The Odyssey is flagged off
My editor sends me an e-mail with a subject that reads “RE HO 2015 – Game?”
It was extremely easy to draft a reply to such an inviting question.
I had to type “YES” and hit send.
I was signed in.
Now, the adventure awaited me.
The shot of excitement happened from that time on. The pre-event meeting took place in one of the hotel’s ballrooms at about 1600 hours. I had about 90 minutes to myself during which I moved around the hotel, hoping to meet some participants. My arrival into the not so quiet chamber was welcomed by many smiling but curious faces. I was more than elated to reciprocate the feelings.
So there I was… at yet another very exciting edition of The Himalayan Odyssey organized by India’s leading motorcycle manufacturer and leisure tour organizer Royal Enfield. For any RE rider, things he desires to knock off his check list includes Rider Mania and the Odyssey. He could be a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, a teacher, a marketing professional or just a nomad. It could be anybody. Somewhere you see a RE madness in him in her. Some are encouraged by their growing kids while some by their partners and still there are many who believe that love is blind. The kind of love they display in abundance for a machine they feel has a soul to be one with the rider.
A brief round of hilarious introductions and an overview given by the organizers, had all of us instantly cheering each other for the flag off the next morning. We could not wait to receive our stickers that would adorn our helmets, jackets and motorcycles proudly displaying the fact that “I, the rider, was part of an epic journey”. The meeting concluded on a high note suggesting all should tank up their motorcycles. As we retired in our rooms, the skies were opening up indicating a wet morning ahead.
The group assembled at the designated point outside the hotel. The mechanics were helping the riders perform their last minute checks to ensure a hassle free ride on the highways. Some even had their families visit and join them at the flag off point – India Gate. We are signaled to ride to the flag off point where RE President Rudy was to address us with his best wishes. It was drizzling but nothing stopped us from enjoying every bit of the opening ceremony with blessings showered by a few monks who draped us in white satin around our necks for a safe odyssey.
We re-group for our first group photo with India Gate in the background and finally the moment that all of us were waiting for arrives. The flag off amidst fans, friends, well wishers, families and shutter bugs. The odyssey kicks off and we make our way through the fairly traffic free roads of the capital towards G.T. Karnal highway. The sun is hidden somewhere behind the dark clouds and it pours incessantly.
Biking is both adventurous and dangerous. Dangers not coming only from the way a rider rides but also given the conditions of the roads and traffic manners. To top it all up, what was expected to be a butter smooth ride from the national capital to Chandigarh, turned out to be a rider’s nightmare with a downpour for the entire 300 odd kms. With full riding gear on you, each drop from the grey monsters feels nothing short of pins being darted from above. At the end of less than a 100 kms, the itch around your neck, the squeaks from within your boots, the water droplets trickling down your torso all the way between your legs and the constant fogging of the helmet visor all gives you an irresistible squirm on your lifeless buns. But the sheer gush of excitement within keeps your wrist braced on the throttle and you continue to munch miles.
Lunch is disposed off without realizing if it were an appetizer or a desert. The animated discussions at every stop over summarizes each one’s unique experiences this far .You check into your hotel room and reluctantly shed your second skin that has now left its imprints on your palms, ankles and waist. The hopefully warm water seems to lovingly de-stress your battered muscles. Before you retire for the night the last thing you don’t want to forget is putting all your gears and undergarments to dry. That’s the trickiest bit and most of the times you need to be plain luck
Towards Spiti – Kalpa
We start off from Narkanda towards Kalpa hoping it would be a dry spell but rain Gods refused to show any mercy and the downpour just continued. But the terrains we no longer butter smooth like we had in the previous day. We had reached Kinnaur and the rains had abated a little. A landslide made the ride of just 2 kms into a 40 km detour . no regrets at 10000 feet. It went through a rustic village with interesting habitant. After an arduous slushy ride none of us could forgo tea.
Chai Pe Charcha
The roads are glazed and every hairpin bend now seem to be befriended by the biker within us.
The wet chill around our gears seems to have robbed all sensation. We jolly well realize that lunch break is nearing. But another 80 kms gives us an excuse. A broken and washed out road ahead forces a detour into the foot of the valley. Bikers seldom complain and only make more merry. The single vehicle bridge is hijacked for photo shoots with stalled traffic thankfully cooperating to our mischievous gestures.
This is the only riding time we dare to bare our skulls. Some engage in a leisurely chat awaiting others to join. And when done and ready for the final run towards lunching destination, a tea stall springs up around a u- turn. Rain drops in your face, aromatic ginger tea slightly sugared up and some excited faces.
What more could we have asked for !
We rode through the sunset into the dark inclines to our hotel. The next morning we shall leave for Kaza.
The ride to Kaza begins
I am astride a Thunderbird 500. The cruiser from Royal Enfield. Some of my fellow riders are well over 6’3. And they are riding the same one too.But I yearned for something way more agile. Got my hands on the Bullet 500. From the time I throbbed the starter switch and gently twisted her throttle, we connected.We were moving towards kaza. About 220 kms. Ample dirt and lose gravel all through the way. Not to forget the race track quality tarmac a few kms in between. Our stopover was near a hellipad. Extremely windy and a photographers delight.
