When its about road trips, Leh-Ladakh is the place to be! Situated in Jammu and Kashmir and extending from the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram range to the Great Himalayas to the south, the mystic region of Leh-Ladakh features jaw-dropping landscapes as far as your eye can go. It is one of the most meagerly populated regions in Jammu and Kashmir and its culture and history are closely related to that of Tibet. Travelling to Ladakh and experiencing the indefinite beauty of nature was on our cards from a long time and finally the dream came true this year. We planned to travel in May and without any doubt, a bike trip to the challenging mountain scape was booked. All booked and packed, we were damn excited to take off and alight in the land of lamas.
WELCOME TO THE “LAND OF HIGH PASSES”
As soon as you are about to reach Ladakh, the very first peek of snow-laden peaks brings a twinkle to your eyes. I sleepily boarded the flight to Leh at an eerie hour from Delhi. I was extraordinarily sleepy, but the view outside my window quickly changed my mood. We were flying precariously close to the snow-covered Himalayas. There’s nothing more bewitching than nature’s craft. Soon we landed in the cold mountain desert of Ladakh and picked up by our thrillophilia guide. Welcome to one of India’s most hospitable, beautiful and addictive towns! Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a portico of Buddhist temples, sky-high palaces, and rugged desert landscapes.
LET’S SETTLE IN!!
We had a day in Leh to get ourselves acclimatized with the climatic conditions of this place. Being situated at a height of 3500 meters, we we’re instructed to take rest, drink more water, no smoking and no vigorous exercises. Just rest, soak up the beauty around and get ready for a week full of adventures. After a full day of relaxation my habitual curiosity kept niggling me to explore this place some more. We went out in the evening, discovering the streets and market of Leh and tried some local cuisines like thukpa and tsampa. Tooo yummy I tell you!!
Next day morning we got our beautiful Royal Enfield 500 cc bullet bikes and various set of instructions. This is a classic bike with great handling for the mountain passes. However, two factors which should always be considered when riding here are, because of the extreme altitude do not expect anything less than a 300cc to be able to make it across the mountain passes. Secondly, this is not a place to learn how to drive a motorcycle. The valley roads are muddled, mountain passes are very dangerous and if you break down in a remote area there may be no one to help. So choose wisely.
COUNTRYSIDE CHARM OF LEH
Our group, which had almost 18-20 members and two super friendly and cheerful guides, was all geared up and ready to roll. We went up to some astounding places around Leh like Shanti Stupa, Zanskar Valley and Magnetic Hill. But more than our destinations it was the journey, the road, the mountains and the rivers around, making me feel ecstatic.
If you are on a divine journey to this mysterious land, Shanti Stupa is the right place for you. This stupa offers inner peace just by sitting under the shade of serene Buddha statue. Also the place gives a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley, along with one of the world’s best sunrise and sunset views.
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers is an exceptional sight and one can clearly differentiate between the two waters from a distance. The wonder of Magnetic Hill leaves everyone astonished. It is said that the hill possesses magnetic properties that can pull cars uphill and force passing aircrafts to increase altitude in order to escape the magnetic interference.
While returning back to our hotel we stopped at Gurudwara Pathar Saheb for lunch. Maintained and served by Indian Army we took blessings from god and had a satisfying meal at the Gurudwara. An unforgettable experience.
THE MIGHTY KHARDUNG LA
Third day marked the beginning of actual adventure as we had to climb all the way up to Khardung la Pass, meaning the ‘Pass of Lower Castle,’ located on the way from Leh to the Nubra Valley, at an altitude of 18,380 feet. Our guide already told us to follow rules, drive slow, stay with the group and pose for some pretty pictures. It is not very often that one gets to drive on a road like this. It is one of the highest motorable road in the world as per sign boards put up by the Border Roads Organization.
The road stays paved for some time slowly zig-zagging its way up in the mountain like a snake. Halfway the roads turn into a mess of potholes, ice, and loose rocks. But every time I used to look up from the scarily steep, pothole-riddled and rough snowy road, I see some of the most magnificent landscape.
Distant Buddhist villages, glaring and serrated mountains, snow covered peaks, clear blue sky, and a row of enthusiastic bikers driving all the way up. Every minute we climb higher and closer the Khardung La Pass, my heartbeat amplified and I couldn’t wait to reach the highest point. This is one of the world’s ultimate adventures.
There is undeniably no measure how rough it gets, but I will advice all to just go slow and take it easy. After about four hours of driving, the pass becomes visible from the neon prayer flags bikers leave here to mark their triumph. We were welcomed by a bit of snowfall at Khardung La.
It was a feeling I would never be able to describe. After some quick and mandatory pictures and a cup of hot tea, we began our descent down into the opposite valley from Leh, the Nubra Valley.
HUNDER & NUBRA VALLEY
The descent down into the Nubra Valley is larger-than-life. The snow had blocked few parts of the road and the army was removing it continuously. It was slippery and dangerous. But we managed and drove through all scary and non-scary parts. Took a small break in between and had some hot kahwa. The best part of being in Ladakh are these hot steaming kahwas served everywhere in a variety of flavors.
