Ladakh on a Ducati Scrambler
Text and photos by Vipin Mishra
At the very start, I must tell you that the Ladakh region is no more the far flung forbidden high lands that it once used to be.There’s actually a joke that during season time, the ratio between humans and motorcycles is a bit skewed towards motorcycles!
But its also true, like most other destinations that develop as tourist hubs, Ladakh too has its own pre-marked tourist routes and few go off the grid. And there’s no shame in that, simply because till you’re on the grid, you’re safer and need less planning as there’s a fair amount of travellers and traffic so you won’t be left to die in the cold if a sticky situation ever arose. So you see, that’s quite an incentive to stay on the grid!
Then again, if it’s adventure you’re looking for, you know like that picture in your head where there’s no one there for miles and miles.. not even a road sometimes, then do read on.
We went and picked her up on a rather warm October Sunday.The bright cheery and yellow Ducati Scrambler, the cheapest that the Italian motorcycle brand had to offer and my most expensive two wheel purchase as yet.
Ladakh painted the perfect picture for a great adventure, so I started planning for a ride the Ladakh region. I had been there more than a few times before and that never diminished the anticipation of travelling to that land, but the Ducati Scrambler would make this time special. Now I must admit that the Scrambler is no Enduro. The rear suspension is pretty stiff catering to better handling for cornering on tarmac, which means stiff bumpy rides on broken roads. The front suspension’s travel isn’t quite as much as you’d like too and tends to bottom out when confronted with big dips, jumps or pot holes at reasonable speeds. The fuel tank takes in just 13.5-litres making the need to refill it every 200 kms (125miles), so you really need to be crafty with planning appropriate luggage for a 2-week long ride. That being said, pretty much all you see out here are Royal Enfields, in comparison to which, i was riding a Jet Rocket!
So after much recce of the area on google maps, and helpful information from a few blogs, I chartered out a riding schedule. It would be 2,300kms and 10 days of riding with two days of rest. While you might be thinking that 230km per day would be a matter of 2-3 hours, conditions are quite different when traveling to Ladakh is involved. On top, we would have no support vehicle or mechanic carrying spares, so we were pretty much on our own. You would be surprised at how much you “need to be prepared for ” as you try to balance between spares, clothes, supplies and fuel, each fighting for the limited space available the motorcycle.
Day 1: Mumbai – Chandigarh
Our bikes had arrived in Chandigarh from Mumbai via transport, and we brought ourselves to the same location by flight. Unpacked, cleaned and filled up with fuel, I mounted my luggage a started off towards Shimla. It was a hot day, hot enough for my iPhone to show the “overheated” warning which I had never seen before. My friend and fellow rider Viraj had transported his Scrambler via a different transport had his motorcycle at a different location, so we caught up along the way about 40 odd kms from Chandigarh.
We stopped for the night at Kufri. We’d decided to take the Chail exit that leaves the Shimla highway at Kandaghat. Its a better biking road than the main highway. Narrow and quaint, you’re not resenting your ride to Manali, which is usually the case if you go via Sundernagar. Although we got lucky with our accommodation at the HTDC at Kufri, I would recommend you book your’s well in advance.
Day’s Notes: 150 Kms/ Mostly good roads and easy riding/One broken bridge / river bed crossing/beautiful woods/lovely guest house/Old Monk and splif’s/nice and heavy north Indian food!
Day 2: Shimla – Manali
We left Kufri to hit the Jalori Pass via Narkanda. The bikes were super fun on the approach to the pass! A hot and wet Maggi each for lunch (Folks form outside India might not understand, but believe me, out here Maggi is everything) and we went down to Aut to meet the main Manali highway. NOTE: When approaching Aut, don’t cross the river at the first bridge. Keep right off the river till you come across the old bridge which will lead you through the market and onto the highway. You’ll save yourself traffic, boring extra kms and most of all, right now, its a fun dirt track.
We reached Manali late evening and hung out with friends and beer’d up. We also met our third rider, my brother,Vikram who joined us from Manali to ride on, on a BMW F650. His bike had been in cold storage for months and he had just put on tyres which were in decent shape but stored for almost 3 years. Hopefully, this wouldn’t be an issue.
Day’s Notes: A mix of roads, especially rough around the Jalori Pass and a breeze after you meet the Manali Highway at Aut. I would put the Jalori Pass as on of the most demanding part of the ride, owing to the road conditions, the gradient and occasional traffic. It is a long, tiring ride, but the few hours on smooth highway eases that a bit. The Scramblers were an absolute delight and a lot of fun on the tricky Jalori Pass stretch.