We reached Tabo and another landslide ahead forced us to find a haven in a town that had lost power. After groping in the dark with our flash lights we managed some decent shared accommodation. The women riders were undeterred and in extremely high spirits. We await the landslide to clear . Tabo it is. Tomorrow is rest day but not before we reach Kaza that lies 45 kms ahead. I hope I can retain my ride. Loving her every bit.
We arrive at Kaza and rest
The Bullet 500 I was riding on had a short association with me. I got my hands on the chrome 500 instead. The ride to Kaza from Tabo was short and the much needed break awaited us. We were devoid of internet for quite some time and the availability of some ridiculously slow Wi-Fi could not stop us from smiling when our phones went abuzz with alerts.
The Kaza market is a small but busy place. The evening had us dig into some chocolate mud and cheese cakes at the German bakery. Some chose to have omelettes, Tibetan bread with chocolate spread, banana porridge and tea. I was in a pair of running shorts and a jacket. Not the desired attire when going to a monastery. I was more than embarrassed to be in pictures. We had a long power cut in the evening and spent the nigh chatting around candle lit dinners. It was bed time as the water bodies towards Jispa awaited us the next day.
Splashing, swimming, floating – Chatru
Jispa was our next stop. But the word around was about some of the meanest water crossings one would encounter in that 210 km stretch. Everything was peaceful until we crossed Lossar and the Baltal check posts. I was the first one to reach the half way mark near Chander Taal.
Being well fed from the morning breakfast, I let go the dhaabas near Baltal. I proceeded to ride and the gush of a stream was getting louder. My breathing hastens as I grip my handle bar tighter. The front wheel crunches on the wet gravel ahead. Water is flowing towards my path. My dusty boots get a wash. Looks like we need to brace ourselves for a bath in hell. Because spiti’s fury was about to unfold
It was the sun above and the melting ice below
Water serves as the essence to our basic needs.
Water is the most sought after drink.
Water helps cleanse a wound.
Water drifts away road grime from your machine.
If this natural element is such an angel then why fear it?
It’s a right hander that am getting into when suddenly I see the road ahead has practically vanished. River Spiti lashes her fury on the boulders strewn from an earlier landslide decimating anything coming her way. My fingers go numb, my throat swallows the last bit of saliva and my heart beats a tune faster. I get off my bike and see a MUV stranded right in the middle of the flow blocking the almost only access to the way ahead. The other side that is about 100 meters away had a bee line of cars holding passengers in awe. My fellow riders queue up behind me. We stand alongside each other wondering what on earth will help us cross over.
This was more than off-road riding or an adventure of a different sort. It was pretty much life threatening. We are now around ice cold water hovering over large stones that would barely help us place our feet. Damage to both man and machine was now inevitable. But one has to be in the midst of this rage to even think of feasible actions.
We bikers huddle up, brainstorm, conjure some collective strength and decide to roll one at a time. It was more of muscle power than horsepower that was the need of the hour. The last thing any rider wants is to have his boots filled with water, his jackets and pants drenched to the last thread making them a ton heavier. But there was no choice.
Strategic positioning was the key to have each bike transported to the safer bank. Groups of 4 position themselves at various points. Each biker unloads his luggage to make his ride that much lighter. Engine fired up, revs held high, he tears into the waters that grips both in no time. Keeping the engine running at a constant rpm was the key. Every time we saw the engine or the rider bogging down, the groups placed put in all their might to pull and push both further. Bare hands saw blood oozing out but the adrenaline made pain non-sensitive.
The sun was still high up and its shine sparkled on the waters below us. After 4 long hours, we cross 59 bikes. Each bike crossed gets us going stronger and harder. The women were safely transported by foot to the other side and the only task they had was to act as cheerleaders. Oh! What a wonderful job they did.
It was almost 7 pm. Our bodies were ripped and fists clenched. Some fell sick and had to be taken to the nearest transit camp. The rest of us proceeded to Chatru to find some respite in the pwd rest house and the dhaabas. The service back up could not take any chances and they decided to wait for the river to settle down. Which meant at least a 12 hour break.
It was biting cold. The howling wind blowing past our helmets signaled a night not so pleasant. The drenched riding gear chaffed our skins like a 1000 knives. We arrive at our rest stops. We eat wearing what we were. Our beds are ready and we could not care less about the luxury it had to offer.For all we wanted was to lay flat with our helmets and boots away. The chilly night progressed as we snored through fatigue and disappointment. The only silver lining being all were safe.Tomorrow the sun shall reveal the state of our bodies and machines. If we are upto it, the ride shall proceed to Jispa. Our bikes are dipping dangerously low on fuel and Tandi shall be the only point to refuel.
Now, who said biking was only about wind in your face?
Smoother ride ahead – Tandi
A ray of hope…
The rooster on an android goes off with a ridiculous background score. Twelve of us in one shed spread with mattresses, grab our blankets in an unpleasant pull over our muddy faces.
WTF! Whose phone is that?
