The Indo-French Motorcycling Venture started taking shape four years ago as most of the older members are aware of during the exchanges that started with “non-participating” members like Valérie HONORE contributing to the site by putting up posters of xBhp during the GIR and during my visit in France with Brigitte FAYET two years ago wherein I rode with several groups/chapters of Harley Davidson Owner’s Groups in various contexts. For more details of that visit, please click on the link: France Roadtrip on a Harley Davidson: Port Grimaud 2008. Videos added!
With growing exchanges and intercultural relations and the resounding success of xBhp’s visit to France in 2008, we decided to take it one step further by inviting one of the riders in France to take part in a long ride with xBhp in India. The rider who accepted to do this in 2010 was Brigitte FAYET. She accepted the challenge of riding in Indian conditions to do one of the toughest long rides in our country the details of which I am going to present shortly. But before doing that, I would like to do a short introduction of the courageous lady who took the bold step of coming to this country and riding along some of the most scenic locations that one can find anywhere in the world…
Brigitte FAYET was born on Friday the 13th, 1956. She passed her higher capacity motorcycling riding license 2004 and bought herself a customised lowered 1200 Sportster Custom and has done 30,000 kms since. After having offered me one of the most memorable rides in France in several HD rides, she agreed to come to India to a ride. Little did she know the dangers that lay on her path during this exceptional journey of gumption that took her from the back-lanes of Nehru Place, through the roads of the city built by Le Corbusier, the mighty Himalayas and much more.
The Beginning of the Journey:
Brigitte would be riding an Avenger from Bajaj. And I would be riding my Pulsar220 FI.
The Enthusiastic Participant: Brigitte FAYET
Short History of how it all began...
During our first travels in India in 2008 I had mentionned in passing about doing a tour on motorcycles in India, riding along the lofty ridges of the most indomitable passes and roads of the world. She had shown both enthusiasm and apprehension at that time. “I don’t know; riding on the left side of the road, something that I have never done, in chaotic Indian conditions, on difficult roads at high altitude. But I am interested”, Ms Brigitte FAYET had said. We were traveling in a White Tourist Bus then! However the enthusiasm grew over the months. And she finally managed to take a decision, enthusiasm winning over apprehension to do the ride.
Brigitte tried convincing other motorcyclists in her country. She failed in her endeavours of collecting a biking tribe to accompany her. On the contrary she was severely discouraged by other riders who have ridden here as being one of the most dangerous countries to ride a motorcycle in. This severely dented her enthusiasm. But her will and her word to do the ride egged her on.
Many preparatory phone calls were made. Many mails exchanged. At 152cms, the choice of motorcycle for her in India was not difficult. I chose to procure the Avenger for her. But just to be sure, I put Maël on the bike who measures at 148cms and it seemed a perfect fit.
Brigitte arrived in India starry-eyed and I took her out almost immediately after barely an hour to get her accustomed as soon as possible to the chaotic Indian ways and driving on the left side. For her this was a first. I took it really easy. No U-turns initially. Took her around South Delhi. She did not look too uncomfortable despite the total change in road conditions, weather at 44°C, vehicles moving perilously close to her. Then I thought of giving her the acid test. I took her to Nehru Place in peak office hours where bike handlebars often touch other bikes, leg-guards brush against car doors often disbalancing the rider.
After this exercise which lasted nearly 2 hours I saw her drenched in sweat and decided to call it off. We reached home and the fatigue of the flight and one month of rigorous professional schedule started to show on her. I asked her to chill out and relax as we went home and had some mangoes! I figured she was ready. We were moving out in two day’s time. We were set to roll.
First Impressions of Brigitte of riding in a big city in India:
“People ride really close to you. It looks like there is total lack of discipline or any kind of order. However, each and every rider is extremely vigilant and is aware of his surroundings and movements. He may not follow traffic rules. But he knows and anticipates what is going on around. So it looks like there is a perpetual miracle happening on the roads. It is amazing how there aren’t more accidents happening!” I laughed as she described our traffic movements. I remember seeing perspiration streaming down her face as we came out of the Nehru Place traffic!
The Journey Begins.
The journey does not really begin at the moment you engage gear and let go of the clutch! I believe that the journey begins the moment you take the decision of undertaking it. However, here we were out on the vast open roads of North India, getting out of the mammoth Metropolis of Delhi, at 0430 hours in the morning, still quite dark, Brigitte sitting on her red Avenger, Maël, my son sitting behind me on my 220, luggage secured on the backs of our bikes with temperatures whistling at a tolerably pleasant at 27°C; small mercies!
There is not much to say during this ride which was mostly long straights, Ambala, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Pathankot... till the Kashmir border. We did several loo and water breaks. The heat was getting us dehydrated. We also did a few short snacks breaks to keep us from hypoglycemia. And there were two major rain breaks. Not once were we stopped, checked or inspected by the police or the army which is normally the case when one gets into Kashmir.
At 1915 hours and 710 kms later we reached Patnitop and decided to stop for the night.
My advice is do not stay at Patnitop. It is a tourist trap out to fleece you.
• Do not continue on the highway after Pathankot till the time it is completely finished. It is a pain instead, 7kms after Pathankot after the dam, take the road right from Kathua. It is a narrow single road, decently well laid tarmac with practically no tarmac.
