Motorcycle breakdowns and high altitude clowns

This story is based in Ladakh en-route the Manali- Leh highway. This is considered by many , the holy grail of motorcycling, famed for its high altitude passes, pristine lakes and mesmerizing landscapes. A culturally rich extravaganza.

Karma Yatri is a travel company, that specializes in motorcycle adventures across India and offers immersive encounters for solo travelers, groups and families. We organize trips from Manali to Ladakh and you can find more details at “Blast through the Pass

Its 6 am in the morning and I am tying our bags onto the motorcycle, whistling tunelessly and grinning every time I glanced at my two friends who were similarly engrossed in getting their bikes loaded and prepared for our upcoming journey from Manali- Leh. A dream of a lifetime was coming true and I couldn’t believe, I was finally going to make the passage. I forced myself to stop thinking about it, not wanting to jinx it, my previous 3 attempts having been flaunted due to various reasons. Nonetheless, this time I had a feeling that it was going to be all right- I would be allowed passage.

I had managed to convince my girlfriend to come along on this trip and everything that had led to this morning convinced me, this was going trip was going to be special. My motorcycle that I had transported from Chennai never arrived, yet in the midst of the peak season in Manali, I had managed to find a bike on hire the previous night. It had been raining incessantly the past week in Manali with the Rohtang blocked due to landslides, but as true to our travel schedule, the rains had stopped a day before and the Rohtang was finally declared open. Our group of 4 had become 6, when 2 lovely girls, one from Sweden and the other from Australia had become friends over coffee, and asked whether they could hop on the bikes of my other two friends and come along for the ride. Every sign directed towards the fulfillment of a much dreamt of dream and possibly the beginning of another dream (more of which later)

We began our ride in near perfect conditions, the sun breaking the early morning chill as we started our climb after Gulaba, cruising along on a traffic filled highway, that was at a standstill due to some repair work on the road, but it was OK for motorcycles to pass. We got glares from people stuck in the traffic jam, some excited to see a group of motorcycles passing while others jeering because they were stuck in their cars. We got to Marhi with no problems and after a strange yet delicious breakfast of Maggi and Paranthas, we began the final ascent to Rohtang. My earlier attempts had been thwarted thrice at this specific point and I was beginning to get excited, when a persistent wobble of the bike made me stop and I discovered I had a flat tire. I had it fixed in a jiffy, a mechanic was amazingly, only a few 100 mtrs away and we were back on the road in no time, but a premonition had crept into the corner of my mind.

We reached Rohtang without any problems, hurried away from the pass due to the crowds, riding only a short distance further on finding ourselves staring at an endless range of snowcapped peaks. This was the mighty Himalayan range and we were silently taking in the first glimpe of the immense scale of these mountains. Streams of melting snow accompanied us as we made our way down the pass, the roads being a challenging pleasure for the biker but a back breaking nightmare for the pillion. We stopped at Tandi for fueling our bikes and carrying spare petrol, this being the last petrol bunk on the road to Leh, and pressed onwards to Keylong. We had made good time so far and were quite certain we’d reach Jispa (another 30km) where we would break for the night.

A sudden increase in traffic made us realize something was amiss, cars and bikes were turning around, the road was abuzz with excited conversations. We came to an absolute halt behind a group of vehicles, got off our bikes and realized that an oil tanker had slipped on a sharp curve and had toppled over, at an angle that had bocked the complete road, leaving not even enough space for a bike to pass. The mountains have their own ways of telling you when to stop and we were smart enough not to argue, turning around quickly, knowing that it would be a mad rush for accommodation in Keylong that night. We back tracked a few km to Tandi and found rooms in the gorgeous Drilbu retreat, which is a monastery that houses luxury tents in its garden. Having settled in, we went back to the scene of the accident to assess the progress and plan our onward travel. The tanker was loaded with petrol and the weight made it difficult for the crane to upright it. Letting the tanker empty its load was not an option both due to financial and ecological reasons and another tanker had arrived and was in the process of transferring the petrol. The BRO assured us that they would finish the operation within the next couple of hours and we would be allowed to pass early the next morning.