After the triumphant battle against the Spiti river last evening, not a bone was in the mood to move or was any muscle wanting to twitch. It was daylight finally. It took about 2 hours for 60 of us to march out of slumber. Tea and cigarettes gave company to many to kick start their dump for the day. Some ran to the hills, some hid below crevices, some pretended to go for a brisk walk, some shut off for a better location. But a bisleri bottle in their hands revealed their spirit and possessiveness. Kudos then. Our backup trucks and innovas were still far behind. Also awaited were our companions who had fallen sick.
The dhaaba shelters made space for animated discussions about the experiences and plans for the day ahead. I was without my luggage and had got off my boots. Walking bare feet tickled and pricked. I soon found a shop that helped me with a pair of the most vibrant slip ons I ever wore in my life. We look at the horizon waiting for our comrades to join. We hope they will. Thank God for the earth movers that cleared the debris on our paths ahead to Grumphu and Tandi.
We have the entire team in place and can no longer wait to hit Jispa and experience the bliss of an insulated hotel room. I am amongst the front runners this time. Tandi about 50 kms away. We ride with fresh perspectives. I see the petrol pump ahead. Out of sheer excitement end up applying force a little over and this is what happens.
The Dr is the KEY (pun intended)
I am at the most awaited fuel station with half a key in my damp gloves and the other half jabbed into the tank opener. The fuel personnel looks at me with a smirk and breaks into a friendly chuckle. I relieve my fool hardiness following his. My fellow riders behind wonder what’s gone wrong? I display the rear half and for the next ten minutes become the subject of herculean strength. Some throw their arms in the air indicating no surprise while some give me piteous looks. I have not even refueled to be half as happy.
But for some strange reason I am enjoying the expressions my friends display. They are all tanked up and raring to go again. Jispa it will be as the turns of Spiti have been left behind with the mighty Rhotang welcoming us to the descent towards another beautiful valley.
Amongst us is a petite rider by name Sarah – my Dr. If one is to believe that some of the best things in life comes in smaller packages then look no further. She is every bit an awesome person and a fabulous rider.
At about 5’3, she carries off her riding gear with absolute élan and dispels the myth that women can’t ride.
A part of the Royal Enfield team with over 15 years of riding experience and some awards and accolades in amateur racing to her credit. She tanks up and stops by me wondering why I am sporting a reindeer in headlights look. One glance at the key and the experienced rider spots my problem. She slaps the side stand of her ride and leans over. In typical biker style, she hangs her prized head gear that adorns multiple stickers of rider meets and tours she has graced.
Sarah is immediately seen fixing the key with the help of duct tape and cautions me not to stop till Jispa. But unfortunately the tape does not hold good. Would the Dr give up ever? No way. She pulls out a Swiss knife from one of her jacket pockets and scoops out the piece thrust into the tank cap. She does a magical twist on the tank cover and it yanks open displaying how thirsty my ride is. I waste no time and and tank her up. But how do I start her. Dr does her trick again, she twists the ignition with the knife and uses the kill switch toggle to bring my ride back to life.
She looks at me in all humility and suggests I just ride until a mechanic sorts it out. I could not agree more and I move on. My co-riders cheer me up all the way up. The scenery is now changing to a a beautiful green valley under clear skies. Broken tarmac and streams now make way to some fantastic tarmac. The view ahead is resplendent and if one were to forget where he was riding, it would be nothing short of the Swiss Alps.
Our hotels looms ahead and we are just in time to check in and enjoy some beer.
Imagining glory under nature’s fury.
The night halt at chattru followed by an ambitious ride up near Rhotang had left Spiti behind. Availability of fuel at Tandi added a renewed zest amongst us. The evening ended on a buoyant note at Jispa. After dozens of hair pin bends, the flats awaited us. Those astride the continental gt knew it was their share of fun now. We were barely 40 kms into the ride . I loaded my camera for some good landscape shots. Our joy under the sun , seemed short lived .
The first crossing took its toll. And there was so much more ahead .
Baralach La, Pang, Morrey , Tanglang La.
And all we did during the entire ride was to let the fury unfold.
It mighty did.
Bright skies could be deceiving
We had enough water crossings to be dealt with over 2 days of riding. The sun finally showed up and the ocean green waters of Sooraj Tal sparkled every time we locked our eyes on the scenery. Some quick breaks and we we were on the move again. ZingZingbar, Gata loop and Baralach La lay ahead.All roads in great shape enabling an amazing experience from behind the visor. Camping at Sarchu was not part of this itinerary. Pang was the destination for a late lunch. I was still all dry and focusing on shooting than ride. My journey in the MUV continued .The roads were winding upwards with trails of broken paths cutting through. On a motorcycle, most would be tempted to ride over them. That’s what some did . And disaster struck.
Brotherhood at BaraLach La
The clear blue skies had us in high spirits and as we hit the first pass, were faced with another water crossing. Something none of us really expected or welcomed just within an hour of riding from Hotel Padma Lodge, Jispa.
