“Great things are done, when men and mountains meet”.
The line from William Blake’s poem hits the right notes if I have to recollect my last trip to the mountains. A transverse through the sheer geographic diversity of the land of the Lama, we bikers describe as Paradise. A pilgrimage to the holy grail with a bunch of riders voyaging from different parts of the country in a bid to surrender themselves in tranquility to the mighty mountains. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey 2013.
DAY 1- REALISATION OF AN OLD DREAM
All thanks to Royal Enfield, for having chosen me amongst a lucky few to be a part of the event that was all set to celebrate a spirited decade of biking brotherhood in the rugged rocky cradle of Ladakh.
Starting off the morning brimmed with eagerness after an eventful overnight flight from Mumbai to Delhi, the longing to see the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas was squeezing every drop of patience out of me. Post lift-off from Delhi, rarely do I remember taking my eyes off the window and after an hour of battling my impatience- the heavens finally pulled up its curtains. The show that followed, left me absolutely dumbstruck! The sight for which I have been dreaming since years, was right in front of my eyes. The chaste white layer of snow blanketing the rocky peaks was a sight to behold. The chill of the Himalayan snow had already pierced through my staring eyes into the body rendering me frozen like a child outside a candy store.
If it was not for a packed to capacity aircraft, I would have run circles like a canine in excitement. The stare continued and the gradual transformation of landscape from snowy peaks to barren mountains hinted touchdown on the ethereal portal to paradise. My heartbeat was at such a level, that I could literally hear it. The spiritual journey in the land of eternal mystique was about to start. The landing was rough as quoted by other passengers, but the overwhelming enthusiasm inside unknowingly discounted everything looking forward to my first breath in Leh.
Being the last passenger to get down the aircraft, the descent from the air-stairs happened in extreme slow motion. My wide open mouth (in amazement) and lungs working like a vacuum cleaner, trying to suck in as much air as possible. I so wished to get on my knees and kiss the ground- but decided against to avoid the embarrassing look on the faces of others. My eyes were circling constantly like a radar- every move on the revered terrain had to be captured, and the “Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Terminal” was a good start. The vehicular population outside the airport reminded me of yesteryear’s Maruti Service Station TVC, and no wonder they set up facilities at such an altitude. One out of every two was a Maruti and no surprises it was an Omni we crammed into that ferried us to our nest for the night- Hotel Namgyal Palace.
Acclimatization, altitude sickness and other advisories issued by friends and people who had been to Leh were all forgotten. Being on the return leg of the 2013 Himalayan Odyssey meant that I wouldn’t get to see Khardung-la or Nubra Valley which are prominent points, if one happens to visit Leh. Pangong Tso was another such landmark, but it wasn’t part of the Odyssey itinerary. Only a few hours after landing and seeing nearly half a day pass by, I decided to make the remaining hours worthwhile. Khardung-la would have been a dicey affair in case anything happens to go wrong (read AMS). In two hours I flew from Delhi- a city less than a thousand feet above sea level to Leh at 11,500 feet- and planning to scale a further 7000 feet in 2 hours time might have turned into a disaster. But being an occasional trekker and having pulled myself out of difficult situations on more than one occasion, I took the bait. Moments later, I was riding through one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, though the same couldn’t be said about the roads. Obstacles such as river crossings, broken patches and landslides added to the thrill- but that didn’t deter me from giving thumbs up to bikers and cyclists making their way down.
2 hours later, I was finally up there…..with Khardung-la welcoming me as it has done to a million people since it first opened in 1988. Though surprisingly nothing as apprehended happened and in fact- it was rather a breezy ride up to the highest motorable road in the world. AMS did make its present felt, but it was way too minor to be bothered about. To confess, I felt no sense of achievement or pride making up there. It was not even half as tiring or taxing as a moderate trek I’ve done at a few forts in Maharashtra. But it was a landmark moment being on top of the world.
There might be plenty of scientific arguments debating Khardung-la’s actual altitude- but I believe one shouldn’t ride up there as a challenge or a mission (it wasn’t in my case), but for the absolute divine view of the landscape that one would cherish for a lifetime. I spent a considerable amount of time at the top, soaking in the scenery and despite the bone-chilling temperatures (I wasn’t wearing any thermals)- I fulfilled another dream of rolling in a patch of snow.
