Tuesday, August 04, 2009
The 6th edition of the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey-2009 saw it all: be it 45-degree heat, gentle drizzle, snow fall, flat tyres, mind-numbing cold or bike crashes coupled with the adversities brought forth by hostile roads.
My journey commenced from the Vishwa Yuva Kendra in Delhi, as I entered its premises with a hundred strangers staring at me. We, the bikers, were there for medical and bike checkups, which were followed by a briefing about the best trip which was to ensue later. A formal introduction was part of the trip’s prologue. I knew that much was being articulated in the South Indian tongue, along with the fact that I had never seen so many Royal Enfields, riders and the variety of helmets they sported at one place. We were given strict instructions from one of the group leader KD a.k.a Kanwardeep Singh Dhaliwal about never riding without helmets and hitting anyone in case of a crash or a road rage incident. Waiting for the fellow riders and being together through out the trip was part of the discourse.
A rider from one of us interrogated, “What if they hit us?” The pat response was, ‘Then we will hit them too.’ The message was crystal clear: we were a bunch of like-minded people. I could see that most riders had invested in professional and branded riding gears.
Day 1: flag-off (Delhi to Chandigarh)
We were challenged to be on time. It was made clear that the flag-off always started on time, while the commencement was never delayed by more than five minutes. Some couldn’t sleep and many woke up early, as it was the trip they had been waiting for since months and also years . The flag-off was scheduled to start from India Gate. It included a customary group photograph, sacred chants sung by Lamas (monks) and a quick bite.
We were flagged-off at 07:30 am exact, and not a minute late.
It was basically the revving and thudding of 62 bikes with different silencers that made us as well as the onlookers go crazy. The trip troubles began already, with 44-degree heat and everybody wrapped in riding gears-one of which already coming in handy as a rider brushed by a bus and skidded off road. Thankfully, his riding gear, in which he had invested 30 thousand, saved him from excruciating bruises. We entered the city in a formation of two and the wide roads made the ride pleasurable.
Day 2: Chandigarh to Manali
This was the longest day in terms of the enormous distance, but things began looking mellow as the temperature went down a few notches. Winding roads and fresh cool breeze soon began to greet us. I couldn’t believe the snow-topped mountain’s partial view from the trees. It was more than just picturesque. For, it was almost mystical. I started experimenting with my camera lens right then. (You can check out some at http://picasaweb.google.com/avinash.a.rajput/Ladakh?authkey=Gv1sRgCMjbz4ON7qjJ_wE&feat=email#)
I could see marijuana plants everywhere upon touching the outskirts of Manali: a reminder of prints in Bob Marley t-shirts. After reaching the hotel, we shopped for some thermal wear. I made a point to meet a friend who I had graduated with. He was a local guy and took me around the 'Maal' market. He introduced me to his friend and told him that the bikers were heading for Ladakh. His friend responds, ‘Oh my God. Ladakh? All I can do for them is pray that the journey is safe. God bless all of you’.
His statements were whirling in my head. What he had said scared and somehow challenged me too.
Day 3: Manali to Keylong
Everyone slipped into their respective thermal wears after the intimidating warning which said that we would be crossing the first pass. This meant that it would be cold enough to freeze the blood in our bodies. After riding for a few kilometres through a traffic jam (which surely didn’t hamper the bikers’ flow), I could not believe my eyes. We had reached Rohtang pass, a hot-spot tourist destination which was clogged with tourists delighting in and playing with all the snow. I took a cue and spent some time on the top myself, lest I would regret later for not playing in the snow. It was an innocent little thought, as I didn’t know what was to happen in the days to come.
After crossing Rohtang pass, we reached the Koksar village, which was our re-grouping point. I saw a small shed that was serving Thupa (noodles soup) and momo’s, which I ordered in mutton. I was quite glad with the choice of delicacies they were serving but never knew that it was just the start of the trip and that all the villages ahead would offer were momo’s, noodles and thupa. We filled up our tanks our bike at the Tandi petrol pump after which there was no fuel station till the next 375 kilometres. It was dark and we had just started to feel the tough terrain with bumps and potholes.