Stayed at Khaknal village at our friend, Joy’s cottage/Compared notes on spares and gear/Beers/ Simple Chicken Curry Rice care of our friends/a good nights sleep.
Day 3: Manali – Sarchu
Amidst some rains, we rode on towards Rohtang Pass. Its a beautiful ride up to the pass and the roads are mostly great till the top (depending on the season you visit in). Being a rather wet spot, the road (or lack of it) going down from Rohtang to the Spiti and Ladakh valley is mostly always in muddy. Please note I never said “Bad condition”, because muddy is a lot of fun, especially on the dual sport Pirelli MT60RS tyres that come with the Scrambler. The dual sport tyres work best as they offer a perfect mix of leaned-in cornering fun when on tarmac as well as good traction when over lose soil.
NOTE: In season time, one needs a permit to go to Rohtag due to heavy traffic. The permit can be obtained at the local admin in Manali. Tour operators can help against a fees. You’ll need copies of your motorcycle’s registeration, Driving Licence and PUC (Pollution Certificate). If you’re in a 4-wheeler, leave before the birds wake up, because the line of cars will beat a queue that surrounds Apple stores when iPhones are launched! Trust me! It was least 5 kms long when we crossed Rohtang. Given that we were on motorbikes, it didn’t matter much as one could squeeze through.You’ll need to stop at a check post that’s clearly marked, show your permit, queue up at the cashiers, pay up an additional 200 odd rupees per bike, and ride on.
As soon as we were on the other side of the pass, Vikram’s BMW F650 had started blowing fuses. He temporarily shorted the fuse and fixed it once we had ridden down to Kokhsar. The rubber insulation between the metal cover and the battery terminal had a tear and the two were touching. Once that was fixed, we gave the famed “Meat Chawal” at Khoksar a miss and rode on.
Manali to Leh is about 475 kms. After 110 odd kms from Manali, you come across the last petrol station between Manali and Leh. So for the remaining 375km you might to cart fuel along. At Tandi, an enterprising boy was selling jerrycans just opposite the petrol pump. We purchased 2, 5-litre cans as well as topped up our bikes. Finding a place to tie those cans on the Ducati Scrambler was quite a task for me. Viraj on the other hand, had a tail rack on his Scrambler that proved to be perfect spot to bungie up the fuel cans. The BMW F650 on the other hand, had more than enough space to mount the entire fuel station! We were slightly jealous.
NOTE: While there is always a possibility of finding petrol in black from the locals who’ve stocked it by one means or another, it is quite a bit more costly (about Rs 100/litre) and not the cleanest of fuels. If you have a fuel injected motorcycle, better avoid it. Absolutely relying on the locals would lead to major problems too, in case they are out of fuel, you are out of luck too… in the middle of nowhere.
Stopping at Keylong for a great Mutton Momo Lunch left us re-energised for the still distant destination of Sarchu. I must say here that Jispa, 20 odd kms ahead of Keylong looked to be a beautiful village to stop for the 1st day, essentially cause it’ll give you more time to acclimatise. I remember noticing its beauty and making a personal note for the next time I plan a trip. The roads as I remember were just fine. Some broken..some not but, no serious obstacles to be tackled. There are some not-so-serious water crossings at Darcha for which waterproof touring boots are a bliss (do not underestimate the temperature of flowing water out here).
Which brings us to Zing Zing Bar (What a name, right?! I’ll probably name my future pub just that) A few kilometres prior to ZZB, the roads become awesome! Soon you’re climbing up to the Baralacha Pass and you get your first taste of that heady high altitude feeling! We had had a beautiful sunny day to back us all day, but by the time we were crossing the Baralacha, the sun was setting and it was getting cold.
We reached our camp, Goldrop, at Sarchu at a reasonable time of about 7:15 pm. But what followed was crazy. Vikram and Viraj, who were both ahead of me missed the camp. I honked and flashed lights at them hoping that one of them notices my signals to turn around back to camp. Well, that didn’t happen.
By the time I met the camp manager, figured out the tent and unmounted my luggage, it was well past 8 pm. It was now dark, very windy, as Sarchu is know to be, and very cold. Anyway, I had to go after them. No cellular service works in this area, not even BSNL. Probably one of those in ear radio’s could have helped avoid this situation but we didn’t have any. Viraj was the only one that had a set which he used to listen to music. So I rode out towards Pang, but gave up after 20 mins of riding. It was pitch dark, the road was dug up at multiple places and there were diversions on which one could have easily lost ones way. The Scrambler’s OEM headlight isn’t the best and with mud on it, it was as ineffective as a candle in such a situation.