The sun started inching closer to the horizon, and it was time to make my way back to base- which happened at a pretty relaxed pace admiring the stunning landscapes. And a few hours later- I was in the comforts of Hotel Namgyal Palace brimming with contentment that I made those few hours worthwhile. An early dinner comprising a large portion of Thukpa marked the end of the day- an eventful one at that.
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DAY 2- IT’S PARTY TIME
It was a day to party, to rejoice…to celebrate the success of having made this far. A pride of a 100 riders from across the country and even beyond pouring into the venue with each having a different tale to tell of his journey. The festive mood has just started to build up to the main event- the Royal Enfield ReUnion 2013 with a backdrop sign that proudly read “ReUnion, 11562 feet above sea level- in other words, Home” and with everyone feeling a part as family, it did seem like one.
In the meanwhile things were getting ready, I decided to give my Thunderbird 500 a quick stroll on the blacktop in the spare time, riding to the famous Magnetic Hill and the stunning confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers on the Leh-Kargil Road. The green waters of Indus converging with the brownish shade of Zanskar- under a clear blue sky amidst vistas of barren mountains and a black strip of road running through. So much for contrast, yet so spectacularly aligned!
I was left rubbing my eyes in disbelief as to how can a place be so exquisite. Am sure the question would have remained unanswered even if I just stood there forever. It was time to return to Leh, but still a few minutes to spare for the Hall of Fame- a small museum setup by the Indian Army. The memorial displayed history and exhibits of Ladakhi culture and memories of wars with Pakistan- showering glory on the victorious and proffering tribute to the martyrs.
Back at the venue and the events started to fold in. From slow races to arm wrestling- there was entertainment for everyone with the spectators cheering for their favourites. A few found solace amidst the entire blare, sipping down a beer under a shade, gazing at the snow capped peaks in the distance. A tastefully decorated buffet lunch continued till late afternoon with everyone returning to the hotel to get themselves all recharged for the evening.
The sun-god went hiding behind the clouds and down the horizon waking up the stars on a clear night sky. If the afternoon event was a blare, the evening was an explosion. The DJ sending out scintillating numbers to the speakers, put everyone to a dancing groove. Fun, frolic and felicitations followed later with prizes to the winners. The party continued late into the night before everyone crash landed on their beds marking the end of an energetic day.
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DAY 3- THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Everyone was up on time with luggage all packed to be dumped into the truck and two backup vehicles ready to hit the road. But not before the trio of Sachin Chavan, Aakash Ahuja and Adarsh Saxena like Army Generals briefed the biker battalion on the route, regroupings, tips on riding in the mountains and battling loose terrain- rather everything to ensure that the Odyssey went as planned.
It was time to fire up the bikes heading towards our camp at Tso Kar- a salty lake at 14,860 feet above sea level. On the map, the distance might just be a shade over 150 kms- but the adventure concealed in the savage beauty is something a map would never show, and what followed was memorable.
Well paved blacktops passing between mountains on the outskirts of Leh to wobbly loose surfaces towards Rumtse, punctuated with click stops to capture the compelling landscape was making the ride no less than a thrilling venture. The roller-coaster roads (both existing and non-existing) passing through snowy patches took me 17582 feet up to Tanglang-La, the second highest motorable pass in the world.
Though the view from this pass wasn’t as dramatic as the one from Khardung-La, but it had its own share of backdrops to treat passing travellers. Thereon it was a descend that continued into the plains at our regrouping spot for a group click.
Diverting a few kilometers off the main road would take us to our camp at Lake Tso Kar. But there was neither a road nor markings. The backup vehicles aware of the route started first followed by the riders who were let one by one ensuring enough gaps in between. The beautifully setup tents were no less than a shock. I wasn’t expecting such luxury at a high altitude desert and being under an impression that the tents would be a crawl-in 2 man setup to spend the night shivering with the mercury dropping into minus.