We reached a camp in Keylong. It had luxurious tents with attached toilets and bathrooms, though half of the group chose to go to hotel rooms in the nearby town. It was cold and for the first time in my life I actually made the largest number of camp-fires. Fingers were going cold and numb, and so, the campers made sure to almost touch the burning fire wood while getting their palms warm. Everyone was simply enjoying the warmth of the fire and no one wanted to speak. Speaking would not have done any good either considering how the voices were expected to crack and vibrating due to constant shivering. Some insisted to start singing, but no one would take the lead. I finally went back to my tent and took out my cell phone’s external speakers. They asked me to play a song to brighten up everyone’s mood. I had something in store for them alright. After I pressed the play button, I could see people grooving to the song ‘Riders of the storm’, the remixed and hip-hop version of it. The song proved memorable for many, as some asked me to transfer the song onto their cell phones through Bluetooth.
To beat the cold, I chose to try the local brew, ‘arrack’, made of barley. I liked the malt. Also, much to our surprise, we saw some exotic dinner which included mutton, dal and rice. After we were done with the exquisite dinner, we couldn’t wait to go to bed. We were instructed to wake up at six and be ready to begin riding by seven. My roommate woke me up at 4.30 in order to ask me what the time was as he had seen some brightness in the tent. We later learned that we had entered a land where the sky brightens up right from five in the morning. A dog started barking incessantly, while I could hear some guys discussing and suspecting a snow leopard passing by, for they felt that that might be a reason which had set the dog off.
It was the morning which had astonished everyone, for all we could hear was exclamatory expressions like ‘Oh my god’, ‘beautiful’, ‘I don’t believe it’. We were actually surrounded by five ice-clad mountains and it was undoubtedly one of the best locations for camping in the world.
We felt bad for all those who missed the camp and chose hotel rooms.
Day 4: Keylong to Sarchu
One of the participants had to leave as he met with an accident and was later diagnosed with chicken pox. We were warned to ride safe and try to have a crash-free day as the support staff headed by chief engineer Amol Shukla (Taau) and his team of bike experts had a tough time repairing the bikes which had earlier ended up crashing. And the number was increasing.
We started at 7.30 am, while nobody even had a clue that they were heading for the best, scariest and the toughest ride of their life. After riding for a few kilometres, we began experiencing snowfall. I stopped there for a snap or two and re-started biking. Baralachla (Baralach La), 4933 meters high, welcomed all the riders with some heavy snowfall or can be better called as snowstorm, but it left us in a catch 22 situation.
Due to the height, we had to deep breathe which fogged our helmet visors considerably and left us with zero visibility. We couldn’t leave the visor open as the snow would hit our eyes. It felt like it was programmed or sent on a mission to not let us ride. Many tried to partially open the visors or face the direction where the snow won’t hit the eyes, but in vain. Nobody can cheat nature, can they? The outer portion of the visor would get covered with snow, again messing the visibility. After wearing a pair of woollen and padded gloves, I began looking like a boxer. Even two gloves couldn’t stop my fingertips from freezing. The wind was pushing us backward with its dominant force. I decided to take a tea break, while there was no discounting the hunger.
I stopped at the peak where I had seen a tent and ordered for a hot cup of tea. With a smile on her face, the old lady gave me a big mug full of tea, which I though I could not finish in this life. As it turned out, I repeated the order and in meantime, warmed my fingers. It was snowing heavily and a person stopped us saying that there was an avalanche and all the vehicles were getting stuck. The temperature started falling even further and the organisers admitted that it was the worst weather the Himalayan Odyssey had ever experienced. To add to the riders’ woes, we got stuck in a traffic jam where a truck had turned turtle. We could feel the shortage in oxygen as simple activities like tying a shoe lace or walking a few feet would make us pant as if we had run a marathon.
We checked-in at the Sarchu camp, thinking that the tent was the only place we would shiver a little lesser than we already were. It was the busiest day for the doctor as more than 80% of the riders got themselves examined and took some relief medications. Three things suddenly became a huge hit i.e -hot boiling tea, tissue rolls and hot drinking water. The water usage in the washroom was negligent, while the toilet seat seemed as if it was made of ice.
The dinner came next and some preferred to have a couple of Old Monk rum shots. They surely did us some good for I began to experience its miraculous effect with no high but only warmth within. With two blankets that were as thick as soft-cushioned pillows, everyone had a shivering sleepless night but me. (Thanks to our group leader Sachin Chavan and my room partner Nekzad for the rum they shared)
Day 5: Sarchu to Rumtse
After having woken up all revitalised at five in the morning, with the intention of brushing my teeth and washing my face, I went into the attached bathroom in the tent. I changed my mind and decided not to brush my teeth as the water in the bucket was frozen, the tap was in a similar state and the drinking water in the bottle was chilled enough to freeze my mouth. I was not alone, for nobody in the camp brushed or took a bath that day. Everyone admitted that too, without hesitation. Stepping out of the tent, we saw our bikes covered with snow and wondered if they would start at all.
