Rendezvous with Khardung La – K Top

I only knew Khardung La (La means pass in Tibetan) as a fad Mecca for bikers where they pose in front of the signage calling Khardung La as the world’s highest motorable road – a claim that appeared highly questionable. Such is my aversion towards fads that I decided to take the route less taken and drive to Nubra via Pangong. A route from Pangong via Durbuk leads to Agham followed by Khalasar and then Nubra valley. While there were loud concerns about no support on this route and one is pretty much left to nature’s will, few  tried to scare us by claiming that we will need to search for road. I smiled at my friends Lt Cmdr Rakesh Anna, Lt Cmdr Amarnath Subbu and my civilian IT engineer friend Rajesh Anna as we all wondered if it could get any worse than the mighty passes of Talangala, Changala, Baralachala and even Rohtang in freezing cold.

We took on the route with two royal enfields and kept waiting for the road to disappear. We were not surprised as the road proved to be better than crossing Changala pass again or riding through Khardung La or K-Top as it is locally called. A few hurdles on the road actually came as amusement and the twenty kilometers stretch without the tar on road could on only do little to dampen our spirits. What was scary did not appear so scary and what was promising did not impress much till we reached Nubra valley. The double humped camels and the sand dunes at Hunder, Nubra valley were picturesque. Learning that the springs at Panamik, Nubra are not literally hot springs but more like a pond and the hot water gets funnelled into a steam bath room, we decided to skip the part. Who would have wanted to take a steam bath and ride back 20 kilometers to stay the night. We instantly decided to get closer to Khardung La at Khalasar and leave at next dawn.

We started our ascend at 6 in the morning determined to cross the highest motorable road asap and I personally did not want a picture next to the K-Top signage. We did click some pictures in the beginning which showed K-Top completely hidden among clouds. There was no sign of sun but our excitement was intact. Only fifteen kilometers before the K Top, we came across a small check post called North Pullu. The name appeared funny as we crossed under the check post barrier. As we kept ascending, the snow fall amplified. Something about snow that gets me all excited, it was time for photographs again. The view just kept getting better till we were about 3 kilometers before the K Top. Suddenly the road vanished as the potholes were replaced by snow everywhere. There was no road but snow everywhere. The visibility in the snow fall was limited to less than hundred meters. As we tried to ride through the snow, the snow blanket kept getting thicker and the tyres could not find any friction. The motorcycle slipped a few times as we spotted an army jeep driver tying chains around its tyres to support movement and we decided to follow it. The snow fall got so intense that the tyre marks would vanish as soon as the jeep moved ahead. Our strategy had failed and then came a point of realisation that we just cannot move any further. One look down the hill sent a chill down everyone’s spine and suddenly everyone’s red face looked scared.

It was decision time and we opted to drive back all the way to the connection between Nubra and Pangong as there was no point losing our lives in this wild goose chase. We quickly and safely descended downhill, crossed North Pullu. The army jawans gave us curious looks perplexed on what we possibly were trying to achieve uphill. One army officer stopped us and enquired on what made us think that we could cross the pass in that weather. I suddenly dawned on me that the barrier was down and the road was shut for vehicles when we had passed underneath over an hour ago. It took us twenty more kilometers and a look at the bright sun light shining at another hill to stop and introspect. What do we have and what do we need. We had only limited petrol as it was only 45 kilometers till Leh from K Top. The other route would have sent us back by another 150 kilometers and had its own risks of no support. We decided to reach North Pullu again and wait at the army camp, the idea was to put our motorcycles on a truck and cross the pass.

Lieutenant Commander Rakesh Anna and Lt Cdr Amarnath Subbu spoke to the army jawans at North Pullu check post and we were offered a warm cabin to wait inside. Our shoes were wet, clothes were wet and the snow outside had caused actual pain. Now, it had started to snow heavily till North Pullu and it was clear that there will be no movement anytime soon. The army commander suggested that we wait till afternoon and leave along with the civilian vehicles that were getting restless with each passing minute. A couple of hours passed and we still could not decide our next move, i could not even decide if I could take off my wet shoes and dry them a bit.

