Between Blue and White

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A biking epiphany in Ladakh

“YOU MUST BE crazy.” That was my first reaction when I read the itinerary that Adhiraaj Singh had worked out for our trip to Ladakh—1,474 km in six days, which meant roughly 230 km on bikes each day. Granted, our ‘I can ride all day’ friend was part of the K2K (Kargil to Kanyakumari) ‘Run Arun Run’ team, but that didn’t make the rest of us as enthusiastic about being on the road all day, every day. So after many a back and forth, it was whittled down to about 850 km for the trip dubbed ‘once-in-a-lifetime’.

In September end, the eight of us—from Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Imphal and Seoul—flew to Leh, taking a day to acclimatise at the very welcoming Gangba Homestay. The afternoon was spent catching up with each others’ lives—the five men in the group had been the closest friends since junior school, it was only expected that they would go back to behaving like schoolchildren. The camaraderie, roaring laughter and constant ribbing was the right flavour to start our trip. We spent part of the evening going for short rides around town to get used to the feel of the area. But the ride to the market almost led to cancelling our trip when the ‘very responsible’ Anuj Varma left his backpack with all our money on a stranger’s bike in a parking lot while he rode off to fill gas in his bike. The bag and money were still intact an hour later.

Day One after breakfast saw us get on our Royal Enfields for the 115-km ride to Nubra Valley. We’d hired four bikes, with two cars following us; two because according to Lhundup, the friendly and enthusiastic driver of the first vehicle we hired, we had “too much luggage to fit in one car”. We also had the bike mechanic to think of, and anyone else who may not want to ride for long stretches. I could already picture the ‘of course I like comfort’ Hemant Singh Katoch and I in the car for long stretches. For Hemant, anyway, as long as ‘Dad’s gloves’ were safe (which all of us eventually borrowed one time or the other), it was going to be a comfortable trip.

Our first—and predictable—stop was Khardung La, a 40-km climb from Leh. Claimed to be the world’s highest motorable road (Semo La in Tibet, 18,258 ft above sea level, is the highest, but is not open throughout the year), the pass is at an elevation of 17,582 ft. As soon as we reached the pass and got off our bikes, Lhundup said, “Please don’t hang around too long, the weather can turn any minute.” We were visiting at the end of the ‘season’ when the cold gets brutal and locals forget about tourists and start preparing for the harsh winter ahead. It was nearly that time of the year where you left your taps slightly open permanently so that the water did not freeze and lead the pipes to burst.

Once we were done with the must-take photographs and selfies next to the ‘Khardungla Top’ board with the colourful prayer flags behind it, an anxious Lhundup tried to herd us back to our bikes. Pillion riders had to sit in the car with Lhundup; it was tough to navigate the icy and slippery road down the pass. With plenty of short breaks in between—we stopped for photographs, tea, the ubiquitous Maggi, and once even to simply stare at the view, as unused to such open spaces as we city folks were—we reached Desert Himalaya camp in Diskit, Nubra Valley, at dusk. Sitting outside for a while, we couldn’t wait to get away from the chill back into our tents.

Day Two took us to the northernmost point of the country—Turtuk village. The terrain was challenging enough for cars but riding along the meandering Shyok River, or the River of Death, with an all-encompassing view of the clear blue sky more than made up for it. We had to obtain Inner Line Permits to travel to Turtuk as it is less than 10 km from the Line of Control. We rode to the farthest point possible and I secretly hoped we would spot some Pakistani rangers who we could wave to. Our neighbours weren’t very accommodating, unfortunately.

Unlike the rest of Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, the locals here are Muslims. But because we had to ride back before it was dark, we couldn’t stay long enough to explore the area as much as I would have liked to. We rode the nearly 100 km back to Diskit to explore a new avenue the following day.

As we set off for Pangong Tso on Day Three, Lhundup suggested we take the shortcut via Wari-La. I wouldn’t be able to confirm if it was truly a shortcut, because the 40-km or so ascending and descending route from Agham till Wari-La was the worst stretch we rode the entire trip, more off-roading than on.

The first village we crossed after Wari-La was Shakti. We couldn’t wait to stop and take a lunch break and halted next to a stream. Lhundup approached us with a carton. “Kindly put all waste here, we encourage tourists not to pollute the area and drivers usually carry a rubbish bin,” he said. What a lovely thought.

It was dark by the time we reached Pangong, the 134-km lake that lies one-third in India and two-thirds in China. At Pangong, as well as later in Tso Moriri, camps had been dismantled and packed away; all that was left standing were the Western style commodes— tied with ropes and bolted to the ground—as markers for the next season. We had to make do with concrete guest houses at both camps; in fact, we had to request the guesthouse owner at Tso Moriri to wait for us on 1 October before shutting shop. The temperature usually reduced to -4°C by end September and he did not want his staff to suffer, he said.

