Ladakh – Part Eleven

… After Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7Part 8,  Part 9 and Part 10

8th June 2015 – Day Ten

Back from the heaven

We decided initially, not to stop unnecessarily anywhere while returning, because we were returning via the same route. We would continue until body pain stops us. We thought of starting early from Leh and ride continuously to make it possible to reach Srinagar or at least Sonamarg by the evening. But Sumit’s bike’s shock-absorber spoiled the plan. He needed to repair it first, so there was no possibility to start from Leh before 10 am or 11 am. If we start by that time, by evening we could reach Drass, and after dark it would not be wise to venture out for Jozila pass – neither Drass offers any decent option for accommodation, so we decided to ride up to Kargil for the first day. Next day we would try to cover till Jammu, if time permits us.

The shops open by 9:30 am. So we woke up lazily, had our breakfast and checked out of the Paul Guest House finally. We started from the GH at 9 O’clock – leaving plenty of memories behind. The airport road takes a slight diversion to the left after crossing the Indian Oil fuel station, we stopped there at a bike mechanic’s shop. Sumit had already purchased the shocker … err, the shock absorber, I bought a bottle of Engine Oil. We all did minor servicing like brake test, tightening of the chain.

We finally started at 11:30 am with a heavy heart. The Manali route could not be done this year. Sumit and Gurdeep were also feeling bit down because of this. We took an oath to come back again, together, from the Manali side.

After leaving Leh, before we reached Nimu the sky became dark and rain started again. We had to stop our bikes to put on the rain gears.

Though the rain stopped before we reached Nimu. The cloud floats at very low height here, so it’s very easy to overtake them in a speeding bike. When we entered Nimu, it was blue sky again. Smooth road like runway was laid in front of us – so we started flying. But it was not so easy to ride on high speed in zig-zag roads, especially when luggage is tied at the back seat. The centripetal force pulls the rear side of the bike in the opposite direction.

Anyway, we slowly crossed Lamayuru, Alchi, Fotula – we stopped at a small village called Budakharbu to have some tea and Maggie.  The white clouds in the blue sky gave us company.

Again we started. Somewhere between Fotula and Mulbekh we stopped to take some rest. Kargil was not far away – another 40 kilometers. A small hillock in front of us, a hard of sheep were grazing on top of that, the entire scenery was so calm, serene … we were really not in a mood to return back.

And then we crossed Mulbekh. There was a bad patch of road for around 10 kilometers, we slowed down; the Sun was setting then. I looked at the sky, a beautiful rainbow was shining there. My camera was packed in the luggage, so it was not possible to take photo – I kept on riding keeping an eye on the rainbow. And finally we reached Kargil at the onset of dusk.

We checked into another hotel, got the room right in front of the parking – and at the end of the parking area, the Suru River was flowing down to Drass, dancing and roaring. I took a short video of her.

We were just getting refreshed, suddenly my phone rang. It was Mr. Assad, whom we met at the Khardung village. He and his brother-in-law were driving towards Delhi non-stop and reached Delhi an hour back – in two days. He asked about our progress and wished us a happy journey ahead. It was really a pleasant experience; Ladakh makes unknowns known in no time.

We relaxed during the evening by chatting and watching TV. The dinner was very good. We slept off quickly. Next day will be hectic, we would start at 5 in the morning so that we could reach Drass by 7:30 am and start for Jozila pass. Target would be to cross Srinagar by 12 noon.

9th June 2015 – Day Eleven

The distance from heaven was gradually increasing. The weather in Kargil was too comfortable – had a good sleep under a blanket. We all got up at 5:30 am. The hotel dues were paid last night, so it was just getting fresh, putting on the riding gears and starting off. We got the parking side room, so didn’t bother to untie the luggage from our bikes.

We started bit late –at 6:30 am. No stopping before Drass. The morning Sun spread its golden rays on the runway; and the dancing Suru River accompanied us all along. It was such a beautiful scenery – why didn’t I notice it before? I crossed this road twice before, once in 2012, and then 8 days back. Last time we crossed this stretch in dark, there was no chance to see this beauty then. It was a mesmerising beauty, my mind was insisting me to stop for a while, take out my camera and click few snaps, record a short video. But the logical I suppressed the idea. We need to save time, need to ride as far as possible today. If we can make it to Jammu tonight, then we can reach Delhi in three days.

