Kingfisher Airlines ATR – 72 on final approach to Runway 34. Some other guests too watched this private little air show. I found a foto on the Internet which clearly shows our first floor room in Hotel Malabar as seen from the airport.

I cleaned the bike’s air filter to prep her for the plains. We had breakfast, paid the bills and set course.

Pandoh

Aut and Thallout went by and we were soon in the vicinity of the Pandoh dam. All over India, photography of our great dams (the temples of Modern India, as per Jawaharlal Nehru) is prohibited for “security” reasons so we stopped earlier for a rest and some clicking.

Now, for the past about a km or so, I had noticed that there seemed to be a confluence of rivers up ahead so we stopped at that very place. It was a pretty sight of two rivers becoming one. Actually, it was a small mountain stream merging with the Beas River. The stream had clearer water while the river, flowing down hundreds of kilometers thru the mountains, had accumulated debris.

Mandi

We crossed Mandi fast; it was almost midday and the traffic was terrific. Mandi was another crowded tourist town in the hills.

From Mandi till Ner chowk, the road was superb. But then, once we turned onto the road for Swarghat, the surface worsened into undulations of rough patches.

The Heat Takes A Hold

All of us, over the past few hours, had noticed that the heat had started affecting us quite hard. On this leg, we had to stop on three separate occasions to take in refreshments and fight off the dehydration setting in. At one of these halts, we were drinking some superb lemonade and crunching into succulent cucumbers when I had an attack of dizziness. I had been having these spells on and off over the past few years so was not concerned. It passed and we were moving again.

The Last Of The Hills

We reached Swarghat at about 1330h. It was blazingly hot and humid as we turned off at a dhaba for lunch. When I looked back at the road we had ridden down from and then ahead to where we were to ride on, I realized that the last of the hills had passed by and we were back to the plains. The change was quite abrupt; to one side the tree-dotted climbing hills towards Kulu and on the other, the plain, dusty highway towards Rupnagar.

There was an AC in the dhaba but it was too puny to make any difference to the sweltering heat so we elected to sit out under the awning and have our lunch of rotis, paneer, dal makhani followed by ice cream.

From here to Rupnagar, the road was a bit poor with potholes and many dusty patches.

The Start Of The Six Lanes

We exited from Rupnagar on to the excellent six lane highway to Chandigarh aka NH 21. But I did not really relish riding on this in the heat on a small Pulsar laden down with baggage. Our formation kept changing with Vaibhav and Neville changing lead intermittently.

We had again to stop for coolers along the way, the heat was really getting to us. I was especially badly off due to excessive perspiration.

At one place, Vaibhav and I were in the lead and were stopped at a police check post. My bike had a Rajasthan number while Vaibhav’s had a MH number. I intro’d myself and informed the cops that we were part of a team of bikers from Pune and Mumbai and that three of our mates would soon follow.

The rotund Haryana cops, lolling around in the police outpost without any obvious work, seemed bored and were obviously looking forward to extorting bribes but seeing my Army identity card, their demeanour changed completely and they waved us by without any hassles.

A Missed Turn At Kharar

We kept riding on towards Chandigarh, weathering the heat and missing the cold, crisp and clear air of the mountains.

A sign board for the turnoff to Kharar came up and I knew that I had seen this name somewhere. Yet, we carried on, thinking that the turn towards Ambala would materialize ahead. Finally, we stopped as there was no sign of Neville and Shubham; Fakhru had joined us soon after the police post. A tiny shack gave us some shelter from the Sun and the ceiling fan was fighting a losing battle with the still, humid air. I saw a familiar bottle of soda – the famous “goti soda” and we had two lemonades each.

Fakhru and Vaibhav kept calling Neville and Shubham but there was no answer from them. When Shubham did answer, we asked him for his location and confirmed that Neville was also with him. At that time, the two were about 32 kms from Ambala so we asked them to halt at any place affording some shade and a cold drink. We moved off after resting for about 20 odd minutes.

The kilometer stone read 32 kms to Ambala and then successively 31, 30, 29 and 28 and yet, there was no sign of  Neville and Shubham. I had started fearing the worst – that these two had reached Ambala and were waiting for us at some odd place.

