5th June 2015 – Day Seven
The Journey that wasn’t planned
It’s now been one week – I was out of my home. Now it was not so easy to keep track of dates and days of week. After riding continuously for seven days, as if my mind had been changed. No more fatigue, no more looking back, no more body pain.
At exactly 6:30 am Vineet peeped into our tent – Sir, the sky is almost clear, we are getting a better view of the lake, let’s go for photography.
I took out my head out of the blanket and understood that the cold was still extreme. Forget about photography, let me sleep. Anyway I could not sleep properly because of the amplified sounds coming out from Sumit’s nostrils, throughout the night. I politely refused Vineet, and asked him to venture with his camera alone for some more time.
Vineet went out and again came in – “Sir, the Diamox you gave us last night, was it very high dose? My heart was running so fast all night, I could not sleep properly.” I smiled, men normally cannot sleep properly for few nights with their newly-wed wife, and they are not even wed, just lovebirds. Hearts have no problem. I just asked Vineet, “Did Preeti also experience the same problem, or was it only with you?”
Vineet answered innocently, “No Sir, hum dono ke dil bahot tez daor raha tha … both of our hearts were beating very fast.
I smiled again, so innocent guy, he was thinking Diamox was the reason for their high heartbeats. Vineet went out, perplexed, and I slept again.
Finally I woke up at 7:30 am. Some other person had entered our tent and was talking to Gurdeep. I saw this guy yesterday at the Leh Petrol Filling Station. He was also heading for Pangong with his group, he is from Noida – known to Gurdeep, and helped Vineet when his petrol can was punctured. They too had plan to go to Marisimik La today, but what was he saying? …
They went out in the early morning, but after Phobrang, at an army check post, an army General stopped them and rudely ordered them to go back. They argued, showed the permit they collected from Leh DC office, but the General was not impressed or convinced, he asked them to go back to Tang Tse and get another permit from another DC sitting there and then come back.
Well, that was not a solution, first, Tang Tse is 35 kilometers away; second, the Army establishment is huge there – getting there and finding out the desired DC was not an easy task for newbies. Even if finding the DC was possible, and getting the approval was possible too, travelling 70 kilometers extra means losing out 2 litres of petrol from each bike, and that would risk their completion of the trip – there’s no Petrol filing station in this region, the nearest is at Karu, 115 kilometers away.
So, the group came back to Pangong and this guy came to Gurdeep to give him the update.
We sat dumb. This was not in our imagination – what to do next?
First we decided, we too would proceed for Marisimik La. If the Army stops us, we would come back from there and go back to Leh. But then we dropped the idea, because, chances of getting stopped was high. We had already lost some petrol, if this small venture fails, we would lose out some more fuel. It would not be feasible. So, what’s the alternative?
We opened the map again. Going back the same way via Chang La to Leh was not exciting any more. What about, exploring some new route?
Few kilometres from Tang Tse was Durbuk, from there the left road goes to Leh via Chang La, but the right road goes to Nubra Valley via Shyok, Agam and Khalsar. The red line in the map says some 48 kilometres road is almost non-existent, that means off-roading for half-a-century kilometres. Gurdeep’s friend was still there, he told that he had already explored the route before, it’s doable with bikes. This route bypasses all the high mountain passes like Chang La or Khardung La. Diskit, a prominent town in the Nubra Valley is 160 kilometres away from Pangong, very much doable with the petrol available with us. The map says there’s petrol station available at Diskit, if needed, we can refuel there. We were not sure whether the Khardung La route as open or not, this route would surely take us to Nubra bypassing Khardung La. We can save one day by this, and then we can try to come back to Leh via Khardung La, or if Khardung La is still not open by then, we can take the same route back to Durbuk and reach Leh via Chang La.
– All agreed.
We went out of the tent. The sky was full of white clouds, no chance of immediate rain, but it was not clear too. Pangong was also colourless. We saw some marvellous sheds of blue across the lake last time, the entire charm is missing. Have we come in a wrong time?
Vineet, on the other hand, was having trouble with his Bullet. Fuel was leaking, some valve had gone out. Vineet was fully tensed. He came running towards me, asking, Sir, do you know any way to switch off the flow of fuel in Bullet?
I really didn’t know anything about bullet. For any conventional motor-cycle there’s a knob which can stop flow of fuel to the engine, but I could not find any such knob at the desired location in his bullet. Sumit tried to stop the flow by inserting his index finger inside the tube, the leakage stopped, he took out his finger, the leakage started again. We all got panicked now. If fuel leaks at this pace, we would have no other option but abandon the trip and return to Leh as soon as possible.
