Ladakh – the big three

Pre – Ladakh

The build up to Ladakh was quite momentous for us a group. We were set to cross the three highest motorable roads in the world while being exposed to some otherworldly beauty. It was a very significant part of our ride.

This was halfway, and we’d ridden around 45,000km on the same bikes (albeit on different routes) to get here. Sure we’d enjoyed the occasional torrid time with exploding batteries and burnt out clutch plates – but all these little splats on the way to India, made our ride into Ladakh all the more special.

We continue on from Spiti Valley… (be we I mean David, Evelyn and I)

Here’s Evelyn about to zip by on her GS after coming down from Barachala La!

Sarchu

Well that was that, we’d arrived in Sarchu. I immediately felt some kind of connection with the tiny village. Was it the corrugated tin houses? Perhaps it was the immense mountains that toyed with the grey overcast skies. It may have been the little lions running around – sunburnt and dirty yes, but playful, curious and happy… well until bedtime that is.

Our new friends loved the cameras!

Locals were so very relaxed. Eyes crinkled up in a smile on round faces and fierce windblown cheeks, somewhat reminescent of Genghis Khan, as locals waved lazy hello’s back.  I was passing through a supremely foreign culture much older, and with much more history, then my 29 years on earth.

Scorchingly beautiful scenery nearby Sarchu.

Waking up early in the morning, I went for a quick stroll through the little tin village. Royal Enfields of all ages were sporadically spread about, warmly bathing in the mornings first light. Below a sky of magnificent blue, colourful prayer flags danced gently off tin roofs as the first of many Enfields spluttered, and then choked slowly to life in a nostalgic Sarchu, our final village before Ladakh.

Plenty of enfields laying about on the Manali – Leh highway!

Moore Plains

Ten mins into the ride to Taglang La, Evelyn’s GS began cutting out weirdly on gear change, thanks to a very fiddly sidestand switch. A simple detachment of the wire connectors with David’s quick hands solved the issue.

Despite our quick mishap, the sun was out and we were happy for it – everything was damp from the previous days ride from Barachala La!

Exiting Sarchu, there’s just lots of this.

We climbed up into the 21 Gata loops, a 21 hairpin road that climbs up into surreal mountain scenery. Quite aware that yes, we were headed through the Himalayas, surprise still rang out after every corner – sometimes wondering where the road had gone, and other times marvelling at the scenery.

Evelyn overlooks the gata loops.

A snack of accidently crushed eggs (including crunchy shells…. mmmm!) and biscuits put both David and I to sleep, on a comfortable pile of rocks by the dusty roadside. Ignorant to the world, our 20 minute nap re-invigorated tired muscles and we woke up with renewed energy.

As we entered Moore Plains, smooth ashphalt and a wide road appeared. Fist punching the air, we were happy to have a break from the rougher riding consistencies we’d endured since Spiti. Ladakh had begun to shine.

This is the last thing you see right before entering the plains…

The smell of goat and yak invaded my nostrils on the cool air of Moore plains, known for its nomadic residents and their roaming herds. Faded greens stretched out as far as the eye could see beneath the simple browns of the mountaintops. The white circular tents of the nomads dotted the landscape, accompanied by a jeep and watched over by the odd sleepy dog.

While I had been enjoying watching the grazing herds of yak, Evelyn had been busy smashing her camera – accidentally of course. I found her face down in the grass around the next sweeping corner, and after enquiring with David, discovered the brutal truth – her camera was no longer living a digital life. More a life of retirement now I guess.

Taglang La

Closing in on Taglang, a huge valley, carved wide with pastel colours, demanded my attentions as the cold nipped away at my bare hands. It was mythical that I could see so much of the world in one viewing. Roaring smoky trucks at this distance, looked no bigger then a spec of dust on a windowsill.

Snow dusted mountain ranges fought agaisnt murky storms in the far, far distance. Small icy rivers veined about beneath a marshmellow sky. Places like this consistently reminded me that I was just a tiny atom in this world of behemoths.

Jaw-dropping scenes nearing the top of Taglang La.

Smooth asphalt led to the highest point any of us had been in our lives – Taglang La, at 5328 metres (claimed). And funnily enough, I could breathe on the second highest motorable road in the world – finally it seemed I had acclimatised, though much slower then my Austrian compatriots.