• Or you can take the right from Samba, about 50odd kms ahead of Pathankot. You still avoid 35kms of bad traffic and non-stop diversions till Jammu and come out straight at Udhampur
• If you take fewer stops and push it a bit, one can do Delhi-Srinagar in a day! Do it if you are hard rider. Any stops in between is a waste of time and money! Patnitop is a rip off!
• Pathankot-Jammu is bollocks! It may become good in another 2-3 years hopefully.
Brigitte’s Impressions of Day 2:
"Nice early morning ride. Broad open roads with decent tarmac. Traffic still as chaotic moving faster but roads relatively empty. Nice beautiful sunrise while riding. Not too many hurdles other than the numerous diversions on stones due to the construction of the Pathankot-Jammu highway. It was a good idea to get up at 0300 hours and leave early. I got used to the Indian highways when there was less traffic. And when the day broke and the traffic increased, I was already in a flow and could better negotiate. I learnt to ride in Indian conditions as I crossed the various cities. The initial heat was tough. But it got better in the evening as we entered Kashmir. Patnitop at 24° was pleasant. But a lot needs to be done about the hygiene of hotels in Patnitop."
Krishnendu's thoughts: At the end of the day, during dinner, I felt like a gin-tonic. But I gave it a miss!
I had this light effervescent feeling on this particular day. This always happens each time I step into Kashmir. My affinity for Kashmir dates back to 1979. I was younger then, climbing hillocks and hills and green apple trees, dating in a shikara (that was later in ’85), jumping in the Dal Lake, it was cleaner then and of course, the Wazwan! Coming back to Kashmir, I was still as happy. I always will be I hope.
After an early breakfast, we worked our way through the winding roads of this wonderful region with some gripping tarmac and peg-scraping became the order of the morning. While Maël egged me on to go faster, Brigitte was riding more sedately, absorbing the delights of the countryside and inhaling the breath of the poplars and the birches and the willows. Minus the fuming trucks evidently!
Brigitte on her Avenger
At about a hundred kms from Patnitop, we entered the Jawahar Tunnel. At a length of 2.7kms, it is still as mysterious and charming as it was for me more than thirty years ago. And the views change drastically after this tunnel the moment you come out on the other side on to what some prefer calling “Greater” Kashmir. For me, that is the place where you descend into the valley. That is where we were flagged down and we had our first real “international” check of papers and registration. All of Brigitte’s details, address, phone numbers, passport details, profession and the number of nights intended to spend in Srinagar were noted down while some of the other police and army personnel talked to Maël and inspected his protection gear which had strange similarities with those of the security personnel’s Kevlar! They probably thought that my son was in bullet proof gear!
We rode into the valley of rice fields and paddy transplantations. Several stops for photographs.
And you would think Bengal is the only place they grow rice!
I was stunned at the sheer number of vehicles in Kashmir. NH-1A seriously needs broadening in the valley! And the way most of the Qualis and Sumo Taxis are ridden over there would put most of Delhi Call Centre Taxis to utter shame! I was appalled at their aggressiveness. Brigitte did not seem to think so on this particular day. She was lost in the pleasing views of the Paddy fields while she kept her sedate pace of 70 kmph instead of trying to match with the Qualis drivers at unruly speeds break her neck. We were there to enjoy the sights and not push ourselves close to risking our lives.
Arrival in Srinagar.
Erstwhile xBhp member Styler and a very close friend of mine aka Amit Kalra had given me the contact of a very nice gentleman called Bashir who guided me towards Nagin Lake near the Hazratbal Shrine for a lovely homely stay in a houseboat as I have always done in Kashmir, away from the madding crowd near the canal, in the lake, in the peace and quite that I have associated Kashmir with.
At midday we were installed in a dreamy houseboat floating on water with intricate furniture delicately carved out of walnut wood. There was our room with three beds, another room for someone else, a common dining area, a living room area with a small library, a balcony overlooking the Nagin Lake magically reflecting the surrounding mountains. If there is paradise on earth, it is here, just like Babar had said nearly 5 centuries ago. There is indeed a magical charm about the whole ambiance.
Dreamy Interiors of our Houseboat
Lost in Dreams in a Paradisaical Land
After a sumptuous lunch, the three of us made off in a shikara to visit the Nishad Gardens. Nishad Bagh meaning Garden of Pleasure is the second largest Mughal Garden in the Valley constructed in early 17th century with several terraces going progressively up with cascading waterfalls joining the various terraces and modeled on the Char Bagh system adopted from gardens in erstwhile Persia. Though this is not absolutely the perfect time to visit these gardens, Brigitte seemed happy and delighted to be in such a place. All the flowers were not yet in bloom. It would take probably beginning august.
Venice of India!
On the way back from the Gardens, we were lashed by thunderstorm and rain in the Shikara. It was not a stone’s throw away and we could see our Shikaraman tiring. I took up the oars and started exercising my shoulders and arms in trying to propel the boat forward. It was quite a task and little did I realize that our adventures had already begun. We reached our houseboat exhausted, cold, tired and hungry.
We had a lovely Wazwan dinner aboard the houseboat with nice cutlery, walnut wood furniture surrounded by water on all sides and the sound of rain and thunder lashing all evening. I really enjoyed the dinner. But later in the night I noticed a pall of gloom settling on the face of Brigitte.