We returned to our camp, had dinner and the girls decided to crash early, the long day and the bumpy ride having taken its toll. I was wide awake and keen to discuss the days ride with my friends who seemed equally animated and excited about the days events. We decided to take a short ride to the bank of the river, have a couple of drinks and just talk- we really didnt need a reason, the surrounding vistas and the absolute silence an invitation to revel in the outside. I was obviously super excited, having finally crossed the Rohtang, quite certain that I would reach Leh, but I was equally excited about sharing some news with Amit, one of my dearest friend and oldest travel companion. I reached into my pocket and passed a box to Amit, which took him by surprise.
“I love you bro” he said, “but not in that way”.
Through the ensuing laughter, I finally confessed. I was going to propose to my girlfriend and for reasons, best know to me, I had decided that it was going to be at Tanglang La ( the highest pass on the Manali Leh highway). We had been dating for more than a year and I was certain that she was the one. Amidst back thumps and congratulations, we rode back to the resort, entered our rooms, me falling into a beatific sleep,content in finally having shared the secret with someone, curling upto into the arms of my dream, engulfed by the journey of my dreams.

Baralacha La came by with its icy walls, crossing over to (the grand sounding) Bharatpur city, a temporary settlement of parachute tents. We took a short break, listening to Amit’s accounts of his near death experience during his previous crossing, and broke into bouts of light headed laughter, aware that the high altitude was taking its effect and we would need to be careful here-on. We shared some medicines (disprin & diamox) with a fellow solo traveler who was suffering from early signs of AMS, and leaving him in the able care of the innkeepers, who over years have developed the ability to provide food, rest and first aid to travelers on this route. We made quick work of Sarchu & its eerie land art formations, speeding along into J&K after signing in at the police check post, and continuing onwards to Lachlung La, Nakee La, the Gata La loops and finally descending to the settlement at Pang, our scheduled halt for the night.

A surreal beauty surrounds the campsite at Pang, with its mix of civilian tents, an army transit camp, the legendary Morey plains to one side and the lazy flow of Sumkhel Lungpa river on the other. There is nothing much to do apart from short breathless walks, and opportunities for picture perfect photos. My girlfriend and I found some time together and little did I realize that while I was in the midst of a long dreamed of adventure, she on the other hand was beginning to suffer from the long and bumpy road and the debilitating altitude. She was being amazing about the whole situation, but it was plain to see that she was not enjoying herself and the journey was beginning to affect her adversely. I assured her that it would be OK the following day, Leh being at a more agreeable altitude and we would finally take a break from being on the road constantly. We all slept fitfully that night, some of us being bothered by the altitude while others were busy working their cameras, amazed at the clear skies and opportunities for astro photography and shooting star trails.

We woke early, braving the morning chill, hoping to reach Leh early, in anticipation of a big celebration. Today was the day- I was going to propose and I would finally reach Leh one completed dream leading to another and i could scarcely hide my excitement.

The Morey plains passed by in a blur, the in-construction road showing up in patches, while the entire plains were available for an off-road experience like none other. Tracks of vehicles could be seen in all directions, somehow converging at a point in the horizon. The powder fine dust was a joy to cross, the back tires of the motorcycle taking a life of their own, challenging the rider to keep the bike steady ,yet maintain a speed that allowed the bike to move without getting stuck in the sand.Pretty soon we had reached the base of Tanglang La, a short break allowing us to prepare for the final stretch towards Leh.

“Its not a very challenging pass”, Amit assured us, with just one rather insignificant, river crossing.

I had begun plotting how I was going to propose but was unable to come up with something suitable. Nonetheless we moved ahead, knowing I would find the opportunity and irrespective of any planning, it would be nothing short of perfect. It had to be! Look at everything that was surrounding us- a setting that was in part visually gorgeous and in part emotionally significant, I had instinctively known , that someday I would make this journey and it would change my life forever. I only wished that my girlfriend did not look so worn out and she was beginning to show early symptoms of AMS. The bumpy ride on a non existent road was not helping, every thud into pot holes and the precarious dancing of the bike on gravel lined cliff edges, made my girlfriend alternate between moans of agony and sighs of fear.