Covering a distance of thirteen hundred and fifty kilometers in three days require a great stamina, and we have not even got three days – we are planning it in two and half days. Probably Vineet and Preeti would have been able to meet it.

It was descend towards Drass – the more we were moving forward, the altitude was decreasing, but surprisingly the temperature was also dropping. Around 10 kilometers before Drass I noticed a frozen waterfall on my left. All the mountains surrounding me were having prominent patches of snow, and I could feel the cold wind on my skin under four layers of protection. … It’s really a strange phenomenon of Drass, in such a low altitude comparing to Leh, Drass is recorded as the second coldest inhabited place in the world, after Siberia. Winter temperature goes till minus 60 degree Celsius here.

We reached Drass at exactly 7:20 am. Made a short breakfast with tea and pakoda.  And then we started again.

Immediately after the Drass signboard the good road vanished and bumpy road began. Few kilometers away there was a narrow bridge on a tiny river, and all the traffic at our side was stuck there. Military convoy was coming up from Srinagar one after another. As far as I could look, it was an endless caravan of Army trucks.

After some time, one truck stopped at the other end of the bridge and the driver waved at us, asking to go ahead. We crossed the bridge then.

And then the road condition deteriorated. It was tough to go beyond 30 kmph. Was it so bad when we came in? I didn’t remember.

We went for around thirty kilometers like this, and then suddenly the road condition improved drastically. So we increased the speed. In no time we reached Gumri check post. The traffic was stopped at our end because there was traffic coming from Sonamarg via Jozila. The moment we reached the traffic was opened at our end and we didn’t have to stop.

This was the third time I was crossing Jozila. Eventually the road became worse near the pass, for obvious reason; and then the Jozila became visible in a distance.

We just made a five minute’s break, but that was enough for the tea-vendors, Maggie-vendors and sledge-vendors to surround us. Somehow we managed to get rid of them and started our journey, but after a couple of kilometers we encountered a long, long jam. Tens of trucks, cars, tourist cabs were stranded one behind another.

What happened? A truck had been trapped in a blind turn somewhere ahead. So the entire traffic is chocked. Until the Army or BRO comes in to rescue the truck and clear off the road, not a single vehicle could move.

It was 10 am then. Because we were on two wheeler, we had enough space to overtake the cars and trucks one by one and move ahead slowly. One … Two … Five … Ten … Twenty … Forty … Sixty – I finally lost count how many stranded vehicles did I overtake. It was an endless jam, kilometers after kilometers. All were waiting patiently.

Finally I got stuck behind a truck. The road was too narrow there, one side was the rocky wall of mountain; another side was the deep crater. Neither side had enough space to get my motorcycle through.

I stopped and analysed both the sides, and realized the crater side had little more space. If I proceed, I would have to measure each inch minutely, otherwise there was enough chance to end my journey in the crater. I took the risk, released the clutch slightly and slowly moved my bike inch by inch, and in two minutes I was in front of the truck.

Next turn was Gurdeep’s. His bullet, along with the Ladakh carrier was wider than my Pulsar. It could not make way. I parked my bike ahead and turned back to his position to re-analyse the position. This time I became nervous by seeing the gap I just had crossed. I could not believe my eyes that I had just crossed this narrowest stretch. It was indeed impossible – forget about the Bullet, even for the Pulsar it was almost impossible – how did I make it? I gulped some air.

There was enough space ahead for me to move on, but I could not leave Gurdeep behind. I requested the truck driver to move rightwards a foot so that his Bullet could make space, but the truck driver was in no mood to entertain us. Facing his ignorance, we decided to try the wall side space. There were some big rocks lying on the ground. We lend our hands to remove them one by one. Now his bike got enough space to move forward.

Sumit had already passed this stretch – we met him again at the mouth of the jam, where an Indian Oil tanker from the opposite side was stuck in between two ice walls. One of its wheels was trapped in a pit. It could neither move forward nor backward. A crane and BRO guys had come from Sonamarg, they were trying to pull it back from the pit.

