I had been Leh’d three times already and knew Ladakh like the back of my hand. So, I approached the fourth trip that came after a gap of nearly seven years with a bit of trepidation sparked by reports of tourism boom spoiling the pristine cold desert. Moments after landing in the “Land of Passes”, I realised the misgivings about the callous tourism were not completely unfounded.
I was staying at a place just short of Nimu. So, next day after 15 minutes of mild Yoga, I headed to Indus-Zanskar confluence. That was the first spot that made me fall in love with Ladakh when I came here back in 2008. Now trash marks the spots along these two mighty rivers – one of them gave India its name. Now a bevy of ‘selfie-tourists’ has swarmed this place. Also present was an edifice selling eatables and promises of adrenaline rush through river rafting. The next pit stop was Magnetic hill, where revving of All Terrain Vehicles reverberated through the mountains.
That was when I decided, if I wanted to rekindle the romance with Ladakh, I needed a different approach. I decided to undertake a solo bike ride. I reached Leh and hired a 350 cc Royal Enfield motor bike or known as the Bullet!
This visit was to be marked by surmounting Khardung La, which is touted as the highest motorable road at 18,380 feet. Even as the veracity of the claim is debatable, the Pass – about 40 kms from Leh city – is one of the most scenic routes for motorbike ride. Wiser from the last ride, I started at 7 am in the morning to hit Khardung La before 10 am.
The Pass is gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys. Critical for maintaining supply chain for Siachen glacier, the Pass is maintained by the Indian Army and the government has re-started inner-line permit for the region. The permit is first checked at South Pullu check post. Thereafter the road to Khardung la becomes one paved with dirt, gravels and stones. While I have crossed the pass on four wheels on three earlier occasions, riding a bike becomes an exercise in patience and perseverance. I managed to reach the pass in two and half hours. By that time my hands were close to freezing even as it has not snowed at Khardung La. Having small hands I could not find gloves of my size and I could not have afforded to have something moving between my hands and bike controls.
After having two cups of tea to warm my soul from a restaurant managed by the Army, I started my further ride. Till North Pullu my ride was replica of one from South Pullu to K-top. The only mercy was the lack of snow otherwise, the sleet would have made the ride horrendous. My destination was Skuru, a town of under 250 people and located over 160 kms from Leh.
I chose a comfortable pace and let myself go with the flow in the mountains in sync with the adage – ‘Don’t be a gama in the land of lama’.
The roads, though narrow, were well paved. There was a sort of unspoken camaraderie with the bikers going towards K-top, without seeing each other’s face people would just give an acknowledging nod or a thumbs up to another formidable spirit. It was only when I took off my helmet could I see people’s jaw dropping. Many people did click my photographs for posterity. And I ticked a box in my mind to increase road presence to chip off at the gender imbalance in the number of riders going to the mountains.
For my journey till Skuru, I had Shyok river for company. Ladakh cannot be enjoyed in a hurry, its natural wonders of river, mountains and sand dunes need their own time to open up to you. The flutter of prayer flags fill the air and is soothing to nerves. I rode nearly 100 kms non-stop, with quick halts for clicking few photographs and sipping water. One can dehydrate here quickly, so water is important.
As you make way from Panamik towards Diskit, the valley becomes narrower and presents some breath-taking scenes that any camera will find difficult to do justice to. Sometimes the view in the rear mirror would like to distract you, but press on relentlessly!
I made good time and reached my destination by 3 pm. I ate lunch and buried my aching muscles in the comfy quilts of my home stay. I woke up around 5.30 pm to do some yoga (Yoga for bikers should be a special genre). Silence is loud in this place, quenches the thirst for solitude for city dwellers. I took early dinner and after a stroll crashed into my bed to call it a day. Woke up at 6 am next day and started by 6.45 am. Do understand your bike as four kicks can be a tiresome job at that height!
Near Diskit the sun started its dance to create beautiful patterns with mountains, river and sand. I stopped over to soak in the sun and continued my journey. In many ways solo bike ride is like life, you chose your pace and continue on the path chosen relentlessly despite the obstacles to arrive at your destination.
I did arrive at Leh city and fell in love with this cold desert all over again.