VASHISHT, INDIA – As a grand finale to our months exploring northern India and Nepal we headed to the far north of the sub-continent for the ultimate motorcycle adventure: a three week circuit to Leh, Ladakh - “Land of High Passes.” We were drawn to Ladakh based on everything we’d heard about the area: the high-altitude deserts, isolated roads, thrilling river crossings, mesmerizing glaciers, challenging road conditions, and snow dripped peaks. With just under three months of riding under our belts we decided to put our fears and doubts aside and do what many motorcyclists only dream of doing: riding on these grandiose and demanding Himalayan roads.
Before departing the capital city we prepared for a motorcycling adventure that would cover over 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles). With expectations of extreme weather and terrain we ensured that our bike was fully serviced and our supplies stocked: rain suits, winter coats, military boots, riding gloves and the like. Immediately our bike and new gear (as well as our patience and persistence) were tested; on our way from Delhi a massive rain storm hit northern India. Torrential downpours and flooded highways gave us pause, but we stubbornly proceeded to ride through it all. It wasn’t until a week later that we heard across state borders in Uttarakhand almost 6,000 people perished due to the unyielding rains and extensive flooding. It was a sad time for India indeed.
HIGH-STEPPING AND SIKHISM
With several thousand kilometers ahead of us we stopped for only a night in our first destination along the way to Leh – Amritsar, Punjab. Though we were short on time we attended the Wagah border ceremony which we had heard was a must-do activity. The border closing tradition, which began in 1959 and happens daily, features a show by Pakistani police rangers on one side of the border and Indian border security on the other. As the photos depict, the Indian side is surrounded by bandstands of boisterous, patriotic, dancing locals while the Pakistani troops have, well, what could be described as much more listless fans.
The two sides are comprised of the tallest, most handsome, and most mustachioed officers of each country’s troops, each dressed in extravagant uniforms and hats. Once the ceremony begins the soldiers from each side take turns high-stepping and shouting their way to the border displaying their strength, marching abilities and feigned anger. Knowing fairly little about the ceremony beforehand combined with the most interesting displays of “carefully choreographed contempt” between soldiers of the two at-times-feuding countries left us amused well after we rode away.
The most illustrious sight in Amritsar is the superb Golden Temple. On the scorching morning of our visit thousands upon thousands of local and pilgrimaging Sikhs patiently waited in line to visit the “Abode of God,” making it quite impossible for us mere travelers to have a peak within its walls. The temple is definitely a site to be seen, and in our opinion is more beautiful, meaningful and marvelous than even the Taj Mahal.
Though Sikhism is new to us it is quite easy to be interested in and fascinated by the religion, its history and people. The religion’s four main principles while incredibly simple are also overwhelmingly meaningful, even to an outsider. Some of the friendliest, most interesting and consistently helpful people we’ve met in India have been Sikhs. For example, when we’re parked on the side of the highway, either with mechanical problems or merely to rest for a moment, a Sikh inevitably is the one to stop and ask if we need help.
Before exiting Punab and entering Jammu and Kashmir we were fortunately able to make a stop in Pathenkot at the family home of Gaurav, a friend we met in Nairobi, Kenya. Since we’ve been traveling so extremely long at this point it is always such a delight to be in the home of friends and their families. Being with Gaurav’s mother and father was a perfect example of this; they not only made us feel right at home but truly treated us as if we were their own children. We adored them both!
EN ROUTE TO PARADISE
Finally in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, we passed through several hill stations and lake towns including Kud, Srinigar and Kargil. With Leh on our mind we rode as much as we could each day. The landscape changed dramatically as we continuously rode upwards. Flat farmland turned quickly into desert hills, cut by slanted rock abruptly jutting out at 45 degree angles. This gave way to pine-forested hills, then to ice-capped mountains carved by turquoise rivers and impressive glaciers before we finally entered the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh.
IN BUDDHA’S KINGDOM
Finally, after four days of riding from Pathankot we arrived in the mountain paradise of Leh, our base for the coming weeks of riding and exploration. Both the landscape and people of the area resemble more of central Asia than India in the capital of this ancient Buddhist kingdom. Touristic though charming, Leh is a town able to fill all needs as it is teeming with local markets, cafes, shops and restaurants as well as yoga retreats, Buddhist monasteries, adventure sports shops and trekking companies. The town even boasts the most endearing donkey sanctuary. On top of all that, motorcyclists, particularly Enfield riders, abound in Leh. It is impossible to walk around the town or even sleep without hearing the *thump* of their engines. Though it is a nice sound, it was also the first time we had ever felt that riding our Bullet was no longer something unique or special.