Since they were together, I had hopes that they would find a safe place to bunk. I thought I’d switch on the hazard lights on my Scrambler and parked it next to the road just in case one of them came back looking for me. As luck would have it, a minute or two after I pulled into the camp area, I saw a headlight. riding back at a slow speed, I shouted, “Viraj!” hoping he had his music off! He did! I guess we all prefer silence when all is not well!
Ok, so now we were here but Vikram wasn’t. He had stayed at the cheek post about 10 kms further and it was decided that if Viraj didn’t come back in half-an-hour, he too would start riding back assuming the two of us had united.
We waited just a little over 20 mins without Vikram showing up and my gut told me that I should go back for him. It was colder now, it had been a long hard ride of 230 km from Khaknal. At 14000 ft, the altitude takes a toll on your body. In all this confusion, I hadn’t hydrated myself for an-hour-and-half and that must have made it worst. But we couldn’t call it a day till we were all together. I just had to go back and check. I put on every jacket I could and started out. And boy am I glad we didn’t wait any longer at camp.
Vikram’s F650 was standing on one side of the heavily dug up road with him standing besides it. It had a puncture. Vikram had smartly hauling down an empty truck that waited 50-yards ahead. Although he had carried a lot of tools, he had made it clear that after changing both the tyres at a workshop in Manali, it would be a herculean task to change the tyres if it happened again. Being an Enduro with spoked wheels, the BMW F650 runs on tubed tyres and the only way to fix it was remove the tyre and replace the tube.
Given that the F650 was giving issues, even related to the engine misfiring and the clutch slipping, Vikram and I decided, although hesitantly, to send it back to Manali.
NOTE: If your motorcycle ever packs up, keep waiving out to trucks as some of them are returning empty. Mostly they carry planks which can be used as a ramp.As you’ll have a sharp angle of ascent onto the make shift ramp and no space on the ramp to walk or hold the bike use ropes. Make a loop and make it go round the front suspension and put a guy or two on the truck to make them pull it. Another two of you to push the bike and then quickly move to the sides to support it while you keep pushing it and keep the momentum going, and your bike should be on the truck. Remember, the trick is to put your bike in a way, and tighten it with whatever you might have, to such an extent that it has no play to move. If it won’t move, it won’t get damaged.And never put it on a stand. Make it use its suspension, keep it on its wheels. Use any stuff that you might have, bags, jackets, sleeping bags, spare tyres that the truck might have, to pad the area between the motorbike’s tank and handlebar/levers and the trucks side wall.
As I rode back, and Vikram took a ride with the truck till the camp, our eventful day had thankfully ended. At the dining tent,I kept it light and had a bowl of soup.The nausea that comes with mild altitude sickness had set in and the 3 days of riding and todays 230 kms ride with the extended fiasco had got to me. I took out my sleeping bag in my tent and crawled in it with a heavy head. My body needed rest.
Notes For The Day: A rather long ride at 230kms, first day of that high altitude vibe and views. Some water crossings but mostly decent roads, sudden gain in altitude from below 7000ft at Manali to over 14000ft at Sarchu leading to disturbed sleeping pattern. No booze tonight, horrible Soup for dinner
Day 4: Sarchu to Leh
It was a glorious morning to wake up to.The sun shone bright, the skies were pristine blue and the sight of the camp I saw for the first time in good light was picturesque. The breakfast table was laid out in the pastures, before Vikram could take the bus to Leh and hire a trusted Royal Enfield Bullet from there while Viraj and I ride up to Leh. Well… actually ride down I guess. We were at 14,000 ft and Leh is at 10,500 ft!
NOTE: As its only one road, its easy to catch the bus. Just wait on the road side with enough water to drink and it’ll show up. For reference, it passed the camp around 10 am that morning. I think the ticket was something like Rs.300
The road from Sarchu up till Pang is just horrific, at least when we were there. Its neither a trail
road, and its definitely not tarmac’ed. It’s just loose rocks and hard uneven surface. Add to that trucks that fly clouds of dust and diesel in your face and are too lazy to steer left to give you a pass, it wasn’t a fun stretch. That said, the view that opens up makes up for all the misery. As one climbs up to 16,616ft to the LachungLa pass via the famed “Gata Loops”, a series of hairpin bends that climb in altitude quickly.
But this day had its events as well. I got a puncture. So I pulled over and next a little drain carrying glacial water which I could use to pour over the tyre to find the leak. It was fairly painless apart from the fact that I had no one to push the bike forward to backwards to roll the tyre to find the leak.Viraj was ahead of me and he didn’t realise that I wasn’t following for the next 30-odd minutes. After fixing the puncture when I inflated the tyre with the compressed gas canister, it strangely seemed to be still leaking. On checking again, I discovered a 2nd puncture! By this time Viraj was back and it was quicker and easier to fix it with his help.Two punctures that were re-inflatated had left me with empty compressed gas cans.