It however didn’t take more than two kicks to get those monstrous-machines into action. What diverted our mind were the grey, brown and white coloured mountains which seemed calmer than what they looked like a few hours before.
I thought of having a cup of morning tea and found out that my counterparts had been up since 4.30 in the morning and were sipping tea cups after cups since then. The good news was that it had stopped snowing and the sun was showing up (though in a teasing hide-n-seek manner). The bad news was that we had to cross the snow-clad Tanglang La pass, which was also the second highest motorable road in the world. We entered
After crossing the Lachungla (Lachung La) pass, we had the first re-grouping at Pang, 69 kms from Sarchu. The shacks there had chocolates, omelette, maggi, soup, dal and rice to offer. I could see crows with yellow beaks, while dogs looked like they were wearing the hide of a sheep, for they literally seemed to be the cross of Lasas and Rottweilers. The yaks, sheep, goats and mules had shiny and silky fur, which the riders made it a point to capture with their lens. The roads became grimy and overtaking the slow proceeding trucks left us with no visibility again. The 40-kilometer straight roads were called More planes and had a surprise waiting after every kilometre. The rear wheel of the bike would leave a zigzag mark and the bike would skid and move the way a snake would crawl.
After the More plains, there were Gata Loops, a road with hairpin bend turns and rock-strewn concrete. The terrain pumped up the heartbeat and many thought of their loved ones. The road did have some patches of tar stuck on it, but it made no sense as we were convinced that we are on a path that can be termed as pot-holes with some road in them. The Gata Loops had 21 loops with high-inclined and low-declined turns, where breaking was something that wouldn’t stop the bike’s motion, thanks to the roads. The sign boards saying ‘Inconvenience Regretted’ brought some cheers as we thought good tar roads would now start. But, the board actually meant that the sorry roads were about to begin. Bumping into a thousand stones and potholes, my body surely needed a massage. Biking skills here were all about judging the sudden turns and not skidding down the valley.
Finally, we reached the camp in Rumtse to know that all the luxuries were now passé, as the tents in the camps could only accommodate two people without the baggage. There was no snowfall but the climate was cold and dry. We had seen the worst so nobody complained about the tents. The toilets, however, did it. The so-called toilet was a zipped and tall tent. All it had was a pit for a commode. Some chose not to use it, while others preferred relieving themselves in open air. A few made the most of what was provided and I was one of them. After all, we don’t do this everyday in our life, do we?
Monday, August 03, 2009
Day 7: Was spent in rest and recovery....
Day 6: Rumste to Leh 69 kms
It was day 2 of no brushing and day three without having taken a bath. It was the most non-tiring ride and we came across quite comfortable roads. Buckled and folded mountains in olive green, lavender, purple and tan brown colours left us in a fix: whether to concentrate on the winding roads or enjoy the picturesque mountains. I made up my mind and parked my bike to enjoy the view and its fresh cool breeze.
We reached Upshi, our re-grouping point, where everyone was talking about the fantastic ride, especially after what everybody had gone through during the past three days. After munching on some chocolates, we moved together in a formation of two. Again, we were instructed to refrain from photographing army camps. The beautiful
After all, you saw 60 powerful machines moving together within a disciplined speed through the next 55 kms. The villagers walking along the road side welcomed us with an, ‘Oh wow! They are back,’ look. All the children were waving, smiling and celebrating our arrival. We entered Leh, the capital of Ladakh after crossing a couple of army check posts. Our hotel, Lha-ri-mo, was better than any five star hotel. The riders went all-out for shopping like no man’s business. And the shopping the macho boys indulged in would have left any girl out of the league. My perception of girls being shopaholics changed for ever after I saw the guys returning, fully loaded with gift items.
One falls short of words while describing the delightful show: 59 Royal Enfields cruising through in a formation of two, across a verdant green valley of unadulterated lushness and entering the Leh district of Ladakh after having surmounted the
The streets seemed like those ancient Indian lanes portrayed in RK Laxman’s Malgudi Days. However, a look at those who inhabited Leh diffused that impression, for the population consisted a considerable number of Europeans and Israelis.
