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The roadblock gave us some great pics

Welcome to the ride-of-my-life, where two friends decided to rock the Mighty Himalayas. Only to find that, we are always at the mercy of mother nature.

A magnificent  journey which abruptly ended just after the half way mark. All that stood between us and paradise was 50 meters of Black Ice.

But then a window of light opened, the Mountains gave us a second chance….

Part 1 was the beautiful motorcycle journey to Khardung La (Ktop)

Part 2 was about reaching the summit and then going down hard.

Recap..

Venkat & I started on the ride of our lives, a journey on the highest motorable road in the world, from 13,000 feet to 18,000 feet and down into the Valley of desolation.

The uphill journey was wonderful, with mostly clear roads and beautiful weather. However the journey beyond KTop (Khardung La) quickly ended (after 1.5 kms) with both the bikes skidding on black ice.

and then…..

Freezing up

End of the road

Lifting the bikes and moving them to the side of the road ate up all our energy. We were fast losing hope.

A truck stuck in the Ice & sludge

We walked for a short distance, to understand what we were up against. Turned out that we were not the only ones with a problem, a truck was stuck further down this road.

What looked really difficult, was now impossible!!

If a truck could get stuck, then our bikes were no match for this terrain and the snowfall was blocking our visibility.

With heavy hearts, we turned back to Ktop. We could not go further.

Out-of-Breath

All the lifting took its toll on our body and we had been at this high altitude for the last few hours. I was becoming dizzy, the first effects of altitude sickness – which could take down a traveler for at least a day.

I was not ready for the ride back from Ktop to Leh. The jawans immediately took me to one of their bigger bunkers which had an oxygen machine, I was also given a lot of liquids to smoothen the effects of altitude sickness.

Bunker which revived my spirits

After a 15 minutes rest, I was feeling better.

Breath Taking

We came out of the bunker refreshed and to a view I will never forget.

The weather had completely reversed. The time we went in, it was snowing with very  low visibility. Now it stopped snowing and the sun was shining brightly.

Life is Good!

This was the first time I was seeing snow blanketed by bright sunlight. The entire day, clouds were overshadowing this beautiful landscape.

This was the most spectacular sight I had ever seen. The  Heavens had opened their gates.

Hope was coming back. My energy was returning. I felt like superman basking in the energy of the sun.

Go forward or Go back?

I wanted to make another pass towards Nubra valley. It was stupid, the ice will not melt anyway. We were going to fall again.

Even then, I still wanted to try again. But Venkat had enough, he preferred to go back. Understanding my desire, he told me “It’s your call”.

Venkat, Not happy about trying again

HeHe…He should have know that my decisions were NOT practical or safe.

We were going to try again…..:-)

Failing once is Bad. Failing twice – Disaster!

My decision was quick – try to go through the Black Ice. Now I had to think about the consequences, if this will turn out to as a bad decision.

Here were the facts

Bikers don’t handle ice.
The ice will still cause our bikes to skid horribly.
A truck was stuck on this patch.
We could not put any physical effort – Exhausted in the first attempt.
The stretch of road covered in Ice was 50 meters.

The doubts went on in my head. But there is no point. I decided we were going to try anyway.

The plan

A 10 minute ride brought us to the patch of ice. Unlike the last time, there was no snowfall blinding us. The path was clearly visible, the last time we thought this was a never-ending stretch. Now we could see all 50 meters of it.

Last time we managed to cross only 1 meters before we fell. However this time we were ready.

We couldn’t push. We couldn’t ride

Driving through this was impossible and we did not have the strength to push 2 meters, forget about 50 meters. So we kind of decided to do both, we will move the bike on it’s own engine power.

We ran the bikes in first gear, at crawling speed, keeping both our feet on the ground to prevent the bike from falling.

Easier said than done.

Fortunately, there were tire tracks through this patch. Here the ice mixed with water and mud to make the whole thing slushy. At least,  it was better than just ice. We planned to stick to these tire tracks, venkat was going to take the left track and I, the right.

The longest 50 meters of our lives

I don’t remember being afraid at this point. The fear was before we made the decision.

