Day 4: Khardung La and Nubra Valley
This was the day our biking adventure began. To start off with I must mention I was pretty apprehensive about it, being used to riding a 125cc commuter bike on the streets of Bangalore, the idea of taking a 350cc bike across the vast expanse of Ladakh seemed a little nutty to me. Hence in my group, I ended up spending the least amount of time on the bike. Though what I did spend was enjoyable. It’s an experience definitely worth having provided you’re a good rider of course and don’t mind roughing it out a little. We had 3 Royal Enfield 350 classics with us and an Innova van to hold our luggage and allow us to swap out from the bikes when anyone got tired.
The day started off by meeting our driver and collecting our bikes. It’s a process that took a surprisingly large amount of time since we had to test the bikes, ensure there were enough helmets and other protective gear and fuel up the bikes and fuel cans we were carrying for the trip. We finally started late morning and after a quick halt for supplies like snacks and the ever important bottled water we began the slow climb to Khardung La.
The roads were reasonably good and actually pretty crowded all things considered. That said it’s no national highway so slow and steady was the way forward. A choice we didn’t seem to have since all the bikes except one seemed unwilling or unable to go above 40 kmph while climbing, probably a mix of the condition of the bike and the thin mountain air. We trundled up with mountainside as the temperature began to dip with altitude.
The amazing Khardung La is a mountain pass that connects the Nubra and Shyok valleys with Leh and is an important supply line for the Indian Army. So you’ll have quite a few army convoys to keep you company throughout the journey. The pass is at an insane altitude of 18250 feet or so the sign at the pass says anyway, the actual figure is a little disputed. Either way, while no longer the highest motorable pass in the world, it is still one of the highest points on earth you can visit on a vehicle that doesn’t fly. It is a place one should definitely visit, though with a bit of caution, as at this altitude the air has only about 50% of the oxygen content it has at sea level so be prepared for it. While we had no issues on our journey at all, we did carry an oxygen cylinder long just in case. There are also military stations at major tourist sites with medical equipment, oxygen cylinders and even pressure chambers in case of emergencies so safety in this regard shouldn’t be a problem.
After a few photo stops and breaks along the way, including one to fix a leaking Jerry can we finally reached the top of the pass. While we felt fine till now cause the vehicles were actually doing the heavy lifting, the walk to the hotel on top of the pass from where we had parked showed us just how extreme the pass was for a bunch of city kids. We were all out of breath by the time we reached the hotel and all we did was walk about 200m up a very mild incline, with a stop for a photo session that too. Of course, some hot Maggi and tea did help to soothe the mind, body and soul.
The ride back down was a lot more lonely for the lack of a better word. The number of vehicles dropped drastically and the roads got worse too, ranging for pretty well surfaced to non-existent. The more sensitive of the group, including me ended up getting headaches on the descent from the pass due to the change in altitude. But it wasn’t anything that wasn’t manageable. Once we were down from the pass and had another break for lunch we pressed on to the Nubra valley.
This is the same route to the famous army outpost at Siachen glacier and as such was in pretty decent condition. Once could even spot a few military aircraft overhead. We had another major pitstop at a spot on the highway where there were quad bikes and other adventure activities available. There are actually a few such spots on the route along with a bunch of resorts too.
It was by evening that we had the final stop for the day. It was a bunch of sand dunes near the river where camel rides and other activities were available. It was a location unique in the fact that you could see 4 to 5 different types of terrain by just standing in one spot and spinning around. From the vast brown mountains that lined either side of the valley, the endless expanse of white that were the sand dunes, the stunning blue river that mirrored an equally blue sky and a small green forest of coniferous trees rounded things out. It really was a mind-boggling array of colours and textures to look at.
While a few of us did stand in line and go for a camel ride, the rest just explored the place on foot and passed the time by playing in the sand, taking pics and attempting to make an action sequence. We were also dealing with the effects of being completely cut off from the outside world, using our phone only as cameras and music players, worried more about keeping our cameras charged than anything else. Three days of being totally isolated were interesting detox that I quite enjoyed, though it did cause a bit of anxiety back home.
