March 15, 2022

The Road to Leh

The Road to Leh

Continuing a series about motorcycle riding in one of the most remote parts of the world. Check out the earlier installments here  and here

After spending a month hiking and motorcycling in Kashmir, it was time for me to ride towards a higher altitude for the cold desert of Ladakh. My initial plan was to ride via the Leh-Srinagar highway which is technically the only available route to reach the city of Leh, Ladakh from Srinagar. It’s a 420 km long highway with only one high pass en route and can be done within 10-12 hours on a motorcycle. Instead, we (me and my motorcyclist friend from Kashmir) mapped out a route of approximately 900kms, mostly off-roading in scenic, remote valleys. The plan was to start riding from Srinagar towards Anantnag and Kishtwar, where we would ride alongside the Chenab river and reach Gulabgarh, Killar (one of the most dangerous roads of India), enter the Pangi Valley of Himachal, reach Udaipur, and then move on towards Keylong-Darcha. From Darcha, we had planned to enter the Zanskar Valley to reach Padum-Lingshed-Chilling, exit the Valley at Nimmoo and reach Leh. We planned to reach Leh in 3-5 days, after which my friend would head back home via the Leh-Srinagar highway and I would start exploring the region of Ladakh on my own. We were joined for this ride by another friend riding his Royal Enfield Classic 350 who was supposed to accompany my friend on his way back home from Leh.


On day 1, we started early from Srinagar and reached Sinthan Top before noon for our first chai break. We had packed fresh Kashmiri bread from a bakery along our way which served as a perfect snack for the ride. The ride till Sinthan Top was quite picturesque, with winding roads leading up to an elevation of 12,400 feet where the only roadblocks along the way were thousands of sheep trying to make their way across to greener pastures. We had reached Kishtwar by 3 pm, one of the first major towns on our way where we finally halted for our first meal of the day. The people at the tiny restaurant got excited seeing our bikes and made it a point to follow our YouTube channels wishing us luck for our journey ahead. We left Kishtwar around 4 pm and reached Gulabgarh before sunset. After asking a few locals we managed to find a quiet, secluded spot right next to the river and decided to set up camp for the night. 


On day 2, we anxiously headed towards Killar, as this was the most difficult terrain to ride on along the entire course we had charted. After riding for an hour, we reached a roadblock caused due to a landslide that had occurred 10 days ago. The officials were still in the process of clearing the roads and asked us to turn around as the opening of the road was uncertain. As we sat contemplating whether to head back home or wait, we came across a large convoy of VIPs heading along the same route who had contacts among the higher-ranked officials and who were actively getting the roads cleared for themselves. Wasting no time, we jumped on our motorcycles and followed the convoy and managed to clear the landslide zones without any hiccups. The only issue was the treacherous roads which were fun for me and my friend, not so much for our third rider who was a rookie motorcyclist and off-roading wasn't his cup of tea. We managed to cross over from the state of Kashmir into Himachal and got ourselves a room at a guest house for the night.


On day 3, we left early and came across a beautiful valley lit up in golden hues by the morning sun, with the same off-roading paths leading the way along with a few water crossings as well. Our speed was greatly affected by the third rider as neither he nor his bike was suitable for the roads we were riding on. We came across a broken bridge which was under repair and was not going to be fixed for the next two days. The locals came to our rescue here by literally lifting our bikes and helping us cross the bridge with ease. Thanks to the extremely friendly locals, we reached Udaipur around noon and finally got a sight of the tarmac again after almost 100 km of complete off-roading. Wasting no time we headed down to reach Keylong where we refuelled our tanks for the last time before heading into the Zanskar Valley. Around 3 pm we crossed Darcha and headed towards Shingo La, the mighty pass at an elevation of approximately 16,700 feet acting as a gateway to the beautiful Zanskar Valley. We had almost reached the top of the pass but were dealt with another setback. My clutch plates were extremely burnt due to the off-roading and my bike refused to budge, so instead of heading up to the top, I started cruising back down in neutral gear with my friends following closely behind. After riding back down for 20 km we managed to get help from another biker and my motorcycle got running again. But instead of heading back up towards Zanskar, we came back down to Darcha and decided to call it a night.

On day 4, we decided to improvise our original plan and take the safest route up to Leh via the Keylong-Leh highway. It was mostly well-laid roads and although wasn't part of our original plan, seemed like the safest option considering the condition of my bike. After breakfast, we started towards Leh on the beautiful highway roads. The Keylong-Leh highway is famous for its four high passes of Baralacha La (16,500 ft), Nakee La (15,547 ft), Lachung La (16,616 ft) and Tanglang La (17,480 ft). We passed Baralacha La in no time and reached the Gata Loops, which is an ascent of 21 loops with a beautiful viewpoint at the top. Up next were the iconic More Plains, a plateau on the Leh–Keylong Highway. It occupies 40 km of the highway between Leh and Sarchu and has an average elevation of 4,800 metres. After fooling around at the plains by going off the highway and into the dirt roads, we resumed our journey towards Leh. We reached the last of the high passes, Tanglang La by 5 pm. As we neared our destination, we stopped at a tiny restaurant that I remembered visiting the last time I was on these roads. The owner didn't remember me, but I always find it a joy to revisit old, familiar places. We reached Leh by nightfall and dispersed to find our quarters for the night. Exhausted from the extreme riding of ~1,000 km, we passed out for the night in no time. This was by far one of the most adventurous rides of my life, which brings to mind one of my favourite Murphy's Laws - "anything that can go wrong will go wrong". We managed to cross deadly roads, landslides, broken bridges, burnt clutch plates, a few falls and still reached our destination with no harm done, one step at a time.

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