The market was replete with shops that were meant to arrange and book adventure treks, safaris and cultural expeditions in the Trans-Himalayas. Walking a few meters meant exhaustion, but I was quick to gulp down two bottles of ‘Gul Badan’, the fresh apple juice from the
Leh can be undoubtedly termed as a foodies’ paradise, for it had everything- right from Punjabi dhabas to German Bakery to the Tibetan Kitchen. The shopkeepers would call it a day at 8 pm, which nudged the party goers’ to chill out at their favourite café.
The street had some handcarts and barbecue stands which served sumptuous mutton (Ladakhi goat) specialities prepared the Kashmiri style. Yakhni, which is meat fried with curd, Rishta, which can be referred to as meatball curry and Sarvan, i.e liver curry, sold like hot cakes. I chose seekh kabab and boti kabab, which in plain terms was barbequed meat rolled and served in paper-thin parantha. The delicacy cost me a mere Rs 15 per plate which was too meagre a price to pay considering its heavenly sensation on my taste buds.
The experience at a backstreet restaurant, however, remains to be quite exciting. They served me and my co-riders some suds and a whole lot of drama. The restaurant didn’t have the licence to serve liquor, and the owner certainly didn’t wish to lose out on some business. After we ordered our beer, the waiter was quick to apologise, ‘Sorry sir, we don’t serve alcohol,’ and added, ‘But let me do something.’ He came back with a tea pot and glasses with straws in it. We thought the waiter had lost his mind and thus, asked him who had ordered the tea. He smiled and said, ‘Sir, it’s your beer.’ Beer in a tea pot and glasses wrapped with tissue paper with straws in them? This definitely proved to be worth its while for the six of us.
At a distance of 17 km south of Leh, I planned a visit to the most beautiful monastery of Ladakh, the Thiksey Monastery. An outstanding specimen of Ladakhi architecture is a glorious Buddhist monastery located nearby Leh. It flaunts numerous stupas, Thangkas, statues, swords, breath-taking wall paintings and a large pillar carved with Buddha’s ideas and preaching, all in a mammoth 12-storey building complex. After spending few hours I headed to another tourist attraction, the Magnetic Hill and an Indian Army managed Gurudwara. Magnetic Hill is a gravity hill that is assumed to have magnetic properties that can even pull cars uphill and also coax a passing aircraft to increase its altitude in order to escape the potent magnetic interference. After witnessing something so unbelievable I thought of not getting into the scientific details with a commerce background that I have. The properties of the hill are contradicted by claims which say that the effect is merely an optical illusion created by the gravity hill. The Gurudwara is rich in its historical importance as Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism, meditated here in the 15th century.
I don’t know the actual truth behind Magnetic hill, but Leh surely has some magnetism of its own. So much so that I surely want to go there again…all the way riding on my Royal Enfield.
Day 8: Leh to Khardung La
We couldn’t wait to reach the highest motorable road in the world, which, in fact, was just 40 kms away from the hotel. We came across both- the good road and the bad road. Some roads had potholes, while some potholes had roads.
It was a mix of emotions as the flock of riders reached the highest motorable road. Some were seen yelling on top of their voice, others were in tears, and a few were simply speechless. Everyone was congratulating one another, celebrating the moment which had not come that easily. Vishnu Vardhan Kuna from
Joseph Julian, a designer from Chennai, shed 40 kgs of his weight especially for the trip. His entry had been rejected last year due to excess weight. Julian had then purchased a brand new bike exclusively for the trip. Everyone got acclimatised to the climate and spent almost an hour on the top, though we had been recommended to stay there for just twenty minutes.
By then, I had clicked umpteen photographs and could easily compete with any professional photographer when it came to the numbers. Apart from the pictures taken from my personal camera, I had clicked snaps for almost all the riders with their cameras.
Day 9: Leh to Tsokar
0900: Left Leh and reached Upshi. The weather was good with its rare bright sunshine adding to our exultation. The journey back to where we had started from began. We stopped at More Planes for a group photograph.
The left turn from More Plains helped us master the skill of drag racing, while the sensation of skidding and falling any moment didn’t leave us till we reached the Debring camp. The ride was scary but we were getting immune to such rides. In fact, we thought that very soon good roads would start scaring us. Tsokar had a salt lake 4 kilometres away and its unfathomable blue waters encircled with light brown mountains made it the most photogenic place on earth.
The camp had choked up the toilets and I was about to head towards a nearby open land to relieve myself. To meet this end, I hid a toilet roll in my helmet and began moving towards my bike. All the people I met were curious about where I was heading. Some saw the tissue roll and estimated my motives, while others seemed very concerned about where I was going. I had seen many doing the same thing during the trip, but they were too shy to admit. I reasoned with those who were curious, “I am going to the lake.” They questioned, “You had been there yesterday, why would you want to go there again?” Phew!