Luggage was off-loaded, tents were allotted with tea and biscuits ready to refresh our tired bodies. “God, this is lavish!” I said to myself. While the other riders took off to the lake, I decided to compensate for the earlier night’s loss of sleep and kept the lake visit for next morning. By the time I got up dinner was ready and it was so cold that I had to keep the riding jacket on over layers of clothes and thermals- and I went to bed wearing it buried under two layers of blankets marking the end of day 3.
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DAY 4- AND WE RIDE ON
I was up early and as decided got ready to head to the lake on foot- and it turned out to be a grave mistake. The lake that looked so close seemed to move further away at every step of mine. I wasn’t wearing a watch and no one knew about my morning walk except my room-mate. I walked, walked and walked- spotting a few wild asses (four to be precise) on the way who were not ready to admit a fifth member in the group and kept themselves at safe distance.
The lake just didn’t seem to close in- but having walked this far, I decided to continue. Turned back to see how far the camp was….and I could not see it, realising I had come way too far on foot and wasted enough time in doing so. Not wanting to miss out on the lake at any cost, I started running towards and landing my foot in a burrow ending with a twisted ankle. I kept limping towards the lake till I could take no more. Once close, I cursed myself of having walked so much- the scenery wasn’t worth the effort at all- wish I had come by bike.
The worse was still to come… and it was the return. I had walked for more than an hour to reach Tso Kar and now it would take even more time limping back. I kept pushing myself, breathing hard- trying to run and reach the camp before everybody dispersed. Thankfully though still far, I could spot the camp now, but my legs and lungs had given up. I so wished that someone could come to pick me up, but nothing of that sort happened. My legs were just moving for the heck of it and the progress was real slow- and a few moments later, I saw a bike in the distance. Though it was a relieving sight, I knew a lecture was in the offing once I reached the camp. Aakash (god bless him) picked me up and we rode to the camp to find it all empty except Sachin, the Doctor (not in a very happy mood) and a backup vehicle waiting for me. Had a quick bite, packed my luggage and off I went.
Riding through More plains was a delight and so were the stunning visuals along the way. Suffered a flat tyre before Pang which was quickly fixed in quick time by the backup vehicle while I gazed at the pinnacles. The roads were getting worse, but the gorgeous scenery compensated for the discomfort.
Crossed Lachulung-la at 16616 feet before hitting the famous 21 hairpin bends called Gata Loops. The view from up there was out of this world- on one hand you have these perennial man-made tarmac loops and on the other hand, mountains in such unbelievable textures- they seemed more like three dimensional paintings.
With such beauty around me, it was hard to concentrate on riding on those non-barricaded narrow loops. Regular stops and stares became a frequent affair with the backup vehicle time and again honking on my tail to move on. The journey continued with a mix of few good roads to the worst but the enthralling scenery worked as a pain reliever.
Passing Sarchu, everyone regrouped at Bharatpur, which in contrast to my thoughts of being a village turned out to be a couple of dhabas. A quick bite and we were scaling up to the snowy Baralacha-la with a few riders loosing balance at water crossings- luckily I wasn’t amongst them. Once through with Baralacha-la, the landscape and mountains started to change, adorning a blanket of green. Riding parallel to the valleys and rivulets, descended down to Darcha and finally reaching our overnight halt at Keylong. Refuelling the hungry 20 litre tank of the Thunderbird 500 before dusk followed by dinner, it was time to hit the shack calling it curtains for day 4.
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DAY 5- THE TOUGHEST WAS YET TO COME
I didn’t realize how beautiful the place was till I woke up in the morning. Surrounded by the mighty mountain range with the Chandra and Bhaga river confluence in the backdrop- the visual treat didn’t seem to end even with variation in landscape. During breakfast we were told that what lied ahead would be the toughest part of the Odyssey. But having met and passed over obstacles with not so great difficulty, the gang was ready and so was I for a level up. Right from the start, it seemed that the day was blessed with hurdles.
Rolling out of Keylong, we have the first landslide, and it took nearly 2 hours off our day. Later the heavens opened up drizzling down making the Keylong-Kaza road an ice-skating ring. But all excited and eager to make it to Kaza no matter what, just like this gentleman exploring the north with his kids.
The time lost meant more melting of snow and the water crossings would be deeper and even more treacherous to pass and it was evident with a few people losing balance and tipping over. There was no road, it was just mud and rocks to hop over, and the Thunderbird- specially the front suspension was eating up those obstacles with ease. The only thing needed was to watch my balance. Moving forward we have another landslide and another hour wasted.
