The climb to LEH Ladakh was happening through Manali, so I started early from Chandigarh and took a different route towards Manali than what I had taken the previous year. This route went directly through Shimla and then connected to the Manali highway. I did my best to maintain speed, the road was a mixed bag of sorts and traffic too was moderate. I halted for a while in Shimla, had a short video call with people at home followed by lunch before continuing the ride. The roads got better and the curves got intense. After a while though, I entered a state of ‘curve trance‘ where my subconscious mind took over completely that it pushed the level, a bar above. I noticed the Duke 390 power sliding while leaning out of the curves! So if I was leaning into a left- hander, then I had my handlebar twisted towards the right hand side while the tail stepped out a tad and produced a rough sensation from the tyres, indicating that they were sliding a bit. Damn, it had me and all that luggage over it and I still don’t know how it did that, it just did it! I did that very often till I joined the main highway and realised I was wearing out the edges of the rear tyre too soon and Ladakh region was pretty far away! It was an addictive feeling you know and it mostly happened in second and third gear, just above the power band. I then rode normally till Mandi and realised that my KTM must be checked-up once before ascending to Ladakh. There’s a KTM workstation in Mandi so I found a hotel around and shared the coordinates with my friend. I’d heard from many friends who had ridden the Ladakh stretch say, that it’s always best to ride with company through Ladakh for the first time because the terrain, weather and altitude could be unforgiving in case a health, mechanical or geographical issue popped up. If something did happen, someone companion would always be around for help. Hence, I had teamed up with another guy called Satish who rode the same motorcycle too! I had ridden once with him in Bangalore so I was pretty aware of his style of riding. I prefer to either ride with like minded people, else prefer going solo. This guy was alright, except that he was quite unprepared. He arrived at the hotel while I washed my clothes and put them to dry before we had dinner outside.
We got our 390s checked the next day morning. I realized a dent on the rear wheel on my 390, yet it wasn’t losing air. Everything seemed fine with both our steeds so we rode till the outskirts of Manali and checked into a tent accommodation by the river Beas, managed by Trans Himalayas. The natural ambiance and setup were outstanding, so we immediately switched to a comfortable attire and had chai with snacks by the river (ensured we didn’t litter). By the time the sun had set, we saw a lot of insects around, thanks to the greenery. My friend Satish has a phobia for insects and slimy little creatures which got worse as time passed. A baby Python in the bathroom didn’t do any good in making him feel better but I thought it was cute. It went away as soon as we flashed our torches at it. I did my best to scare Satish and then we spoke to an old man at the campsite who had driven all the way from Mumbai in his Hyundai. His stories were a bit hard to believe so we just heard him and called it a night, the weather remained pretty cool. We went towards old Manali the next day since Satish was scared of insects but I think it was only our tent that had them since it was closest to the hillside greenery. Whatever happened, it didn’t bother me at all and I’d suggest that if you visited Manali, a cool and serene experience at the Trans Himalayas is a must! We got out motorcycle’s emission tests done on the way (mandatory to obtain Rohtang pass permit) and checked into a hotel on the manali- LEH highway. We then headed to the DC’s office on Satish’s motorcycle to obtain a permit to cross Rohtang pass. All in all, we had spent 500 bucks each to obtain the permit while we saw many taxis and buses scamper up the hills as they bellowed black smoke from their rusty old exhausts. The permit was a pointless formality but hey, the Government made money out of it!
We roamed around the market for a while and went back to the hotel. Fortunately, daylight turns into darkness only by 7.30 PM so we had plenty of time to waste. At the hotel, we chilled on the Garden and had snacks. I took a few strolls outside and then spoke to the owner of the hotel who was ready to go for a trance party with ‘the girls’! Two days spent at was Manali to get used to the altitude ahead, I was told by the experts (an army major and a raid de himalayas participant) to acclimatize for at least 1.5 days every time I ascended altitude by 3000 to 5000 feet, starting from Manali. I was totally for that idea, after all the beauty of a place can be truly witnessed if you get to experience the mornings, afternoons, evenings and the nights of it. If you aren’t slow in Ladakh, then it is an utter waste of your time! This night though, we saw a baby rat roaming around the hotel lobby and rooms which scared Satish again.
