Lustrous Ladakh: Delhi to Leh on a bike

A land like no other, bounded by two of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges, the Great Himalaya and the Karakoram. The district is bounded by Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the West, China in the North and Eastern part and Lahul Spiti of Himachal  Pardesh in South East. An amazing world of cold barren desert mountains of various colors, different temperaments, rivers.. streams… stones… sand…glaciers…lakes… yaks… prayer wheels…age old monasteries… stupas… momos…Buddhism… maggi noodles… basic living!

This trans-himalayan  district of Jammu & Kashmir has now become a favorite of both adventure freaks & culture enthusiasts and attracts travellers from all corners of the globe, trekking, cycling, biking, camping for days together. We actually saw many more foreigners than Indians here. Our sojourn began from Delhi at midnight. It was a smooth ride to Manali via Chandigarh.. a few halts… a few picture sessions. We reached Manali the next evening, showered & were out in the Manali market in no time..

Agenda : Shopping!!!!  After a nice evening in Manali, we left early morning on one of the most amazing routes that one can travel.

Highlight of the entire journey…Manali – Leh Highway: The 485 km route opens only for 4 months in the year, June to Sept. Every turn in this route offers fascinating, breath taking views, amazing landscapes, clear skies… unbelievable sights! Seemed like we were driving thru a “Museum” of the mountain ranges, they were of ALL kinds! Lush green terrain in Manali..  brown, black, grey mountains towards Leh… the colors though dull were unique and pleasing to the eyes, a few of them seemed like God had painstakingly painted each one of them in various colour combinations.. neat strokes of brown, grey, rust, black, dark brown, amber, maroon a real paradise for any artist visiting Ladakh…a few of them were covered with snow, melting to form small streams of water that added even more life to the barren giant mountains… some were covered with sand, confusing the human eye if it were in the mountains or the deserts…. some seemed so calm & serene, lay there like a quite innocent baby smiling away… while some stared at us with vengeance,  roaring and angry, like something was troubling them… some were in very different, weird shapes, wild mountains… some were dusted with the shade of the clouds, making the colour combination even more interesting… they seemed almost unnatural.. like someone had just painted these scenes and created a set around us… depicting the various ‘Moods’ of the mountains!

Pangong Tso Lake | Image Credits: Praveen
Pangong Tso Lake | Image Credits: Praveen
Trust me..  NO pics, NO description, NO words can do justice to what we experienced.. to the pure, unadulterated, natural beauty that Ladakh has to offer. Adding more spice to the museum of mountains…. were the river streams…. desert valleys… glaciers…. green strips… dried river beds… layers of stones… sheep grazing… amazing clouds… all sprinkled in between the “Giants” only to make the entire look even more scenic! This route is a MUST DO… at least ONCE in a lifetime.
Enroute Sarchu
Enroute Sarchu
Our next stopover was at Sarchu – which has only tents as accommodation, adds to the adventure! We reached Leh at night, wading through the serene village houses, gompas and Tanglangla – the SECOND Highest Motorable Road in the world. Next 4 days were planned in and around Leh- the capital of Ladakh. We didn’t rest the recommended one day to acclimatize as we’d driven for 3 days to reach Leh and  we also had the ‘Holy Diamox’ (medicine for altitude sickness) which was taken as an OATH by all 7 of us, in case any ONE faces altitude sickness, the rest have no choice but the return back to base!  Though a couple of people did experience a bit of vomiting, head aches, nausea but nothing really much to write about.
Changla Pass | Image Credits: Bhisham Pratap Padha
Changla Pass | Image Credits: Bhisham Pratap Padha
The 160 km, 4 hour rough and dramatic drive from Leh to Pangong Lake is via Changla – the worst THIRD Highest Motorable road in the world. Pangong Tso is situated at a height of 4,250 M,  is 134 Km long and is shared between India & China. Two third of the length of this lake lies in China. In Winter, the lake surface freezes completely despite being salt water. The deep… bright… rich shades of blue and green can give Nerolac, Berger or Asian paints a run for their money… errr… their colour!!! It’s a real Masterpiece… a true visual treat!
Nubra Valley | Image Credits: Dmitry Rukhlenko
Nubra Valley | Image Credits: Dmitry Rukhlenko