We started the bikes, with feet firmly (not really, it was slipping) on the ground, we inched towards our goal. The bike was in first gear, we were at a crawling speed. The weight of the bike was making the tail end go out of control. It took all our strength, particularly legs to control the spinning.

Going through the slush was much better, an inch to the right or left would throw the bike out of balance.

I had more trouble with the heavier Tbird. Deciding to pick the heavier enfield did not look like a fun idea anymore.

There we were – two brave but equally stupid guys, trying to beat mother nature with man-made machines. We were moving inch by inch. Our strength was failing. We had to “stop” every 10-15 meters.

We could only pause. Stopping mid-way was now out of question. Falling was impossible to imagine.

Very slowly, we made progress. Venkat was ahead of me, tied down with his own struggles. This battle was our own, each of us had to face it alone. Venkat was doing better, he was stronger than me and his bike weighed half of mine.

Everything was out of focus

There was only me and the bike and the Ice, I was gaining ground inch by inch. Time stood still. My entire being focused on surviving – I just HAD to get THROUGH!!

and then…I was at the other end. Exhausted but exhilarated! We DID IT!

Down and Down

We didn’t have time to bask in our achievement, the day was ending and we couldn’t be caught on the Mountains after dark. The immediate stretch of 15 kms to south pullu checkpoint was horrible. But it was a cakewalk compared to the Ice.

We drove non-stop for the next hour or so to reach the first villages of  Nubra Valley. We reached 30 minutes after dark. Dead Tired!

I saw a beautiful incident on this road, while both of us were roaring down the mountain to reach our destination, a small boy came into view. He ran up into our view from his hut, with a beaming smile just to wave at us.

To this day, I regret not stopping and shaking his hand. But I will never forget him and the innocence behind his eyes.

Nubra Valley

Did we conquer the Mountain? YES. But it was the Mountain of fear inside our hearts……

The tale of Nubra Valley will come later.

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Part 1 was all about the amazing journey to Ktop (Khardung La). This is all about being there and beyond – An adventure of a lifetime.

Highlights

– Reached KTop

– Pictures with Jawans and playing in snow

– Coffee at 18,000 feet

– Weather turning bad

– Black Ice!

Read on my friends…….

KTop


After a very bumpy and  almost broken down stretch of 2-3 kms, Venkat and I finally reached Khardung la (la means pass) also called as KTop by bikers/locals.

After all the hard work, wonderful ride and scary moments at the edge, KTop was like an anti-climax. It was just like a pit stop and no where near this mighty summit that we thought would rise from the shadows.

It was a small patch of land with a few bunkers of army jawans and a sign board on the right saying “Highest Motorable road in the World”. The tourists got out of their cars to take pictures.

There was a lot of soft snow around and I started rolling around a bit, after all this was my first time. Venkat had enough of snow while he was in USA, he gave the “rolling around” a pass.

Rolling around in snow for the first time

We took a few pics. The jawanas were watching with amusement, the over-excitement of the tourists. I guess it wasn’t so much fun living here in bare minimum oxygen (50% of sea level), freezing your butt.

The jawanas were here to take care of maintaining all the roads including clearing of landslides and snow.  When everyone else was busy taking pics and having fun, we decided to “Thank” the jawans for their hard work. We were the only bikers there.

CO2

A bunker in the background

The jawans were pleased that we thanked them personally for all their hard work. I guess not many tourists do that. So the next time you are here, please make sure you drop in a “Thank You”.

They invited us into their bunkers for a cup of coffee. Venkat and I crowded in this bunker with the other jawans. The bunkers had furnaces, and it was warm inside.

Because there were  no cups for coffee, these guys used steel glasses. There were only 2-3 glasses which were given to us, the guests. The rest used empty tin cans as glasses.

Best Coffee ever at 18,000 feet

We were actually feeling weird inside the bunker. Venkat came up with a theory – there was little oxygen here, and a the furnace fire would gobble up the oxygen, leaving out only co2 (carbon dioxide) and with 6-7 guys cramped up, it was hard breathing..literally. After coffee and a good chat, we stepped out into the fresh freezing air.