The non-significant river crossing had become rather significant, a cloud burst higher up had caused the stream to swell and we had come to a halt in front of a gushing torrent that looked ominous with its muddy color and sizable rocks that it carried in its wake. We got off our bikes trying to ascertain the best approach, looking out for deep patches of water and stretches where the flow of water was not so fast. A car decided to attempt it, straining, coming to a halt, struggling to start but eventually making it across.
“You should wait for it to subside”, shouted the driver, who looked flustered by the experience but visibly pleased that he had managed to get across safely.
We were at 5100 mtrs and did not fancy our chances if were going to be stuck at this altitude for a few hours. With one part of the mind exhilarated by the fact that this was the adventure and the element of risk only elevated the desire to conquer, yet the logical part of the mind veered towards caution. We could start returning towards Pang, reach a lower altitude and still cross over if the flow abated in a few hours. All of us were feeling the effect of the altitude and we knew we had to reach a decision soon. A heavily laden motorcycle was approaching, the straining engine fighting for power in this oxygen depleted space, coming to a halt at the waters edge. The rider looked at us, stood up from his seat , adjusting some of his gear while looking at the flowing stream ahead. He sat back, revved his motorcycle and dashed across, bumping comically, loosing balance, finding a foothold at the last moment, his rear swaying with the force of the water but within a matter of seconds he was across.

Well! our decision had been made for us. Quite conveniently, an approaching SUV stopped near us, they esquiring about the state of the river and we begging them to take the girls till the pass. My girlfriends deteriorating condition helped their sympathy zone to kick in. The 3 motorcycles crossed without incident, we making sure that we rode slow, in a low gear, keeping one foot firmly on the ground at all times.

High fives done, I quickly raced ahead towards the pass, the brief separation from my girlfriend giving me the perfect opportunity to plan my proposal. The mind is supposed to act funny at such a high altitude, but somehow my mind was clear enough to grab this perfect opportunity. I saw the SUV cross in my rear-view mirror while a light snow was beginning to fall. The temperature had suddenly dipped and I came to a shivering halt at the board that claimed, “Tanglang La- the second highest motorable road in the world”.

I struggled to get my helmet off, my teeth chattering in the cold, my hands getting clumsy as I hasten to remove my gloves and reach into my pocket for the ring. I was just about ready when the SUV pulls up slightly ahead. I walk towards it, prepared for the moment she gets out of the car. The door opens, she comes towards me with open arms, and as I get down on my knees and look up at her, she throws up on me.

I’m up in an instant, the shock forcing the ring into my pocket, as she falls into my arms with a cry of agony. We waste no time, me requesting the driver to drop my girlfriend at a lower altitude, while the others get onto the bike and make a hurried descent. Its one of the first significant signs of AMS and I was worried that the situation would get more serious. We descend more than a 1000 mtrs and find the SUV parked by the side of the road. My girlfriend wanted to use the toilet he said, me profusely thanking him for his help and he characteristically waving it away and moving on with a customary “Julley”.

Its a pensive 15 minutes before my girlfriend comes out of the bathroom, surprisingly all the discomfort having dissipated. “Im feeling much better” she says , a sheepish grin as we settle down with a collective sigh of relief. Its probably the warmth and the lower altitude. Maybe it was just a bad stomach or even a possible heat stroke, all having symptoms which could be confused with AMS.

The village of Rumtse suddenly appeared before us as our first encounter with the Ladakh valley, the sudden transition from a high altitude desert into a region that was beginning to show signs of vegetation. Patches of wheat, mustard, apricot and weeping willows surrounded this idylic 20 house village that serves as a wayside stop for people entering or leaving Ladakh. We decide to spend some time in the village, allowing my girlfriend to get some rest but watching closely for further signs of AMS. She rest her head on my lap and shut her eyes, while the others decide to take a walk and leave us two alone. She looked ethereal as she drifted into a deep sleep, breathing with a rhythm that took away fears of AMS and gave reassurances of a rapid improvement.

I asked for a cup of chai, watching her beautiful face in the fading light of the sunset. No wonder they called it golden light.

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