This wasn’t a place to lose your cool- you need patience and loads of it that would keep you going. One miss in haste and you’ll go rolling down into the valley. The roads didn’t seem to improve, but I was praying for a clean ride ahead. We would have covered approximately 30 kilometres in 4 hours or even more. The rocky patches and water crossings continued to test us and the gang kept on marching ahead till we see a broken down truck blocking the road right across. With not even an inch to pass, the whole convoy was brought to a complete stop. Being disappointed at first seeing another barrier to cross over consuming more time, everyone’s hearts were shattered seeing the truck up close.
Half the road between the wheels had slid off. It was easy to conclude that this was the end of the Odyssey adventure. Still with a glimmer of hope, everyone waited for something to happen. But after a few hours with no action, a painful decision was taken to head back…to Manali. The longing wish to ride through the Kunzum pass and visiting Kaza was smashed to pieces- and we had to ride through the nightmare back again. But worse was that Sachin, Adarsh and a few others had overtaken the truck and were on the other side when the incident took place. The only two options they had was to wait till the road was cleared or take a detour riding through Kaza, Kalpa and meet with the gang at Manali- and they wisely chose the latter.
We started making our way back hopping and jumping over the souvenirs the road had to offer with the water crossings even deeper this time. Off the Keylong-Kaza stretch, the roads became kind offering us occasional stretches of tarmac to ride on, but back to its worst when we hit Rohtang pass, which scary to its name means a pile of corpses- eeeek!
Generously blessed with slush, there was no scope of halting either- thanks to the traffic. Carefully negotiating the non-barricaded twisties I was down the pass in near-starving mode. Luckily found a small roadside eatery and gobbled up two sandwiches and a paratha….relief!
From there on the roads were a breeze and we finally reached Manali before dusk. With Kaza and Kalpa struck off the itinerary, it meant that we had to spend three nights in Manali. A location where shops and vehicles outnumbered the people on the road, the stay wasn’t to my liking and I would any day opt for a bumpy ride amidst scenic views than being put up at a heavily commercialized tourist destination. A hot shower and dinner concluded the disappointing day.
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DAY 6 AND 7- KILLING TIME ON THE RETURN
This was the first morning on the Odyssey where I took ample sleep- there were no early morning luggage loading or morning briefings. Not being comfortable just lazing around in the hotel or the market place, I decided to ride to Manikaran in the lovely company of new-found friends. The ride till Manikaran wasn’t anything to talk about and so was the place heavily commercialized with hotels and lodges crammed along the banks of a savage Parvati river.
Visited the Gurudwara Manikaran Sahib and had a simple but hearty lunch at the langar. The hot springs and caves attracts a lot of people to the place, but I was completely unfazed. Habituated to the tranquility in the past few days- crowd and noise was being naturally repelled to levels of irritation.
A second lunch followed at the Himalayan Village Resort in Kasol with a peaceful evening spent at the Nagger Palace and Museum. Wonder why people call it a museum; there is nothing to see except a room showcasing local artifacts. A leisurely ride back to the hotel and an early dinner marked the end of day 6.
Used to the routine of rising early and riding, getting up in the morning in Manali was a hateful affair simply because there wasn’t any riding to be done! Thankfully the Doctor on the trip suggested a place called Jana which offered a decent ride plus the local food was worth a try. Wasting no time I set out for the place and it was peaceful indeed.
Riding through narrow twisties with apple and pine trees on both sides, reached Jana and had a feast at Narayan Dhaba. The Himachali Thali might look too much to eat at first, but not a grain was left behind. The food itself was worth the effort of riding all the way up. 100% recommended. Day 7 surprisingly ending on a good note.
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DAY 8 AND 9
Sachin and Adarsh were back after their detour and it meant that our favourite morning briefings were on. Next destination- HPTDC Narkanda, which rather was an overnight halt on the return leg than a point of interest. But the heavy rains, thick fog and slush filled roads towards Jalori Pass made it an adventure.