But suddenly, after some time, the flow stopped on its own. What happened? Vineet shaked the Bullet, made a small test ride, everything was perfectly fine.
We did some R&D, and thought about a possible reason. There was some more petrol in his leaked jerry can, Vineet poured it till the end of tanker capacity. Bullet tanker has a threshold capacity, though there is some space left, it cannot accept fuel beyond that certain capacity, the extra fuel drains out until the threshold capacity is achieved. That’s what had happened. Vineet opened the tanker lid, the oil was now slightly below the lid level, but it was more or less full. There was no valve damaged. All is Well.
It was 9 am. We had our breakfast – bread-omelet, Aloo-Paraatha, tea and coffee. Our tent was at the very beginning of the lake. It was just the beginning of the season, so there was no crowd, last time (2012) this location was like a fare-ground. The driver took us further, made some off-roading before reaching the famous “Three Idiots Point”. It’s now visible far away from our tent – approximately 6 kilometers away. Why don’t we go there, maybe we would get a better shed of the water!
We started, and after some flat road, the uphill started. I went for two more kilometers and then from the elevated location, I realized that I missed the detour point for off-roading to Pangong Three Idiots Point.
Came down again, and the wonderful off-roading started. It was all gravels and pebbles. Yesterday I had a good lesson while trying to ride through sand, but now I knew the trick of maintaining balance – don’t rest your feet on the foot-rests, instead hang your legs both side of the bike, slightly touching the ground, so that any moment, any fraction second, the bike loses balance, your feet will immediately gain ground control to resume the balance. Now I was experienced.
The more we advanced, the sizes of the pebbles decreased, and finally there came that point, where a part of the land becomes narrow, take a curved turn inside the lake, and that’s where we were last time. It’s all coarse grain sand there, the bikes were not able to move forward easily, but somehow we managed to reach to the end tip of the land. It took us some effort to park the bike on main stand – because, there was no hard ground, all loose sand.
And the photography started.
Snow peaks all around.
In the meantime, some Gujarati and Delhi tourists had reached there, with their giant and not-so-giant families. Gurdeep was being bugged mostly, with the typical cliché requests – Aap ke Bullet ke saath ek photo …
I was quietly moving aside, suddenly a Delhiite caught me, and shoot a series of familiar questions to me – Aap Dilli se aa rahe ho? Kaise aaye? Kitne dino me aaye? Kaise jaaoge? Thakaan nahi aata? Dikkat nahi hoti? (Are you coming from Delhi? How did you come? How many days did you take? How would you return back? Don’t you get tired? Don’t you face any problem?), and immediately after them – “aap ke bike ke saath ek photo …”
I put my bike again on the centre-stand, he rode on the seat, posed at the camera, but it did not end there – there was already a queue behind, his wife, his elder daughter, his sis-in-law, her son, her cousin, his niece – it was quite a big group. Everybody took their opportunity to pose in front of the camera either by holding my bike’s handle, or by riding on my stationary bike. After a good 20 minute’s photo-session, I was excused and allowed to go ahead.
And then, back to the main road; first sand, then pebbles and then gravels led us to the tarred road along the lake.
Finally when we left Pangong, it was already 11:45 am. We needed to cover 160 kilometers today, a long part of that was off-roading; would it be possible? Let’s fly.
It was 5th June, the World Environment Day. At the entry point, there was a crowd of school-children, the Army personnel were delivering some speech to them.
We crossed them quietly.
Reached Tang Tse in exactly one hour. Durbuk was nine kilometres ahead, as per the map, from there the other road starts.
But we reached Durbuk after riding 6 kilometres. The left road goes back to Chang La pass, the right goes to Nubra via Shyok, Agam and Khalsar. A military Jeep was parked at the side, an Army man was standing beside it – I read the name from his badge – Shovan Basak. Bengali?
We introduced each other. Asked him about the road ahead. Shovan said, road is awesome till Shyok, after that there are long bad stretches, but OK for bikes.
So we took the Shyok route.
There was one thought that was biting me. Since yesterday I, rather none of us, had any contact with our families. As per earlier plan, we were supposed to reach back to Leh today, and I was supposed to call my wife and father tonight. But if we go to Nubra, then it would not be possible. Because Nubra has only BSNL connection, and that is also not very much reliable. Our mobiles would not work there. Anyway, we need to find out a phone booth there, I know Diskit has phone booths. There’s no point in keeping our family members in anxiety.
Anyway, we went along the Shyok River, a bluish tiny river that would accompany us till Nubra, and then it goes to Pakistan via Turtuk. Road was again awesome, like runway. We reached Shyok village in no time.