ENCHANTINGLY BLUE WATERS
After spending several days getting acquainted with Leh, we headed out on our first adventure to Pangong Tso, a crystal blue salt water lake that boasted some spectacular scenery. Located at an altitude of 4,350 meters (14,270 feet), the lake is incredibly high, however you must ride at even higher altitudes in order to arrive there. Riding to Pangong Tso and crossing Chang La, reputedly the third highest motorable pass in the world, proved to be our first ever truly difficult riding task in Ladakh. The road conditions worsened every step of the way from paved to gravel to water to mud to sand to boulders then back to gravel again. But the views! The scenery was stunning at every turn.
Pangong Tso is located half in India and half in China so there is no boating allowed. As a result the lake is incredibly serene. Stacking rocks, watching the sun and moon set and rise, walking through the boulders and spying local wildlife (wild horses, yaks, birds, lizards, marmots, foxes, and rabbits) is how we spent our two days overlooking the lake.
VALLEY OF THE DUNES
Our next adventure was a side-trip to Nubra Valley, located several hundred kilometers northeast of our base-camp in Leh. The very first challenge was reaching and then riding through Khardung La, reputedly the tallest motorable pass in the world. While this claim may or may not actually be accurate (as it has been disputed) we don’t know, however one thing is true: it was definitely the most highly trafficked and chaotic pass we have ever driven through. Congestion and road conditions aside, the views continued to draw awe from each of us.
THE REAL ADVENTURE
Every year bikers from across the globe come to Ladakh to ride on the 475-kilometer stretch of deserted “highway” connecting Leh and Manali. Open a mere four months of the year due to snow, ice, rain and land slides it can be an incredibly demanding road to navigate, especially in harsh weather. We decided to join in on the adventure, however we luckily timed our ride at the very beginning of the season allowing us not moments, but hours of serene isolation in some the most striking locations we’ve ever been to.
We chose to draw out our trip a bit longer than most riders and enjoyed four days of riding accompanied by leisurely afternoons of mountain and glacier viewing, wildlife spying and relaxing amidst serenity. The morphing landscape and melting glacial streams were fortunately accompanied by bright clear days. On top of all of that, our bike, Vajra, performed like a champ during each long day. Though it was indeed a challenging ride it was also pure perfection in our eyes!
On our final day or riding towards Manali we reached Rohtang Pass, an incredibly muddy, foggy, tourist-laden mess of a high-altitude crossing. Perhaps the most stressful several hours of our entire three week trip were had atop this glacier due to congestion, horrendous road conditions and extremely low visibility.
THE LAST GOODBYE
Upon reaching Manali we ventured up the hillside to the lovely hot springs retreat of Vashisht where the inevitable goodbye took place. As the southern launching-off point for the same Leh-Manali trip that we’d just completed, the area has many travelers interested in the purchase of their own bike. With Southeast Asia as our next destination, this worked out very well for us. Within hours of circulating “For Sale” flyers around the nearby towns we had already found a buyer to pass our dependable Vajra onto: a young Israeli traveler eager to ride north on his own adventure to Ladakh. It was a sad day, yet one that we’d anticipated since we purchased her almost four months prior.
We are now headed even further east, at this point beginning to be geographically closer to the United States – and our families – with every step of the way. Southeast Asia here we come!Posted: July 10th, 2013 | Filed under: India, Travel Updates | Tags: Amritsar, Buddhism, Chang La, desert, Gaurav, glacier, Golden Temple, high altitude, hot springs, Hunder, India, Jammu, Kardung La, Kargil, Kashmir, Kud, Ladakh, Leh, Manali, Mountains, Nubra Valley, Pakistan, Pangong Tso, Pathennkot, river crossing, Rohtang Pass, Royal Enfield, Sikh, Sikhism, Spangmik, Srinigar, Turtuk, Vashisht, Wagah border ceremony, Wildlife | 1 Comment »