Although these canisters prove to be a little expensive, its by far the most convenient way to re inflate your tyre. Each can puts in 10psi and I purchased them from www.grandpitstop.com. We rode on to reach Pang where you find at least a 10 make-shift shacks that serve a thali, which would be rice dal and maybe another curry, like Rajmah or potato curry, and off course the staple Maggi noodles and Eggs! Some of them double up as night stays and will give you a bed in a dormitory style. No provisions for a bath and the toilets are usually shared.
Note: As a place, Pang isn’t interesting or inviting. I would recommend skipping it for a night stay of one can avoid it.
Post lunch, an getting the punctures properly attended to, we ambled along towards Leh. After merely 5-kms or so from Pang, the road transforms into a stretch thats four lane wide, perfectly tarmac’ed and dead straight. Its simply joyous.You can cruise easy while soaking in the grand majesty of the valley that is visible for miles. Alternatively, one could keep the throttle pinned wide open till eternity and hit insane speed limits. But since you are touring with no spares or supplies, in the middle of no where, option 1 is the more practical option.
This quality of road continues all the way to Leh. We throughly enjoyed it on our Scramblers as they hugged the road, cornered like they should, giving solid grip and feedback from the tyres and chassis no matter how hard we leaned them into corners.
We rode into Leh under a dramatic 6pm light. The sun angled in just above the mighty mountain ranges, and the trees lined along the Indus filtered the glistening of the river. At the hotel,Vikram had just about reached too. A hot shower, an old monk(cheap and cheerful, yet very good domestic Rum), some good laughs and dinner made it a good wrap to a good day.
Notes ForThe Day:A relaxed ride of 180 kms. Stunning tarmac roads between Pang and Leh. Bodies acclimatise better as its day 2 in the rarified oxygen region. Realisation that Leh probably has the most dramatic entry as compared to any city in the world!
Day 5: The Much Welcomed Rest Day
With no where to ride to, we woke up as we pleased, for today was our first rest day. Viraj and I rode to enjoy a mid day meal, met up with a common friend, Junaid, a ADV and motocross enthusiast who owns a Triumph Tiger and stays in Leh during the tourist season. Being a coffee drinker, I welcomed my proper filter coffee since I left Mumbai. Thats the thing about Leh. You’ll never be short of quaint and interestingly done places to eat and drink and you could get a nice mid-range hotel on twin sharing in a great location for 2,000 rupees (£25). If you want to go cheaper, there are clean guest houses for 800-1000 rupees (£10-£12) too.
Notes:The Changspa road is the new happening part of town, and places on the Fort Road are older and more in the thick of the action. Make sure you stay in the city and not far from it as Leh lends itself beautifully to walking around and you don’t want to be stuck in a far flung hotel and booking a taxi to every time you want to go to town.
As Vikram arranged for his Bullet 350 standard, and I coordinated with a friend for the Inner Line Permits which we would need beyond the Merak village post PangongTso. We also did our fuel planning while in Leh and purchased three 20-litre jerrycans. A friend who’s vehicle was driving down to Manali agreed to cart them and leave 60-litres of petrol for us to collect at Pang.
Diskit at Nubra, where we were heading tomorrow, was now the only place for the remainder of our ride, that had a petrol station. So through a friend, we called someone in Diskit to confirm if the fuel station had supplies.There are chances that they might be out of fuel, but on that given day, they had it in stock.
With permits, forms and fuel supply sorted, and Vikram’s replacement bike, we headed for some beers and a nice dinner before calling it a night!
Day’s Notes: You should also take 5 to 7 Copies of the permit as you need to leave a copy behind at check posts.You will also need 5 copies of a Self Declaration Form which you should fill in before you leave for the day.These need to be submitted at various police check posts along the way.The hotel that you stay in should be able to help you with these, and this is also one of the reasons why you will need a day in Leh, to take care of the paperwork.
Day 6: Nubra Valley
Today was special, we were to cross over to the Nubra valley via the Khardung La, arguably the highest motor able road in the world at 18379 ft. I say arguably as there another one that climbs a little higher close to Pangong and apparently another in the north east but who really cares! Its 50 odd kms from Leh, and when we rode, the roads were good, the day was sunny and by the time we got there, it was more crowded than Mumbai at rush hour! The mandatory picture was taken with the yellow board declaring its importance, which Vikram refused to line up for, and adhoc folks striking a pose with your bike while you waited for you turn had us riding out of there to the other side pretty soon.
