WildZests: Trip #4: July 2010 - Yet Another Exploration Ride To Ladakh

Friday, September 14, 2012

Trip #4: July 2010 - Yet Another Exploration Ride To Ladakh

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After the leisurely experience in 2009, I had to somehow get over that feeling and get back to some adventure riding. The answer to that was a solo ride, but getting permission from the home ministry was next to impossible. Given that my wife had once again extended her courtesy in letting me go out alone while she managed the baby, I couldn’t risk the opportunity by trying to go against her wishes. That’s when my old time buddy Elly said he could join for company and the trip was officially on!

We wanted to cover places that we hadn’t done before and a long list of places were put together that included Zanskar, Hanle, Marsimik La, Tso Moriri etc. Another college buddy, Anand, wanted to join in with his old gen CBZ and though we’ve known each year for years now, we never had a chance to ride together. This was his first big ride or maybe I should say, his first official ride ever and there were a lot of unknowns about how it will turn out, but that’s what makes things interesting. We had no history about how he rides and whether his bike will be able to make it, but we’re best of friends so these things are never really a consideration.

I had to make a business trip scheduled to Pune, Hyderabad and Delhi around the same time in July so instead of making two separate trips I decided to merge business with leisure and start the ride after I finished work in Delhi. That meant I had to lug around all my stuff on a three different flights till before the official flag-off and that I’d be out of the house for nearly a full month. Managing the luggage was a bit challenging since I had to pack clothes for the business visit and for the trip separately, plus I had to keep it under the 30kg limit to avoid excess baggage charge. I had to drop a few things like the tool kit for example and after a few iterations, everything was managed in 30kgs. It was interesting to see people stared at the saddle bags strapped on with gumboots on top at the airport conveyor belts.

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The bike was shipped prior to my departure from Bangalore and I knew it would be sitting at the Delhi railway station for a few days before I pick it up. Anand reached Delhi the same day I did and we both met at the railway station to get our bikes out. He had loaded his bike as accompanied luggage on the same train he traveled while my bike had to be picked up from the parcel counter. It was pretty easy to locate the bikes and we were thinking it was going to be a pretty easy day after all, but then Murphy’s Law hit us - Everything takes longer than you think.

First, I had left the keys to my bike at the hotel, but that wasn’t such a big deal since it wasn’t handle-locked and I knew how to get it started without the keys. The one thing we’d have to figure out was how to push some fuel inside the tank since the fuel cap needs the key. Just when I had it all figured out, Anand accidentally broke the throttle grip and now there was another problem to deal with. I pushed the bike out to the front side of Nizammuddin station and was hoping to find a mechanic and luckily there was one young enterprising chap who came to our rescue. He managed to find a spare throttle grip in his Pandora’s box and also helped us get the fuel inside the tank. What looked like a 15 minute job took us more than a couple of hours but we were done and I was back at the hotel in time to get ready for work.

The next day all three of us met to discuss the plan and we found out that Elly’s bike needed some repairs which would take about a day. The schedule was to leave in the morning on the following day to Chandigarh but we decided to leave late afternoon once his bike was ready. There was another problem to think of, Rohtang was reportedly closed for the previous 2 days and it could remain closed for a few more days. Srinagar on the other hand was going through some serious issues and had a curfew situation too. We had two options, one to try our luck at Rohtang and wait it out at Manali as needed or do the Spiti route and bypass Rohtang altogether. Waiting at Manali wasn’t as exciting an option as riding through Spiti but we had to trade-off some of places from the schedule to make it happen, it also reminded me of my shoulder situation from the ride a couple of years ago. But this year I was in much better shape physically than the last time and I knew I could do it!

After a lot of delay, we finally took off from Delhi at around 6PM and reached Chandigarh at midnight. We were camping out at a friend’s house and after a lot of chit-chat we managed to get some sleep and start around 9AM on the next day. It was turning out to be a deja-vu ride since we stopped at pretty much the same places on the way and took the night halt at Narkanda (just like last time). Our next stop was going to be Chitkul, but we could only manage to reach Sangla since we didn’t fuel up at the right place and ran short on gas to go till Chitkul.

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Next stop was at Tabo where we again stayed at the same place like last time and visited the monastery one more time.