Breaking point

Venkat with the Jawans

One of the jawans wanted to  ride our bikes. A few tried the smaller bajaj pulsar. But none dared to touch the big blue TBird.

All the tourists had turned back to Leh. We were the only civilians left out and thanks to the officer at South pullu, we had permission to go beyond KTop into Nubra valley.

We finally said our good byes and started down. It started snowing.

Pumped up for the downhill ride

I was seeing snowfall for the first time, and now I was biking through it. After just a few hundred meters, we were already having a bad time. the road was no better, the snow was fogging up our helmet glass, cutting out our visibility.

We had no choice but to lift the visor on the helmets. With no protection, my face was at the mercy of the elements – the snow falling into my eyes and the freezing wind numbing everything.

I was born in a city where summer temperatures touch 50 degree centigrade (120 F). The winter temperatures go to a minimum of 20+ degrees. You can say that I am really bad at dealing with cold.

snow flakes fogging the helmet

Now imagine me being in sub-zero temperatures, with a wind chill and biking through it. Although I was wearing twice as much protection as venkat (who was used to it after a few years stay in USA), I was still freezing and now my visor was off.

This was the toughest physical test ever for me. We got through only a kilometer and there were 40 more kilometers downhill to go.

and then it happened…

I read about it. Never understood it. Other bikers would encounter it in the winter, stop dead in their tracks and turn back.

Black Ice!

The word itself sounded ominous. As I was saying, we were biking downhill through the snow and freezing cold, visibility was still only for  few feet. Suddenly there was black ice below me, the next second my brain registered this and before I could say “oh shit!”, the bike went down. All 350 kg of it. Venkat was behind me, and his bike skidded and fell down just as it crossed me.

Can't see the road beneath the ice and slush

There was no warning, we never saw it in this weather. As soon as we touched it, we slipped and fell down. There was zero traction to the tires on this surface.

I finally knew what black ice was..

My Tbird fell on the right side of the narrow mountain road, Venkat was overtaking me and ended up falling on the middle of the road (the bike fell, he was ok).

Do you know what happens when there is less oxygen?

A small physical effort becomes very difficult. In LEH itself, we had trouble climbing a simple staircase. We wound up out-of-breath after climbing the flight to our hotel room and KTop was 5000 feet higher. There is even less oxygen here.

Now imagine trying to upright a 350kg or 180kg motorcycle  in freezing temperature. We couldn’t lift them the first time. But we had to try. We were exhausted.

STOOOP!!!

While we were busy trying to lift the bikes, we did not notice a truck slowly rolling towards us. Visibility was really bad.

Venkat and his bike was in its direct path. We eventually noticed it and signaled the driver to stop. Not that it was needed, he could see us in his path or so we thought….

Within a few seconds we realized that the truck was not stopping, it was still crawling at a slow pace. But it was not stopping.

We didn’t understand, we tried harder to make him understand, we shouted, jumped up and down. Still the truck kept coming, slow and steady.

This was like watching a horror movie in slow motion. Why the hell wasn’t the guy stopping, Venkat was in its direct path.

We gestured even harder, astonished. Couldn’t the guy see us?…..and finally the truck stopped. 10 meters short of Venkat.

After a few pitiful attempts, we managed to lift the bikes and moved them back to the side. We were panting, exhausted, I was seeing stars. This was it. I could not take it any longer.

My strength left me, with that my hope…

End of the Road

Was it really the end? Read the third and final part to find out…….

When I started writing this post, I saw the day’s headlines – A disaster struck the small town of Leh. Heavy rains caused mudslides and more than 200 people were killed. The biggest calamity Leh had ever seen. May peace come soon to this peaceful town.

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You must have heard the word – Majestic, have you seen it? stood near it?. You can see it and stand near it, but you can’t speak. The Himalayas will make you speechless.

This is part of the story of two childhood friends, who were continents apart. They came together to ride their puny motorbikes on the mighty Himalayas, India and thus have an adventure of a lifetime. Venkat & Keshav in May 2008.