The ride to Nubra was fun and easy. The roads are a mix as usual apart from the one stretch that seems like its been pulled out of the Kutch region, with a straight narrow well laid out road cutting through the sands of the high altitude desert.You can try and capture it in a picture, but you just can’t!
It’s a well marked route to Nubra so I won’t go into the details. Diskit is a really pretty town. It is well-kept, even has a local bar! I found a cobbler to fixed the tears on my saddle bags. Our guesthouse, Shangri-La was nice traditional structure with a small lawn and a parking for the motorcycles. The petrol pump is unique too. The attendant pumps the fuel manually into 5 ltr vessels and thats the minimum quantity that you must buy. If you want 8-litres, too bad, its either 5- or 10-litres. But at least we could top up our tanks to continue on to Hunder, just 10 kms from Diskit . You can see the beautiful landscape with dunes and if its your thing, you could go to the play area and ride a double humped camel thats found in this region, and shoot some arrows.. no, not at the camels! At targets!
Like Shangri-La Hotel, most places do a simple buffet dinner with a vegetarian spread and mostly the food is quite nice.Tonight, it was spectacular, the best meal we had outside of Leh and Manali.
Given that today’s ride was 160kms, it was perfect.. easy and nice.
NOTES: Although I knew this, and I suspect you do too, but the concept of the quantum of kilometres that one can cover in the mountains, especially with varying road conditions or no roads what so ever, is very tricky.To put it simply, in the Ladakh region, if you plan to leave early, say 8:30 am on the road and enjoy your ride, stop for pictures and a lunch over conversation, and want to reach at 4 pm or there about to be able to see a bit of the place, then you should target no more than 160-170 kms in a day.
Day 7: Pangong Tso
Over the next two days, we had planned to go a bit off the grid, as I had mentioned earlier. We back-tracked to a diversion on the road that goes back to Khardung La, and too the other road that goes along the Shook river into Shook valley. I wouldn’t call it very remote as there were still some bike groups and tourist cabs, but much lesser visited part as compared to the rest we had seen.
The roads here are again on and off, but the number of water crossings increase. A few of them bigger than you’d like and with the potential to cause serious damage to motorcycle.
Which is what happened exactly!
The Scramblers made it across, but Vikram’s Bullet hit its oil sump on a rock while crossing a stream and it cracked wide open! There was engine oil all over the place, and it was pretty much over for Vikram’s Enfield. After trying to haul a couple of cabs, we found one that had the space for Vikram and his luggage, while Viraj and I scavenged all the fuel we could from the Enfield. As we headed out about 10 kms, Vikram had found a Mahindra pickup truck and was on his way to the site of the breakdown. We went back with him and helped them strap the bike on the pickup.
Tangste, a town 60km further is a junction where roads coming from Leh meets up and carries on till Pangong Tso. If we could find a welder and engine oil, Vikram’s trip could continue.
The ability to be able to accept, assess your options, hope against odds, and to leave no stone unturned and fix what you can.. you tend to learn all of these important attributes of your nature, of human nature when on adventures like these.
The ride to Tangste takes you through passes and narrow roads with steep drops and rock slides till it climbs down to the valley next to the river.You pass small villages which serve as an oasis of green in this otherwise bland, brown landscape. It’s like natures decided to use more hues from her palette for you to appreciate.
Viraj and I, upon reaching Tangste, drove around to find a welder. There were none. No mechanic either. But there was a GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force) outpost. We took our chance and walked in and presented our situation. The officer on duty was out for inspection and would be back by 3pm, and only he could give the go ahead. So we found a dhaba, and settled in for some lunch and waited for the officer to return. It looked bleak though, since Enfield has now moved to aluminium casings instead of the of cast iron ones that came before. As pointed out by Vikram, aluminium welding wouldn’t be an option with GREF, and unfortunately so was the case. Vikram had no choice but to take the bike back to Leh, which was fortunately about 120kms from Tangste. Wether he would still continue his trip, with another bike, was something he decided to think about once back in Leh.
His trip could well be over, but we had to press on as soon as Vikram, his bike and the pick up departed for Leh. They would take the route via the Chang La pass to meet the main highway for Leh at Karu. This is the route that most tourists who wish to travel to Pangong take.
We cruised nice and easy as we were only 40 odd kms from Pangong. The roads were nicely laid and curving through flatlands.The stones and dust were now giving way to pastures and the traffic on the road was considerable. Soon we saw the emerald blue streak emerge from the horizon, its a sight that will alway make you feel elated, pleasantly surprised, happy and make you take a moment at the marvels of nature.We rode along the lake for a good 8kms as we’d booked a camp a little further. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road as my head would constantly turn to see more of the beautiful scenery. The camp here was a much better than the one at Sarchu, but then here they were all just a days drive from Leh. Sarchu is in the middle of nowhere, so it’s understandable.
