Road Tripping through Ladakh: Getting to Leh
It’s been seven days since we set out from Delhi. It has taken a fair amount of beating getting here, both physical and mental. But the rewards of taking the scenic route are far greater than the aerial one. More so because we took the better of the two, avoiding the mad rushes of Manali and the irritating traffic snarls at the otherwise stunning Rohtang La. Cruising, sometimes shaken but mostly stirred, through the wonderland that is Spiti. And then finally making amends with the Manali-Leh highway at Gramphu. And now we’re almost here. Leh, the Proverbial Destination.
The thought of having crossed five high altitude passes, multiple butt-numbing off-roading stretches, a few fit-throwing pagal naalas and woozy hairpin bends has subdued. The greens, browns and blues, in tandem, act like a balm. Indus gushes by. The traditional whitewashed homesteads are soothing to the eyes, so are the chortens and monasteries that adorn these arid lands, both laden with colourful prayer flags. Their flutter, determined to send the Mani Mantras as far as the reach of the wind. This is an enchanting landscape of a supernatural kind. Only the bodies feel tired now.
The Team and the Machines
This is my third collaboration with Terrain Troopers as their Travel Partner. It’s their first ride outside of Uttarakhand; it’s my first trip to Ladakh as well, as it is for the rest. We’re a group of eight. Three on the bikes, all Royal Enfields: the traditional Desert Storm 500, the semi-cruiser Thunderbird 350 and the adaptive Himalayan. The rest have chosen to be slightly less adventurous, a little more comfortable and pick Tata Xenon for the journey. I am among the latter. I know how to ride a bike but I never rode one in the mountains. And Ladakh is not the kind of place you’d want to bring your incompetence to; it will put to test the skills of the best. Nevertheless, with high spirits, we set course for the Land of High Passes.
Getting to Leh – The Journey
From pagal naalas to pagal people, smooth rides to some roller-coaster ones, breathtaking scenery to gasping for breath at some of the highest passes in the world, deep baatcheet to crazy shenanigans, 16 days went by in a jiffy. This is a detailed account of the first 7, and also a DIY Guide
Camping Amidst the Fireflies | Day 1: Delhi – Chail
Route: Delhi – Sonipat – Panipat – Karnal – Kurukshetra – Ambala – Zirakpur – Dharampur – Solan – Kandaghat – Chail
Distance: 336 km
Road: Great till the end of Himalayan Expressway | A lot of debris after that till Kandaghat
Network Connectivity: All Operators
The clock is about to strike 3 in the afternoon. NH1 was a breeze, as always. Getting from Himalayan Expressway to Kandaghat took some time due to ongoing construction work on the highway. There is a lot of debris around and the proceedings were slow. We’re not exactly in Chail, but took a small detour a few kilometres before it, away from the summer rush. There are no dedicated camping grounds in Chail or around, most probably, but we’re scouting for it, hopeful. And we find one. After paying a small charge to the landowner, some of us start pitching the tents, while other make preparations for an early dinner. There is running water nearby. No hassles. Dinner is served, and after helping ourselves to platefuls, we decide to call it night and settle in our tents. Except, the three of us can’t sleep!
While the rest of the gang is in deep slumber, snoring its way to their respective dreamlands, we go out for a little walk. It’s only 10 or thereabout. There is no moon, only fading starlight. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we’re mesmerised to see thousands of fireflies flickering about, taking an unchartered course before disappearing into the jungle. As many disappear, a larger swarm takes their place. The light shall not go out tonight. I am at once transported to the fairyland of Ruskin Bond’s stories. Lying on the road, sharing life stories, indulging in some psychedelic talks, looking out for potential hunters with a torch, that turned out to be the same damn cat every time, we finally decided to join our troop and snore peacefully alongside them. I do not. Just saying!
Riding alongside the Mighty Sutlej | Day 2: Chail – Tapri
Route: Chail – Kufri – Fagu – Theog – Narkanda – Rampur – Jhakri – Wangtu – Tapri
Distance: 212 km
Road: Good | A few rough patches that are almost negligible
Network Connectivity in Tapri: All Operators
It has been a pretty uneventful day wrought with tetanus shot (I cut my index finger first thing in the morning loading up boxes at the back of the car), puncture, bike repairs, involuntary hunger, and looking for a Kerosene Stove because the cylinder we’ve been carrying has been irreparably damaged. Problems galore! Did I say uneventful? I meant pretty much occupied with the above drills. It’s dark already and we’re miles away from our initially-planned night halt at Spello. We’re never going to make it before midnight. And it’s too late to scout for a camping location. So we decide to make Tapri our base for the night, settling in the dorm room of Hotel Pagramang Bar & Restaurant at quite a reasonable tariff. The only saving grace has been the quality of the roads, the ever so beautiful Kinnaur Valley, and the latter part of the name of the hotel.