This is one of the events of the 5 day trip to Leh, Kashmir. More details will be covered in future posts.

In brief,

We motorbiked on the highest motorable road in the world

We faced black ice – the worst hazard to a biker.

We were invited into the bunkers of Indian army jawans.

I saw snow for the first time in my life.

I was inches from the edge of the mountain

We lived to tell you this tale.

At the foot, 13K feet

The hotel had only 4 guests

There we were outside our hotel, Venkat (85kg)  on his 150kg Bajaj Pulsar and me (60kg) on the 350kg Enfield thunderbird, to all others it would appear that we were supposed to swap bikes. It was a complete mismatch of biker and rider. But this was our very own personal choice when we rented these bikes.

We get ready for a few snaps, all the gear attached to the bikes. Behind us, the mountain holding “Khardung la” pass gleams in the sunlight. With a roar, I start my 350 cc bike. Venkat starts his 150 cc pulsar with a gentle purr (now you know why I opted for that bigger bike). We then set off to the foot of the mountain. A short ride through the streets of Leh brings us there. It was early morning.

We faced a beautiful road winding through the mountain range, going above in to what seemed like sky itself. This was said to be the highest motorable road in the world.

Reaching for the clouds

We were speeding up the mountain and except for an occasional truck the road was virtually empty. Leh was stretched below us, dotted with trees here and there, other than that, this land was virtually bare. As we went higher, we saw the mountains running around all of us, tipped with snow at the peaks. From up here, the Mountains looked very different, it was almost as if we were coming to equal terms.

Leh was a tiny oasis surrounded by a gigantic picket fence.

The sight was too beautiful to just keep riding on and on. We stopped to take pictures. Thank god we had digital cameras, you can never take enough pictures of this spectacle. We were speeding up the winding road, the T-Bird had amazing comfort and power, its thud-thud-thud sound waking up the heavens.

wow!

The occasional truck from the opposite side reminded us to be careful at least at the blind corners. But soon caution was swallowed up by the Mountains and we were racing through the wind with the early morning sunshine bathing us.

This was just perfect!

My favorite color

Very soon we glimpsed the first snow/ice covering the mountain side. I stopped to touch it, for the first time in my life!

We reached our first checkpost – South Pullu, manned by Indian army. This division is responsible for maintaining these roads.

Surprise! Surprise!

Being friendly with the Indian Army

Reaching South pullu, we were in for some bad news. The road from here to Khardung La pass and to the other side is too narrow for two-way travel.

Monday was the day when vehicles from Nubra valley side pass through Khardung La and reach Leh and now we were stuck on this side. We had two choices – go back or plead with the army jawans to let us go ahead.  The army was in contact with Khardung La and North pullu (a similar post on the other side). The officer told us to hang around while he tries to bend the rules.

We were the only bikers. The rest were tourists who used taxis or came in their own transport. I found a Army major who was on his way to Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world. He talked about the India-Pakistan standoff. It was an interesting conversation.

Finally there was a go-ahead from the army officer. We had permission to not only go to the top, but also to go beyond into Nubra valley.

Going above, now everything was covered in snow. It was getting cold. Even the sun was ducking behind the clouds (later we would know that these were snow clouds)

Edge of Beauty


It was 14 kilometers to the top. As we climbed up, the road became very narrow and rocky.

We stopped to take some amazing pics (this blog’s header pic included). Unfortunately took more time then expected and trucks from the top started coming down towards south pullu.

The road was too narrow, and both of us had to hug the edge of the road. Venkat stopped on the right-side with the mountain wall on his side.

Thanks for making sure I lived

I was stuck on the left side, my front tire 3 inches from the edge.

There wasn’t much to do until the convoy went away. So I decided to take pictures from my very unusual vantage point. After 20 minutes the convoy rolled away.

3 inches short. The remains of a truck in the valley below.

Now the last few kilometers to Khardung La were very bad, the road condition deteriorated. Probably because there is a constant snowfall and landslides.

We were crawling at 5kmph speed and then just like that, we were at the top!