15 minutes after we reached there, the tanker was rescued. BRO and Army persons made way for the traffic from our side, and we started off again. After riding for 25 kilometers on non-existent roads, we finally saw the first view of Kashmir valley.

Ultimately we reached Sonamarg at 12:30 pm. We had lunch at the same restaurant where I met Sumit and Gurdeep for the first time. Mobile signal was back, so I made a quick call to my wife. Now we would go non-stop. Jammu was almost 400 kilometers from here, there’s no question of stopping anywhere until we are dog tired.

We started our journey at 1:15. Now the beautiful road goes along the Mandakini River. Finally when we entered Srinagar city, we were feeling restless due to the excessive heat. We all had four to five layers of cloths, and Srinagar’s temperature was near 40 degree Celsius. We wanted to stop somewhere, but the long highway did not have a single shed anywhere in sight. So we had to bear the heat and move ahead. Finally we stopped at Pampore at a small shack. Removed all jackets, sweaters and ordered for cold drinks. We were thirsty and hungry. I could recognize the place – here I stopped under a tree due to excessive rain, while coming. The difference was, that day I was shivering in cold, and today I was burning in heat.

I did not remove the thermal inner, because after the Srinagar valley the mountain will start again and it would not be so hot there anymore.

We crossed Pampore, Lethipora, Avantipora, Qazigund – the place with countless shops of cricket bats. Now I was not feeling much difference in riding, I was not riding actually, it was my limbs which were maintaining the speed, the balance and the gear shift. We were running in Cruise-Control mode. We have crossed 250 kilometers since today morning, Jammu was still 250 kilometers away. We took the Jammu highway; a quiet, smooth highway with one or two localities here and there. Nowhere to stop, just running in Cruise-Control.

We crossed the Jawahar tunnel at 5:15 pm. Sumit was skidding inside the tunnel but he finally could maintain his balance. There was slush in the midriff of the tunnel, it is always advisable to follow the tire marks of the front vehicle to avoid skidding.

We took a short break after coming out of the tunnel – at Banihal. We were hungry again. Had some snacks with bread omlette and Aloo-Parathaa. It was a nice weather this side of the tunnel. The other side was hot, dry while at this side it was drizzling with moderate temperature. No more snow-laden peaks were visible anymore.

We discussed about the destination. It seemed reaching Jammu would be impossible today. Jammu was still 200 kilometers, and the time was 6:15 pm. The entire route is hilly where a bike cannot go beyond 30-40 kmph, depending upon the road condition and traffic. Keeping that in mind, it would take five to six hours for us to reach Jammu, even if we go non-stop. Gurdeep and I suggested to keep target till Udhampur, 70 kilometers before Jammu. Sumit suggested not to keep any target. Let’s go, wherever we would reach by 9:00 or 9:30 pm, we would look for a shelter there.

Slowly it became dark. I came alone in this road, it was a new experience for me and I came in daylight, so I did not notice the road condition much. There was not even much traffic that day; but today – it was hell. First the darkness, then the continuous drizzling, and caravans of trucks coming from opposite direction with their headlamps on in full beam. I started missing the potholes in the road and bumped into them, one after another. We negotiate a caravan, go a couple of kilometers and encounter another caravan of ten to twelve trucks – it takes a good control on nerves to repeat this exercise again and again … and again.

That evening, I will remember forever. All possible types of obstacles we faced, it was a unique experience. The road was also not continuously bad. It was a mix of extremely good, good and rough stretches.

While stationary, you get chance to talk to your fellow riders, but while riding it is horribly boring. The darkness, broken road, countless negotiations with trucks – the brain behaves differently in this situation. I started singing a song myself, after sometime I found myself reciting a childhood rhyme – Amader chhoto nodi chole aanke-baanke. I murmured as long as I could remember and then I discovered myself singing another song – Jab koi baat bigad jaaye – and then again I was reciting something else – Aami jakhon chhoto chhilam, khelte jetam megher dole.