One Heavenly Lake and Camping under the Stars | Day 3: Tapri – Kaza
Route: Tapri – Karcham – Moorang – Spello – Pooh – Khab – Nako – Chango – Sumdo – Lapcha – Tipta – Tabo – Dhankhar – Kaza
Distance: 215 km
Road: Good | A few rough patches
Network Connectivity in Kaza: BSNL |Airtel Coming Soon
The change in the landscape has been gradual but dramatic. It’s more Spiti than Kinnaur, although we’re still lingering around the edges of the latter. Gone are the greens that kept us company all this while. Shades of brown rule the colour palette now. Major portions of vegetation are interspersed and only around the isolated villages. We’re at a fair bit of altitude. The air has gone thin to how it was at Spello, where we stopped for breakfast a few hours ago. Nako is our next stopover, an oversized hamlet situated at an altitude of close to 12,000 feet near the Indo-China border in the Trans-Himalayan Belt. Nako is made famous by the picturesque Nako Lake that is known to change its colour almost at will, from green to blue to azure in a matter of seconds. It is one surreal setting, worthy of Shakespearean verses. No? Murakami?
A few kilometres beyond Nako Spiti starts to cast its spell. The gorgeous moonscapes, almost tooth-like at places, surround a handful of villages lined up helter-skelter while the grey River Spiti runs almost parallelly like the perfect companion. It’s otherworldly, the setting. The stuff science fictions are made of. The high-altitude desert and a firm Buddhist culture present a mirage as if we’re already in Ladakh. But this is just a prelude. A beautiful one at that. Spiti has its own charm, minus the typical tourists that hog many of the popular places in Ladakh. Kaza is still an hour or so away but I’m already in love with Spiti. And it would be safe to say so is the rest of the gang. Tonight, we camp again. At The Monk Shego. Not in their Swiss Cottages but in our own tents. They have a big lawn where you can also do so by paying a small charge. There is running water available for cleaning, and there’s drinking water inside the kitchen. We’re set for two nights. Beneath a billion stars!
The Underrated Brilliance of Spiti | Day 4: Key Monastery, Kibber, Chicham
Today’s at leisure. Well, almost. So we go and pay a short visit to the Largest Monastery in the Spiti Valley. It’s barely 15 km away. Perched atop an almost cone-shaped hillock at a height of 13,668 feet above sea level, Key Monastery, also known as Ki Gompa, is a visual splendour. Equal, if not more surreal, are the panoramas from Ki of the Kaza town, the twirling Spiti River and the rustic giants that tower it. The entire looks like a living painting. Over a thousand years old, its walls covered with painting and murals, Ki currently houses over 300 monks, who may look shy at first, but strike up a conversation and you can be happily engaged for hours. Its doors are open for common tourists who can get a room here for a mere 250 bucks. I can’t help but think about a visit in January and this proxy red planet wrapped in the whites of winter.
There’s still some time on our hands. Kibber is next and not far. A tiny hamlet situated at above 14,000 feet above sea level. It’s a patchy road but the vistas are to die for. One look around the borders of the village and I’ve grown extremely fond of it. I can visit again and again; it feels like home. What also fuels the thought is the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, home to about 25-30 Snow Leopards, a Threatened Species that has been listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Sometime soon, hopefully. Because our bikes need service, as much as our stomachs need food. We head back. But not before spending a bit of time around the Chicham Bridge, said to be Asia’s Highest at 13,500 feet. The gorge above which it’s located can induce vertigo even in the strongest of minds.
Off-roading and Dealing with Crazy Waters | Day 5: Kaza – Keylong
Route: Kaza – Rangrik – Khurik – Sumling – Pangmo – Losar – Kunzum La (15,060 feet) – Batal – Chhatru – Gramphu – Khoksar – Sissu – Tandi – Keylong
Distance: 186 km
Road: Good till Losar with a few rough patches | Rough from Losar to Kunzum La | Bad to Worse from Kunzum La to Gramphu
Network Connectivity in Keylong: BSNL | Sometimes Airtel
It’s been almost an hour since our car is stuck right in between a Pagal Naala, somewhere between Batal and Chhatru, one of the many but by far the most notorious. The tire has jammed itself into the rocks, unable to move forward or backward. There’s a queue ahead of us waiting to get to our side; there’s a queue behind us waiting to get to their side. Our bikers, thankfully, have safely made it to the other side. There’s frenzy all around; suggestions are being thrown freely. Many have abandoned their vehicles to see what’s happening. More are inside the water, pulling out all the stops to help stuck vehicles find their course. Most of them are Himachalis. And if you didn’t know any better, they are among the most kind, helpful people. One of them volunteers to get behind the wheel and steer it through, while many push and lift the car from behind. He does it in one go. We made it, so to speak.
Kunzum La to Gramphu, about 60 km, is without a doubt the most difficult stretch of the journey as far as the quality of roads is concerned. While there are a fair amount of bumps from Kaza to Losar as well, they are few and far between. But overall, it’s been a relatively comfortable ride till Kunzum La with some of the most beautiful, stark landscapes on this planet, running from least to virtually non-existent human occupancy for major portions. It takes nearly three hours before we touch Manali-Leh highway, which feels like a blessing. It’s getting dark and we have to refuel at Tandi. We rush through lest it gets closed for the night. It’s the last fuel pump; the next will be in Karu, a few miles before Leh. Filling up, we continue towards Keylong and find Drilburi Homestay perfect for the night with hot water, television and FIFA World Cup Semi-Final.