Part 2 is done

Part 3 (the concluding post on Ktop) is also ready for your pleasure

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LML Vespa

India has truly become a motorcyclist country. But not long ago, the scooter ruled this place.

Scooter – A two-wheeler with the gear shift on the left hand and a brake at your right foot. The wheels are small. More unstable than a motorcycle, but with a larger carrying capacity.

Built to carry the Saree laden Indian ladies and mothers.

Our scooter was the LML Vespa. I learnt to drive a geared 2-wheeler on the scooter. I loved it.

As a Kid, I loved to get on the scooter with dad.  So here are a few fun things for small kids.

Sitting Back-To-Back

Things to-do on the scooter

1 ) Firstly kids can stand on the front of the scooter, in the small platform between the handle and the seat. You have the wind in your face and placing your hands on the handle (next to dad’s) will give you a sense of control.

Sometimes you do get a chance to control the throttle. Dad was liberal in giving me access on a clear stretch of the road.

2) At the same place, instead of standing, now the kid tries to sit. Not literally though, you duck your head below the handle and suddenly the road is almost rushing right next to your head.

You are almost transported to another dimension, cut off the from the traffic noise, the oncoming vehicles. I felt that I was in my own moving space-ship with wide windows to my sides.

3) Sitting behind the driver. But in reverse or Back-to-Back. This view of the world is indeed strange.

This was my favorite. I could not help but have a stupid grin on my face whenever I was facing the commuters following our scooter. The scooter goes North while I almost “feel” that I’m going South.

This is very entertaining for the kid and amusing to other adults who are following the scooter in their vehicles. Of course, it is also inspiring for other kids.

Times Change

Vehicle that carried the Indian Family

Sadly, this is no longer a common sight. The motorcycles/bikes have almost replaced the scooter. Bajaj chetak is now replaced by the Bajaj Pulsar. I miss seeing kids having a ball, sitting back-to-back with their fathers.

For parents with young children – Please try to find a scooter around your homes and let them have the ride of their life. I’m sure it is not an impossible task to borrow a scooter.

Every kid deserves a scooter ride!

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Royal Enfield Thunderbird Twinspark - my bike

It has been a while. There is no thump or a roar in my ears. With a neck problem, that has become chronic over the months, doctor has asked me to lay off  my motorcycle. I miss my bike.

My tiger is waiting, resting , crouching, ready to leap at any moment. The Thunderbird (the Indian Harley) is one of my most prized possessions, we had been through great adventures, painful scars, happy moments, emotional times.

We were with friends and strangers.

We were out alone.

We faced the winter and braved the summer.

We saw sunrise and  sunset. Together from dawn till dusk.

We traveled the whole day and the whole night.

We did not stop for food or drink .

Sometimes, there was a plan, most times the destination was made on the way.

None came between us, except for the highway.

I miss you.

With you, once again, I will be the king of the road.

My last trip was a solo, 1100km round-trip, completed in 48 hours. It started with turbulence in my mind and ended up giving me peace, this blissful journey through daylight and under moonlight.

In the one year since I had my bike, I did

1) Won the 3rd place in a Drag Race.

2) 3 solo trips, two of them through the night. That is a total of 2000+ kms, spending almost 50 hours on the highway, alone!

3) 1 group ride of 1100 kms from Hyderabad-Bangalore-ooty with 20+ Enfielders.  We went to a bikers convention where 500 bikers showed up from all over India.

4) 4 short trips (less than 200 kms) with a party of 2 or 3 bikers.

5) Fell from the bike doing a stunt on my 10-day old shiny new Thunderbird and broke my right arm.

This week

It was indeed a busy and eventful year for me and the T-Bird. Few days ago, I had to use my bike again.

I felt guilty for neglecting it, it had been more than month. I hoped that the bike would start without problems, expectantly the battery was almost dead, after couple of kicks, the engine started and slowly caught on. The roar was back. I rolled out of the house.

The feeling was back, the thump was great, the bike was throbbing with unused massive amounts of power. The throttle was ready for a spin of my hand and I leaped. Heads were turning again.

The king of the Road is back!

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