In a moment of impulse, Lt Cmdr Rakesh Anna asked a young army officer what he would have done if he was in our situation. He joked that he would have left and that very moment we all got up to leave. Waiting for a couple of hours had made us restless enough to not worry about the cold, the snow or the skidding from the K Top. Since our motorcycles were parked ahead of the check post, we did not have a problem and we left in front of the restless civilians. We were the only ones aware of the risks at the top, others weren’t. To our pleasant surprise the snow had stared melting and there were patches on the road to ride our motorcycles through. When the road disappeared again, we followed the military vehicles getting across the K Top to drop a senior officer. The army helped us through the two hour struggle to cross 2 kilometers and reach the top. None of us spoke during the strenuous climb as we struggled to fight the snow, pulled the heavy motorcycles, breathed hard for oxygen while -15 degrees and wet clothes took backstage.  Finally we reached the top and I saw the same signage, only with respect this time. I parked my motorcycle a little ahead, walked back to the signage and waited for my friend to come and click a picture.

Important points:

  • Khardung La serves as gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys in Ladakh
  • North Pullu and South Pullu are army check posts on either end of the pass
  • The road from Pangong to Nubra via Durbuk is not that bad and should be explored with proper precautions and spare parts
  • Always carry extra petrol and basic spare parts
  • Nothing can save you from nature’s fury, but caution

IMG_5947[1]
Finally at the KTop.
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KTop from the ground level
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First futile attempt

The motorcycle diaries 3 – In pursuit of wilderness

Few close friends decided to escape the city for a weekend. It started with a brief to spend a weekend at a place which does not require a full day’s drive.

Given our affinity towards the hills and water, Rishikesh, at a distance of 230 odd kilometers from Delhi was an easy choice. It took a lot of planning, coordination, research and discussion to zero in on two properties in Rishikesh. One was a beach camp with tents and another was a jungle camp offering a morning trek and wild safari at Rajaji National park, Uttarakhand in addition to rafting at the mighty Ganges. The cost per person at the Jungle camp was almost half of the beach property and tree houses caught everyone’s attention. Three days prior to the final trip, the group leader – Mani sprained her back leading to speculation if the trip was on. Hats off to her will, a group of seven adventure enthusiasts finally left the city early on Saturday morning. I decided to ride through the trip on my beloved Royal Enfield, my gateway to any terrain in the country. The exit route from Delhi greeted us with a half hour jam at 4:30am. Withstanding the frustration caused by two trucks standing in the middle of NH24, we braved the fatal pot holes at NH58 for an hour. The mighty Scorpio cruised through the toll way as I managed to keep sight of it on my two wheels. When the sun grew bolder, the group got eager to reach the destination asap and decided to raft first before we checked into the jungle camp.

Of paddles, rapids and a cliff

I have a fear of heights and water rapids. A little bit of negotiation ensured that the raft meant for at least 10 people was given to us 7. As the raft commander began his briefing we had a minor argument about why one of us should sit in the middle and not paddle through the rafting session. His argument about balancing the raft fell into deaf ears and he had to go back and manage an additional paddle. The raft was set loose and we began paddling forward cheering Ganga Maiyya. I had to sit at the front, the fear could wait. While we were unsure if the raft commander was still upset with us for being rude to him, he turned out to be quite a sport as he commanded us to jump into the river after 5 minutes of paddling. Few among us were shocked and were staring at the commander if he was serious. I wasted no time in jumping into the water and hell yeah, I was swimming in the mighty Ganges. Religious people in India sprinkle drops of holy water on themselves for purification and here I was braving the fast flowing Ganga river itself. I soon heard shouts from the commander asking me to stay closer to the raft as we approached a rapid. I got on the raft and took back my steering position in the front as I was ready to brave the very first rapid which looked exciting yet scary. As the raft bumped into the first huge wave, I realised two members of the group had fallen off into the river, how I wish I could have fallen like that. As I got ready to scream ‘oh shit’ and jump into the river at the next rapid, the commander ordered that anyone who wishes to jump into the river is free to do so at will, but be careful. Braving a rapid has been the highlight of my affair with the water bodies so far in my life. Our cool commander ordered us to steer and swim past all jealous onlookers. It was amazing and continued for the next hour or so. There was a food stop in the middle of nowhere, maggi and tea, but what caught my attention were few crazy people jumping off a cliff which appeared over 20 feet high. I had conquered my fear of rapids, now it was time for a high jump.