We had turned on to the highway to Delhi and had just passed a flyover when I saw Shubham sitting on the road with Neville near him. We stopped there and conferred about the next step. Locals informed us that Ambala Cantt was about 7 kms from where we were presently.

From my earlier experience at Srinagar, I was a bit loathe to try for accommodation at any Officers Mess in the Cantt; a negative answer would mean that we would have to traipse all the way back to town. So we decided to stay in Ambala City.

Ambala

Having waded thru cows and veggie carts and typical crazy traffic, we reached a hotel which had AC rooms. The room was okayish with four beds with space to squeeze in a fifth too. The AC seemed to be quite new but the attendant was reluctant to prove to us that it did indeed function properly. We spoke to the owner who assured us that all was well with the AC. And then, the owner sprang a nasty surprise. He warned us that the lane in front of the hotel was prone to theft of bikes parked in the open! Now we were in a quandary as to what to do.

Seeing our state, the owner recommended that we stay at Hotel Amar Palace which was but a short distance away. The hotel belonged to him and it had proper parking spaces for our bikes, so he said.

By now, I was hit very hard by heat stroke and barely able to move. I felt light-headed, feverish and there was a funny pit in my stomach. There seemed to be no energy left in me to even sit up properly. I just wanted to lie down and sleep.

The others did not seem to be so badly discomfited at all. Vaibhav and Fakhru had earlier gone to check up on a hotel near the railway station and on their return, when they pronounced it unsuitable, they had to check up on this Amar Palace too. Fortunately, they had better tidings and we went off to Amar Palace.

This was a much better outfit at the same rate of Rs 2000 per night and we settled into our room with the AC going full blast. The AC was leaking water on to the sofa and despite the ministrations of the hotel support staff, the problem persisted. However, this was the hotel’s headache, not ours. The room had a nice setup for tea and coffee with a hot water kettle and the beverages in small sachets. We polished this off pronto. Neville put his innovation – shirt drying on circulating fan – to good use.

An important discussion took place around this time. This was regarding our night halts over the next four days. The original plan envisaged halts at Delhi, Gwalior, Mhow and Nasik. But from Ambala, Delhi was only 200 kms away and if we halted in Delhi, we would waste almost half a day’s riding time. And when we checked Google Maps for alternatives, we found that we were landing up in small hick towns. Ultimately, a unanimous decision was taken to ride on to Delhi and depending on everybody’s health, we could decide to move on or to stay the night in the capital.

Dinner that night was purely veg as the restaurant was also so. Some runty kids were running around and disturbing the peace and they had to be controlled by their parents – typical Indian restaurant scene.

We were tired out and hit the sack. Tomorrow would be another hot day on the road for we planned to reach Delhi.

Day Thirteen 23 June: Ambala to New Delhi

The night had been very comfy what with our tiredness being salved by the AC and we rose quite refreshed. I was bothered by recurring bouts of cramps which I put down to dehydration.

We moved out at around 0800h and it was already starting to warm up badly. The humidity too was quite unnerving. After days spent in the dry atmosphere of Ladakh, the moisture-laden air of Punjab/Haryana in the sowing season was like a wet blanket (pun fully intended). As was our norm, we tanked up before hitting the highway.

The highway to Delhi was a six-lane affair, smooth and plain and with minor diversions for work in progress but oh so boring after the twisties of the hills.

We had lunch at a roadside restaurant where a crazy idea started popping up in my mind. As per our original plan, we were to ride via Delhi, Gwalior, Mhow, Nasik and reach Mumbai (Neville, Shubham and Fakhru) and Pune (Vaibhav and self). This entailed four days of riding and four overnight stays before our destinations. What if we changed the plan and flew down from Delhi whilst sending our bikes by train? Would the financial implications be much greater than riding down?

There were some very cogent reasons behind my thought process. We had achieved our respective aims and objectives of riding to Leh and had done so with nary a problem at all. Riding all the way home would be a big drudgery on the boring highways. After the excitement of Ladakh, the homeward ride would seem passé and the members were in danger of becoming complacent and ipso facto, careless on the highway thus paving the way for accidents. An additional four days on the highway, in the peak summer heat would take its toll on our bikes and bodies and the ride would degenerate into the “burnin’gas, haulin’ass” type of activity. To me, the only impediment seemed to be the financial implications of changing the plan.

