Ladakh – Part Four

… After Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

1st June 2015 – Day Three

I woke up early, but I was in no mood to leave the bed today. After covering six hundred kilometers on the first day and three hundred kilometers on the second day, today the target is much less, just two hundred kilometers to Kargil. If I don’t have to waste time at Jozila Pass, then it will be easily manageable. But, honestly speaking, I had lost the urge that I was carrying till yesterday. Felling a bit down today – lost the right view finder mirror of my dear bike, the luggage problem is not letting me enjoy the ride. Now I know I would not get Bungee Cord until I reach Leh – and that’s still a good four hundred twenty five kilometers away. Today, on the third day of my journey, it seems to be impossible to hold the tenacity at the same level. Feeling lonely, no one to accompany, and no one to talk to even at the end of the journey … till now no other biker has been spotted. Anyway, it is not time yet. Till Srinagar, tourists of all category from the entire India pours in. Specific Leh bound travelers can be seen only beyond Jozila.

Brought the bike from the parking lot. Even after losing a wing, it was still fresh. Roared as I switched on the power button. But I was not fresh that much, the body pain had not reduced, only Volini could not do much. Anyway, tied the luggage, called up my wife, and around at 9:00 am, I started my third day’s journey. Not hungry yet, Sonamarg is still eighty kilometers away, decided to have heavy brunch there only.

Last time, in 2012, we started our road trip on a hired car from Srinagar – so overall I know the road. But which way to take to reach the National Highway? Last night I took lot of turns and diversions to reach Lal Chowk. I asked an army person standing at the crossing, and advanced few kilometers, then asked a local Kashmiri and advanced few more kilometers, again asked a taxi driver. No other way, I don’t even have a mobile mount on my bike to follow the GPS. Anyway, after some running and querying, I finally reached a junction, where I found two familiar names – Ganderbal and Hazaratbal. I have to take the Ganderbal route.

Asked few more persons on route, and I was confirmed that this road goes to Sonamarg. It’s a narrow road, rather, doesn’t look like a National Highway. After proceeding about 14-15 kilometers, I felt like I have entered a tiny village. This looks odd! Again asked someone and came to know that I missed a cut 5 kilometers back – from there I had to take the right turn to Sonamarg.

The luggage rope has loosened again. Again reorganized it. It doesn’t frustrate me anymore. After tying up I returned back five kilometers and this time I found the diversion and the signage. Advanced a few kilometer and saw the first BRO hoarding of National Highway.

No more turning, no more diversion, this road goes straight to Kargil via Sonamarg. I knew this road. In fact what I realized then was, I should have followed any tourist vehicle at Srinagar. This time, almost all the tourist cars were heading to Sonamarg. That could have saved my time and effort.

Anyway, the altitude was slowly increasing, the hills are increasing in height, I remember the river flowing along the road – we stopped here last time, 3 years back, this time the river is frozen, it’s just enormous chunks of ice.

Reached Sonamarg at 12 noon. The same crowd, the same horse-owners who would insist you to take you to the Mandakini Glacier. It’s not worth visiting – muddy snow and irritating tourists, and much more irritating local vendors. I crossed that point. There was a restaurant at the right side where we had lunch last time, hot soup had brought back life in us. I could not locate the restaurant anymore. There have been lot of constructions at both side of the road, and lot of military personnel on army vehicles here and there.

Around one kilometer away from the main crowd there’s some food joint. Few motorcycles were standing, luggage bundled on their back. These are Leh travelers. I stopped there, and entered a food joint, ordered Masala Dhosa and Coffee. The other alternative was Aloo-Paraatha, but I normally avoid this extremely oily north Indian food on journey. Dhosa is a safe bait.

Whatsapped my wife and updated about my status. After this mobile network will vanish, I’d get back network only after entering Kargil. Asked them not to panic.

The sky was cloudy, it was drizzling slightly, but that was not preventing us from sitting outside. It was not too cold. Right in front of me two persons were eating Dhosa with a great concentration, one of them was definitely a Tamil, typical Tamil look; even the moustache was of Tamil cut, a yellow scarf wrapped around the head. The other one looked like a North Indian. Both were riders by appearance, with elbow guards, knee guards on their elbows and knees, he was also wearing a headscarf – multicolored.

I think I have got my travel partners. I advanced towards them, and asked politely – Going to Leh?