A small village with hardly ten to twelve small houses and huts. A biker group reached from the opposite side, that is, they came from Nubra. We exchanged greetings, and asked about the road condition. The first biker of the group laughed and said, “Awesome”. After a pause, he added, “If you have any unfulfilled dream of off-roading, just go ahead. After some kilometers this road will vanish, only pebbles and gravels along the river. There is no road at all, you have to just guess the road by identifying the tire marks on them. Don’t try to ignore the tire traces, there’s a good probability of getting lost here and if you get lost, you’ll not be found easily.”
Ahem! A good advice! We told each other of our team not to leave anyone behind, always ride together.
The biker group advanced towards Pangong, and we started towards Nubra. But where is the bad road? It’s as beautiful as it was behind, with proper signage, it reads “Agam 39 kilometres”.
But soon we realised after riding three more kilometres. The road suddenly disappeared, a pebbled road, but easily recognisable as a “Road”. Is this the off-roading? We have crossed worse stretches before and after the Chang La.
After few more kilometres of this so-called “off-roading”, the tarred road was back again. Again signage, Agam 34 kilometres. And after sometime, the road vanished again, and re-appeared after 6-7 kilometres, though the tar was not so good here.
We crossed a small stretch surrounded by some wild flower bushes. Pink coloured flowers everywhere made the scene beautiful. We were riding through a flat road, and huge mountains surrounded us at both sides, no other life is seen anywhere except we five human beings. The greenish blue Shyok River was always with us.
Suddenly, we made a dead stop at a point. The road disappears, bigger boulders scattered everywhere, and apparently there’s a Y section. The left part goes bit high, the right part goes and ends in a water body. Which way to take?
We pushed back – and looked again. Now with a better view, we realised, the left way does not go anywhere, it just goes up and after few meters it ends. The right lane, which goes to a water body has some tire marks in it. The water body is not very long, not too deep. Bikes can easily cross it, and beyond that there are tire marks seen from here.
Then we realized, what is called “off-roading”, the more we go, the sizes of the gravels become bigger and bigger, but still some of them are recognized to be crushed beneath the wheels, which give us clue about vehicles moving through those gravels. We put our bikes in second gear and advanced slowly.
I don’t remember how far did we go, suddenly we had to stop again, the ground ahead waves up around three feet high. It’s curved in such a way, it’s no way possible to take a bike across that stretch, forget about a luggage-loaded bike. There’s no way to bypass it. What to do?
Sumit said, no issue. We’ll cross one-by-one. The biker will ride on first gear, and rest will push him from the back.
First Vineet took the chance. He put it in first gear, Sumit and Gurdeep pushed him from back. Vineet managed to reach the elevated ground in one minute.
Next was Sumit and we helped. And then I started.
My bike was the weakest of them all – just 200 CC. In two efforts I also could cross the section and reached the elevated ground.
Finally Gurdeep came over. For the first time I realized, what a big blunder I was doing by taking the decision of going out alone. My luck, I got such good souls as my travel partners.
Ok, we crossed the hurdles, next what? Far away a tarred road or something like that was visible. We have to reach there.
And this was the road, sorry, off-road ahead us.
The sky was again getting dark. Chunks of clouds were coming down at the top of the mountains. And we were cruising through the same off-road. It sometimes goes through a flat land, sometimes goes up and sometimes goes down. Enormous chunks of rocks hanging above our head, and we were riding beneath that, this was an unforgettable trip.
Not sure after how many kilometres, Vineet waved in front of me, asking me to stop. We stopped and looked back. Sumit and Gurdeep were nowhere visible. I did not have a view finder, I had surrendered it at the feet of Vaishnodevi; so it was not an easy task for me to keep a track of them. Did not realize when they vanished.
We stopped at a turning, below a big rock. Probably they have stopped somewhere to take photographs, will come soon. I could see a longer distance from this position.
The wind was getting harsher. It was pushing us like hell, chilly wind. Because we were fully covered, we could not feel the impact of the coldness. But even the bikes were trembling due to the thrust. The cloud had come down so much – it seems we can touch them if we raise our hands. Why Gurdeep and Sumit are not coming?
After around 20 minutes, we saw two familiar dots at the horizon. They reached after five more minutes. Sumit was trying to do off-roading on a sandy area, and his bike lost balance, hence the delay.
We were about to start, suddenly I discovered my gloves were missing. Shit! I took out the gloves and put them loosely under the rope, probably the wind has blown them away. I felt panicked. It was the -20 gloves, so comfortable, it’s about to rain now, how would I survive now without those gloves?