We continued our voyage after this and it was beautiful. You cross small Tibetan villages, vibrant fields of barley, marvelous mountain views with rock boulders that have so much color that they appear to be painted. Finally a river appears by the time you reach the bottom of the valley and you feel like entering a fairy tale world. There is very little of the current world here allowing you to have a travel experience that feels as if you have stepped back in time.
Another hour on the curvy, rocky and dusty roads through the Nubra Valley and you will reach this small and mesmerizing town of Hunder. The sun was setting in and we hurriedly reached the famous sand dunes, witnessing golden dust and two hump Bactrian camels.
For the night we lodged at an incredible place, which had imaginative tent like rooms amidst nature.
NUBRA TO PANGONG TSO (WHAT A DRIVE!!)
Visiting the Pangong Tso lake was the most awaited part of our journey. We started early next day and first visited“The Diskit Monastery”on our way to Pangong. Diskit is the main town of Nubra Valley. Diskit Monastery and Buddha statue are the most popular attractions here. Diskit Gompa is one of the largest and oldest Buddhist monasteries and Maitreya Buddha is a huge 32-meter statue on the top of the hill overlooking the valley. The views of from there are breathtakingly beautiful.
Once done with the monastery, we started off to Pangong Tso lake trip directly from Nubra Valley via Shyok River (“the river of death”). This is considered to be the fastest route to travel, as the monsoon has not started yet. In monsoon, this route can be risky and prone to landslides, hence not advisable. The journey to Pangong Tso was adventurous as we passed through arduous terrains. Landslides and shooting stones are way too common on this road.
There are several stretches with a steep ascent, small and big rocks all over; some are sharp enough to cut through your vehicle’s tires; numerous deep and furious water crossings. This is a road that is probably one of the least travelled one. But again this road will take you through some of the most amazing and magnificent vistas.
Blue rivers, big iron bridges, flamboyant flags, waterfalls, long vacant roads and expansive mountains. Another best part of this road are some witty and funny safety messages written by BRO on their milestones and signboards.
We soon reached Pangong Lake and the plain view of it from a distance was breathtaking. The lake lurches at an altitude of 14270 feet in the Himalayas. Reflection of the huge Changchenmo mountain range in the sparkling blue waters of lake makes it even more magical, panoramic and numinous.
The more we drive towards the lake, the size of it becomes more and more obvious. It was so serene and peaceful and pure. I wish I could stayed there forever. Clicked some pictures and as sun started setting in we started towards our stay.
We stayed at a homestay that night together with a local family who owns this beautiful and ancient Ladakhi house. This place is perfect to slow down, enjoy nature, and literally get away from everything. There’s no wifi, no phone reception, and no TV. Just you, the nature and thoughts. The lady of the house served us hot kahwa and freshly prepared meal. And believe it, very simple but the best meal I have had in days. Full of love and ladakhi taste.
THE SNOWY CHANGLA PASS
Next day we had to start from Pangong Tso to Leh through Changla Pass. Our guide had already told us that there is much more snow and roads are more difficult. We need to be careful, alert and drive slow. Changla Pass is India’s third highest motorable road after Khardung La and Taglang La. It is named after a celebrated sadhu named Sadhu Changla Baba.
The climb here is very steep and requires a careful drive. The stretch of 10-15 km road on either side from Chang la is loose dirt and slush. The small town of Tangste is the nearest settlement and the main gateway for the Changthang Plateau situated in the Himalayas. The nomadic tribes of the region are collectively known as the Changpa. Army trucks were on their way and all I can say is, “Hats off to Indian Army.” No matter how harsh and cold and dangerous the weather is, they are always at the service of their nation.
The ride is Changla was tough but the most memorable and beautiful. While we started climbing we came across this vast frozen river, something we all have been looking for during our entire journey. Finally found it here.
Roads here had huge snow mountain on one side and huge snowy structures on other. Driving in between both of them was a bliss. However there were many avalanche areas we were crossing and I wished they passed soon.
We were back in Leh all tired and dirty from our bike rides. A quick shower and hot cup of tea helped us just fine. We took rest that day and headed up to see Thiksey monastery the next day. The last day of our Ladakh trip. Visiting Thiksey Monastery, which is only about 18km from Leh city, was a nice change for us after those long bumpy rides we were doing from past 4-5 days.
It is considered one of the finest examples of Ladakhi art and architecture. Settled atop a hill slope at about 11,800ft it offers a beautiful view of the Indus Valley below it. The top attractionat Thiksey Monastery is a 15m statue of Buddhawhich was built in 1970 to commemorate a visit to Thiksey by the Dalai Lama.
WHAT A JOURNEY!!
According to a famous saying “Ladakh is truly about the journey, not the destination.” I totally agree with this. An untouched paradise, Ladakh springs a surprise at every bend. Its is a world of rugged valleys, snow-covered mountains, endless hills, barren lands, clean and curvy roads and the mystical Lamas where centuries old monasteries have still maintained their charm. Ladakh is the mother of all road journeys in India.
And a trip to Ladakh by bike as is the best way to embrace the beauty and soul of this heavenly destination.