Both of them answered – Yes, yes. Then in Hindi – Aap bhi Dilli se aa rahe ho? (Are you also coming from Delhi?)

“Aap Bhi”? Means, they were also from Delhi? Yes, they confirmed. Then the Tamil asked me, Toh Boss, aaj ka kya Thikana rakkha hai – Kargil? (So Boss, what’s your destination for today – Kargil?)

Wow! Tamil speaks very fluent Hindi! No South Indian accent at all! Yes – I confirmed – Kargil is my destination. And so our discussion continued.

– You are only two?

– Yes, and you are alone?

– Yes, can we pair up and go together?

– Yes sure! We are done here, we’ll proceed now. You have your food and come along. If Jozila is closed, we’ll meet up there, otherwise we’ll meet at Kargil.

– Sure, your phone number … ?

The Tamil guy gave me his number, I asked his name, which name should I save it?

– Gurdeep Singh.

A Sardar? Not a Tamil? I was really surprised. I also gave him my number and told my name. Right then, I heard a voice – Ei je baba, tumi ki Ladakh jaccho? (Hello there, are you going to Ladakh?)

I turned around to find an aged Bengali gentleman, with his family, listening to our conversation. The moment he heard my name, he acknowledged me as a Bengali and wanted to know about my trip. “Are you coming from Kolkata?” “Oh, you have come from Delhi on motorcycle?” “Are you alone?” “Can you really cover such a distance?”

Till then Gurdeep and his friend were gone. I was still struggling with half Dhosa. I could not know his friend’s name.

So, now my brunch was over, I prepared myself and switched on my bike. Now comes the Jozila Pass. Drass is sixty kilometers from here, and most of the road is in bad condition.

After some time, the good road ended, bumpy ride started. Gaining altitude in each kilometer, overtaking one by one vehicle in the military convoy destined to Drass, sudden jumping of my bike on a gravel or a bolder – and then sensing the condition of my tied luggage by just touching it in running condition – overall this was the journey. After few turns snow became visible on the roadside, and then Jozila Pass appeared. The same tiled road, and the same snow walls on both side.

But Jozila is no more beautiful like I saw last time. The irritating seasonal tourists and vendors have reached here too – sledge, Maggie, Tea, Coffee, Photographer – it was a complete chaos. The milky white snow walls are now bearing black spots, here and there.

After some distance, the pass ended, and so ended the snow walls. It was now descend. Not much tough to pass, but there were few challenging stretches. Ice-cold waters flowing on the road, and loose gravels and pebbles below that. The water was somewhere very little, somewhere it was considerably deep. You have to cross the water stream on first gear, without pressing the clutch, maintaining the balance. I was not much prepared, so I had to sacrifice a bit by wetting my shoe and socks.

Jozila is not of much high altitude, just 11,000 feet above the sea level, but I don’t know how ice forms here. There are much higher passes later in this route, but no ice gets formed there.

After descending around 15 kilometers, I felt it was time to reorganize the luggage. I stopped in a secluded place. Untied the rope, now it was a real challenge in putting polythene sheet on top of the luggage and retying it, because there was heavy icy wind blowing on the valley, it was not possible to control the polythene sheet alone. Two cars passed by, the slowed down seeing my efforts, but did not interfere. Then came a rider on a Honda CBR. A Go-Pro mounted on his helmet.

He stopped and asked me, Need any help?

I smiled – No no, I was just arranging my luggage. No help required.

– Are you sure? Should I move on?

– Yes sure. You can move on.

Finally I was able to tie the luggage, and then resumed my journey. After few kilometers the hill ended, flat road began. At certain distance I spotted Gurdeep and his friend parked their bike at the side and doing photography. A hard of sheep were grazing around.

They waved by seeing me, I also stopped by them. Now I knew the name of the second person – Sumit Sharma. Sumit was on Avenger, Gurdeep was on Bullet. How can I keep pace with them with my 200CC bike?

We stopped for a while and did some photography.

And then we started off together. Few kilometers ahead we stopped at a check post called “Gumri”. All had to enter their names, bike registration numbers and driving license numbers in a register. And then again the bad road started. I had to reduce speed to take care of my luggage, Sumit and Gurdeep advanced on their Bullet and Avenger and in few moments they were out of sight. Almost twenty five kilometers long the road, the bad patch – when it ended, I found the familiar board “Welcome to Drass” right in front of me. Reminded me those memories I had three years back.