My thoughts called for a prolonged meeting of all members and so, I started passing the word for a meeting at our next refreshment halt.

A Council Of War And A Major Change Of Plans

We halted for a break at a mofussil dhaba. It was very warm, yet I preferred a hot, sweet cup of tea over the cold lassi.

I then laid out the options to the other members. The first was to proceed as planned with night halts in Delhi, Gwalior, Mhow and Nasik. The second was to ride till Delhi, load the bikes on to trains and fly down to Mumbai/Pune.

Neville was all for adopting the change. After some discussion, Fakhru too opted for it. Vaibhav came on board after he and Neville had checked the air fares for that day to Mumbai and Pune. Shubham was not for it, primarily because he had wanted to visit his parents at Bhopal en-route.

The Financial Implications.

Option A: All Ride Down

Four nights X Rs 2500(minimum) per night equaled Rs 10,000 i.e. Rs 2000 per member . The cost of food and beverages per day including breakfast, lunch, dinner and the hourly soft drinks came to about Rs 500 per person per day i.e. Rs 2000 for four days. The distance from Delhi to Pune/Mumbai was about 1500 kms. For a fuel consumption of approx 45 kms per liter per bike, this entailed 30 liters of fuel per bike which at an average of Rs 72 per liter worked out to approx Rs 2200 per bike. The grand total was Rs 2000 + Rs 2000 + Rs 2200 i.e. Rs 6200. This figure was a conservative estimate and would definitely increase to at least Rs 7000 per member.

Option B: Rider In The Air, Bike In The Train

The air fares were about Rs 8000 per person, give or take a couple of hundred bucks. We anticipated about Rs 3000 per bike which came to a total of about Rs 11000 per head for the change of plan.

Comparo

Therefore, Option B was costlier by Rs 4000 or so. When put a different way, it meant adding just about Rs 1000 per day to Option A.  The gain would be four clear days, zero wear and tear of the bike and a relief from the heat of the bloody Indian summer at its peak for the rider. Personally, it was a very attractive deal considering that I would get four days extra with my family before returning to my duty station.

We discussed some more, mainly because some member (I forget who it was) was against the change of plans at such a stage. His take was that once the plan had been made to ride all the way down, we should implement it accordingly. My rationale was that in any undertaking of this type, one must retain the flexibility to amend the plan as per circumstances and not blindly pursue a preset course of action. Fortunately, my reasoning was able to convince the member and we rode on, with the objective being Delhi.

A Minor Race Against Time

A new factor came into play once we had  changed our plan. This was to do with time. From where we started off post discussion, Delhi was still more than 100 kms away. We would need to complete two major tasks if we were to fly out the same day, namely to book our bikes on trains leaving for Mumbai and Pune and book our air tickets.

We decided to first head to the railway station, pack our bikes and book them on trains and then move to the airport for the air tickets.

New Delhi Railway Station

We reached Delhi at about 1600h. Sign posting of roads and landmarks in Delhi is excellent.  The heat was just fantastic and I marveled at the effects of acclimatisation – when posted to Delhi from 2005 till 2008, I used to traverse the length and breadth of this huge city in the summers without any issues whatsoever.

All of us were suffering from the infamous Delhi heat but were gritting our teeth and just moving on. I knew a bit about Delhi so took the lead to guide our pelota of sorts to New Delhi Railway Station, ably aided by the familiar blue boards alongside the roads.

Ambala Heat Stroke Redux Squared

I had started feeling a bit woozy a few kms short of the station and by the time we reached it, I was flying high. Now, my substance abuse is restricted to socially approved psychotropics, namely alcohol and tobacco. But what I was feeling was what a junkie might term a “spaced-out” high. I parked the bike and almost collapsed on the ground, there did not just seem to be any energy left in me. I was panting for breath like a dog and seemed to be swimming in a large pool. Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. I had never felt this way in my entire life. I was obviously quite sick but could not afford to rest right then. There still was work to do – our fuel tanks were almost full and the fuel would need to be decanted into external containers before packing the bikes for the train journey.