We ended the day at our campsite, with a simple dinner and a whole lot of relaxing in one of the 4 tents we got. The word tents is a little misleading though. They weren’t the little flimsy enclosures on the side of some hill I was expecting, they were more akin to small fully furnished hotel rooms with cloth walls. They even have proper plumbing and electricity, though the later is provided by a generator and is limited to between 7:30 pm and 10:30 pm. It was unexpectedly comfy and a whole lot of fun.
We ended the day with a birthday celebration, more talk and a viewing of the night sky. Once the generator is shut down, there is no artificial light in the area. Thus without any light pollution, we saw more stars that night then we’ve ever seen before, something I didn’t take a picture of since I was too busy enjoying the moment. Finally, well after midnight, we called it a night.
Day 5: Nubra Valley to Pangong Lake
The day started as early as possible as we had across a river that becomes impassable as the water level rises by mid-afternoon. It was early for us anyway, our driver disagreed. After a puncture and a little confusion on the way, we found ourselves at the first stop. It was a monastery along the way which we had passed the previous day but hadn’t visited. It even had guided tours that spoke about Buddhist culture. The monastery is also the place to go to see a stunning view of the valley.
The majority of the rest of the day was spent just crossing this desolate landscape. WIth little company on the roads in what is considered peak season for the area we slowly made our way east towards Pangong lake. We crossed a mix of treacherous mountain roads with the odd accident throw in to remind us to stay safe, river crossings that involved figuring out which path was the river and which was just flood covered road and a surprisingly large amount of sand covered road, which involved a little pushing from the pillions to ensure the bikes kept moving.
The towns on the route were few and far between, joined together by roads that range from surprisingly good to non-existent. The towns were outnumbered by military outposts that dotted the land. Fenced off and standing imposing along the side of the road. We even saw what was claimed to be India’s highest tank battalion near Pangong. While it definitely was an interesting experience this is not a place you visit with basic knowledge of vehicle repair or without having a mechanic with you. Roadside assistance does not reach this place, neither does cell phone reception.
It was just before the lake that we encountered one of Ladakh’s more unusual inhabitants, himalayan marmots. They are large groundhog like creatures that live in this inhospitable land. We first encountered one when our driver rescued it from an attacking dog, though we didn’t get a good look at the creature before it scampered of to safety. We later did encounter a plain with a lot of them though. They seem used to humans at this point and don’t run away when people try taking pictures of them. Despite multiple requests not to, people still feed these creature and apparently make them ill according to our driver. Heeding his advice we left them alone and carried on to the lake.
By evening we finally got a glimpse of our destination for the day, Pangong lake. This lake was popularised by the final scene in the Amir Khan movie 3 Idiots and has become a little commercialised and tourist-friendly because of it. It even has a little photo spot where you can take pictures with props from the movie, something we ended up ignoring for the main attraction, the lake itself.
The lake was the most vivid shade of blue I’ve ever seen. Or more correctly shades of blue, with varying colours as you looked further away from the shore. The water was icy and calm giving the place a serene vibe, which was surprising given the crowds. We skipped stones and just relaxed and took it all in. Some even looked for China across the lake, but never found it. Apparently a little too far away for that.
There were impromptu photoshoots, of course, though we avoided going into the icy water. It was so cold we saw people keeping coca cola bottles in the water to cool them before use. It was a calming atmosphere with people slowly relaxing and just going with the relaxed mood of the place. After a long time at the shores of the lake, we walked back to the road and ate our usual meal of different variations of Maggi for lunch before moving on along the lake. Since we had the time we had one more stop along the shore before heading to the campsite, where we were offered yak rides and trinkets to take home.