But this is the mighty Himalayas and when you are in her lap; face it with elan. And we more than took it in our stride. The one thing that rolled in everyone’s minds was crossing one of the biggest passes yet – Baralach La. Crossing it well before lunch time meant, enjoying the arrow straight black strip on Morey flats. Considering the terrain, the riders were pretty much in close formation. The oncoming traffic including the Mahindra convoy doing their bit of the Himalayan Tour a.k.a “Monsatery Drive” only kept our speeds under check. Our patience was running out and were quickly looking forward to the descent; which in turn would serve as our first re-grouping point for the day.
The curves were handled pretty fast and we were doing good on time. The colorful makeshift tents that housed ladakhi kitchens meant food for us in the form of Maggi noodles, some ginger honey tea, biscuits and other knick-knacks. Hungry as hell that we were, decided to treat this stop as a food break in itself. The re-grouping under the bright sky allowed to stretch ourselves a bit and enjoy some lighter moments.There was lot of riding still there for the day – onward to Pang – Morey – Tanglang La and finally camping at Rumtse.
The De Trop Fender-Bender – Odyssey in pain
We were more than half way into the odyssey. By now almost all of us knew the 59 odd riders by their first names. Goes to show the kind of bonding we shared over a few hundred kilometers clocked. The perfect weather overhead coupled with a full belly meant doing some good speed around Sarchu and Pang.
Broken roads and the various passes were the least of worries that could deter any; after traversing the inhospitable Spiti Valley in the last few days. The novice among us had become more cautious and kept their speedo civilized. The tour witnessed one of the largest attendance of Royal Enfield enthusiasts. That meant many wanting to stop in smaller packs for photographs and breaks.
I was sporting my suede footwear below a pair of ragged jeans. Riding was not my agenda and spent most of my time that day shooting pictures. We were about 30 kilometers before Pang and at one of the left hander, I see a crowd of bikers gathered. On closer inspection from behind my window, I realize its our own group. We reach the spot and quickly pullover. Considering this was the first 4-wheeler to reach, the crowd rushed towards us and broke the news about a rider who had lost balance on an incline.
We got out of our vehicles to check his state. The casualty in question, happened to be one of the most entertaining amongst all of us. He was sitting cold on the ground with a tissue around his bleeding nose. I further got to know that he had severely injured his foot and shoulder. It did not seem like he was ready to ride soon and I could see the utter disappointment writhe across his pale face.
At a spot, where finding vegetation was impossible; getting expert medical help was only a dream. Our resident doctor was still away in another vehicle. For now, it was important to have the injured shifted into the MUV that I was travelling in. The other factor to be considered was the space to be provided therein. This guy was towering over most and with an injured foot, legroom was utmost important in a bumpy ride. While that was being handled, I was given the responsibility to take over from the spot on his trusted seed – a Thunderbird 350 until Pang.
Besides a basic helmet, I had no riding gear on me. The footwear I was sporting was the icing on the cake. I had decided to stay clean at least for today but ended up kidding myself. My footwear bore a new look by the time I reached the destination. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked up while pulling my head away from the helmet.
I experience the first drop of rain. The dark clouds are quickly gathering into formation.
Over to Pang then.
The dark night had just begun.
Pang @ Pang
I finally get the feeling that I am there. I hit the seemingly last crest that is slowly revealing a rusted pole appearing to be on my left. As I draw closer, the corner of my watery eyes grabs the words atop the board. It reads Pang.
A little further ahead I see a half raised check post that is making way to a dusty trail ahead winding its way upwards. Slow it may seem to tread upon; I know it leads to heaven – The Plains. I am yet to smile and yank the levers on the Thunderbird that I am astride upon. She coasts me to the line of motorcycles that are parked close to some colorful tents. No, it’s not a camping site that I have hit. It’s time for lunch albeit way too delayed.
There seems to be a dull overcast and the wind is picking up with its whistle whispering the arrival of a probable gale. I feel terrified and shudder to look up. I rush into one of the probable havens that seemed too busy to be ignored. I am welcomed by my own clan like a Hollywood star at the Oscars. The roar of the group is complimented by a thunder outside. Is my premonition coming true?
If fate were to have it its way, so be it. For now, it was important to have lunch which is why all of us had gathered there. To my left, I see some steam making way to the roof that is nothing more than an array of stitched and sewed tarpaulin. The wind outside is creating ripples on the roof and it is only getting more violent by the minute. Two ladakhi women occupy prime space in the kitchen that is brewing some lovely tea and cooking maggi. Most of us are seated on makeshift planks with our knees close to our chest and bowing low with our arms crossed. I too was given some space and flanked by sarah, karan, bhavna and shoibal on either sides.
All are now content with the fact that we are finally indoors and at least having lunch. So am I and while I think about it, am offered my first cup of tea. The heat of the cup cusped around my weathered lips sends a shoot of relief to my internals. I am still holding my cup and observe a drip within causing the tea to bounce. I look up intrigued and am shell shocked.
It is raining. Not the right time and the right place to be in with this kind of a turnaround in weather. I find a few eyeballs trying to make a conversation with me but they too are dumbfounded with what’s happening outside. What could have been a rider’s delight that day turned to be their worst nightmare. It was barely 4.30 pm and we could already feel the night gripping us like a boa constrictor. With most not having a rain gear on them; were left with just two choices – proceed or pause.