Brigitte’s Impressions of the 3rd day:
"Nice ride into the valley. Very happy to have photographed the paddy fields. I love rice fields and seeing women working there. The Mughal Gardens was a beautiful visit. The hanging gardens in the middle of Dal Lake growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables were very interesting too. Kashmiri cuisine is really good. And the houseboat experience is truly one of a kind. It is very inspirational. A writer should come here, take a week off, stay in the houseboat and finish his work. This is a paradisiacal setting and it will inspire people to get the best out of them.
However this rain is making me a little nervous. If this does not stop, we might face some problems tomorrow."
“So this is what has made you suddenly so gloomy! I don’t think that we are going to have too many problems.” I dismissed her off. How wrong I was.
Day4: Departure from Srinagar
As the rain slowly abated later in the evening, drowsy with the heavy dinner and an agreeable temperature of 19° I drifted into a heavy undisturbed slumber unencumbered by thoughts of how we were going to proceed further. By the time the Wazwan had digested and the alarm woke me, the morning announced did not turn out to be bright and sunny. Low rolling clouds rumbled ominously threatening imminent rain. Over decades of living out of a suitcase, I have cultured this habit of packing the previous night. I just had to get dressed, have breakfast and leave.
Getting out of the houseboat with the saddlebags walking across the small bridge to the lawns proved a trifle tricky. I slipped on the wet grass and nearly got plastered face first in the ankle deep mud-humous-clay slippery combination. I could barely stand up on my own when I the realisation of Brigitte’s gloomy countenance of the previous evening dawned on me. If it is going to be this wet and slippery, getting the bikes out would be one helluva task! And that is what it proved.
The next 200 metres was an exercise in pushing, prodding, rear-wheel slipping and sliding, trying-not-to-fall maneuvers and finally get the bikes out to a place where the soil was firmer and drier. Nearly an hour for this exercise and a lot of sweat.
I would have preferred a better beginning to the day but this prepared me for what lay ahead!
Our original plan was to go via Manali. Numerous phone calls were made to friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of the army, of the BRO. But the roads of Manali-Leh remained firmly inaccessible other than by helicopter. Hence we found ourselves en route to Ladakh through Srinagar.
We got our butts back on riding position and smoothly moving on our way towards Kargil. Smoothly here is a euphemism for saying there were no human interventions like shooting, war or riots! But what came in a couple of hours’ time broke a lot of Brigitte’s will. Roads were pretty decent till Sonamarg. We did not stop other than to put on our raincovers as a constant light drizzle settled in with a chill in the air. Crossing the lush green meadows of Sonamarg right next to the Sindh river was a pleasure as usual.
And then came the 28km climb to Zoji La pass at 3500mts with the constant drizzle becoming an irritating nag and the road tarmac slowly and surely disappeared giving way to wet rubble and then wet ground and then wet mud and then lots of mud and lots of puddles! At a gradual slow speed and a constant gear and not too many sudden maneuvers, one can still get through it. But we had other impediments on the way; there were a series of trucks lined up trying to climb up Zoji La. And since Manali-Leh was still closed, most of the supplies were being routed through this way! And as luck would have it, one of the trucks had got stuck while negotiating one of these climb-turn-mud impediments which had created a long chain of waiting fuming trucks! This broke our rhythm.
I somehow managed to slither around one of the trucks with Maël sitting behind me and get ahead. But Brigitte got stuck in a muddy patch. I parked my bike and went back to help her. As I trudged back through the calf-deep mud in the incessant rain, I saw some army guys helping out Brigitte with her Avenger trying to get the rear wheel out of the wet mud! When I reached her, I said I will try to get the bike out of the mess. I took her Avenger and tried riding it. I rode, pushed, waded and moved up ahead, inching forward, every millimeter breaking out a new bead of perspiration, I had to call on all my skills acquired during my off-road practice sessions with Nitin and Vivek, rear wheel sliding and slipping into the mud, I moved ahead 500 metres at a breakneck speed of about 2kmph! Then I took a breather. Thankfully my Shark Visor is fog resistant! Then I went down and got my own bike that was diligently guarded by Maël while I was maneuvering the other one.
That is nearly calf deep mud for you. And that you are looking at one of the better patches!
The water was deep at times till the axle!
I could see the look of despair and helplessness on Brigitte’s face. I tried reassuring her that this is not going to be like this for much longer. With a lot of courage and will power she started moving again. I started with her too. It was already past one in the afternoon and we had not even made half way to Kargil.
This is the improvement done to the Zoji La
Pit Stop after crossing Zoji La to regroup
Next stop was at Drass for photos and lunch. We stopped at that famous wall built by the Indian army during the 100-day Kargil war when Tiger hill was occupied and people traveling by NH1D were shot at. Had a quick lunch of mutton curry and rice. It was delicious and affordable. We ate like our lives depended on it. I apologized to Brigitte saying that I did not expect such bad roads at Zoji La. And then I shut my mouth.
For the sake of posterity
Kargil has nothing to offer other than the name. It also has a beautiful mosque that we did not visit. We just wanted to go and rest. Reached the Siachen Hotel. Exorbitant at 4000 INR rack rates. I negotiated it down to 2200. When I told the Siachen Hotel people that I stayed in a magnificent romantic houseboat by just paying 1800 with meals they told me this: “Srinagar people receive tourists through the year. Our hotel works for just 4 months in the year. So we keep our rates high. Besides, see all these people here, they are paying us 4K for the night!” The hotel was packed with Indians from Gujarat. Apparently they were jains. That did not stop me from thinking that the place was exorbitant. My advice, avoid Kargil too if you can push yourself and the bike. The other places to stay in Kargil are quite shady even if they are cheap. It is fine if you are young, jobless and are a bachelor. Not if you are traveling with your son and a foreigner lady. Basic hygiene requirements become vital and primordial. I would not want my son to sleep on stained bed sheets or use dirty toilets!