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On the following day, we had a problem with Elly’s bike which had developed a crack on the clutch casing and leaked out all the oil. Though we got it fixed at Kaza, it costed us a good 3-4 hours and our plans to get to Gramphoo were now put for the next day. We fueled up at Kaza thinking we’ll need fuel only till Tandi and there was no need to carry extra fuel even though we had the extra cans, this was a big oversight on our part (more on this later).

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The road from Kaza to Gramphoo is the most treacherous with rocks the size of small boulders and plenty of water crossings. That day all three of us would have suffered from severe frost bites had we not found the PWD guest house at Chhota Dhara on time. We were riding with our pants and shoes drenched in freezing water of the streams and it was already post 6PM.

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Next day we reached Gramphoo and were pleasantly surprised to have all the road to ourselves, Rohtang was still not open. We got to Tandi to fuel up for our rest of the journey to Leh - for both the T’birds, we would have needed full tanks plus another 5 liters each to reach Leh, the CBZ would have needed 2-3 liters spare. That’s when disaster hit us, the guy at the fuel station said he’d give us 2 liters per bike since he was in a rationing mode. The blockage at Rohtang meant that he hadn’t received his supply for almost 2 weeks and since he’s the only guy in that region he can’t let the pump go dry completely. We had already burned around 8 liters from Kaza to Tandi and we needed 5 more, so in total we needed 13 liters each for the T’birds and may be 10litres for the CBZ and all we were being offered was 6 litres in total. It took us about an hour to get him to agree for at least 5 litres per bike, this wasn’t enough but it was still better than the previous offer. We thought we could camp at keylong for the day and then come back next day for another 5 litres, but the guy was smarter and ruled out that option as well.

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This was the second time in the trip that we were stuck with low fuel even after carrying those empty spare cans, all because we were being too optimistic. Now, with the given situation we calculated that we were roughly about 100kms short on fuel until we hit the reserve mark on the T’birds. The CBZ could probably make it if we emptied the tanks on the T’birds after it hits the reserve and pour that into the CBZ. That way we could possibly have one bike reaching Leh and come back with fuel, the trip was still ON, although it may cost us a day more. The other option was to look for fuel at the tents in Sarchu, most of the time you’d be able to buy it from them at a marked up price. Anyways, we were prepared for the worst and it was not going to dampen our spirit to carry on.

We rode to Sarchu that day and got ourselves into those luxury swiss tents for the night. It was freezing cold in the night but we all slept peacefully because we didn’t really know what tomorrow have in store for us. Luckily, we were able to secure about 20 litres of fuel at one of the tents on the next day and that put us at ease for the rest of the day’s journey. Given that Rohtang was closed for a long time, all tent guys also had run out of fuel supply but one, and it was our lucky day.

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Soon we were lounging at the Gesmo bakery in Leh and firming up plans for the next few days. Anand was going to have his wife and sister fly into Leh and spend some time with them while Elly and me had plans to explore Pangong Tso, Hanle, Tso Moriri and reach Pang where we’d catch up with Anand for the rest of the journey.

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Our T’birds were barely giving us a mileage of 20-22 km/lit and with around 250kms range we needed about 35-40 litres spare for each bike if we had to do Leh-Pangong-Chulshul-Hanle-Tso Moriri-Tso Kar-Pang-Sarchu-Tandi as there is no fuel station anywhere on the route and we didn’t want to rely on our luck again. So we changed the plan again and did an overnight trip to Pangong before we set off for our return journey which looked like this: Leh – Hanle – Tso Moriri – Tso Kar – Pang – Sarchu – Manali. I had about 50 litres of fuel strapped on my bike, just about enough for the two bikes to reach Tandi for the next stop.

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Our ride to Hanle took us through some really stunning landscapes and even though there are no water crossing or passes to climb, it was a very satisfying experience. As we reached the village, we were a bit surprised since this was a completely non-commercialized place and had no signs of hotels or guest houses.

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We directly went to the observatory where I spoke to the resident engineer about stay options either at the observatory or in the village. He guided us to the one and only option in the village that could offer us some basic accommodation and food. There was a bus full of high-school kids from Leh queued up at the observatory and we chose to return back the next day instead of becoming a part of that chaos.

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The next day morning we made a visit to the observatory and then rode up to the Analy Gompa, but we couldn’t find anyone there to help us get an inside tour. We started our ride back to the Mahe bridge from where we had to take the left to Tso Moriri which was our next night halt.