Sumit discovered my gloves, hanging somewhere in a rock below. Those were hanging in such a position that those were clearly visible, yet no way to go down and pick them up.
The wind was becoming more violent, the cloud had almost enveloped us. Sumit told me, “Don’t worry Sir. I have an extra pair with me – take them”.
I was feeling helpless, how could I be so careless?
Then Gurdeep came, “Sir, no worries. I am fetching back your gloves”.
I heard it like some divine voices echoing from the heaven. But how would he fetch them? We all tried to resist him, but he just told, “Aap Fikar mat karo, main le aata hu” (Don’t worry, I’m fetching them up). And he took off his backpack, gave it to me, and put his left foot on the rock below.
My heart was almost chocked. Without any support, how was he going down? How would he climb up?
But Gurdeep seemed to be trained. Don’t know how, he went down, collected one gloves after another, and climbed up just by holding the rocks and handed me over the gloves.
First Sumit, then I hugged him tightly. I was so mesmerized by his performance, I could not even take a single picture of him rescuing my gloves. Gurdeep smiled, as-if nothing had happened – No big deal, I took mountaineering training for few days. This exercise was no big thing for me.
I was speechless, just held his hands. Totally unknown to each other, can anyone take such a risk for somebody else? We just met for few days, we’ll go back and no one knows whether we’d meet again or not after this trip – could I take this risk for him?
No, I could not take. I do not have that guts. Silently I put on the gloves, and started my bike.
The road was still bumpy, the sunlight was decreasing. It was 4:45 pm. The wind was wet, means, somewhere it rained.
We were riding and riding, we lost track of time or distance, suddenly the awesome tarred road was back. Two huts and a milestone – Khalsar 20 kilometres. … that means, we had crossed Agam some eleven kilometres back? We didn’t even realize it.
Now the road was good Till Khalsar, but can we make it before rain starts? I know the route from Khalsar – Khalsar is the village where road from Khardung La also meets.
But no, the cloud was faster than us and it caught us – like this –
Hurriedly we stopped, and by the time we could put on our rain gears, we were almost drenched. The altitude is not much here – around 10,000 feet, so no chance of snow-fall here.
Khalsar was still thirteen kilometres away.
We reached Khalsar at 6:15 pm. First we saw a small restaurant, and went inside. We hadn’t eaten anything the whole day. Chapati, Paneer Curry, Dal and rice – that made our late lunch. Asked the young guy managing the restaurant about an availability of phone booth. He asked me, where do you want to call? “Delhi”, I said. He gave me his mobile. BSNL, full signal.
I connected to my wife in first attempt. Briefed her about our change in plan. Called the hotel in Leh also, we left half of our luggage there. Mrs Linda was fine with that. I told her we would reach Leh buy tomorrow or day after, because of sudden rain and snowfall, Khardung La was closed again.
Gurdeep, Sumit, Vineet and Preeti – they also called their homes.
The guy did not take a single rupee for the phone calls, we just paid for the foods. By that time the rain subsided. Diskit was 22 kilometres away from there, Hundar is 7 kilometres from Diskit. Last time I stayed in Diskit, but Sumit and others preferred Hundar this time. No issues, we moved forward.
Crossed Diskit at 7:30 pm, it was almost dark by then, but I could recognise the familiar market, the monastery, and a skeleton of a Petrol Pump. There are some rusted machines, but no person.
Then we crossed the Sand Dunes, and when we entered Hundar, it was 8 pm. Peach darkness, only source of lights were from our motorcycles. First we identified a tent, but the price was abnormally high, four thousand rupees for one tent – they agreed to give it on discount, three thousand and five hundred.
Leave it. There’s no shortage of accommodation in Hundar. We marched forward. After some time, we spotted a Maruti car, asked them about budget accommodation, one person got down from the car. He guided me with his torchlight to a local guesthouse. It was a decent guesthouse, nowhere around, a two storied building. The rooms were excellent, one thousand Rupees per room, including the dinner. What else was needed?
I came back and guided others, took two rooms, one for Gurdeep, Sumit and me; another for the lovebirds. The attendant was too good, only his Hindi reminded me something. I asked him, are you from Nepal?
The attendant smiled, “Yes Shaab. Main Nepal shey hu”.
I guess your name is also something Bahadur?
“Ji Shaab. Meet Bahadur.”
And then? Then we got fresh, got down to the Ladakhi kitchen and had a grand dinner with Chapati, potato curry, rice and omlette, in Ladakhi style.
I slept so much that night, I don’t remember if Sumit’s nose made any noise at all.