I was back in the MUV that I had to abandon some time ago. To my pleasant surprise found my injured comrade. To assuage his pain, I decided to share a few lighter moments and I was amazed by his sense of humor despite his state then. Soon the driver and the odyssey photographer joined us. We were on the roll and were followed by a few hardcore bikers who wasted no time and moved in to make the best of daylight. As I speak to my friend, the MUV pulls us upwards until we see a black strip ahead.
Alas! It is Morey Plains.
Stupefied on the Steppe
My index finger has gone numb and can barely feel the sensation of the whiz under the button that powers the electric windows that I am trying to slide up frenetically. The chilled squall takes no time to warn us about the weather turning from bad to worse. I am trying to persuade my driver to save us from pre-mature death. He completely ignores my requests and is busy leaning over the steering; looking skywards with mixed reactions. There was no much wheel play needed on that dark gloomy evening.
For, we were on Morey Plains and driving straight ahead in anticipation of a brighter sunset.
We were not alone though. A few dare devil bikers had taken the lead and could be seen a shade before the horizon. I did not have my camera around but had Sharad, our event photographer for company; who instructed the driver to race ahead and drive parallel to the bikers for a clear shot. And when we did, Sharad, aimed his full frame DSLR at a rider in a silver weatherproof suit darting ahead with no qualms.
His enthusiasm takes a leap when he spots a long nosed lens pointed at him. He immediately throws up his left hand that was sitting idle on the handle bar for a while and begins to wave at us. I cannot believe my eyes and realize it was Sujay Kamath. For a moment wonder if I was actually looking at an astronaut who had missed his shuttle and chose a motorcycle instead. A few meters ahead, is another rider in a black suit, seemed to be enjoying the weather at part throttle. His posture revealed plans of zero recourse and his thump only sounded better with each fired piston. I recognize him as Gautam Bhojwani.
It is almost 6 pm and what should have been a picturesque view on either sides of this road, revealed clouds hanging low and pretty much making even the nearby mountains invisible. I for some strange reason feel this nausea tic uneasiness. The last thing I wanted was an AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) hitting me.
My eyes are beginning to shut but I chew some gum and keep myself awake. I can see some more riders behind us and by now feel the entire group would have taken off from Pang. The gum is not helping enough and I continue to go into longer slumbers.
I can feel the plains ending as the vehicle veers to the left and is now being shifted to lower gears for the torque to kick in and take the inclines. I know my eyes are shut and my condition has worsened. I can hear the driver scream before limited visibility and exclaim the weather is getting very bad. It begins to pour rather heavily. We slow down and while the wind whistles its way into the valleys ahead, a subtle thump can be heard approaching us from the rear.
Darkness sets in and the distance to Rumtse now seems to only grow.
But are there a few still riding beyond sunset?
The daunt of The Eventide
My head seems to be capsizing into my own jacket and no matter how hard I try to keep it high, the feeling within has clobbered all my senses. It trundles dangerously on its axis with intermittent crashes on the headrest ahead and the passenger window beside.
At over 14,000 feet, my infirm frame ruled by a comatose mind has surrendered without a twinge. I just wished I could go completely horizontal and forget that I was at an altitude of over 14,000 feet above sea level. My fellow passengers, Ketan and Sharad are trying hard to keep me awake. My injured colleague up front looks at me helplessly for his saga too has just begun.
AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) can turn 5 times worse if one were not in his senses. Sleep is just one of it. Though comforting, can be catastrophic if it were to be prolonged. I was just about letting that happen to myself. I had lost appetite and my head was reeling away with the intense feeling of being smashed bit by bit against a monolith.
Rumtse – I begged.
By now, we are in the midst of a furious blizzard and are seriously concerned about the riders whom we could hear closing in. The photographers step in and out to shuffle the lenses of their choice and ready their kit for a telescopic shot. Each time the door opens, I could feel the wind chill eating me alive. Am unable to breathe and experiencing everything purely through my remaining senses. Sense of sound was still at its best, which is why I hear two motorcyclists stop right beside our MUV and speak to each other in an elated tone.
They were Sujay and Gautam.
They made it despite all odds.
Kudos to them and their riding skills.
We barely waited for 10 minutes and decided to go non-stop until our camping point for the night. I am held by my shoulders and somewhere down the road, I could see light. It seemed to be like the best habitation that could be found for a long time to come. I breathe a sigh of relief that helps alleviate my pain partly. Our MUV stops and I gather all my strength to drag myself out of the MUV. A torch light hits my face and is followed by a helping voice.
About three locals come to us to show the way to the tents below. I was bad no doubt but with me was my injured colleague who by now had come to terms with his injury leaving him pretty much immobile.
We walk our way down a make shift muddy sloping path and proceed about 100 meters towards our camp site. The riders behind us quickly park their bikes and follow us. It is a huge relief to see some campfire and brewing tea. I crash on the collapsible chairs and guzzle about two cups of tea. I cannot wait to hit bed. I am escorted to my tent that’s by the icy river. Its pitch dark and I shut off in an instant.