After much haggling, the crooks at the station settled for Rs 2000 per bike plus Rs 100 for packing material.

I then took one of these men on the pillion seat to Chawri Bazaar to get two plastic jerry cans for the fuel. That was a truly memorable ride thru all types of vehicles and animals. The shop was deep inside the bazaar and when I entered it, there were two generously proportioned women haggling with the owner about some pickle jars.  They then started speaking to each other in chaste Marathi! I was surprised and chatted with them as much as my debilitated state would allow while the cans were being unpacked. Apparently, they were part of a group of Maharashtrians who were into making ethnic pickles for the North Indian market.

Cans purchased, I got back to the station, handed the cans over to Neville and just lay down on the ground like a wastrel drunk sleeping off his hangover. I could faintly make out that the petrol was being decanted, Neville giving instructions, people moving around and all of it in a sea of slow motion. Perhaps, those readers of this log who are doctors would be able to diagnose my condition.

Throughout this tortuous trip to Chawri Bazaar and back, the one thought uppermost in my mind was to not fall, injure myself and become a liability for the team.

The bikes were packed and the guys there promised to send them on on that day or the day after. We had to trust them, there was simply no other choice.

Farewell To Shubham            We bid farewell to Shubham at this stage. He planned to ride on to Bhopal to meet his parents and promised to call or text on his safe arrival. Our team of five was now down to four. I felt sad to see him ride away. We had spent 11 days in one another’s company and he had taken all the jokes most graciously. I worried a bit about him riding alone all the way to Bhopal but then, this trip had matured him like nothing else would.

Fakhru had called up one of his friends, Sahil Jindal, to take possession of the petrol – about 38 liters or so – and he arrived at the station. He was immensely generous in volunteering to transport our baggage in his car to the airport; the team would travel in the Delhi Metro. The rest of the team insisted that I travel in the car along with Fakhru to minimise the effects of the heat. So, while Neville and Vaibhav went by Metro, Fakhru and I went by car.

I was 75% back to normal within 10 minutes of sitting in the cool environment of the car; such is the effect of reduction of temperatures for heatstroke victims. And by the time we reached the airport, I was almost completely normal.

The Return Flight      The ticketing office at the IGIA was refreshingly cold and within just a few minutes, I was fully alright. Vaibhav and I got tickets for the 1930h flight to Pune while Neville and Fakhru were to leave at 1950h for Mumbai.

The chilled blast of air emanating from the doors of the departure lounge was Manna from Heaven. We checked in our baggage while a bit apprehensive about the various otherwise innocent but in today’s terror-filled days, dangerous bike parts and tools. I asked the check-in clerk about these items, he referred me to the X ray guys. There, I showed them everything but it was superfluous to do so; the expert airport CISF staff had already marked us off as genuine guys by our helmets and our generally fatigued visages.

Vaibhav had weight issues, not with his body but about his baggage. I sat on a small both with the rest of the cabin luggage as he juggled items in and out of his check-in luggage to avoid paying extra.

We did not see Neville and Fakhru anywhere in the area so assumed that they must be having a meal somewhere.

I saw something in the departure lounge which set me thinking, namely, the drinks bar. Now, alcoholic drinks are not allowed on domestic flights but passengers having imbibed the stuff are! Every single person having her or his cocktail or beer had to be a departing passenger. What prevented a person of such a mind to intake more that what he or she should have and then create a ruckus in the aircraft? Some practices are so obviously flawed that their eminent idiocy renders them fit for implementation, I supposed.

The flight took off on time. I spent the next 2 hours in thinking back about how this whole adventure had come to pass – the planning and preparation, the gathering of the team and the actual ride. One part of me was chatting with Vaibhav while the other was reminiscing about the trip. Modern travel means are indeed so time-saving, I thought. We had to spent three days to reach Leh from Jammu on our bikes while a commercial airliner takes just about an hour and 20 minutes. I imagined what it must have been during Maharaja Zorawar Singh’s time – horses and mules and a huge caravan tail. Must have taken months for those guys to reach Leh…

The Homecoming

The flight landed in Pune a couple of minutes early at 2140h, no doubt assisted by helpful tailwinds at flight level 380.