Brigitte’s Impressions of Day4
“Zoji La was a nightmare. If Leh-Manali remains closed, I am NOT coming back this way. I would rather take a flight back. Roads there are absolutely non-existent. The 200 trucks stuck together at the steep incline added to our miseries; had those trucks not been there, we bikers would have made it up somehow. It has been a bad moment for me in this trip.
It was nice to know about the Tiger Hill Occupation of 1998 just before Drass and the history behind the building of the protective wall. And it was also interesting to pass through and have lunch at the world’s second coldest village! One usually does not associate cold climate with India!
But overall this day did not leave me with memories of happy moments. But I am glad that is in the past. I do not call this Zoji La. Henceforth I will call this Godzilla Pass!”
As I heard this I could not help smiling. Despite all the difficulties she still had her humour making a light moment. We sat at the table waiting for dinner. Maël did some Math. I took Brigitte’s interview. We did our accounts. And then waited for a better day ahead!
Going by the law of averages, the following day was definitely going to be better! But then I kept my big mouth shut, who knows what tomorrow may bring!
Day5 Kargil – Lamayuru – Leh
The previous night I told the hotel personnel about our plans of leaving early to make it on time to Leh from Kargil and not arrive in the dark of the night too late and too dark to even ride and too tired to hunt around for a hotel. The hotel personnel looked at me with an expression of oh-no-not-another-early-departure! They asked me, “What time do you plan to leave?” to which I replied 0700 hours. They looked relieved and said, “Oh, you will be last to leave then.” What time were the others leaving? Oh, the Gujaratis would be gone by 0400 hours. I was left gawking at that!!!
The morning alarm rang at 0600. Readiness was an automaton. In half an hour, toilet, shower done, our saddlebags were on the bike!
This day began without breakfast. Neither Brigitte nor I like it when days begin without breakfast! Maël does not mind. He is not really fond of food! But I do not last long without a decent breakfast. The hotel breakfast was priced exorbitantly at 200 INR/person we decided to skip it and have something on the way. As we stepped out of the hotel, we had half a dozen bananas! I will not get into the details of the benefits of banana consumption nor into the economics of how so many bananas reached such an altitude but they did good for us for the next few hours.
During the previous evening, I was dreading how the road was going to be for poor Brigitte. After the Zoji-La nightmare, I did not want to say much. We had decided to do this ride together for her to be able to enjoy the ride. However this was turning out more to be a chore than an enjoyable ride. From my previous memory of the ride, the road leaving Kargil was a nicely laid tarmac. But I did not say anything. Getting out of Kargil, we filled our gas tanks and proceeded on our way to Leh with an eye on the possible visit of Lamayuru later in the day before reaching Leh. That also depended on the condition of roads, the speeds we could maintain and the photography stops that we would do on this particular day since I already had in mind of making some stops on this particular day for the sake of photography since this road presented some breathtaking views in and around the Indus.
And off we went. This was a glorious day and for the first time in days we saw the sun shining through with the occasional could rolling if for the effects. As we moved gradually further away from Kargil, the greenery and vegetation cover became progressively sparse and the desert-like appearance started dominating. This is the kind of lunar vistas that I adore with not a blade of grass appearing from horizon to horizon. An occasional patch of green around the Indus would show some visible signs of life in apparently uninhabitable hostile conditions where temperatures plummet to tens of degrees below zero and lack of electricity and wood or anything that can burn rules out possibility of heating to stay alive.
On the Kargil-Leh Route
Some patches of green provide contrast to the barren desolate landscape
I made several stops to take pictures, some makeshift videos with my N86 despite the good roads of 4 years ago having been eroded out of existence by thick persistent winter snow. But the road was still less than catastrophic and in portions was even close to being excellent wherein I reveled in trying out some of my antics in leaning not forgetting the fact that often a biker is was and will be chased by maniacally jealous four-wheeled cagers and in our county it was no less than the seemingly bulky but ubiquitous in Ladakh, the Toyoto Innova! But such incidents paled in significance compared to the magnificence of the beauty that enveloped me as I moved along like an insignificant speck of dust in the vastness of this marvelous landscape.
A short stop at Hansikot to note the extreme temperatures recorded in this village. Next stop at Fotu La. My GPS was not capturing the satellites for some reason. But for academic purposes, we were at an altitude of 3717 metres. Also for academic purposes, this is the highest point between Srinagar and Leh. This is also a very windy pass. Temperature noted was 11°C. As I told Brigitte about the altitude that we were at 3717 metres, she started feeling uneasy. Though she took her time taking pictures, she was quickly on her way down.
The Extreme temperatures of Hansikot!
Photostop at Fotu-La
Lamayuru is not far from Fotu La, a mere 13 kms from Fotu La with some nicely laid new tarmac. I was already beginning to visualize my lunch; remember, I had not had a real breakfast. No matter how beautiful the landscape, after a point in time, hunger is primordial and vital.