Sucking in the cool air as a fog settled on the pass, it felt like some kind of achievement. I guess riding such a long way to get here added some kind of mystic nostalgia… I’d known I was coming to Ladakh for months, but hadn’t any idea of what to expect. Perhaps that was a part of the euphoric recipe.

David, I and Evelyn getting amongst it at Taglang La

Thousands of colourful prayer flags flapped noisily at the pass while the white fog crept up and enveloped us in her icy grip. Taking it as a signal to leave, we shot down the opposite side of curving asphalt to more mountaineous Ladakh magic, before sleeping for the night in a miniscule village, in a tiny room, in Upshi.

Leh

Cities seldom have anything I require aside from hot food, alcohol, shops for the fiddly bits and wifi.

Leh is the major city of Ladakh, which is on the path to Khardung La (the claimed highest motorable pass in the world) and many other routes such as Zanskar, Nubra, Pangong and Srinagar to name a few. Our rest time in Leh gave us time to plan our routes leading through Ladakh, as well as gaining our permits to access said areas.

Leh was absolutely littered in Royal Enfields, you couldn’t go a minute without hearing yet another Bullet farting it’s way up the dusty streets. There was riders everywhere on these beaten up old things, and an absolute plethora of Royal Enfields newest creation – The Himalaya.

No different from other cities I had passed through, Leh didn’t feel like the magical place people painted it to be… chock full of the usual shops catered for tourists with dust and cow shit everywhere. A large majority of time was spent soaking up the sun in our hidden garden or asleep, catching some rest before the next leg.

The most interesting time in Leh was buying the beer. A half hour from closing time, I pried, pulled and butted thirsty punters apart to access the counter. It may sound like I was being a rude bully, but simply put, if you don’t fight your way in, you aren’t getting your beer. A polite “excuse me” gets you nowhere at the beer shop. Kind of like a crazy mosh pit minus the good metal bands and semi cold beer.

Khardung La

Finding the road to Khardung La initially was a small mystery. Missing the signboard which hung over a decaying piece of road, we ended up in the outer fringes, lost. A few mins of backtracking got us on the “main road” which was nothing more then a single lane of broken asphalt.

I like rocks.

The Himalayas, as was the case since we first arrived in such a wondrous place, continued their gobsmacking engagement of the eyes. A line of rocky linebackers stood on the horizon – a cold steely wall splitting Ladakh apart from the world if you will. All I could do was stop and gaze, and think of nothing but where I was.

Mesmerising. The way up – Khardung La

Any idea that we would have asphalt up to the highest motorable pass in the world was smashed to bits… As we passed above the long green valley below, the air grew thinner and recruited work crews slept amongst piles of broken rock. Filthy dozers grated away the leftovers from previous landslides, tearing through mud and sand, creating a mushy cake to ride through.

Plenty of amazing scenery to pose in!

Zigzagging up, sand swapped for rock, which traded for mud, whom exchanged itself for ice cold water instead. Enfields popped and coughed over sandy potholes. The ever popular diesels of the Indian Oil company grunted and belched black smoke up the pass… and as we passed them by, we crept closer to the top.

Well, it’s time I did some kind of heroic pose – shot by Evelyn!

At 5359 metres, behind a farting military tanker, a sign popped up. “Khardongla Pass (18380 fts)”. (How that measurement works I have no idea, 18380 ft is 5602 metres, somebody messed up!) We had ridden to the top of the worlds highest motorable road, on our own bikes – something we had all been thinking about for a very long time!

Evidently I have no idea how to pose for photos… glad David and Evelyn have it covered for me.

Nubra Valley

Over glasses of lemon and ginger tea and some chili chow mein, Evelyn pored over her well creased map. Nubra wasn’t far away as opposed to the rain closing in on us. Choosing to leave before the rain started taking pot shots at us proved to be the greatest decision since curried egg sandwiches.

Serene scenes coming down from Khardung La, north side.

Leaving the grey clouds behind, the road became actual road again – steady smooth asphalt. The red mud and broken up, water riddle tarmac on the way down from Khardung La had ended! As an added plus, easy curves led us into ridiculous valleys as the clouds and sun worked overhead, creating an oddly shaped checkerboard on the landscape below us.