As I trotted barefoot towards the cliff, I had to help guys and girls get down the cliff as they decided it was too high for a comfortable jump. As I patiently waited my turn on the cliff, I was pushed back by a dare devil yelling at his friends to capture him jump on camera. I think he was high, but it took him one look down to get sober. While others were contemplating to jump or not to jump, I requested if they could make way for me. My friends, Rajit and Gope had already jumped and swam through to the raft. As I looked down and figured the jump, I could feel my guts inching up. I could not waste time, others were looking at me and it was now a question of honour.  As my friends waived at me, I took the leap of faith and splashed right into the river. After what appeared like eternity, I finally rose up the greenish red water and was gasping to breathe. I was still alive and it was a reason to be happy. During my swim back to the raft, I decided to do it again but the plan died a natural death as I realised my shorts were torn from one end due the splash impact. Shilpi offered me her bandana to tie around the torn patch and save my honour this time. The ordeal with the paddles and the rapids continued, just that this time I had to be really careful about my shorts.

Ride into the jungle

After hours of rafting, we were all tired and waiting to reach the jungle camp, the venue I chose to be the night stay for the group. As one local friend claimed to know the venue, we asked him to tag along. After around 15 odd kilometers on road, we were greeted with no road et all. The only way forward was to look for tyre marks in the direction of the jungle for the next 10 kilometers. As there was still time for the night to set in, it all looked beautiful and rusty; the little river that we had to cross on a motorcycle, a maruti alto and a scorpio was a sight at first. This all soon started turning into a nightmare as it kept getting darker and there was no sign of road, light, direction or human life.

The evening had passed and the night started growing darker, little rivers were now getting bigger and my group mates were getting restless shivering to the thought of staying the night in forest in those conditions. I was nervous too as we had been in the forest for 8 long kilometers. I had company this time, my young friend Rajit was interested in the motorcycle ride and was helping me navigate the little rivers by first walking through and checking the depth every time. At one point, both my tyres were stuck in wet mud and gravel and it was difficult to lift the 200 kg motorcycle. The vehicles following us had now caught up and other friends helped me lift the bike out of the point of no-return. I heard the restless discussions as few of my colleagues suggested we go back and find a place to stay in the city, ‘where there is life’.

As I struggled to find a response, I saw light in the dark and approached what looked like a small house in the middle of nowhere. Finding a village family at the spot, I asked them if they could help me with the directions to this jungle camp. As we were talking, two wild dogs rushed towards me and growled at me for trespassing their territory. I realised I had to add the fear of wild dogs to the fear of heights and rapids and I am not going to conquer this one at the moment. I told my group that it was only 2 more kilometers and the path ahead is not as difficult as what we had already passed. No phone connection in the area just added to the agony and my tired and restless group mates agreed half heartedly giving me a look that I might get beaten up if I didn’t find the camp soon.

What promised to be a better path started with a drive through the middle of a river, which was thankfully not deep. As I was riding and searching for a light bulb in the hills, a huge wild hog passed from right in front of my motorcycle making a grunting sound. I told my young friend that this was not the time to panic, wild hogs do not hunt humans, humans hunt them. The reflection of my headlight at a colored stone brought smile back as we realised that the destination is close. I spotted a bonfire in the otherwise dark jungle camp and was happy to meet the camp staff that had been waiting for the group. I told Rajit to ask them make arrangements as I rode back in the direction of the two cars, I had left behind in pursuit of the jungle camp. The fear that the restless group may have gone back to the city was soon put to rest as I saw headlights approaching.

As the group entered the jungle camp, all the tiredness, restlessness and agony was showered at the camp staff for having put up the camp at such a godforsaken site and why was there no electricity. The camp manager put on his jeep headlights for some visibility and the staff collected wood for bonfire, as I watched my group getting its calm back,.