After a satisfying lunch, we went on to visit the gompa at Lamayuru standing at 3621 mts. The gompa on the rock at Lamayuru is one millennium old dating from the 11th century making it one of the oldest monasteries and temples in Ladakh and housing 150 resident monks with some more from the surrounding areas making it one of the most active and populous temple-monasteries in Ladakh. The positioning and building structure of the Lamayuru monastery reminded me strongly of the Meteors that I have visited in continental Greece. Both were built with the idea of isolation from the local population and invaders alike for spiritual pursuits. Steeped in legend, this monastery belongs to the Red Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. We went in and took our time taking some pictures. Tibetan Buddhism is not my strong point and I am far from comprehending their rites and customs despite having visited close to a hundred temples of their kind.
The Lamayuru Monastery atop the rock!
Exquisite Paintings at the entrance of the Monastery
Main Prayer Hall
After spending a good hour at Lamayuru, we were back on the saddle riding towards Leh. We were made to stop after Khalse for registration of our papers, passports etc. As we approached Leh, we were getting longer and longer stretches of better roads. It was a delight riding on these roads. Not only did we move fast and gained time, but we could relax a bit, a remark that Brigitte made that I will be presenting shortly.
Some Good Roads!
Stop at the Magnetic Hill Phenomenon!
Brigitte: The Harley Rider from France in Ladakh!
We made a short fun stop at the “Magnetic Hill”! Vehicles in neutral would climb back up. We spent some time watching and enjoying this phenomenon that to the naked eye seemed to clearly defy gravity. People in Qualises and Sumos were amused to try this out. It is probably impossible to defy gravity. But somehow we would like to believe that there are “other” forces than the ones that are obvious!
We made good time. The roads were excellent. I managed to hit 125kmph and get overtaken by an Innova! We reached Leh by 1814 hours. We were back on phone network after more than a day’s absence! Recommended once again by Mr Amit Kalra, xBhp id Styler, we went to the Oriental Guest House just below the Shanti Stupa. If you want to stay in a truly cosmopolitan atmosphere, I too strongly recommend this guest house which is entirely run by a local family. They have excellent, clean, hygienic rooms from 600 INR to 1000 INR, almost all rooms facing the Zanskar range in front. Buffet dinners are at 85 INR per pax and a good choice of substantial breakfasts at 80INR per pax. I met and talked to people from Canada, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Japs, Swedish from all walks and ages of life. Met a group of 20 francophone students from Quebec, Canada on a Buddhist theological visit for over a month who were staying there. Quite a few of them were fascinated at my riding gear, especially my pants still with those sponsor logos from 4 years ago!
A clean room at a good price with an excellent view and hot water completed a good day’s riding. We went down to the interesting buffet. The only negative point of this Oriental Guest House is the food is unfortunately entirely vegetarian other than the two eggs at breakfast! But for one night or two, I can live with that! After dinner, I ordered a Ginger-Lemon-Honey tea that was delicious. The comfort of my bed was beckoning me. At 3470 metres, the rarified atmosphere was barely making any effect on my physical self thankfully.
Today’s ride was a better ride since there were some good roads in parts. There were some beautiful scenes. The advantage of having good roads is I get to see, appreciate and enjoy the beauty of nature. On the other hand, if roads are bad, I am too concentrated on riding, keeping the motorcycle straight and I miss out on the beauty that is passing me by. Thankfully on the Kargil – Leh road, there was less traffic to take care of and I got to enjoy the ride more than yesterday. But I do believe that with the economic progress this country is making, in 5 – 10 years’ time, there will be much better and well-maintained roads even in far flung places like Ladakh.
Conclusion at EOD:
This was a good day. Out of the 241kms, we had about 50 odd kms of tarmac. Rest was mostly off-roading! Lamayuru was a great visit. The ride along the Indus was magnificent.
Happy at today’s ride, I drifted off to a deep sleep with no alarms set as I could sense the distant flowing of the Indus, the cradle of our civilization.
Day6 : Leh – Leisure
For this day no alarm was set. But daylight broke through the huge bay-windows and filtered through the slightly parted curtains beckoning us earnestly to quit our warm quilts and to appreciate the beauty of nature that was laid out for us at the doorstep of our hotel. We had neither set goals nor any destinations to reach. We wanted to sleep, relax and take our time doing things at a pace that is not hectic! And now we did not have to ride 1200 kms. We were there! I could glimpse at the snowcapped Zanskar clearly illuminated with the rising rays of the sun. It was not even 0500 and a beautiful day had already announced its arrival. At 34°N, the sun rises relatively earlier than in New Delhi.
I looked at my son. He was peacefully asleep. 15°C as I drifted back to sleep unperturbed by dreams of potholes and rock-filled craters and slippery mud! Though I had other diverting and disturbing thoughts on my mind that woke me up two hours later.
Working out the sleep from my eyes I dialed a few numbers. One of the first numbers was that of Ananth! A slumber induced voice replied at the other end giving me some encouraging details. I also called MG who gave me some more details about Kurt and others. I started drawing conclusions from the information that I received. Part of my initial apprehensions of the Leh – Manali route being closed subsided. The route remained closed nonetheless at Baralachla. But I had some time on my hands! At the same time I kept my options open for a flight ticket for Brigitte because she was not at all keen on going back to “Godzilla” Pass. Nor was I for that matter.