I still fear those who might be on their way.
Tomorrow should be a better day.
Leh is not too far away.
The Dirty Dozen will make it anyway.
I am feeling about a ton lighter. My muscles flex over my anatomy and I feel way more agile. I can sense that gush of oxygen enter my detoxified lungs and levitate me. What a way to start the day!
It is barely 7 am and I am awake purely because of my body clock tuned over the days of the odyssey. Someone has been extremely kind to leave some water bottles, a torch and some quilt in my tent. They certainly knew my state and left nothing to chance as for precautions were concerned.
I unzip the two-way tent cover to reveal the clear morning sky with a few yaks grazing around the fields ahead. The river that was invisible owing to the previous night is now tempting me to be by her side and enjoy the tune orchestrated by an unperturbed flow.
Was last night a reality?
Did I really face all that I saw in those 4 hours?
I crawl out to receive the balmy rays of the benevolent sun. I am now able to expand my full frame in all directions and kick out any pending fatigue. It seems to be the perfect day and everything looks in order. I walk towards the main tent that comprises the dining area. Outside, around the center is the fireplace that is fueled by cattle dung and some wood.
Attending to them is a veteran local who is in charge of the tents. He is holding a thin stick and uses it to make way for the fire to grow bigger. He looks at me and smiles at first. He then asks me, if I had a good night’s sleep as it was rest day today. I don’t remember sleeping any better and smile back before he could complete his sentence. He draws my attention to one of the chairs spread around and asks me to stay around the fire.
That moment of serenity was priceless.
I yearn to freshen up and enjoy some tea with hot pakoras. The road that I had traveled last night seems to look way friendlier now with a few tourist buses and some heavy trucks plying over occasionally. My fellow riders Sujay and Gautam walk towards the fire place with a broad smile. They don’t seem to still get over the euphoria of their accomplishment last evening that was nothing short of dare devil heroism.
Ketan the photographer, with his big palms in his deep pockets is standing at a distance and enjoying the landscape.
The MUV ride was just an exception that I chose. I was here to ride or at least be on a 2 –wheeler. I cannot do that without my gear. In hindsight, I realized my riding boots were extremely wet and needed to be dried before I could have a pleasant journey ahead. I take turns to dry them with some compulsive heat. It works well and makes me feel relieved.
Our head of logistics and support – Mr. Ashok is in an animated conversation with the drivers and the tent in charge. I casually inquire about the state or should I think fate of the rest. I am told, all will be re-assembling here after what happened last night. Almost 90% chose to stay back in another make shift arrangement around Pang and were on their way down from Tanglang La which incidentally transformed into a photographer’s delight this morning.
The distance was not much now. Just about 80 kms to Leh. Our final destination. We spent about 3 hours resting around the place and talking about the various incidents that circumvented us. And as we do that, a series of headlights shine from a distance. They are in a single formation and their approach is rapid. We don’t know who exactly they are but for sure they are one among us. We start guessing the riders based on the helmets that seems to be a spec from a distance. Within minutes we can see about 10 riders thundering down the Rhumtse highway.
Sujay and myself smile at each other and acknowledge the arrival of a group that will be the first one to proceed to Leh.
Forget about it.
The odyssey for the first time starts breaking into smaller groups.
The lead taken by the one that will start first.
They were considered vociferous, humorous, tactful, cooperative, resilient and ardent.
They came to be coined as – The Dirty Dozen.
And they take off
It is confirmed, it is none other than the men from the army and their ilk. It almost feels like an entire family is coalesced after a bloody war that had torn apart the unity of the odyssey to rot in dungeons of extremely hostile weather. I could not stop smiling at the arrival of the first ten. Some hi-fives followed by cigarettes was the most natural way to set the excitement temperature soaring.
After a series of expletives to the situation that harassed all of them the previous evening; they are all set to talk about the plan for the day. It was barely 10.30 am and none were in the mood to withdraw themselves from their riding gear.
I am still referring to these fresh arrivals to the cold barren land of Rhumtse as “THEY”. There is good reason for me to hold my actual description for a name was later scripted upon. And for that to happen was no coincidence because,
Sujay and myself just got included in the “They” clan.
We wasted no further time and kicked our engines back to life. My own motorcycle was yet to arrive but fortunately I had all of my riding gear with me. The morning fire did wonders to my boots and had sucked out the last drop of dampness. I occupy pillion seat behind Rao Arvind Singh, a cheerful face and a 4×4 restorer back home in Udaipur. The 11 of us line up and kick start our ride to get Leh’d. We are led by our able commander in chief – Shantanu Sinha
We had to do a small formality before we bid goodbye to the colorful tents at Rhumtse. Our logistics head, asked us to sign a self indemnity bond on a piece of paper stating we were on our own as we had decided to gravitate towards the final destination without the entire group. The letter was drafted and signed off in a jiffy.
Good wishes from those opting to stay back accompanied us and for those who took a head count stated, they are off.
The Dirty Dozen will be the first ones to get Lehd.