The group that woke up at 4 in the morning had finally settled around bonfire at a dark jungle in Rishikesh holding glasses of preferred poisons in their hands. A few drinks and everyone started admiring the beauty of the jungle, the peacock spotting,  the fireflies, the calm as well as the noises of animals heard from a distance. Nobody has any recollection of who slept in which wood house at what time, but all I remember is a Shilpi and Sumeet asking me if they could come back anytime soon.

Important tips while travelling to Rishikesh, rafting:

  • It is important to leave Delhi early in the morning as the NH58 is full of potholes and slows your drive
  • Rishikesh is a dry city, if you are carrying liquor, state police will object and fine you
  • Though we did not encounter any mosquitoes, but it is advisable to carry mosquito repellent to a jungle camp
  • Reach your destination before its dark, plan well
  • Do not overeat but hydrate yourself before rafting
  • Follow the instructions of raft commander carefully
  • Jump into the water while rafting as many times as permissible but stay closer to the raft
  • Try at least a 16km raft stretch, pros can go for longer stretches

The motorcycle diaries 2 – Rajinder Singh ki Bauli, Neemrana

Drive to Alwar is one of the most beaten-to-death routes around Delhi. No penny to guess that even a motorcycle ride cannot make it better for anyone unless you take a detour.

Delhi –Jaipur highway does not offer much except Neemrana Fort.

The concept of a fort brings along certain inquisitiveness about the life of descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan III who built Neemrana fort in 1464. Prithviraj Chauhan was a Rajput king of the Chauhan dynasty, who ruled the kingdoms of Ajmer and Delhi in northern India during the latter half of the 12th century.

The Rajput king fled Delhi after losing his second battle against Muhammad Ghori. The successors of Chauhan clan were a proud bunch who would bow to none. All other rulers had their ways of pleasing the British and this cost the Chauhans dearly. Their lands were clipped and given away to Alwar, Patiala, Nabha and others who entertained the viceroys of the Raj with shikar and Champagne breakfasts as is stated in the history of Neemrana fort.

Taking directions from many locals on the way, I managed to miss the pithy right turn towards the Neemrana fort entry. The terrain was full of potholes, dust and looked nothing like an entry to a king’s fort. Kids were busy pulling their play- carts made of bottle lids and the broken pieces of wood ply and switch boards. I rode through the narrow lanes and was amused to see a centuries old structure now a government primary school. Schools kids were running recklessly around the school lanes with recently cleaned drains as garbage rested carelessly on the corners.

I wanted to ride the steep climb from the narrow gate towards the first entry. The guard asked me if I was staying at the fort. I was amused and said no. While walking towards the main entry, it dawned on me that the centuries old fort is now a five star property inducing mixed emotions within me. As I tried to jump thru the dust at the main gate, the doorman enquired my interest inside the fort palace. He offered me two tickets to enter. Rupees 1900 and one could also have lunch inside the palace. 1900??? to see an old fort??? One could also get inside with a pass Firefox zip line tour costing a few more Ks. It wasn’t a fort anymore. It is now a themed resort aka palace aka hotel equipped to cater to the foreigners and UHNIs.

I walked out with heavy steps admiring the outsides of the fort. The architecture, the style, the exuberance, the luxe, everything tell you a bit about the Chauhan dynasty kings who would have commissioned it over 500 years ago.

The doorman with a badass moustache walked up to me and asked if I was interested to see the fort’s bauli. Thanks to “Maharaja Agrasen ki bauli” made famous by PK, I understood and was eager. I hopped on to my motorcylce and raced towards the pointed direction.

Once again, I easily missed the turn as there was no indication towards the historic masterpiece. A lot of fingers pointed to one direction and I did finally manage to reach. I was eager to run down the broken stairs of this historic bauli which once would have been house to our princely ancestors. Inside the dark and dingy bauli, a couple snuck in a distant corner getting on with their business. Seeing me getting down the stairs another onlooker gathered some courage and followed me down the dingy, dirty stairs smelling of dead poultry.

I felt happy having discovered the remains of what must have been a happening joint of yesteryears. I spent a lot of time inside trying to hear voices from the past, imagining life as it must have been… nothing! All I got was peace. I walked around the bauli trying to avoid the couple who was trying to avoid me.