The remainder of the day and night, which to our luck was a full moon night, was spent mostly by the lake, talking, strolling, clicking pictures, sipping Old Monk and not being able but to feel bad for the fact that Vikram wasn’t able to share this.
Day 8: Pangong – Tso Moriri
The one thing that we had borrowed from Vikram before he turned back was the air compressor. My compressed cans were all over, and we hoped like hell, that we won’t need it today. For today we were to take the unmarked road onwards from Merak to Chushul and then via the Tsaga La to Nyoma. From Nyoma we would be back on the grid, well, sort of. Our last fuel stop had been Diskit and we had to make it to Pang for a top up as we had sent fuel there while we were at Leh.
This was absolutely the highlight of the trip. There was no road to speak of and only tracks beating the sandy shores of the Pangong Tso.
To add to the confusion, we were confronted with multiple tracks. Off Course, to make sure that we are on the right track, we stuck to the one that showed most use and had stones piled up as an indicator of the right direction.
As we carried on the chosen track, a police jeep patrolling the area waved us down. We stopped, maybe they wanted to see the permit? But all they did was tell us, ” You see those mountains to the left, thats China!”.
Reaching Chushul took us some time. I mean we must have taken 2 hours to cover 40 odd kms. We stopped too, for pictures, for taking in the views, crossing streams and we stopped for a cup of tea! You see Viraj had made a good habit of carrying a flask, topped up with hot water brewing some sort of an asian tea! Thats probably one more note that I’ve made. Its a great idea as you keep hydrated and nothing like a warm cup when you’re cold and weary.
The ILP (Inner Line Permit) checking in Chushul was unusual. A man tending to his fields shouted out and waved out to us asking us to stop. As we did, he came up to us and asked us where we were going, and later divulged that he is a policeman who’s tending to his fields as there isn’t much traffic to check the ILP’s from! We left a copy for him and rode along to the village. Another early afternoon Maggi and restocking water and we pressed on.
I would like to share at this point that there does exist another off the grid road that’s motorable, when it’s not hailed by landslides. It connects Chushul to Mahe without going towards Tsaga La and Nyoma. We were somewhat keen to take that route, but the fact that the locals advised that no one has taken it in the recent past meant that it was possibly out of service. Another thing that was now hanging like a sword on our heads was Viraj’s rear tyre…
Viraj had a slow puncture when leaving Leh, which later turned out to be three small ones. With 13,000kms on his odo, Viraj had completely used tyre, so now, the stones and rocks along the trail were easily getting through the thin rubber. So we decided to be less adventurous given our scenario and took the route towards Tsaga La. Something we later would thank ourselves for doing, as the we could only imagine how bad the “other” road could have been. We were soon to find a road that took us through the flat desert lands to Nyoma. This was our third check post for the ILP. If you were to turn left from here, you would be heading towards Hanle. We took a right and were now in the Changthang Plateau region. The ride up to Mahe was great with lovely roads and the ride from Mahe bridge to Karzok wasn’t too bad either. Tso Moriri made a somewhat lesser impact on the two of us though, since we were riding in from the majesty of Pangong!
We stayed at the Lake View guest house which had beds and hot water, all we needed! A night walk to the lake was nice as the moon was still full, later we strolled down the Karzok town to check out the culinary options but settled for the regular simple vegetarian dinner at the guest house and with plans to fill Viraj’s rear tyre with a 3M puncture sealant and tyre inflator the next morning, we called it a night.
Day 9: Back to Pang, hardly.
It was a sort of a wrap to the discovery part of our ride as we were to meet the Manali Leh highway at Tsokar today. The plan was to ride till we reached Sarchu. So we left Karzok all guns blazing, in the sense that yesterdays ride on sand, stone and gravel had left us with a new found confidence both in our riding, and also with the motorbikes. By this time, we were standing on the pegs, tucking the tank in with our knees and ripping the throttle open. We had learnt to deal with the occasional rear stepping out and were having total and absolute fun.
There was hardly any traffic that we passed as we had probably left a little earlier that the others and were soon passing the natural salt pans of the Tsokar. At one point I had lost Viraj, so I waited, and after probably 10 mins or lesser, I turned back to find him. It was a sigh of relief to see him standing next to his bike, but i knew the dying rear tyre had opened a hole once again. This time though, his tyre had an inch-long cut.
Anyway, we could probably shove in two or three of those tubeless repair sticky stems and make it to Pang. We were just under 7 odd kms from the main highway which as we already knew was fantastic till Pang, and so if we could fix the cut to become a slow puncture, we could make it if we were fast enough.