Calcuttan Arijit’s brother Arindam was also somewhere in Ladakh but untraceable. With feedback coming from all around, the snow gradually melting, the sun shining brightly, I told myself what Arlo Guthrie had once remarked in one of his compositions, “Tomorrow’s another day to blow my Blues away!” I will deal with tomorrow when it comes. In the meanwhile, I decided to get the permits done and discover and show around the vicinity of Leh to Brigitte and my son.
The Oriental Guest House has a choice of breakfasts from Ladakhi, obviously, to Continental to Israeli to Punjabi and several others! Substantial breakfast in the tank with two fried eggs sunny-side up we rode up to the Shanti Stupa which stood just a kilometre from our Guest house above us.
The Shanti Stupa or the World Peace Stupa was conceived by a Japanese Buddhist order as part of the construction in a series of Peace Pagodas. The Japanese Buddhist order considers India to be the sacred birthplace of Buddha. The Shanti Stupa was built in 1985 and was inaugurated by the current Dalai Lama. Like a lot of important Buddhist Stupas, this Shanti Stupa holds relics of the Buddha enshrined by the Dalai Lama himself. The Shanti Stupa was built to promote world Peace and Prosperity and to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism on the planet. Though relatively newly constructed, it is worth a visit just for its significance.
34°N, 77°E at a height of 3615 metres.
May Peace Prevail
Next stop was the visit of Thikse Monastery:
Thikse Monastery was built by a Tibetan Monk in early 15th century right next to the Indus Valley. In importance, it is second only to Hemis Monastery. Thikse is situated 17kms to the East of Leh on the road to Manali. It is another imposing structure with a very structural riot of colours that one expects to find in these parts. Before visiting the Monastery, we had lunch at the foothill of the climb. This was the first and last time that I had a bad headache. I took an anti-inflammatory tablet to make it subside. It worked!
Went up to visit the wonderful nearly 600 hundred year old monastery.
Back in Leh, we filled up the tanks. The decision had been taken. No matter what, we were headed to Pangong Lake. Come rain, snow or hail, we were going. About the snow on the road, we would deal with it when we come to it!
This is when Arindam’s call came in. We fixed up a meeting at Oriental Guest House. His meeting with us was a great help. With the help of his contacts in the Army, he had first hand information about every pass, every snowfall, every blocked road and all the necessary road works being done by the BRO. Arindam let us in on a few intricate and helpful details. He had been to Pangong Tso. The road was pretty bad, destroyed by the snow. He himself had faced about 3-4cms of snow on the road with his bike rear slipping. But then he had faced snowfall himself. That was a day ago. The sun has been shining bright since. And conditions would have improved. He further added that he had been to Nubra 3 days ago and the climb to Khardung La would be similar to Chang La if not easier! Hearing that Brigitte heaved a big sigh of relief. Then Brigitte and Arindam started discussing acupuncture.
A big thanks to Arindam for the details.
That evening a group of 35 bikers rode into the Oriental Guest House. All of them were Indian. The first guy who rode in claimed to have a ridden just 30kms in his life prior to this venture. He was already washed up and sitting at the dinner buffet when the other bikers started coming in. I even met some old friends that I had known before. Talked to them about xBhp. There seemed to be nice camaraderie. There was one difference though. They were getting ready to retire for the night. We were getting ready to leave early the next morning.
This was another very nice day after the day in the houseboat. I really liked Leh. I would like to spend more time here, walking around, seeing the streets, the people, the vendors selling their wares. I had a nice day where I was not stressed to negotiate bad roads. I slept well. We did not ride much. We saw two really beautiful monuments. And I have managed to recover from the strain and fatigue of the Godzilla Pass. What tomorrow brings on the road to Chang La remains to be seen. We will deal with it tomorrow. For the moment I can say that we had a very nice, pleasant, beautiful and satisfying day in Leh with the short rides and the visit of the monuments.
Day 7 came with the enthusiasm of heading towards Pangong Tso. For a second time. Despite the bad news of bad roads, heavy snowfall, the enthusiasm was undying as we loaded our motorcycles with just one set of saddlebags this time since we had planned to spend just one night. A welcome reassuring SMS came from Arindam with his contacts from the army. No fresh snowfall. Not more than 2-3cms of old melting snow on the track leading to Chang La. Weather to remain mostly clear. That gave a boost to Brigitte’s confidence. And we took off on our way.
From memory from the last time, most of the road to Pangong is neatly well-laid with some river crossings! But I did not want to give any false hopes to Brigitte about such an idea since in these parts with the heavy snow, it does not take long for good roads to look like a War bombed out site!
At Karu we took left. We were trying to ride hard and quick. I wanted to reach early to be able to take pictures. Besides I did not want to encounter traffic. In a little over an hour we managed to cover nearly 60kms and we were still climbing. It was getting windy. I knew from past experience that Chang La does not tend to be very warm. Nor does Pangong. I had put on biker inner lowers and uppers. On top of that I had my put on my riding pants and riding jacket. After our 60 kms, I put on my full body single piece rain-suit that I had bought in Europe for €15 odd. No it is not a hired suit that I got from the roadside as some people had believed. It was not going to rain. It was bright and sunny. But this rain-suit keeps the wind out completely and you manage to stay warm. Chang La was barely a little over 10kms away. And roads still held good. And even better, there was practically no traffic since our left turn from Karu!
And then we hit the icy and snowed out areas. And we rode on something like deeply grooved corrugated sheets for nearly 7kms, at times in puddles, in small and large pools of water formed from previously melted ice, on stretches of ice and minor water flowing streams on this track. But it was not very unmanageable. Though the corrugated sheet was quite uncomfortable. Thankfully there was no mud or slush.