I came across a well around the bauli and was peeping down as someone called me. “A dead body was recovered from the well a couple of days ago”, said a local man with a grin at his face. “Must have been a local dispute”, he added. He was smoking pot with two other friends and seemed pretty upset with the way things moved in the locality. I was interested to know more. “The fort is now a picnic spot for the ultra rich and we don’t know what it looks like from the inside anymore”. “These rich people have taken away everything”, he complained as he inhaled what looked like a deadly dose of pot. Pointing to the couple, he said, couples frequent this place every day and mark their territories. Sometimes drunk men walk in and beat up the guys in front of the girls out of frustration, exhaling the smoke, he alleged as if that the guys deserve it.

“My grandfather worked for the ruler” he mentioned as he pointed towards the Neemrana bagh which is now house to the wife of Raja Rajinder Singh. There are many stories about Raja Rajinder Singh trying to sell his fort as he could not manage the expenses anymore. He finally found a buyer after forty years in a business duo that made a fortune post buying and restoring the fort. It was difficult to ascertain if the Rani actually lives in that bagh as there is no information available about the couple apart from a news clip about the inauguration of Neemrana fort for public where Raja Rajinder Singh was the chief guest.

I spent the night at Alwar Bagh near Sariska National Park and the trip went to better than planned but the mind is still inquisitive how fate treated the Raja and Rani after they sold off their fort.

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The motorcycle diaries – from the financial capital to the national on Royal Enfield

As US president Barack Obama got ready to reach India Gate in New Delhi as the chief guest on the occasion of India’s 66th Republic day, my motorcycle was racing towards Delhi on NH14 leaving Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat. This was my first rendezvous with the chill of a winter morning of West-North India after four years and 21 days.  It was an experience as invigorating and awesome as watching the MIGs fly just over your head during the Republic day parade.

The chill in the air pierced through three layers of clothing causing pain in my chest – pain that was compensated by an amazing view of a lonely highway clouded by fog. I had to stop to pull out a warm inner from my rucksack tied to the pillion seat. I quickly wore it and wrapped a woollen muffler to shield myself from piercing cold. A car zoomed past me and the passengers were quite amused to see a man changing clothes besides the national highway on a foggy winter morning. The cattle rearing next to me did not care a bit. I prayed to the sun god to show some mercy and shine away the painful cold as I kick-started my bike again and moved ahead slowly.

This was the second day of my road trip from Mumbai to Delhi on my Royal Enfield Classic 500. Mumbai to Delhi is over 1400 kilometres and the intent was to close the gap within three days – not bad for a rookie biker. The first day of exit ride from Mumbai was beautiful and made me cringe a little on the thought of leaving the city forever as I shifted my base to the national capital of the country.

The national highway leaving Mumbai offers a smooth ride minus the short breaks one needs to straighten the back and get some blood flow in the rear. While travelling solo by a motorcycle across Indian states, you can smell the difference. Every state has its own characteristics; it also has its own aroma, sometimes stench. If you do not understand this, travel via Unjha – a town in Mehsana district of the Indian state of Gujarat also referred to as the spices capital of India. Get out from a flight just landed in Mumbai, travel via local transport in almost any part of the country, venture out at night when there is less smoke on the streets and you can differentiate a city by its aroma.

There is a park as well with an option to savour food at a local dhaba as you see one. A Kathyawadi thali at a roadside dhaba at Bharuch in Gujarat by the name of ‘Nyay Mandir’, made it crystal clear that Gujjus either eat sweet food or way too spicy, nothing in between.

Road congestions are customary in India as well, whether it is a narrow street, a traffic signal, a 16 wheeler break-down, an accident or just cattle standing in the middle of the six lane national highway, spotting steel of different shapes and sizes standing bumper to bumper with their drivers honking aimlessly is a common sight. The romance between me and my motorcycle touched new heights as we bypassed over 2 km long traffic jam through the narrow dusty terrain alongside the national highway, while every onlooker on more than two wheels gazed helplessly. The cotton buff played a lead actor’s role in keeping the dust make-up off my face. As I closed in on Ahmedabad, the sunlight was replaced by street lights and I zoomed past the famous Gandhi ashram to my right in a hurry to find a place to sleep at the night.