Was I getting insane? Is this madness? Not sure. What I didn’t experience in entire Ladakh region, the body pain – it was coming back. The back was aching, there was numbness in my fingers – I was just riding like a machine, sometimes singing, sometimes reciting. And finally I was not murmuring anything.

We crossed Ramban at 8:20 pm. Stopped at a tea stall. Sumit is teetotaller, and I normally don’t drink tea. I took a bottle of Limca.

There was a J&K Police Patrol van standing in front of the shop. A turbaned Sardar police office and few constables were having tea there. The Sardar came forward to us – are you going to Leh?

We told him that we were coming back from Leh. The officer looked astonished – you are coming from Leh?? When did you start?

I assured him again – this morning we actually started from Kargil. We started from Leh yesterday. But the Sardar was still impressed at our achievements – coming from Kargil? Oh My God! You have been riding all along? Oh My God! How did you manage it? Oh My God!

We realised, we have covered 350 kilometers from Kargil today so far. It was a good distance in hill. Plus the traffic and road condition was also too challenging. Had we not met the traffic jam at Jozila we would have reached Patnitop by now. Patnitop was still 45 kilometers ahead of us.

We finished tea and Limca, bid goodbye to the Sardar and started again. My hands were not listening to me, the veins were pulling back my fingers. Probably we would not be able to make Udhampur tonight. What about Patnitop?

That would be good. Patnitop is the highest point between Jammu and Srinagar, it maintains a cool weather throughout the year.

We rode again. There was pitch darkness in front of us, only few headlights of oncoming vehicles were making us aware of the road conditions ahead. After some time I again discovered myself, rhyming – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Head was becoming too heavy. Sumit was in front of me, but I could not spot Gurdeep behind. I signalled Sumit to stop and waited, Gurdeep came after few minutes. He was also too tired. We started again and after sometime we again lost Gurdeep. There were caravan of trucks coming and going on both ways, it was impossible to keep track on a biker continuously – and my right view finder was broken since the beginning of the journey.

Sumit and I stopped some ten kilometers before Patnitop. After some time, Gurdeep reached there. We decided to stay at Patnitop. This time we kept Gurdeep in front of us – so that he does not fall behind.

We reached Patnitop at 9:30 pm. A small area containing most of the hotels, and the agents were shouting with their offers even at that time. We chose a cheap hotel with three beds. This room also was right in front of the parking – so we did not have to untie the luggage from our bikes. Got fresh and ordered for dinner. We had to stop one hundred kilometers before Jammu, which means Delhi is still seven hundred odd kilometers away. And our today’s travel was of four hundred kilometers. Sumit would have to reach Delhi at any cost by next day, because on 11th he would have to join office, he has meeting with clients.

I was sure I would not be able to make 700 kilometers in a single day; because I knew how the weather will change moment we cross Jammu. It would be unbearable scorching heat throughout the journey. So I told them not to wait for me if I fall behind – wherever I would feel that I need to stop for the day, I would find a hotel myself.

Gurdeep spoke up now – Sir, you need not worry. My hometown is Ambala, which is five hundred kilometers from here, two hundred kilometers before Delhi. Keep Ambala as target for tomorrow; you are my guest at our village. I will show you the true spirit of Punjabi hospitality, with a real Punjabi dish of Aloo-Parathaa. And next morning you’ll drink Lassi and tea and leave for Delhi. I would stay back and will reach Delhi on Sunday afternoon.

He was truly an angel – by heart. I had to oblige. So the plan was finalized like this – Ambala at any cost, if I can still continue, I would move ahead with Sumit, else I would stay back at Gurdeep’s home at Ambala.

Before going to sleep, I called my wife. She told me to call my father immediately. … What happened?

– There has been an avalanche at Khardung La top. Two tourists have died on spot, the news channels are saying both of them are Bengalis. I assured him that you left Leh two days back and that you called me today afternoon from Sonamarg. But still, call him and talk to him, he is worrying a lot.

So I called up father, talked to him and assured him about my safety.

The room was not-so-clean, the bathroom was indeed too dirty. But anyway, we were also too tired, so we just finished off dinner and were fast asleep.

Can I touch Delhi tomorrow? Will it be possible?

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