There’s a State Bank ATM. Few bikes were parked in front of that – are two of them of Sumit and Gurdeep? Not sure. I tried to sneak in the ATM, but could not identify anyone. Drass has only BSNL connection, my mobile would not work here. So I decided to go ahead; seven kilometers away there’s Kargil War Memorial, they should stop there, I can spot them there easily.

But they had not reached the memorial either. I found the same biker on the Honda CBR, who offered me help before Drass. We introduced each other. His name is Jeevan, a resident of Pune, works in Chennai. He was also traveling alone. I assured him that I would take care of his luggage, he can go inside the memorial. I had already seen it in 2012.

After some time Gurdeep and Sumit reached there. They had seen me from inside the ATM at Drass. They called me but I could not hear them. Anyway, asked them too to visit the memorial. I kept on waiting guarding their bikes and luggage.

Two couples came on Bullet. Around at their mid-forties, they had come from Mathura. The other couple had come from Chandigarh.

By that time Gurdeep, Sumit, Jeevan – all have come back, we were introduced to each other. Gurdeep smiled at me, Sir, until you mentioned your name, I was thinking you were a Himachali or Kashmiri. You don’t look like a Bengali. I also smiled, you also don’t look like a Sardar, Gurdeep. I took you as a Tamil.

So we came to know, I was eager to pair up with them, and they were also eager to pair up with me as I knew Ladakh very well, I told them. So, finally we paired up.

We started again from the Kargil Memorial at 6:30 pm in the afternoon. Kargil was now less than 60 kilometers away. We rode together. The road was awesome, like a runway.

At around 8:00 pm we reached Kargil. We had to make entry at a police post. The Mathura and Chandigarh couples checked in a hotel near the post, we went inside the market. From there we got a pointer, and finally set in a hotel at the Zanskar road. This road straight goes to the Zanskar valley. Suru River is quietly flowing along the road.

Finalized the room, and came out to untie the luggage from our bikes. I am no more alone today – Jeevan and I are sharing one room, Sumit and Gurdeep another. Rooms are pretty cheap, eight hundred bucks for one night – cozy bed, hot water at bathroom.

I had just untied my luggage, my phone rang. It was my wife. Kargil has Airtel network, so my phone was live again. She was extremely panicky, why didn’t I inform her after reaching Drass. … But there is no Airtel network in Drass, how would I have informed her! She was not in a mood to understand – and continued argument. Finally I realized that I had made a big blunder at Sonamarg; I Whatsapped her that I would call her at “Drass” – I was supposed to type “Kargil” but by mistake I typed “Drass” – hence the confusion and panic. She had been trying my number since past four hours (She still knew that I was traveling with Mandeep). Everyone at my home were worrying about my well-being.

Entirely my fault. I apologized to her, updated her that I met with some more bikers and I would share their numbers too once I settle in the room – in case my number is not reachable she could try other numbers.

I shared the number of Gurdeep, I had already lied to her by giving a wrong number of Mandeep, so this time I wanted to be honest.

Kargil has network, but it doesn’t work well. After we settled in the room and ordered dinner, the outgoing was stopped from my mobile, though it was showing full signal. Nor it was able to accept incoming calls, all I was getting was SMSes with missed call alert. Jeevan – my roommate for tonight has come with a prepaid number; and it stopped working the moment he entered J&K. He was looking nervous – nobody had informed him that J&K doesn’t allow roaming on prepaid numbers. Poor chap, he should have known this – this is the basic knowledge one must acquire before visiting Kashmir.

I finally was able to connect a call with my wife at 11:00 pm. Talked to her in detail (though never revealed that Mandeep was not going with me, I confessed this only after coming back home, 8 more days later). Also helped Jeevan to connect to his family.

Next day we would reach Leh – and then we would take rest for one day. But Jeevan has limited leaves, he would start the next day for crossing Khardung La. I warned him not to pursue such a hectic schedule – but he did not seem to be convinced.

However, had a grand dinner with Chicken Korma and Roti, and soon I fell asleep.

After riding one thousand kilometers I now realized that riding alone is not much enjoyable. Jeevan will part after one day – so I need to chalk out the plans with Gurdeep and Sumit tomorrow morning – if required, I’ll modify my plan accordingly.

Before ending the session – a small video clip for you, readers.


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