Thus was born a new identity within the odyssey that went on to experience
something beyond the immersive landscapes.
Were those experiences pleasant ?
Numbers that indicate distance on the weathered signboards can make you smile. One of which that the dirty dozen encountered did just that to them. We were approaching Upshi and further ahead lay our final destination – Leh. Barely 80 kms now.
The roads were only getting better, most of our riding gear was completely dry giving us a euphoric feeling.
I could enjoy everything around me considering I was not over the handle bar and my trusted friend Arvind was belting a very pleasant beat from his Electra 350.
The dirty dozen maintained a steady pace and by now had covered more than half the distance in less than hour. The ones who reached a little early waited for the rest to join for some tea. Once we regrouped and enjoyed our hot beverages, we decided to proceed for some group shots on the open terrain opposite the restaurant.
The place though desolate to a tourist’s naked eye was being watched by an official who was doing the rounds in a vintage dusty Maruti van. Our army friends produced their ids but we still had to cough up 80 bucks per person for the shots we desired. I could not miss this opportunity of composing the shot the way I wanted and was blessed with some. It almost seemed like these guys were graduating and entering fresh avenues in life. After engaging in some creative poses and humor, it was time for us to continue to the city it all started for.
We finally reached Leh and once at the round about that served as a landmark for city point, we were looking forward to finding some good accommodation at the earliest. Arvind had been to Leh last year and knew a good hotel that would give us the much needed respite. We happily took his advice and religiously followed him to the parking lot of the hotel. Fortunately, rooms were available and we wasted no time in paying an advance and blocking them. The only painful ordeal being having to climb 3 floors that required some cajoling to be done on our leg muscles.
The rest of the day was spent lazing around. We left our bikes behind and preferred to walk in the by lanes of the crowded markets that was bustling with tourists, souvenirs and local cuisine. Some of us wanted to pick T-Shirts with embroidered prints that displayed the altitude, the terrain and in some cases even yaks. For those of us who were still carrying the trusted BSNL network could connect with fellow riders of the odyssey and get an update on the group’s status. In hindsight, we felt, it would have been great if the entire odyssey were around. But they were just a day away and would join us soon to make merry.
The rest of the odyssey members in the mean time were slowly pouring into Rhumtse and as per schedule decided to camp. This gave the dirty dozen all the time to plan out something they were looking forward to. A return trip to the serene Pangong Tso in a single day in a mini bus that would let them stretch their legs in comfort and crack all the possible male jokes on earth. Tour operators are in plenty and with a decent number of passengers getting a big vehicle is no ordeal. Our bus was booked and we could happily retire to one common room to enjoy some old monk and whisky. We spent a few more memorable hours slowly progressing into the night.
The dirty dozen were now fully relaxed and replenished.
Tomorrow we will be taken to one of the most beautiful lakes. Pangong Tso.
A date with serenity
Considering everything was arranged for our trip to the pristine Pangong Tso, had the dirty dozen enjoy their 40 winks. For the first time during the odyssey, could we travel without any riding gear and that was obviously because we left our steeds behind.
Our mini bus awaited our arrival at the pickup point. Forming an assemblage we hopped in like a bunch of excited school kids on an escorted picnic. As in any tour, the sorted heads took the seats up front and the psychos chose to warm the ones behind. The drive was for 5 hours each way and leaving early had its own advantage considering the omnipotent Chang La pass at about 17,500 feet that had to be be-friended.
We picked some breakfast on the way and were munching merrily into fruits until the altitude picked up and the roads started to turn from bad to worse, slowly putting most of us into a pleasant slumber. Those who woke up with the intermittent jolts received from the broken paths beneath, sighed and missed no opportunity to capture some scenic shots that their window seat threw open. We arrived at Chang La and it looked like a perfect day with the noon sky looking clear and the sun shining bright. The lake was still about a 90 minute drive and our eagerness to catch the first glimpse of the bright blue waters and rocky lake shore from a distance kept us awake.
The moment you are almost there, the view is fantastic. There is an iron bridge that one needs to cross over post which you descend down a path of narrow load bearing facade of a tall dry stack wall on either side. The wall itself always existed but for the path that was made to make way for the flats ahead. The colour of the 130 km long lake changes throughout the year from blue, green and sometimes reddish. It is between 2 – 6 kilometres wide and 1/3 of it lies in India with the rest moving east towards the Chinese controlled country of Tibet. The rugged Himalayan ranges in the background make for some stunning panoramic views. We reached around 1330 hours. The driver suggested we spent an hour doing photo shoot and lunch after which it was advisable to cross Chang La at the earliest as the weather could play devilment and throw in some unpleasant surprises.
Hungry that the gang was, we first opted for some noodles, egg burji and momos. Once done we headed to the shore and spent ample amount revelling into the beauty that surrounded us. Some also chose to take a yak ride and complimented it with a video shoot and some selfies. The sun had disappeared and our driver was calling for us. It was time to head back to our hotel. The experience at Pangong Tso as always was priceless. The dirty dozen retreated to their bus and were on their way to the hotel . Our calculation estimated an arrival time at 1900 hours. But little did we know how a hostile weather could change our lives.