Trailing a champion rider like Aakash was one great experience and I happened to learn a few traits on riding in wet by just seeing him ride. A casual walk in the evening, an early dinner and a weird tasting apple wine bought at the HPTDC resort concluded day 8 of the Odyssey.
Day 9 was marked for an overnight halt at Parwanoo- a small industrial town on the Haryana-Himachal border. Rain and fog added a bit of spice to an otherwise routine ride passing through the crowded town of Shimla and slow moving traffic from Dharampur right till the outskirts of Parwanoo. Thanks to the bright sunlight, the only activity at Parwanoo was drying our clothes out. After a cool and cozy trip in the hills, Parwanoo was a return to the hot and humid climate that we are so used to.
There was a small get together in the evening with Sachin heading an informal session filled with questions, suggestions and debates. A few constructive suggestions were noted down and others rightfully dismissed. With nothing to see around in Parwanoo, an early dinner marked curtains for Day 9.
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DAY 10- CHALO DILLI
The Generals were up early morning briefing the battalion once again- but this time it was more to do with the directions and finding the resort in the hot and crowded capital city. The Himalayan Expressway gave a great start with lovely stretch of roads ensuring that there was no need to get down the bike except for this click.
Rode non-stop from Parwanoo to Delhi covering 300 kms- and with the roads were so good, didn’t care stopping even for a tea break. Approaching Delhi, the slow moving traffic and my riding gear brought back memories of my ride through Jaisalmer- the heat was just too killing. But finally reached the resort early afternoon with a board welcoming us back. Being first to report and quite early- took the room keys, dumped the luggage and jumped into the bathtub……paradise!!!!
Took ample rest throughout the sunny hours of the day and hopped out of the hotel to ride around. Riding through the roads of the capital city was a treat, though the roads were pretty confusing. Spent a few moments at India gate walking around seeing people pose in front of the monument for clicks as if there was no tomorrow. Rode back to the hotel to see the party warming up to a full blast.
The Odyssey was over, but everyone was in high spirits (liquids as well) rejoicing of having concluded a memorable ride to the Himalayas- appreciating one another and expressing gratitude for a camaraderie to be cherished for a lifetime.
Certificates were given away to the participants, both as a token of appreciation plus a testimony for showing exceptional determination where needed, on a ride that was no less than a challenge.
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DAY 11- THE PAINFUL FAREWELL AND CONCLUSION
The morning had a gloomy feel and understandably so for a dream had come to an end. Major of the gang packing their bikes to be transported with a few choosing to ride back home started leaving one by one. But neither was my trip over nor the adventure- an extended spin in the Metro train and a visit to Akshardham temple nearly made me miss my flight- or rather having arrived much later than the departure time, I had already missed it if not for the delay- sincerest thanks Air India!
Few hours later, I was back home with a poignant state of mind, but my heart filled with satisfaction. It’s been over a month now that I returned from a memorable Himalayan pilgrimage, but my mind is still wandering in the mountains. I’ve learnt that the craving to get Leh’d only hits harder after you’ve been there. Riding is education, it is a form of mindfulness and meditation- you are always on a learning curve. And this ride has been a blend of all. I’ve come back as a better and a more considerate rider, for the mountains have taught me to be patient.
Leh is a dream for every biker and I wish to thank Royal Enfield for turning my dream into reality. An incredible journey with the planning and execution that went into managing an event of this magnitude deserves no less than an applause- particularly to Aakash, Sachin and Adarsh for ensuring the safe success of the Odyssey. It’s said that you cannot participate in the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey twice- but I would be selfish enough in requesting Royal Enfield to bend the rules for me- I want to be there again, in paradise. But if you own a Royal Enfield and wish to visit Ladakh, the Himalayan Odyssey is one of the best means of doing it. Made ample friends on the ride- Jared, Hide San, Captain Ritesh, Martin, Saeed, Anupam, Prashanth, Raghav and others fellow riders, whose name I might not recollect- but the companionship would remain deeply etched in my memories and I hope to meet one and all again on the road or best, in the mountains.
On the concluding part, I request to those who believe in commercialization of places to leave a few places like these untouched. In fact I don’t even wish the roads to be completely laid out- there’s no gain without pain. Ease of accessibility would only result in more commercialization and destruction of a paradise that’s way too precious to be lost.