Thursday, June 16, 2016

MECCA FOR BIKE RIDERS - PART 1 - JAMMU TO LEH

I present to you my travelogue to the dusty, barren, yellow-brown coloured yet enchanted, enthralling & stunning land up north - the best journey of my life till date!

Road trip to Ladakh – one of my bucket list wishes since quite a long time came true. Thanks to Atul (Husband), Sanujit & Pranav (Brothers), Prasad (Brother-in-Law) and Sunit (Friend). Well, I am not getting into details of the planning phase. In case anyone wants any kind of information do feel free to contact. 
OK, having said that I start my trip from Bandra Terminus.

DAY 1 & DAY 2
On 3rd August 2014, packing and leaving our bikes at luggage department the previous day, we boarded the early morning train from Bandra Terminus and waited for the train journey to be over, quite eagerly.

On reaching Jammu on 4th August, while some of us dumped all luggage in Hotel Surya Excellency (Below Gumat, Near Jammu bus station) the rest went to book a back-up vehicle for the trip. Later that evening we started finalizing the route which we were to take during this bike trip. All of us were super excited about the coming days.

DAY 3 (DAY 1 OF BIKE TRIP)
Date: 5th August 2014
Route: Jammu - Akhnoor - Tanda - Rajouri - Thana mandi - Bafliaz - Dera Ki Gali - Peer Ki Gali - Shopian - Srinagar 
Distance to be covered: 358 kms

On our way to Rajouri
We started off early in order to reach Srinagar before nightfall. After a simple yet filling breakfast at Tanda (Vishavkarma tea stall) we headed for Rajouri. The roads till Rajouri were smooth, meandering through the picturesque Kashmir valley, edged by luscious green trees and shrubs. We took quite a few halts to soak ourselves in this nature and be one with it.

The village of Thana mandi
After having lunch at Rajouri, we headed for Bafliaz (starting point of Old Mughal Road). The road till Thana mandi was in a bad condition and had heavy taxi traffic. In spite of the road condition watching the villages, flanked by the greenery and mountains on both the sides was too much fun. Thankfully the roads from here were in great state, climbing up and down the slopes of the mountains. It was an awesome experience riding through a canopy of trees and the clouds with the wetness settling on our helmets and jackets.

On crossing an iron bridge, we reached Bafliaz from where the most scenic and beautiful Old Mughal Road started. Mughal Road is an 84 km road between Bafliaz and Shopian district in the Kashmir valley, passing over Pir Panjal Mountain range, at an altitude of 11500 fts. Right from Bafliaz till Peer-Ki-Gali, the elevation level increased continuously. The entire road was amazingly beautiful; constantly riding through the dense clouds with every turn brought mind boggling views. On crossing Dera Ki Gali we took a much required tea break at Poshna top. From here we started for Peer Ki Gali, one of the most dazzling places on Mughal Road surrounded by lush green hills with tops covered with white snow. Looking down the deep and steep valleys was the energizing experience which is not possible to put in words. One has to be there to know what the real nature is. I sincerely wish that this place always remains the same. After high hills of Peer Ki Gali, we start descending towards the valley which passes through Shopian. We reached Shopian, quite late in the evening. Here, we had an unpleasant experience, due to which we immediately had to leave the place. One thing I really wish to mention is one should never visit this place after dusk and definitely not to take a halt and mingle with locals. Shopian localities are very hostile towards the Indians. The remaining stretch till the highway passed completely through forests and apple farms.
Bafliaz to Dera Ki Gali
Misty Pir Ki Gali

Finally we reached Srinagar at 9:45 pm. Definitely not the time to reach as per our plan, but no regrets. On entering Srinagar, firstly we headed towards Hotel Mughal Darbar near Dal Lake for dinner. This hotel was referred to us by some of the bikers, the specialty being Wazwan. Hard Core non-vegetarians must visit this place, but it’s not a place for vegetarians. Post dinner we checked in at Hotel Gulshan Valley. 

DAY 4 (DAY 2 OF BIKE TRIP)
Date: 6th August 2014
Route: Srinagar – Sonamarg – Zoji La – Drass - Kargil 
Distance to be covered: 240 kms

We started for Kargil quite later than we had actually planned (slept till late due to earlier hectic day). Didn’t get a chance to explore Srinagar due to lack of time, all we saw was Dal Lake. After having breakfast at ‘Delhi Di Rasoi’ (opposite Dal Lake), we started riding towards Sonamarg. The best part of riding out of the city was riding next to Dal lake for almost 30 kms and I was taken aback by its enormous size. The road later on became narrower and our bikes ended up getting stuck in traffic caused by Amarnath Yatra. Once we were back on the highway, all we could see was astonishing beauty of the nature. The roads were flanked by huge mountains… green pastures…. houses at the base of the mountain…. Just WOW!!!