It was here that one of the brilliant members of our group decided to dare the rest to stand barefoot in the lake for 20 seconds at least. The prize for standing in ice cold water? Free food in Delhi for a day on our way back home. A few were mad enough to try it, while the rest of us who valued comfort and our lack of frostbite stayed out and laughed at them, as they hoped about in the icy water and yelled. All who went in did complete the challenge, though they did come out with blue feet and shivered all the way to our camp. Unfortunately, due to a bit of bad luck, all they got for it was a meal at McDonald’s. And bragging rights of course.
The campsite was similar to the one at Nubra, with the same kind of tents and a main brick and mortar building that acted as the office and dining hall. We settled into our tents pretty quick as we were exhausted and the more adventurous of us still couldn’t feel their feet. We also got a lesson in the importance of carrying a padlock when a random stranger walked into the girls’ tent by accident. After a bit of confusion, and the hunt for locks, we finally locked our tents and settled in for a very cold and windy night, the sounds of which were drowned out by our snores.
Day 6: Chang La and back to Leh
While we did have big plans of waking up early and watching the sunrise from the lack, a potent mix of cold, exhaustion and laziness ensured that all but one of us overslept. The one guy who did manage to get up early and go was met with a lot of hostility on his return for making the rest of us look bad. After a breakfast that could be described as mediocre at best, we stocked up on supplies and set off on the long road back to Leh.
We didn’t have a lot planned for the day, so the drive back was relaxed, with a mellow mood all around as the 3 bikes and the van puttered along through the barren deserts of the Himalayas. A description that seems a little odd until one visits the place. It was only by afternoon did we actually reach our first sightseeing spot. A large patch of ice by the side of the road in an area called Chilam, just before Cheng La.
The area seemed to attract a lot of tourists and was surprisingly crowded, especially given how empty the roads until here were. While large patches of ice and snow were no longer a novelty to us like at the start of the trip, we stopped to explore this one anyway. It was a slight walk down from the road and was very slippery, but unlike most of what we had seen before the ice here was white and clean. We spent well over an hour here playing and taking photos.
Chang La was the last mountain pass we traversed by bike. While not as high as Khardung La, it wasn’t nearly as crowded either. It was also very cold, a fact, when combined with the altitude, made staying long at the pass difficult. With one last view of the mountains around us, we set off back down the dirt road towards Leh.
The route down had a lot of construction along the way, thus making the route a little treacherous and very dusty. Traffic had increased too to make matters worse. While our van managed alright, the bikes did struggle a little since they were exposed to all the dust and weather. It culminated in one of the riders having a fall, though nothing bad happened as he was careful. After a lot of bouncing along and sneezing, we finally joined the Manali to Leh highway, a good 30 Km away from Leh and stopped for a well-needed break. It would be smooth tarmac from here on out all the way to our hotel.
It was getting late at this point and hopes of seeing most of the other sites we wanted to today were diminishing quickly. We did turn into the Rancho school, also known as the Druk White Lotus school, in hopes that it would be open for tourists. This is an eco-friendly residential school that was featured in the 3 idiots movie as well as in a couple of ads and documentaries. We, unfortunately, found it closed to visitors and thus had to turn back after a little walk around the area surrounding the parking lot.
We finally made it back to our hotel in Leh just before sunset. After quickly reclaiming our rooms and dumping our luggage in them, we set off to watch the sunset from the Shanti Stupa. While the Stupa can be reached on foot by climbing 500 odd steps, we preferred taking the road up to the site instead. The Stupa is located on a hill overlooking Leh and offers a spectacular view of the city. The Stupa itself is a brilliant white structure and is of great religious significance to those who follow Buddhism.
After we explored the Stupa, we sat along its boundary and watched the city below slowly light up as it slipped into the night. We began wrapping up the day by returning the bikes and biding a sad goodbye to our driver. A bit of shopping in Leh’s main market and dinner in one of the restaurants there, before taking a taxi back to the hotel for a long night of well-deserved sleep.