The Waiting Game at 14,000 feet | Day 6: Keylong – Sarchu
Route: Keylong – Jispa – Darcha – Zing Zing Bar – Suraj Tal – Baralacha La (15,912 feet) – Bharatpur – Keylong Sarai – Sarchu
Distance: 108 km
Road: Good | Bumpy when flat
Network Connectivity in Sarchu: No
The nights at Sarchu are the hardest. So I’ve been told time and again by a fair amount of people who happen to ride to Leh every year via Manali. Temperature drops, winds pick up, and the task of acclimatising to an altitude of over 14,000 feet starts to seem a little more daunting. But it’s about to be made harder. We’ve left the last major chunk of civilization behind at Keylong; it’s not until Leh that we’ll find it again. It’s been smooth cruising through Jispa and Zing Zing Bar. Suraj Tal, the Lake of the Sun God, makes a grand appearance. Situated at an altitude of a little over 16,000 feet, it is said to be the 3rd Highest Lake in India, and the 21st Highest in the world. Just a handful of kilometres before Baralacha La, Suraj Tal is fed by the adjoining glaciers and is the source of the Bhaga River that joins Chandra River at Tandi, to be known as Chandrabhaga. Chandrabhaga then enters Jammu and Kashmir and takes the name ‘Chenab’.
Clicking a few pictures on the go, we move on. It’s a long way to Pang, which is where we thought we’d make it to by the end of the day. It’s only after we’ve come more than half the distance that we realise there’s one member missing from the car: Our Beloved Drone. Concluding that we’ve probably forgotten it in the hotel room back in Keylong, Vaibhav and Pankaj, who also happen to be members of Terrain Troopers, head back together on a bike without giving it a second thought. While the rest of us continue moving towards Sarchu.
“We’ll wait for you there!”
It’s only 2; maybe they’ll reach Sarchu before dark. Gangri Hotel and Restaurant, one of the many dhaba-style makeshift accommodations in Sarchu, is where we decide to hole up and wait it out. Evening falls, so does rain. It’s getting cold, cloudy and dark. There’s no sign of our friends. No contact has been established. No wireless to the check post at Sarchu, we checked. Reluctantly, some of us have dinner. It’s more for keeping the body warm than satiating our hunger. After 11, we give up all hope of them reaching Sarchu. Coke Studio, a little bit of rum in hot water, and some deep conversations are our distractions and keep us warm. But the thought is persistent, “Hope they’re safe.” It’s going to be a long night.
To Leh, with Love | Day 7: Sarchu – Leh
Route: Sarchu – Gata Loops – Nakee La (15,547 feet) – Lachung La (16,616 feet) – Pang – More Plains – Tanglang La (17,582 feet) – Gya – Upshi – Karu – Leh
Distance: 250 km
Road: Good | A few rough patches in between | Flat but bumpy for 30-35 km at More Plains
Network Connectivity in Leh: All Operators
Proper sleep has eluded most of us. Concern and cold, each has played its part well. The mood is sombre. Waiting! Just as we are loading our luggage back in the car, distant noises are heard across the ridge, made by hooligans we know. ‘Tis our friends, upbeat as ever. They had taken a night halt at Darcha and left before the sun hit the horizon. But what’s more heartening to see is that nobody asks about the drone. They had, of course, found it in the hotel room. With a renewed spirit, we continue our journey. Leh is still a good 250 km away. We have distances to go, loops to get out of, plains to play at, and three high-altitude passes to cross. But we’re all together.
After negotiating the slightly excruciating 21 hairpin bends with steep climb, and crossing Nakee La and Lachung La, ahead of Pang, lies More Plains. An expansive, rugged, and breathtakingly beautiful plateau of about 30-35 km. A sight for the sore eyes, and my favourite point on the entire Manali-Leh Highway. Thinking of it as our personal playground, we engage in a bit of jumping around, only to catch our breath later. So Tanglang La can take it away again. Not literally so. Eh, maybe a little bit. The misadventure of the previous day has been forgotten. As we descend, making our way to Upshi, there’s a mellowed realisation that we’ll soon be in Leh. Some of us have trekked together before, to Pindari Glacier; the rest of us were complete strangers. We’re now more of an extended family. It’s only been seven days since we set out from Delhi.
I wrote this post in collaboration with Terrain Troopers, an Uttarakhand based touring and trekking company, and it is a part of #IamATrooper, Ride to Ladakh 2018 created and managed by Terrain Troopers. The write-up, ideas expressed and the pictures are mine except where otherwise mentioned.
Terrain Troopers’ primary aim is to help adventurers and thrill seekers like you and I explore every nook and corner of this magnificent Dev Bhoomi (Land of the Gods). And at the same time play an active part in maintaining the sanctity of the Himalaya, the culture and beliefs. If you too are looking to be a part of an unadulterated riding and trekking adventure in Uttarakhand, do give them a buzz. Rest assured, you’ll be coming back with a lot of happy memories and friends you’d want to do this again with.
I’ll leave you with a few pictures. Travel safe, travel responsibly.