On getting out of the aircraft, I was comforted by the hill station-like climate of Pune. It had rained a few minutes prior to our landing and the air was almost chill. What a tremendous difference there is between the weather of Delhi and that of Pune, even in the month of June.

I had not informed my wife about the change of plans so she was under the impression that we were all at Delhi, staying the night over. I called her from the airport after moving out and just as she came on the line, the announcement speaker started blaring out! Vaibhav looked at me with evil eyes that said “the game is up, boss” but I was saved; she did not hear the speaker while I gave her a droll situation report of the day’s proceedings, conveniently omitting to mention that I was in fact already in Pune.

It was about 2230 when I reached home. I rang the doorbell, my wife opened the door and asked in an officious tone “Yes, who is it?” I did not reply so she peeked out and saw me and got the shock of her life! “Ooooh, oh my God, it is YOU, how, why, what…” the questions flew thick and fast. I lugged the baggage in while she looked at me as if not believing what she was seeing.

A quick dinner, the first at home after 12 days, was rustled up by her while I had a chilled beer and related the story about the change of plans. The kids had gone to bed but on hearing the commotion, they awoke and ran out to hug me. There is something strange about women, adult and child alike. They weep when they are sad and again when they are happy. Both, my wife and daughter had tears in their eyes while my son gave me a once-over look which spoke volumes about how happy he was to see me return safely.

Epilogue

The next morning, I sat unpacking my baggage, clearing the dust of Moreh plains off the jacket and wondering if it had all been a dream, something like “Inception”. But, the sand on the clothes and bike was real as was the tear in the gumboots which I had mended at Sasoma with the puncture repair kit. The fotos were real as were the videos. And of course, there was no spinning top… Then and there, I knew that I would be doing this trip once again, some time in the years to come.

On 25 June, I got an SMS from Shubham stating that he had reached Bhopal safely. So, with the last member of our team reaching home, our trip was well and truly over and most successfully so.

Our bikes reached on 24 June but due to some cock-up, we could collect them only on 26 June. They were unmarked from the rail journey, thank God.

This writeup is long and detailed simply because there was no way I could do justice to our experience as a team and that of mine personally in any other way. Yes, brevity is the soul of wit but not when the tale is to be told completely in letter and spirit, in bouquet and flavour.

Credits

Many thanks to the moderators of xbhp.com and bcmtouring.com for approving the threads and keeping them live for all this time. The posts on these two threads plus the efforts of other members helped me no end.

xBhp link:

http://www.xbhp.com/talkies/tourer/19998-leh-2012-planner-44.html

BCMTouring link:

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/ladakh-zanskar-f24/leh-2012-planner-t38095/

I owe a considerable debt to two special persons. One is Vishwas Mokashi aka trustvishwas of xBhp. His travelogue laid the foundation for my preparation and helped me to update my experiential knowledge. His compilation of essential information proved invaluable for my task and I can safely say that I would have had to work very hard indeed in the absence of Vishwas’s thread.  Salute. His log is a must-read for every Leh aspirant:

http://www.xbhp.com/talkies/tourer/13391-my-first-ride-ever-khardung-la-18380-ft-riding-world-s-highest-motorabl.html#post446456

The second person is Yogesh Sarkar of bcmtouring.com. His site in general and the Leh – Zanskar section in particular was a goldmine, not so much for the (at times asinine) questions asked by members but the infinite patience with which Yogesh himself answered them.

He answered my own idiotic ones with promptness and accuracy. Yogesh has been to Leh thrice on his bike and his travelogues were truly an asset. The special links for bike and rider prep were literally encyclopaedic in nature and due to this detailed repository of pinpoint information, I did not have to wander too afar on Google to complete my own prep. Salute.