The next day morning, we started at 9.30, thanks to my friend for wasting time with his new 1.5 meters long waterproof cover. He also had to withdraw cash on the way, but there are very few ATM’s one could find on the way and you’ll be lucky if you find them to be working. We reached Rohtang in two hours and could immediately feel the drop in temperature and oxygen level as we were at 12,500 feet (approx). I saw tourist vehicles every now and then but most vehicles returned back towards Manali from Rohtang pass. We then had to wait for the Indian Army trucks to pass over from the opposite direction before continuing. The descent after Rohtang brought one down to about 9,500 feet but the road was in a bad shape. I was awestruck and mesmerized by the mountains, they were huge, happy and beautiful. They seemed happier when the clouds gathered though. I don’t know how and why but I have a tendency of relating feelings to things because the feeling is too strong sometimes. A mountain isn’t a thing to me, I think it does live and breathe.
Image captured on Xiaomi Yi action cam:
We continued witnessing taxis overtaking us but they were reducing, the frequency was one taxi every 90 seconds. So the road to Ladakh is NOT a road less traveled anymore. If you’ve ridden on these roads and feel you’re invincible and that you have ‘conquered’ Ladakh, well then you could be the most foolish person on this planet. I got absorbed by the views so my friend Satish went ahead with on his Duke and stopped at a dhabha in Khoksar while I kept sipping water on the way, capturing photos every two minutes and then pissing every ten minutes because my water intake was a little above normal. If you’re exposing yourself to high altitude, you better be drinking plenty of water as that could save you from being affected severely by AMS (acute mountain sickness). One must get used to the frequent piss calls though! Speaking of AMS, I took some basic precautions one could take to avoid it. Firstly, I decided to ride an average of 90 kilometers a day and then stay for two nights in that same place, allowing the body to complete a sleep cycle and helping it adjust to the oxygen levels of high altitude places. Secondly, I sipped water often from my hydration bag every time my lips went dry (that happened every ten minutes) so my body got oxygen in the form of water too. I also know of an acupuncture specialist who suggested pressing ‘lung’ points on my palm that supposedly eased lung capacity. I kept doing that too and guess what, I wasn’t affected by AMS! No migraines, no vomiting, no giddiness. Only at two instances though, I had a light headache when I tried to pitch my tent in Jispa and Sarchu. But, I had realized by then that being susceptible to AMS is a mind game as well so, I relaxed for ten minutes in the tent and had no thoughts on my mind, remained positive and the headache went away. Nothing beats AMS like positivity, I feel it’s all in the head, especially if you’ve taken every precaution possible. I’ve read travelogues where bikers do too much distance, don’t allow their body to adjust to varying conditions, reach a dhabha, and then crash on the bed. Who is blamed for all that? Of course, it the treacherous ‘Ladakh’ region! 🙂
NOTE: I was carrying with me, a sheet of Diamox tablets that supposedly reduces the effects of AMS but I never had to use those. I saw a lot of riders who had taken the tablet as a precautionary measure but my physician was totally against it and asked me to consume it in case things got really bad.
Ladakh is a place that will ensure you get so high that it will take your breath away, to give you another kind of high you’ve never experienced, literally! Avoid AMS and fear, climb slow, climb happy.
Carrying on further, I was still distracted by the views and behaved similar to an excited child in an amusement park but controlled myself so that I didn’t run out of breath. I drank a lot of water from the streams that flowed from the mountain tops too, water that must’ve been snow at a very high altitude before the ‘sun element’ was injected into it for it to become liquid. Then it flowed over herbs, grass, mud, rocks (earth element) until it reached a water body way below into the ghettos of human civilization. I didn’t fear any disease before drinking that water directly as that is the purest form of water one could have access to. I hear a lot of people mentioning that glacial water has way too many minerals for our body which could be harmful, but I disagree. Humans have existed since long and have been having raw water since time immemorial. It is recently that we’ve learned to crib unnecessarily and have turned ourselves into cautious and overprotective cry babies by resorting to weird means of purifying water, thereby gradually distancing ourselves from the same elements we’re made of.