A 150 Km, 5 hr drive via the Worlds HIGHEST motorable Road – Khardongla (18380 ft) through the spectacular ancient Silk route took us to Nubra Valley- famous for double humped camels, sand dunes, hot water springs, the Desert Mountains in the TRUE sense. This route also leads us to Siachen and we did get tempted to drive along and a wave a quick ‘Hi’ there (yeah rite).. but we lesser mortals – the civilians- are not permitted due to security reasons.. sigh!!! Travelling to Pangong & Nubra also required special permits without which you would be looked upon in suspicion and if lucky, only be packed back by the Army Jawans, who incidentally had a nice time taking our driver WANCHUNG’s trip, asking him if it really was a name or something to eat!!

The next 3 days were slotted for the return journey. Since the Manali-Leh Highway was : 50% No roads, 30% an apology for a road & only 20% was something that can be called as a road, we drove back via Kashmir. The highlight on this route was passing via Kargil, where I HAD to click a “Patel Snap” – as in a ” We Were Here” kinda pic. The freakiest part was when we were passing Kargil and we see a sign board pop up to our right that states ” Caution, you are under enemy Observation – Saawdhan, dushman aapko dekh raha hai”… suddenly the otherwise noisy Innova goes silent and all eyes move to the huge mountains laying behind the sign board… just wonder how many km.. or maybe meters away is Pakistan Border .. or a Pakistani soldier!!!

Dras, the next town, is the second coldest place in the world, where the temperatures drop to -60C in the winters… how brrrrr is that??!? Our next halt was at Srinagar! On asking directions to a hotel, we were greeted with very ‘friendly’ lines like ” jao, khuda ke hawale jao… bedarr hoke jao… allah bharose jao ” made us wonder if we should FREEZE right there or actually JAO!!! We stayed in a comfy hotel opposite Dal lake. Next halt was at Patni Top, a peaceful, serene hill station. As we moved out of the Ladakh sector towards Kashmir.. the landscape began to change … from brown to green… from dry to lush…. from barren to rich trees.. Its amazing how ONE state which is completely mountainous still offers such varied views. Next morning breakfast was hot parathas in Jammu. Finally out of J&K, we passed ‘Aavar (our) Punjab’.. Pathankot, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Ambala.. before we reached back to base, Delhi late night.

This 11 days trip had ALL the adventure that one can think of, were stuck in a landslide between Dras & Sonmarg for 8 hours… had 2 punctures, so were stuck for 6 hours on manali- leh route where we have NO network, NO humans, NO fuel stations for at least 100 km around us… so while a friend gets a lift to go fix the tyre, we have a semi picnic on the road, only till it gets dark, chilly, rains, thunders and we all get back in the car till 11 PM, wondering if we gonna spend the rest of the night in there.. thankfully our friend was back with help. Once, on a turn of a wet road, our car skid and performed a 360 degrees turn.. thankfully nothing happened! Not a scratched and except for the mild shock we 7 were in.. all our parts were absolutely intact! Of course we had 15 punctures in 8 days.. and that got the boys level on tyre puncture repairs to a complete different level. While they did the needful.. we girls would walk off for some site seeing or a photo session (heck whose complaining?;)

Did I mention that the entire Kashmir route had an Army Jawan stationed with a gun at every 50 meters.. with his eyes piercing through the Innova while we whisked past.. I think it felt safer, having this kind of security around. Enroute, over a chai (and of course a puncture) we got chatting to a couple of them. Also faced some flooding on the highway in Pathankot, due to which we had to take a 2 hour detour into the city. We had a truly mesmerizing, memorable and pleasurable one! Tiring and exhausting  but exhilarating and rejuvenating!

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