We made it to Chang La with relief and satisfaction. I hugged Brigitte. She was glad to have made it. There was a feeling of achievement in her eyes. Photo stop that lasted more than half an hour.
Congratulations to Brigitte for doing this
My Ever faithful pillion!
Chang La Baba Blessed us!
A short video:
It was windy as usual. But the cold was tolerable. The temperature was 0°C. But none of us were feeling the cold bite. I guess we were wearing sufficient adequate clothing. Though my gloves have taken quite a beating.
We started our descent. Three cyclists started their descent a little after us. The descent was trickier. It was the sunny side. The ice was melting and there was more snow on the broken stone ridden track! I turned around a corner and stopped to let a climbing vehicle pass. Brigitte managed to stop behind me. But the Qualis which was behind by about 40 metres braked but could not stop and started sliding down the ice-snow-water mix on the gravel down the road. I watched in horror as the car came sliding closer and closer to Brigitte finally stopping just a couple of metres behind her bike! Another sigh of relief and we continued. About 8kms on the other side of Chang La, the metalled roads began again and stayed with us till Pangong. Lovely ride in the valley of Pagal Nallah for kms on end with sand in the valley. The occasional herd of Yak grabbing up the disappearing grass. In a short while, there would be no vegetation left as we approached Pangong.
We made a stop at Durbuk for lunch. Lunch consisted of cut vegetables in a packet of Maggi. I hate Maggi. But then if wishes were motorcycles…
Even before we were served, the three cyclists had already caught up with us! They were riding their bicycles at nearly 70kmph! No they were not French, the largest fitness cycling community in the world. They were Italian.
A few more kms and we had our papers checked, the copy of the permits given and we continued on our way. And it was not long before we came on to the ocean of blue surrounded by towering lunar mountains in a windy deserted calm that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.
First things, I negotiated the tents, dumped our gear and rode out to take pictures. There are no words to describe this place. I had come back to a place that holds a special place in my heart. This time I had come with my son, Maël and a very close friend, Brigitte who had come 7000kms and ridden a motorcycle for 2000kms to get there!
Inside the Tent, a short break before going off
I went down to the waterfront!
And tasted the water...
The Vastness of such a place makes you feel infinitesimally small!
Papa, lets go there to the water!
And we went there...
This is a lovely place to practice off-road biking! No traffic. No roads. Only bliss! In a gorgeous setting that can’t get any better. Let Maël ride a bit. He was in heaven as he rode a few kms with his father sitting behind him.
"Today's ride was beautiful. Most of the road was good surprisingly for a change. It de-stresses the mind as I did not have to constantly think about the rocks on the road, the potholes, the mud and water. I could really soak up the beauty of nature and enjoy the ride.
I had only heard about the Blue Pangong Lake and seen some pictures. But for blue, this is the bluest it can get. Nothing gets bluer than this. And when you get here, it is difficult to imagine which planet you are on. This place does not look like from this planet. Totally barren with desert like conditions, not a blade of grass, and this huge beautiful blue lake that completely takes you by surprise. It is total bliss to be here."
She even demonstrated to us the difference in the cries of the Gulls at Pangong and those in the Mediterranean! And at her demo, the Gulls there took immediate flight!
I had waved at those bikers. Who could they have been! I saw a yellow Zma and another black bike. I had been looking out all the while since morning for the arrival of Ananth. I am sure that they were Ananth and Steve. It would have been nice had I managed to meet them.
Our meals were being prepared. For the price we were paying, there better be some good meat. Twilight had fallen across the valley. The last bits of daylight still held on. It was 2000 hours. In such a clear environment it would never get totally dark as the moon was brightly shining. The shimmering lake was clearly visible. The wind was up as usual and temperatures had rapidly plummeted to 4°C before dinner was served. Soon it would fall below freezing point. But none of us were feeling really cold. However we were hungry and Brigitte was beginning to get a headache for the first time.
Now, you can get a headache mostly because of few reasons; liver, gall bladder, sinusitis, fatigue and AMS. We ruled out the last possibility and settled for hypoglycemia and gladly went to table when dinner was called. We were asked to eat at the makeshift table in the kitchen since there seemed to be a “party” happening in the dinner tent.
There was rice, chicken chow, dal, nearly a whole chicken for two and a half adults and rotis. There was enough food to feed a small garrison. And tasty too. No complaints on that side. And then came pineapple cake as dessert! Phew!!! We were told that the party guys had sent it to us from the dinner tent. It was a kid’s birthday. After dinner we went to wish the kid happy b’day. There were three families that had come together. They did not know each other and got together in Leh. They had come from Pune, Bombay and New Delhi and had met each other in Leh and come to spend a night in Pangong Tso! The ambience was convivial. The kid was just a year old. He still could not walk without support. Maël played with him a bit. And we went back to our tent.
I went out for a walk in the moonlight to the waterfront. It was past nine in the evening and the temperatures had fallen to zero. I sat for a while. It felt good. I really love this place. I hope to come back here again one day.