The Leh – Zanskar section:

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/ladakh-zanskar-f24/

Important links:

Ladakh Travel Guide

http://www.bcmtouring.com/travel-guides/ladakh-travel-guide/index.html

Bike prep

http://www.bcmtouring.com/articles/preparing-your-motorcycle-for-ladakh/

En-route accommodation

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/ladakh-zanskar-f24/accommodation-ladakh-along-routes-ladakh-t11641/

Phone services:

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/articles-f20/phone-services-ladakh-t140/

First aid kit

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/india-travel-basics-f54/first-aid-travel-kit-t31199/

Acclimatisation to high altitude

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/articles-f20/high-altitude-acclimatization-illnesses-t95/

GPS trails for the Nubra Valley and Changthang

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/india-maps-gps-trails-f53/map-nubra-valley-changthang-ladakh-t22464/

List of guest houses and hotels in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh

http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/hotels-guest-houses-jammu-kashmir-ladakh-f48/list-hotels-guest-houses-ladakh-t44362/

My parents had fretted enough during my Siachen tenure and were, by now, quite resigned to my late blooming adrenaline junkie avatar. They had nothing but words of encouragement and support. Salutations and Namaskaar.

My wife is a seasoned sports-person, trekker and adventurer in her own right. She had withstood the trials and tribulations of Chumathang for about 2 months with remarkable fortitude. She had wanted very, very badly to accompany me as a pillion and second rider on this trip. But I had planned to ride my model 2002 Pulsar Classic, a small bike, for this trip and it had been a Herculean task to dissuade her from coming along. I have promised her that we will go together when I acquire either the Triumph Bonneville or the Suzuki V Strom in the years to come. (This allows me to get a new bike too J). Thank you, my dear, for bearing with my mindset in the past year – Leh, Leh and Leh only.

Many thanks to Colonel Mandeep Rathore of 22 RAJPUT, a dear friend and colleague who used to be my company on our rides to Vaishno Devi and Jalandhar during our time together in Kapurthala. He arranged the accommodation of my team in Nagrota, Srinagar and Kargil and all of us are grateful for his generous help.

A special thank you to Dolkar and Tsewang Dorjey of Shanti Guest House, Leh for sheltering five tired souls based on just two fone calls of a month ago. You made our day(s)!

A big thank you to Brigadier A K Das of 102 Infantry Brigade for allowing me to visit Siachen Base Camp.

Many thanks to Colonel Gaur, Commanding Officer of 16 RAJPUT for the regimental warmth and brotherhood of the paltan. I pray that you have a smooth tenure on top.

A very special thank you to Major Atul Srivastava, 17 RAJPUTANA RIFLES REGIMENT, Officer Commanding, Pang Detachment. Your courtesy, hospitality and esprit-d-corps is the backbone of the Indian Army.

Humble thanks and warmest regards to the indomitable officers and men of the Border Roads Organisation in Project Himank, Beacon and Sampark for paving the way, in every sense, for our successful ride. You guys are the greatest builders in the world.

And last but not the least, many, many thanks to my team mates, namely, Neville Shroff, Vaibhav Modak, Shubham Jain and Fakhruddin Dahodwala for tolerating my  opinionated and at times, dominating personality over 12 days of hard riding. Your company was most refreshingly enjoyable. I am truly grateful to all of you for having made my dream come true. I do really hope and pray that we ride together again as the Fantastic Five. Prost!

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2 thoughts on “My bike, a saddle bag, a couple of strangers, and the journey to Ladakh! Part 2

  1. Sharmishtha

    I stumbled on this blog doing a google search for Bhuntar and really enjoyed the account of your journey. Loved the descriptions of Drass and Kargil which I last saw when I took a month-long trip with my parents (I’m a proud fauji kid) through the Valley and up to Ladakh. This was way, way, way back in 1989, the last summer of “peace” when one could still walk about relatively freely. I remember sitting on the “lawn” of the mess in Drass and having tea with a friend of my parents who was posted there. Who knew that would all be under fire just ten years later? And we went to Pangong Tso lake when the road was almost non-existent – hours of back-breaking jolts in a jonga. Your long post brought back so many memories of that summer. Thank you! And many happy travels to you in the future.

    • Hi Sharmishtha,

      It is such a pleasure to get this comment from you. I went on this trip with a Fauji, Maneesh Joshi and 3 other people. We all met through a forum and were strangers before we stumbled upon a common passion for biking. The major part of this blog has been written by my friend Maneesh Joshi who is an amazing person and a very good friend. I have added parts to the blog. I will convey your message to him. My email address is ruddin.hd@gmail.com
      It will be a pleasure to connect with you. 🙂

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