One of the most embarrassing days of my life, but now I find it hilarious. I had never answered so many people at a single time.
Day 10: Tsokar to Keylong
We were passing through the same roads again and the thought of passing via the Baralachla pass was scary. But the expected never happened, for this time, the intimidating pass was placid. There was no snow storm. The day’s travelling was over much before the expected time; however, the last 40 kilometres to Keylong gave us wet as well as dusty roads. Our group leader bumped into a man who was trying to climb a running tractor. After taking the injured man to the hospital, the other riders reached the hotel.
Saturday, August 01, 2009
Day 11: Keylong to Kaza
The morning briefing was frightening, as we were told that we were to pass through the toughest terrain: an 80 kms stretch that had never seen any tarmac. The rock strewn route had many water crossings. After having passed through that route, our riders tried to go all hog and speed up after seeing tar roads. We had the maximum crashes that day. Nine, to be precise.
We were riding on amiable winding roads, with mountains on one side and the wobbly and rock-filled
Day 13: Kalpa to Narkanda
As soon as we descended from Kalpa, we came across water-clogged muddy roads biking over which mucked our trousers and bikes. The roads were so slippery that we felt that anything would push us into falling on the road-brakes or no brakes. Somehow, we managed to cross that stretch safe and sound, without any major crashes. We began feeling the heat again, and we knew that it was our last day above the sea level. This time, we started trying to adapt to the hot weather.
Nobody knew that the afternoon had the most unfortunate incident in store. One of our riders from
Through the next 40-km ride till Narkanda, no rider dared to exceed the speed of 60 kmph. All the riders were busy trying to find out about the condition of our fellow rider. I, however, promised myself that I would never ride fast and endeavour to finish the trip safe. News was positive and we were told that the operation had been successful and the injured rider would not lose his leg.
Day 14: Narkanda to Parwanoo
This was the last day for ghats. All we would see henceforth were traffic and jams. To avoid the traffic, we bypassed Shimla and went via Khufri, Chail and Kandaghat. One of our macho rider with a huge-built slapped a transport car driver for some reason and fled away. After which the driver tried to rough me up as I was next and the driver knew the fact that all the bikers were in the same group. We both couldn’t hit each other, and all I could do was hurl a profanity or two at him, since he was at a distance. Some moments of frustration as I couldn’t hit the guy. The feeling lasted for more than an hour.
We stopped at Chail, a town which had the highest cricket stadium in the world. Sports?Ahh. I didn’t want anything to do with sports as I was on a holiday and had been covering the sports beat for my newspaper since the time of Adam and Eve. I preferred not to have a look at the stadium and proceeded for lunch.
Aloo parantha and daal makhni with authentic roti made me hog like a pig. After a heavy lunch and a not so authentic lassi, I figured that it was best to keep myself active for the fear of dozing off. We started feeling the heat upon nearing the sea level. Traffic jams were a common sight and I began to slip into deep depression as I realised that the trip was nearing its epilogue.
We checked in into a luxurious hotel which had a swimming pool. I slept like a baby, and snored like a wolf. By now, my room partner was used to it.
Day 15: Parwanoo to
We were on the planes of Parwanoo and had started feeling the heat. The idea of heading back to
(The achievement – I completed the journey without a crash, or falling ill or getting the bike fixed for any reason. Only few didn’t see the doctor after their medial test at the beginning of the ride. Some got their handle bars changed, some got dimples on their bike’s fuel tank. I can just thank god that I came back in one piece, without a single scratch on my body or the bike. ROYAL ENFIELD- was-is-and will remain the best, no matter what the model is. )
The place which on the first day seemed melancholic but now, I was not feeling out of place. Those who looked like strangers before the journey had turned into good buddies. We couldn’t wait for the farewell party which had a special bus, arranged specifically to prevent us from riding after we were all sloshed with booze. Bonsai, at
Morning was the time when everybody departed one by one. I remember what my friends in Pune had asked me when I first told them about taking the trip. “Why are you going/what would you get?” I was speechless then, and would still be the same now if anybody was to hammer me with the same question. For, I can’t put my experience into words. It is inexplicable. Not even a thousand photographs would explain what I felt about the Himalyan Odyssey.’
Now the question is- Will I go biking to Ladakh again? The answer is YES. Till I have a spine and blood runs in my body, I would go there again and again, because what I saw and experienced, no one did…