The day began early. It was 0430 hours when daylight broke into the tent. And the sun was shining brightly at 0500 hours. Temperature inside the tent was at 4°C and outside at – 3°C. I had had a bad night. I lay awake in the tent till 0200 hours. This is a cycle that I go through. During a trip when I have a week’s good sleep, there comes a night when I sleep poorly. I did not mind. But I saw Brigitte with an uncomfortable face and swollen fingers. She said that she still had a headache. We ruled out hypoglycemia and the liver etc. This had to be because of mild AMS. She decided to take the Diamox.
What the diamox does is to reduce the volume of blood in the body and thus relieving some of the pressure inside the body that builds up because of high altitude. Side-effects; you have to go to the loo within 20 minutes to eliminate the extra fluid. But within half an hour she was feeling better. And within an hour she was ready to go swimming in the lake! That is to describe what the Diamox does in layman's terms. I am no doctor. Brigitte is. This is what I understood from what she explained!
We packed, loaded our bikes and went for breakfast. Breakfast was as copious as dinner the previous night. Unlimited toasted bread, butter jam, unlimited alu paranthas, unlimited cups of tea etc… but we had according to our appetites which was seemingly quite limited.
At Breakfast; look at Maël's stupefied look:
Satisfied we made our way on to the motorcycles. Looked around for Ananth and Steve. Could not locate them still. I figured that they did not stay at Lukung and assumed that they had probably gone back to Leh since they were not carrying luggage or being the adventurous kinds probably continued towards Lake Moriri during the night!
Warming the engines
This is what I have been doing each day in the morning. I warmed up the engines, looked at the chain tension, listened to the revving that always slowed down at higher altitudes and would eventually die out at idling unless quite warm. This was the first time I was starting the two bikes after a night’s halt at such a high altitude. Both bikes started with a single thumbing of the self starter. But had to keep the throttle twisted a bit to keep the revs at 2K Rpm for several minutes. I asked Maël to hang on to the throttle while I checked for air pressure, chain tension and any other tell tale signs. Everything seemed fine. After about two minutes, Maël let go off the throttle. The bikes went on idle throttle. The 220 started slowing down gradually. And then finally stalled. I shrugged and let it be. It would be fine, I knew it. The Avenger maintained its beat. Brigitte came. We were ready to go. Nothing wrong so far with the bikes.
The Two Riders at Pangong Tso
Eighty odd kilometres to go before the summit at Chang La. Most of it is good road other than the last 7 kilometres. However there is a catch. A few kilometres out of Lukung there is a very tricky bridge. The approach to and exit from the bridge is like completely eroded road, mostly large sized rocks resembling round pebbles mostly about 10-15cms in diameter. Not the easiest of paths to negotiate. In fact, this portion of about 250mts is quite dangerous. This was the only point where Brigitte was apprehensive and scared about. And I was for her. But we managed to cover that without too much of problems. Rest was smooth sailing. Till we reached the ascent to Chang La.
This time when we reached Chang La, we took some time out to take a few pictures. Shot a short video. And continued our descent back to Leh. Last time around, I was freezing at Leh with large clouds, windy conditions, temperatures falling several degrees below zero and my breathing freezing the moisture inside my helmet. No such luck this time. Clear good weather, blue skies, bright sunshine, everything that the doctor ordered for a nice ride!
Brigitte shot the state of the roads around Chang La
This is what covered the roads. Dug out some to show!
Weapons of Mass Destruction!
Maël having fun in the snow!
Halfway down I completely unbuttoned my jacket, unzipped and removed my raincoat and folded it up. It was getting warmer. More photos.
While approaching Karu, suddenly I looked in my RVM and Brigitte was no longer there. For the past nearly 2000kms, I have never let her out of sight from the RVM. I slowed down and then finally stopped. Still no Brigitte. Minutes went by. Now I started getting worried. There was not a single traffic on the road. No human beings. No animals. One of the most peaceful and deserted stretches we have ridden on. Where did she disappear? Did she get abducted by Buddhist Monks?
I turned around and rode back. After a few kilometres I found her taking pictures of the monastery just before Karu. I heaved a huge sigh of relief.
This is where I lost her
We reached Leh in time with ample time for lunch. Ordered some Tibetan food for Brigitte, Italian for Maël and do not remember what for me. Got back to the Oriental Guest House, had a hot shower. And walked out to Leh town to look for a barber to get a shave.
It was near impossible to find a barber. And the couple that I had found had a waiting period of nearly an hour. I did not want to wait for an hour to get a shave. I bought a use-and-throw razer. Damn! This is gonna be tough with the accumulated beard of the past week! With no foam nothing!
Afternoon spent looking for a barber in Leh yielded these results:
The Leh Mosque
“Good day of nice riding with mostly good roads, the same that we did yesterday. The ten kilometres of bad roads around Chang La was difficult but not unmanageable. Pangong Lake yesterday was really great. But also I simply love the monasteries here and the monastic life. The architecture of the older monasteries is interesting and can be seen replicated in some of the modern houses too. I also like the way the monasteries and temples are located on the summit of rock formations. Gives them a good view point all around. The walk in Leh town was really nice, seeing the local folk, the ladies selling vegetables, the cosmopolitan atmosphere. I did not expect to see people from so many countries at Leh. There are Germans, French, Spaniards, Italians, Israelis, American, Swiss, Canadians, they are all there and more!”
Following day’s programme: the highest motorable road: will we make it?
Text: Krishnendu Kes aka KEN
Photos: Krishnendu Kes and Brigitte Fayet
to be continued...
Corrigendum: Styler is still member of xBhp, albeit a silent one!
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