Views of Khardung are quite breathtaking

The lay of the land had changed again… this time for raw maroon mountains herding the Shyok River – the same river I’d crossed several times across the border in Pakistan. The snowmelt had turned it into a steely brown colour, a stark contrast to the clear blue Shyok waters to the west.

Everything has turned maroon!

Heading down off the higher passes, we soon hit the “desert” sands on the edge of Nubra, before crossing the Shyok into the valley itself. Young and old waved hello as we rode down a road occasionally sheeted with water. With the sun setting the daily search for a camping spot began, and barely a few moments later David emerged from a mysterious sandy lane with a victorious grin on his face – he’d found our camping spot for the night.

Breaking our fast with some nutritious hot chocolate!

The morning came, and with it, hot chocolate on the burner, a gorgeous view of the river with it’s snowcapped friends, and a true blue sky. Deciding we needed to go no further, we visited the sandy dunes on the opposite side of Nubra, which were nice, if much lesser than the romantically beautiful Katapana and Cold deserts of Baltistan.

Dramatic scenes when we departed Nubra

Wari La

Choosing to backtrack for Wari La we took the road to Pangong Lake, and for the rest of the afternoon, saw only two jeeps after the turn off. We didn’t have to gesture at ignorant drivers to move the hell over – the road was completely ours, unlike a busier then expected Nubra.

Life is always entertaining with these two around!

The road itself was remarkable – well paved until the gravel section kicked in, completely devoid of human life and stunningly beautiful. This got us closer with hairy yak on the way up and the way down. While David and Evelyn played about on the ice fringing the downstream, I spent the afternoon chasing Marmuts up into the their tunnels.

The boss having a good look!

The 5300 metre pass itself looked scary – all that could be seen was snow! As we made our way up, water ran against our rubber, which flung loose stones in all directions. We all wondered when the patches of snow on the road were going to hit… but they never did!

Up, up and away, Wari La calls!

Snow walls escorted us the last few kilometres up the Wari La pass, and inside my head a recurring thought hammered… where was everyone? We were on the most beautiful pass I’d ever had the pleasure to twist my wrist on. Life was effortlessly abundant. Water flowed, grass shone, marmuts ran and majestic yaks munched on the plentiful grass.

On our way towards Sakti, south of Wari La

Before time had slowed down enough for my brain to process it all, we were at the pass, looking down at what was to come… so what better time for a wee break than now eh?

Pretty much everywhere we camped in Ladakh and Himachal, we were exposed to majestic scenery like this! Dave and Evelyn having a moment at sunset.

Morning welcomed our little camp of three with a healthy breakfast of hot chocolate and butter biscuits dipped in Nutella. Heading into the valley below us, we were all greeted with waves and smiles by cheery locals. Amongst the sweet villages packed with rice paddies and flower beds, golden roofed temples glowed warmly in the  rays.

One of the golden roofed temples in Sakti, south of Wari La.

As we passed by a tiny quarry, men cracked apart huge rocks with immense hammers. It reminded me of a time some years past, when I used to split wood with a sledge and chisel as a kid… although you know, splitting a rock with a massive hammer, well… that’s a whole different ball game!

Outside Sakti, this man was going hammer and tongs with this nutcracker!

Chang La

The most frustrating part of the ride was the Pangong Pso Lake road. Chang La was a mess… water crossings, consistent whoops, potholes and rocks thrown together, seemingly for the fun of it. Never ending potholes. No way out, just go straight through the lot. The only smooth surface was the mud at the top of the 5300 metre pass.

Even though the road and driving was very poor once off the asphalt, the scenery was stunning – as usual.

I couldn’t help but constantly swear in my helmet at just about everything. It was the most unpleasant pass I crossed… which may also have been attributed to drivers coming the opposite way pulling stunts like it was their last day on earth. It may as well have been a smash derby.

We’ve done number 3! Dave and Evelyn at Chang La.

That said, it felt good knocking off the “third highest motorable pass” in the world. That made 4 (Taglang La, Khardung La, Wari La and Chang La) and whether they were inaccurate measurements or not didn’t matter… we’d triumphantly done the passes we’d come to do – and had a blast in Ladakh on the way through!