We reached Sonamarg (also known as Meadow of Gold) in the afternoon and were in midst of mountains, Thajiwas glaciers and Indus River. Sonamarg is situated just before the Zoji La and is the gateway to Ladakh.  Sonamarg, besides Ladakh is the only place in India where you can see the Indus River. The scenery was breathtaking with lush meadows snuggled in the lap of the Himalayas, snow covered peaks basking in the sun and crystal clear blue watered river flowing in a serpentine way. It was difficult to capture the beauty of Sonamarg valley through lenses. Kahva (Kashmiri Tea) and sweet breads made this experience remarkable.

Breathtaking View of Indus               Humongous Thajiwas Glacier 


Treacherous Zoji La 
We headed to take on the most deceitful stretch of Zoji La (the 2nd highest pass on Srinagar – Leh highway, at an elevation of approximately 11,575 ft). Very mixed feeling, scared yet excited… The view from the base was breathtaking. On starting the ascent, we realized that the so called roads are nothing but broken fragments of rocks, ankle deep white powder, vertical valleys and steep incline. This is what
Deceitful Roads of Zoji La
makes this pass extremely risky and dangerous. ‘Nazar hati, durghatna ghati’ (Moment you get your eyes off, you will meet with an accident)… 
The first half of the stretch was relatively better. However after sometime it was getting difficult to ride on these roads as the bikes were skidding… Kudos to out riders!!! We were informed to get past Zoji LA before the army convoy to avoid getting stuck up for hours. However, the timings could not have been more wrong for us. Our 4-wheeler (with me sitting in it) was badly stuck up in the traffic. Meanwhile, bikes could maneuver and move ahead. It was pretty boring to get stuck so I decided to step out and I saw these enormous mountains staring down at me. Very daunting… Finally after 2 hours or so we managed to move towards Zero point where the others were waiting for us. The Zoji La was conquered at last! It was challenging, especially for the riders, but we had succeeded! After having Maggie and tea amidst the snow-covered mountains and glaciers we headed for Drass.

The roads to Drass were in a very good condition so we reached there in good time. Drass (“the Hell” in local Baltic language) is the second coldest inhabited place in the world after Siberia; the temperature dropping till -60o C in winters. The town got famous post 1999 Kargil War when it was shelled by infiltrators till the Indian Army recaptured the three heights, namely Tololing, Tiger Hill and The Three Pimples overlooking National Highway 1D that passes through Drass. Salute to our soldiers… Here we met a cyclist who was covering the entire Leh circuit on bicycle. Phew!!! Tough… After chatting with him for some time we headed for Kargil.

On our way to Kargil, I kept wondering how Kargil would be and I just couldn’t picture it. I had always thought Kargil to be a barren area (inhabited) where the war was fought. But I was surprised to see a quaint little busy town. Reaching Kargil by nightfall, we had trouble finding Vijayaka cantonment (military cantonment for Border Road Organization engineers, approx. 6 kms ahead of Kargil), our abode for night. The access to this cantonment is possible only if you have a military reference, which we luckily had thanks to Sanujit. Here we experienced the humble nature of our Jawans. We were provided freshly prepared dinner late at night. Not only this, we were also shown the army mess where our soldiers have their food. We were informed that we were just 11 kms from Line of Actual Control (LAC). Though we were very close to the LAC we were able to sleep soundly knowing that we were well protected by our Jawans.

DAY 5 (DAY 3 OF BIKE TRIP)
Date: 7th August 2014
Route: Kargil – Dah – Batalik– Khalste - Leh 
Distance to be covered: 340 kms

On our way to Batalik
Being in a photo-restricted area, I couldn’t capture the most memorable and humble abode. Offering our gratitude to the mess chef, we started our ride. The road was in excellent condition offering us a view of mountains on one side and steep valley on the other. It was a relief to ride on smooth roads. On our way to Batalik, we missed one turn and ended up near a bridge which would have taken us to the other side of the Kargil. On asking locals for the directions, we were suggested to visit Khud village from where we would be able to see LAC (Line of Actual Control). The
Towards Khud Village
road was recently tarred and the climb was quite steep. Even after riding for quite sometime we did not see any village. We made up our mind to go just 1 km ahead and return if we don’t see any sign of the village. Luckily, on our way back, we got an opportunity to talk to one of the many soldiers posted there and to experience the military hospitality in the middle of nowhere. Soldier Pawan Desai offered us hot water to drink and inquired about us and our trip. He told us that we were the first ones to come to this place and asked us to return back immediately since we were in the live firing range. Before returning I tied him Rakhi and I could see happiness in his eyes.
This was my first ever interaction with the soldier of Indian army and I was ecstatic about it. It was a very humble experience being able to interact with the defenders of the nation in such a harsh condition, serving the nation so that we can live peacefully. Salute to the soldiers…