Once again we are about 2 hours into our drive, when suddenly we see visibility around is less than 100 meters. The temperature outside has plummeted way beyond and quickly sees us dressed in our monkey caps, jackets and gloves. Chang La pass is nothing close to what it resembled a few hours ago when we were happy shooting some pictures. We decided to stop to attend to nature’s calls and have some hot beverages at the only cafeteria over the pass. It is extremely cold and windy. Thankfully it was raining so that did not let any moisture escape our skin. Neither was it pleasant to be experiencing all of it together.
We rush back to our bus and almost all of us reconfirm the time it would take to reach our hotel in one piece. The driver nods with a slight reservation for he could sense an air of eeriness. We could make nothing of it until we drove a few more turns and stopped behind a bee line of vehicles. We considered it to be another traffic jam that would slowly but surely clear off in a matter of minutes. The wait was only getting longer and setting in desperation amongst us. Getting itchy on our seats, some of us stepped off the bus to enquire the chaos that lurked. We were slammed with the news of a landslide that had blocked the entire road making it impossible for vehicles to ply beyond a point.
The sun had set and there were hundreds who waited outside their vehicles. It was disheartening to see several kids, women and senior citizens who had come to enjoy the lake during the day but now stood helpless. There was also an injured tourist with a fractured leg. The works officer quickly came up and ordered 4 trucks to carry all the stranded passengers. This would mean all will have to leave their vehicles behind. We wasted no time and helped the less abled to board first. One last check on all our belongings that lay in the bus and we boarded as well. Nobody was actually scared to death but the path the trucks trudged over had it tilt violently several times causing enough commotion inside. For those who were not tall enough to hold onto the truck’s roof had to locks arms with fellow passengers.
After a 20 minute ride, all were asked to get down and walk a few minutes down to the rescue state transport buses. But this was no ordinary walk. The entire path was landslide affected and there was not a spot of light except for some tourist torches that showed us the way. The big challenge here besides the slippery surface was also to carry that injured tourist who was weighing a good 80 kilos. Our endurance was put to test and the dirty dozen played the roles of a good Samaritan by taking turns to lift him over shoulders. In no time did we reach the buses below. We were still feeling excited about the whole thing. The 60 minute bus journey that wandered through the dark highways only known to the expert driver gunning the engine was memorable in itself.
We finally arrived at City Centre. Dinner was the only agenda and while most restaurant gates were shut, our humble cries outside one had the owner open it up and welcome us in with the same business hour hospitality. Kitchen was closed and we had to make do with some rice and gray food. But that filled us enough and we left the place on a high note to our hotel where we retired.
This was indeed the most memorable adventure of the Odyssey.
The final episode of my trip
After all the adventure we had the previous night, we slipped into a rather gloomy morning with the streets very sparsely populated. Not much of tourists but for a few locals could be seen wheeling around town. The pack that camped at Rhumtse had joined us in Leh and despite weather warning, a few bravados amongst the riders chose to do K-Top. Fortunately the weather favored them all the way and almost all got their prized photographs captured. Post which many felt there was nothing much left to do in the odyssey considering some important routes like Nubra, Wari La being knocked off.
A few casualties, mechanically misfit bikes and low spirits due to the repeated landslides and motormen strike saw many participants take their own decisions to break away from the odyssey. From a count of a strong 59 riders it dropped to an abysmally low 27 odd bikers. Leg 1 of the odyssey had come to an end now and for those who decided to ride back despite all odds would be venturing into Leg 2.
For me the clock was ticking and some urgency back home left me with no option but to head to the airport at the earliest. But finding a seat in any domestic airline that would fly close to Mumbai was an ordeal in itself. Most flights were operating belly full and the agent’s phones were ringing off the cradle. Leaving nothing to chance, I still went ahead and hired a cab that would take me to Manali. Post which plan was to take a bus to Delhi and then hope that there would be way more options to fly back home to Mumbai. Our man in charge of the logistics was working hard to put me on a flight and asked me to await good news until evening. By which time I had teamed up with some riders going to the same destination.
The entire day was pretty much spent in the hotel room and with hardly any Wi-Fi, killing time was a task. We suddenly felt the clock had come to a standstill and with no biking happening, the world around had frozen. This is what about 2 weeks of motorcycling can do to you when you are suddenly robbed of its pleasure. Come sunset, I am given the good news that the next morning I will be boarding a Jet Airways flight via Delhi to Mumbai. Joining me will be one of my fellow colleagues who had joined us only for Leg 2 but could not proceed due to an accident on the very first day of his ride. That was pretty much the last night I was going to spend in the hotel with my odyssey colleagues. My final 2 hours before I hit bed was spent meeting up with most of my co-riders. It was not easy to part with such wonderful people and accept the reality that most would end being in contact solely through social media and some blogs.
I salute all those who showed maturity, resilience and decided to finish the odyssey in true biker style. That meant riding back to Delhi. I was not a part of it to experience and write on those episodes which am sure was nothing short of another new adventure.
But like they say, attract good things and the universe will join hands to present it to you once again.