Dinner and sleep came quick, but Day Four saw all of us up and about early, eager and enthusiastic to watch the sunrise. Well, almost all of us. Rajkumar Momocha Singh, the man who was the ‘most athletic’ in school—active football player and one-time hockey captain— woke up with a raging headache and a surly expression. Everyone had thought he would be the one riding the most, but after that day he was mostly seen in the back seat of the Innova.

AS WE WERE leaving Pangong, Lhundup told us this is the lake where the Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots was shot. We looked uninterested, so eyes filled with mischief, he added, “When we tell tourists that Aamir Khan took a leak in this corner, they rush to take selfies.” He’s had to play photographer to hordes of people who hand him their smartphones and DSLRs and queue up at the “famous piss corner”.

We couldn’t manage a must-watch first glimpse of Pangong when we reached the night before, but the Indian tricolour fluttering in all its splendour at the military base just after the lake was a sight to behold. Another quick photo session done, we stood in a row and sang the National Anthem. A smart salute later, we set off for Tso Moriri.

Roadblocks and dirt tracks seemed normal on this route. At one point, the bikers crossed an area where a landslide had just occurred and the rest had to wait for a bulldozer to clear the road, though at the moment the driver was concentrating on pushing the rubble off the edge. “It could take forever, maybe I could appeal to him, from a Sardarni to a Sardar,” said Mandira Singh Aulakh, and the ‘athletic mother of three who can run 10 km in 39 minutes’ jogged over to chat with the driver. Two minutes later, he’d cleared enough for the cars to pass through. “I told him my husband had already crossed and he would kill me if I took too long,” she said and collapsed into fits of laughter.

For lunch, we stopped at Karu where Lhundup disappeared for a while. He came back grinning, with a bag in his hand. We had whined so much about eating only vegetarian that he had arranged for 5 kg of fresh mutton at Karu which we could cook at Tso Moriri. Suddenly, we couldn’t wait to reach the lake.

A tired and miserably cold staff met us at the guesthouse. They were the only ones left in the area and not expecting us for dinner, they had already packed up their kitchen for the season. But cook they did— mutton, dal, aaloo gobhi and rice. The meal was a feast, for us and the staff as well. One more day conquered.

On Day Five, we had a picnic breakfast at the highest point. As cold as the biting wind was, the sun was also beating down on us, which made it an almost- perfect day to be out in the open, looking down at multiple shades of the water’s blue. But we had more than 240 km to ride to Leh and had to start soon. This was one of the most pleasant rides for me and by now, we were used to long journeys. It was also easy to see who needed a nap and who wanted to keep riding.

Surprisingly, it was the most unexpected rider who had his hands on the handlebars of the black beauty through the six days. ‘Sober’ Saurabh Sharma beat the rest of us—his infectious enthusiasm encouraging us to keep going when we would begin to flag. And it was with that enthusiasm that we returned to Gangba in Leh. All we could do was laze in our rooms, ensuring we paid heed to the notice on the door that read ‘Please keep shoes outside’, ending with the multi- purpose ‘Juley’ which could mean ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘good night’ or ‘thank you’.

We took it easy on Day Six, checking out the tourist staple of Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill, the confluence and the Kargil Hall of Fame—the surprise bonus for me. The museum gave a detailed history of the 1999 Kargil War. The ‘Lest We Forget’ wall with photos and details of the brave dead was as heartbreaking as the seized letter from a Pakistani soldier to his wife. One cannot leave the place unaffected.

We decided to do some shopping after that. Seven of us had dried apricots and souvenirs like prayer wheels in mind. ‘Shopaholic’ Reshma Raut had something completely different on her list. She and her husband Saurabh had just said goodbye to Seoul and were moving to San Francisco, which gave her an excuse to shop, though I suspect she never needs one. Three hours of diving from one shop to another, haggling for this traditional table and that wall hanging left me giddy but she was still raring to go. But we had a party to attend, one we had organised. We had arranged food and beer, and invited our hosts for dinner at their home. Also joining us was Lhundup and his daughter, as well as our mechanic and second driver. It was a great way to spend our last night in Ladakh. We remain friends with Lhundup, who calls during festivals and messages often to ask when we’re visiting next.

Before this trip, I couldn’t understand why my biker friends rode to Ladakh over and over again. It’s the same destination, “What’s the big deal?”, I’d ask. “You wouldn’t understand until you try it”, was the reply. I do now. And oh, I forgot to mention, I rode pillion. It won’t be so next time.