As I pulled out the compressor that we had borrowed from Vikram, it refused to start! And it was obvious that the 3M sealant that we had put earlier today morning had too much to seal for it to work.Well, there’s nothing we could do but wait and hope the pump would start with probably a higher amp rating. In some time, a Toyota Fortuner emerged.We waved and the good man stopped, unfortunately his charger was at a 15 amp rating and the compressor was at 20 amps. It would blow his fuse if we tried. So we tried from the battery terminal, but to no avail.
It was still only noon or earlier, so we would wait and take a chance on other passing vehicles. In came a Hyundai i20 with four blokes, who not only stopped, but happened to be carrying a compressor, brand new, still in its packing! This would surely work! And it did. I put in three of those stickies and it seemed to be holding up.The boys were really helpful, offered us juice and also offered to trail us till Pang incase we were left stranded again. God bless them, and bless the spirit of adventure that brings out the best in all of us.
Today, it wasn’t about the views. It was just about reaching Pang, a place where we had a small chance to fix this and ride all the way back! The weather was packing up, the sun wasn’t in a good mood and it was getting cold.
We made it! With showers of hugs and thank you’s exchanged with our new friends with the Hyundai, we carried on to get Viraj’s tyre fixed. The tyre repair guy told us that the only way was to put a tube in Viraj’s tubeless tyre. It could last us till Keylong, where we would have an option off buying a new one. There was no tube close to our tyre size, but out here, its not about the options, but about what is available.
The good man at Pang had no new tubes, only the ones that folks before us had junked. So he picked up one that he thought was in the best condition and repaired it to make it better. Then came the ordeal that lasted 3 hours more.We just couldn’t get the tyre back on, and it was essentially an unsolvable problem, or at least it seemed that way. If you put in the tyre first and slid in the axle in pace, the brake calliper assembly wouldn’t get in, if you mounted the brake calliper assembly first, the tyre wouldn’t get in. After an hour, we walked down to the Army Transit Camp which houses a satellite phone and on request they will let you make a call, so we called the Ducati Service. Unfortunately, it just so happens that they follow a procedure of reinstalling the tyre which ensues further dismantling the rear brake assembly, which actually speaking we shouldn’t have done and wasn’t needed either.
Anyway, as the sun set, we were giving up on the prospect that Viraj would ride any further when an Australian gentleman, who stays in Dehradun, and had met me earlier in the day and jokingly offered to exchange his Bajaj Pulsar with my Scrambler, met us again. “You guys are still at it!!?” he asked, with a mix of surprise and adulation. “You know what?”, he declared, ” I’ve grown around a farm fixing things and if you guys really want, we can still try and fix this!”.
Of course we really wanted it, so out came the torches as it was dark by now. Now I could get into the details on how to get the tyre back in right, but I won’t and to cut a long story short, with Andrew’s help, we got the tyre back in!
It was well past 9pm, but it was a relief, the fact that we would still be riding together tomorrow! We found a nearby shack who showed us a room, we washed up the grease and the filth and settled in with an Old Monk and a Maggi dinner!
It was all good. We knew that we would be back riding tomorrow.
Day 10: Pang – Manali
Riding back from Pang to Manali was a careful one. I was trailing Viraj to keep an eye on that rear tyre.We headed early and the temperature on my Scrambler showed 10-degrees, which means it must have been a couple of degrees colder in real world terms!
We had reclaimed some of the fuel from Pang and sold the balance at just about cost price to a lady who was more than happy to keep it. While crossing Darcha, when we called Manali to let our friend know that he should expect us later today, we got to know that Vikram had taken a third Enfield and was trailing us by a day. The only leg that he had missed was Pangong to Karzok via Chushul. He had ridden from Leh to Karzok! That was good news.
As expected, just a few kms from Jispa, Viraj’s tube gave up! The good news here though was that Jispa was only 2km behind, where we had just crossed a tyre repair shop! So as he dragged his bike back, I arranged with repair shop the things needed. Yesterday’s ordeal had made us champions in removing and re-fitting the Ducati Scrambler’s rear tyre, at least in our own minds. The tyre came off in a minute, and as the new tube was going in, we sat for a lovely Meat and Rice lunch just across the road.
By the time lunch was over, our tyre had a new tube, not the correct size but new! In the next 5 minutes we had the tyre back on… practice makes perfect! What was a battle yesterday due to lack of knowledge became nothing more than a minor bump along the way today!
Note to self: On such roads, it is important to know about your machine, but it’s more important to recognise what you don’t know and be open to learning.