We had to be very careful climbing down the road because of its steepness. Back on the road to Batalik, we tried asking several people for directions but were always misguided. Finally we came across a military truck that showed us the correct way to Batalik. The roads were tarmac like single lane roads, with infertile land interspersed with few fertile areas on both the sides and mountains on all the sides. One best thing about these roads is the cheeky safety phrases, thanks to the BRO (Border Roads Organisation). Some of the
phrases being ‘Darling I like you but not so fast’, ‘If you sleep your family will weep’, ‘Know aids no aids’, ‘Feel the curves do not test them’, ‘Driving risky after whisky’, etc.
Hamboting La
While taking the turns, we had to be extra careful as it was difficult to see whether the road turned right or left. The road started to climb gradually towards one more pass named
Hamboting La (altitude of 13,202 feet). Before reaching the pass we saw a small stall – Kazibain hotel – our savior. All of us were very hungry and even Maggie and boiled eggs seemed to be a treat. The Hamboting La had pretty decent


roads despite being at a higher altitude; probably
Maureen and sisters
because there is not much commercial traffic on this route. Finally we saw small villages with its beautiful people, ready to help you however they can. I met this beautiful girl named Maureen just before reaching Dah Village. Maureen along with her 3 sisters allowed us to take her photo, her smile was a killer. After talking to her for a while we headed towards Dah.



At Dah village
The Dah village, rightfully termed as “the land of the lost”, is 2 kms off the road. The road condition was so bad (probably on purpose so that not many people can visit the place) that at one point we felt that we were on a wrong road. On reaching the dead end we met a small kid who willingly took us on a tour to his village. Dah, one of the four main ‘Aryan’ villages of Ladakh, is isolated from the modern world. According to popular belief, the Drokpas were part of the army of Alexander the Great and came to the region over 2000 years ago. The Drokpas have retained their fair complexion and blue colored blues by marrying within the community to maintain their pure Aryan blood line. This community mainly thrives on horticulture, Apricot and apples being their main crops. Apricots, especially from Dah, are well renowned for their sweetness. We got a chance to interact with the Drokpas and also tried to click their photographs mainly in their tribal attire, but we failed to do so as they didn’t allow us to capture their photographs. But instead we were able to pluck apricots from the trees and enjoy its raw sweetness.

Glorious Indus
After visiting Dah, we had to report to the military check-post just before a bridge that takes you to Batalik. Here, we were able to interact with soldiers from Maratha Battalion. And once more I got an opportunity to tie rakhi… Very overwhelming to see them so happy and few of them got emotional as well. On crossing the bridg, we were thrilled to see Indus River flowing besides us for nearly 100 kms (till Khaltse). The Indus River was in its full glory here. The roads were single-laned tarred road. We had good time snaking through the turns with river on one side and prestigious mountain on the remaining 3 sides.

Arrow straight roads of Nimmu
Just before Khaltse, the roads became super smooth and super wide like the ones present in express ways. It was such a relief to ride on an arrow-straight-runway-like road. However our relief was short-lived… Enfield ran flat just 20 kms before Nimmu; it took us time to find a tempo to load the bike and get it fixed… We reached Magnetic Hill at night. This hill is famous for its anti-gravity phenomenon, where it is said that the vehicles move up the hill defying the law of gravity even when the engine is turned off. Well, we did not experience anything but the seclusion and stillness that this place offered. The entire road was lit up due to the moon light. It was simply dazzling!!!

The road till Leh was in a good condition and we managed to cover up our delay to some extent. Nestled in the Trans-Himalayan region, in the state of J&K in North India, Ladakh is one of the desired jaunts for nature lovers and adventurous souls. Tourists from all over the world swarm this mountainous region to explore the less explored jewels of nature. On reaching Leh (around 10:30 pm), we had to find a budget hotel. Our driver took us to Hotel Shaynam, which unfortunately was full. But thanks to our driver we were transferred to Hotel Abu Palace by Shaynam staff at the same rate..

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