While checking into the hotel “Decent” at a Gujju locality, it was evident that the venue was a heavenly copulating abode for the young souls as each room was occupied by couples mostly under the marriageable age. Wondering if there will be a police raid at night, I checked into my room and requested the attendant to fix me a couple of drinks in the dry state of India.  Advocating the need for my pain killer to the attendant, I was obviously ready to pay few extra bucks to fulfil my desire. He could not be happier and I slept through the night like a baby.

The Gujarat state highway 41 that leads to Jaipur from Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat via Mehsana and Abu road is amazing and completely merits the pain of sitting on a bike throughout the day. Each view is replaced by prettier scenery which made the photographer in me desiring to stop and click pictures everywhere. But the biker in me was on a mission and could not give in. I only stopped at the Mount Abu bye pass on the Abu road and went nostalgic about a childhood picnic and faint memory of the hill station over 2 decades old. Mount Abu is a beautiful hill station in the Aravalli Range in Sirohi district of Rajasthan state in western India, near the border with Gujarat. No, I could not go there, had over 500 kilometers to cover before it was dark.

Whatever is said about the road less taken, one must never stop taking chances and after all, that’s what life is about. I did so and was awarded with a solitary ride and awe-inspiring views of national highway 14. I had it all for me and it did not let the smile leave my face even for a second.  I fell for the beauty of road trips in India, especially on a motorcycle.

Soon the perils of road less taken dawned on me, the blinking light on my speedometer drew my attention towards an urgent refuelling.  Then began the toughest half an hour of my journey where I believed it will be physically impossible dragging the 200 kg weighing piece of Iron if petrol pump did not surface soon enough. That was also when I realised that contrary to the gas stations in the advanced nations, which offer everything for the road, Indian fuel station are specialised – diesel only, petrol and diesel, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) only and then those which accept cards or only cash or both and so on and so forth. I have to thank my luck as after what looked like eternity, surfaced a fuel pump bringing back the smile.

The pink city, Jaipur greeted me somewhere around 10 pm and the ride through the lanes of Jaipur refreshed me completely. My friend suggested that I should spend the night at Hotel “Paradise”. Decent, paradise, they are all the same, I thought and dialled the manager to check if there was any room available for the night. The manager obliged and offered a discount as well. I was in for a shock as I walked into the property; the entry into the room was enough to make you believe that you entered into a five star at 1/5th the tariff. After a shower, it was time to update my near and dear ones that I had survived the second day’s ride as well.

I woke up to a beautiful view from the seventh floor of hotel paradise and was fascinated to see a bit of the city. Jaipur to Delhi is not more that 270 kms i.e. not more than a 4-5 hours drive. Deciding to take it a little slow, I walked around the city in the morning and then treated myself to a great breakfast which was covered under room tariff.

Enroute NH8 towards Delhi, a sports bike zipped past me through the traffic. It got me thinking that there is definitely something that separates a Royal Enfield Classic from a sports-bike and men from boys. Fifty meters ahead, the same biker had bumped into a cycle rickshaw and was on ground lying flat on his back. He had enough onlookers to help him and I had a long road to cover. Delhi NCR greeted me with a never ending queue of vehicles and it seemed like they had all come to escort me, just looking in the opposite direction. For my friends and family members on social media, it was time to make the end look interesting and I decided to click a picture of my motorcycle with India Gate as the back ground.

If you are familiar with the abbreviation ‘VIP’ and you know what ‘movement’ means, you have either had a past with Delhi or were probably raised being told (much like AAP convenors) that VIPs are a pain to everybody. Yeah so, there was some VIP on the move which left the main roads blocked and the unimportant ones choked. And hey, remember Obama was here yesterday for the Republic Day parade. It generally takes a few days for the organisers to get the barricades off. Yup, that made reaching India Gate merely impossible. I had to remind myself of the pain I dared while leaving Mumbai, cold I braved on the Gujarat highway, the aches I fought on my back, shoulder, butt and any possible body part alongside other experiences an urban professional is not privy to and decided to make it possible. It probably took me as much time to reach India Gate from Gurgaon as it took to reach Gurgaon from Jaipur, but I finally did manage to find a little road leading me to India Gate and clicked the victory picture with Amar Jawan jyoti in the background.