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The roads for the most part were pretty decent until the last 30 odd kms which was a pure offroading adventure. The Korzok village had quite a few stay options, we chose to stay at the Ladakh camps tent site which was a pretty nice place although a bit expensive at around 2500-3000 per night. But the experience was worth it and the food was quite sumptuous too. We rode around the lake for a bit to get some pictures and watched the sunrise light up the blue waters early next day. It was simply magical to be there!

The ride from Tso Moriri to Tso Kar was going to take us through some really desolate places and soon after we took the turn off from Sumdo village all that we could hear was the engines roaring and no other human soul was sighted for a long time until we reached Tso Kar for an early lunch. After witnessing the majestic beauty of Tso Moriri, Tso Kar was a bit of a disappointment and we didn’t really spend time at the lake.

About half hour after we left from Tso Kar is when we had the first big incident of the trip. Elly was riding about a km ahead of me but I still had direct line of sight because of the open plains. The road was tarred but narrow and was lined by the soft desert sand on both sides. And then it happens, Elly’s bike veered to the left and the next moment I saw him being thrown face-down on the tarmac while his bike did two somersaults and landed in a ditch about 15-20 feet from the road. I guess he must be doing around 50kph at the time and the impact on landing flat on the tarmac would have been quite a bit. There was a cold shiver down my spine thinking about the possible eventualities of the accident as I closed in towards the spot for the next couple of minutes. He was motionless for about 30secs and then sat up and was on his feet by the time I reached there, I was so relieved! His helmet was broken at his chin and the armored jacket torn at places, the knee pads were broken too. He was in a state of shock as he stood there looking around and trying to figure what just hit him. I made him do the regular drill of checking whether he had sensations on his hands and legs and whether he had sustained any internal injuries. With all the riding gear he had, he got away with just a few bruises on his hand between the jacket sleeve and gloves.

Pic 4.62The bike on the other hand wasn’t that lucky, it had done two full 360 degrees flips before landing in the ditch. All the strapped luggage was thrown off the bike and that included his camera bag too. Luckily, because of the soft mud around, there was no collateral damage to his camera kit. I was suspecting that the front forks would have taken hit and the bike may not be able to run anymore. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the forks were able to take the fall without any damage. The front headlamp assembly and the dials were completely destroyed and the handle bar was in a bad shape with both sides bent in different directions. It took us a bit of an effort to pull it out of the ditch but the good news was that it started in a couple of kicks. Now, the two big questions were whether we’ll be able to salvage the situation and make the bike “rideable” and whether or not he could ride the rest of the distance.

The initial reaction was to just try and get some help and load the bike on a truck to either Manali or Leh. We were in the middle of nowhere and there was absolutely no traffic that we had seen on that road, but we could spot some traffic on what looked like a track about 3kms parallel to our road alongside the mountain ranges. After making sure that Elly was okay, I set off to look for some help and found a GREF camp about 5kms ahead. That’s when I realized that the track we could see alongside the mountains was the Leh-Manali route and we would have been well on our way to Pang had this incident not happened. Anyways, the camp had a few people around and I came back for Elly so that we could just get the bikes there and get him some medical attention.

I fixed the handlebar to a good extent using a stone for a hammer and we rode slowly to the GREF camp where the guys were more than helpful as always. We also met Anand who was on the way to Pang which was the agreed upon meeting point. Now that we were regrouped, we talked about various options of continuing the trip but finally decided that we’ll just keep riding on slowly and reach Manali.

Finally we set off from there thinking we’ll take a night halt at Pang which was about 40kms away, but ended up riding until 8PM to reach Sarchu for the night. We couldn’t believe that despite all the events and the fact that Elly was riding with a crooked handle-bar we were able to make it successfully. The night was going to be a deciding factor for the next day’s ride plan since we’d know if Elly had any internal inflammation/injury that showed signs after a good night’s sleep.

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The morning had some good news for us that Elly was all fit and fine and we could continue our trip as planned. After a grueling climb to Rohtang La through all the slush, we were finally on the other side and slowly descended towards our destination for the day, Manali. It was a big sigh of relief once we parked our bikes at the hotel in Manali coz the difficult part of the ride was over. We got Elly’s bike fixed up with a new handlebar and a few other necessary repairs and things were pretty much back to normal.

From Manali onwards we were going to split up as Elly and Anand were going towards Amritsar while I was going to return back to Delhi. What a ride it was, lot of action, drama and some pretty scary moments too, but in the end we all thoroughly enjoyed it!

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