We pressed on, at a steady speed but without many stops. We knew that Viraj’s tube might not last the entire distance. As we started to climb for the Rohtang, that fear became reality as 70kms before Manali, Viraj’s tyre gave up again. This time there was no option. It was 6 pm, and we had to get his bike to Manali, one way or the other.We stood over to the side of the road and signalled to passing trucks. I had noticed earlier in the day, that there was a convoy of trucks which were returning towards Manali with load. The truckers tend to drive fast and rash when without load so it was easy to see. Two trucks, from the very same convoy stopped for us and agreed to cart Viraj’s Ducati Scrambler back to Manali.
The roads down were muddy and fun, and despite it all, I was back in Manali, at my friend Joy’s cottage, by 8:30 pm or so including a brief stop at a wine shop for our evening friend, Old Monk!
There was a sense of completion and calm as I pulled my Ducati Scrambler into his front yard. The main leg of our trip was done, and though not without incidents, it had left us with everything that we had hoped a trip like this would. We had hit the ground running when we collected our bikes at Chandigarh, post flying in from Mumbai, and had ridden our plan pretty much everyday for the last 10 days apart from the 1 day rest at Leh.
Both the Ducati Scramblers had proven to be much more than just retro styled hipster motorcycles. They had taken the tarmac, the broken roads, the water crossings, the gravel, sand, mud and stone trails and everything that we threw at them with a sense of fun and ease. At no point in the journey did we feel handicapped in any way because of its specs and attributes, and the only failings were our own of not riding out with tyres in better shape, well, not entirely ours as Ducati India has been struggling with making the Pirelli OEM tyres available at sane prices and that struggle is still on as I write this piece.
As soon as I had unmounted the luggage, I walked down to a nearby restaurant to pack dinner for all of us. I for one was going to have a long hot water shower and settle with the Old Monk to simply soak it all in, and of course connect with my wife and family. Once you leave Manali, you enter somewhat cellular-networked zone at Leh and then nothing, till you’re back in Manali. So there was a fair bit of updates and exchanges too.
Viraj made it to town soon enough and was at the cottage by 10 pm. Joy joined us after he had wrapped up his weekly gig at a local pub in main Manali. Vikram’s arrival was expected sometime tomorrow. We chilled till our eyes were heavy and muscles loose, and we crashed. Lights out!
Day 11-12: Manali
The rest day at Manali turned out to be a good one with afternoon beers and trouts at a nice place called The Fat Plate. Its a bit pricey, but its lovely and the setting is just as good as the trout.Viraj got a new tube which was as close to what we would get and we were set to ride down to Chandigarh. Our friend Vijay, who runs a adventure travel company called Mountain Voyages hosted a barbecue for us at his cottage which enjoys a great view of the Manali valley.
Its was him who helped us with the permits and the overnight bookings. With some local information and suggestions, we had decided to take a slightly longer but better route. After Mandi and before Sundernagar, you will come across a right turn at a place called Ner Chowk that goes though Jahu- Una – Nangal – Chandigarh.
Just when we had thought our ride was over, it wasn’t.The stretch beyond Jahu is one of the best motorcycle routes that I have ridden on anywhere in the country.Yes! Its that good. Its perfectly tarmac’ed with glorious twisties and thin traffic. In fact, taking this route gave our ride that last finishing touch of enjoying out Ducatis in a whole new way. Too much fun was happen, so much that I managed to scrape and pull of my silencer from the bend pipe. It was nothing big, my Scrambler now screamed louder than thunder! all good.
We reached the Lemon Tree hotel at 8 pm or so after a puncture-free ride and settled in nicely. Our ride was now all over, we had clocked about 2400 kms and tomorrow we would put our bikes on the train and take a flight out to Mumbai
Day 13 – Epilogue
After a few massage sessions and lazy breakfasts, we set out to the railway station to hand over the bikes. Keep copies of your licence, registration and Insurance and the originals to show it to the officer incharge. After bit of drama, we handed over our bikes and were off the airport and on our way to Mumbai.
But you never really come back the same from journeys such as these. What you experience and learn could never be taught in any way or form. The help that you receive from strangers, the great tips and tricks, the warm smiles, the endless valleys, the mountains that make you feel small, the environment that makes you realise how fragile you are but mostly the challenges and obstacles that make you realise… how strong you could be.
Happy Travels! – Vipin Mishra
Vipin Mishra is a National Award winning composer based in Mumbai. A versatile music producer, his body of work reflects the ease with which he can move from one genre to another, and yet have his work exude that definitive personality. A singer, songwriter, guitar player and programmer, Vipin arranges and produces his own music. – More on him on his website.