After I reached the Dhabha in Khoksar, I got to know of a problem in Satish’s KTM. He saw a high coolant temperature warning on his dashboard due to which, his engine switched off automatically until it was cool enough to get going again. The KTM’s do heat up, especially when the motorcycle runs at slow speeds. We mostly rode in first and second gears as the road consisted of rocks, sand, slush, small river crossings so the engine remained hot. We had lunch and headed out again, the Onion Parathas were surprisingly tasty so I had two of them. Ladakh was beginning to show up but Satish suspected his 390’s radiator fan to be the culprit, it is found to be quite common for rotation speeds of the fan to slow down after a period of time so they fail to keep the engine cool. We kept going further in a similar fashion- him going ahead while I averaged at 25 kmph. 🙂 Keylong, our stop for the day was about 60 kilometers away so time wasn’t a constraint at all! The Road condition after Khoksar was pretty good but deteriorated after just 25 kilometers. BRO (Border roads Organisation) was still laying roads so the path was covered with mud and jelly stones and that meant I could create a dust trail. It was a simple task as I had to roll the throttle on in second gear all the way up to 8000 rpm, making the rear tyre spin frequently while I got catapulted forwards. It was great fun, especially when I saw people on Royal Enfields in my rear view mirror, doing their best to catch up and overtake. But, the trail got even more muddy and dusty when I crossed a placed called Sissu. There was loose mud all over the place and within sometime, it was all over me when vehicles passed by from the other side. If it wasn’t for my riding gear, I would’ve looked like a mine worker. As usual, the views in that entire region were out of this world. You look at the road ahead, it was a wallpaper. You look behind you, it looked like a wallpaper. You look left, it looked liked a wallpaper. No, screw the wallpaper. It actually looked like a beautiful place that belonged to a higher dimension.
We reached Tandi in a while, a place known to have the last Petrol Bunk on the Manali- Leh Highway. The Duke of 390 was refueled along with the two, five liter jerry cans that I carried. The next petrol bunk on this route was 365 kilometers away on the outskirts on LEH, so a ten liter fuel backup was essential if I calculated the 390’s fuel efficiency to be 20 kmpl. After refueling, I strapped my tank bag back on and realized that I had misplaced the Duke’s key. I began to look around for it but couldn’t find it anywhere. I didn’t panic though because I was carrying the alternate key with me. Still, where could it go?? I then found it after a few minutes, lying under the tank bag, I had never been so happy to find my key before. We rode on gently after Satish refueled his steed but I had to make a short stop again and change the position of the fuel cans since they had become heavy! We reached Keylong in very little time, the golden sunlight that lit the roads and mountains looked heavenly! It was 7 PM but it was as bright as 4 PM. We looked for camp sites around but found none, Satish was in a hurry to reach LEH so he insisted we cover up more ground ahead. I was not in favor of hurrying unnecessarily, so we found a hotel on the outskirts of Keylong and called it an evening. The hotel room was on floor minus 2, since the hotel was on a mountain and the rooms were below. Parking was a concern but the friendly hotel manager had a store next door where we parked the KTMs after which, he closed the shutter and locked it. Night fell at 8.30 PM while I went out occasionally to experience the cold. Frankly speaking, the cold wasn’t intense. I was wearing a layer of thermal clothing over me and nothing else! I’ve read travelogues where the chills of Ladakh have been exaggerated that made it seem like an extremely unwelcoming place. I never felt that in any way! Satish and I had light dinner and called it a night at 10.30 PM. I slept cozily inside my warm sleeping bag with the thought of riding to Jispa the next day, which was only 25 kms away! I intended to stay in the Ladakh region for as long as I could, even though the thought of covering more ground tempted me sometimes. If you’ve gone past Ladakh in a jiffy, then you haven’t done it properly.
Manali- Keylong route pointers:
Road conditions: Mixed road conditions but mostly Tarred roads.
Water crossings: We encountered two small water crossings.
Mobile network coverage: Nothing works beyond Rohtang Pass, except BSNL POSTPAID. I had a BSNL sim with me and that worked well.
Road less traveled? No!
Temperature in June: Moderate, daytime was around 25 degrees centigrade while the nights dropped to ten, or maybe a little less than that.
Restaurant and hotel facilities: You will find something in every 15-20 kilometers of distance you cover. Home stay options on the way are available too.