Thursday, 19 March 2015

Leh-Ladakh : Pillion rider's chronicles - Part 3!

6 souls, a wonderland, 2626 kms and sheer willpower! – The journey made thus!

Chapter 3 : Srinagar - Kargil

4th June 2014

Kashmiri Cuisine stewed fresh by the houseboat owner

The Kashmiri Kawa  
Dal Lake

We hit Srinagar at around 2 in the morning and had our houseboat booked. The 2 brothers Naaz and Yusuf rendered us a very warm welcome and took us to our houseboat in a shikara. We spoke of black roses, Kashmiri cuisine at 2 in the morning and the person manning the shikara was more than happy to talk about his land. We thought that we would crash but suddenly, our batteries were charged! We sat on our knees (since bums had gone sensation less) and talked, as was to become our routine for days to come. With more squeals of laughter, we suddenly realized that people were in sugar sleep and decided to call it a night! Slept peacefully and woke up fresh to see the first view of the Dal lake.  Fresh, beautiful, flowery and scenty! Just sitting there and gazing around meant so much! Tofu aka Taufik was our butler boy. Though by the end of the stay, he became Hitler boy! The experience of being on a houseboat was enthralling enough to make us laze out all day. Kashmiri cuisine, the kawa and the freshly made ginger garlic bread kept us busy the whole day. Ankita and Major Raghav gave us company for a while. Took a shikara ride in the evening and then retired to the houseboat.  

5th June 2014

Woke up fresh and charged the next morning, to set on a new trail – Srinagar-Kargil! Here, we got into our cargoes for the first time. The real bike-riders’ feel was to come only then! With our knee and elbow pads in their appropriate places and our shoes on (someone needed help with the long laces ;)), we felt like we were going for a battle. Time, of course, proved us right. We started early at around 8 am and crossed Wayil, our breakfast destination where we took a not-so-quick halt. The paratha sabzi being the staple diet, with Sind running right next to us, we were amazed to see the width of the river and the embankment built to control her waters.

At Wayil, en route to Kargil from Srinagar!

They say still waters run deep but I am sure the rivers in Northern India will defy that. No matter the outer look, they are all feisty with monstrous energy waiting to carry you away. You must therefore, not, get, carried, away! One thing we developed in the course of our journey was the profound respect towards Mother Nature and the need to stay within all kinds of limits be it speed, distance or lanes! The sheer topography in this land is so humbling that you end up feeling quite small. Another thing that you must leave behind is that ego! If you hit the bull’s eye, Ladakh will most certainly teach you this! No need to go and live there, a visit is enough for a start!

En route to Sonamarg!

Anyway, we proceeded Wayil-onward to Sonamarg and were amazed by the beauty of the natural landscapes. Snow-capped peaks now started coming into view. With Boleros and Scorpios zooming past us, we were more than happy to take halts and breathe in the scent of these landscapes. No matter where and how we looked, it was picturesque! The Bull started leaking a tiny bit just before Sonamarg and we got a little worried but we soon fixed it and proceeded towards what was to become one of the most toughening experiences of the trip – the mighty ZOJI LA! 

However, we had to wait till 3 pm for the army convoy to clear just ahead of Sonamarg. And from there began the ascent to a not-so-difficult yet situational-made-toughest pass ever! Cut at 11,000 feet, we began scaling obviously at a much lower height only to realize that the road was not that good. Since the convoy had halted traffic and adrenalin levels of local drivers, they had literally taken off! At zooming speeds, bikers are a hindrance to them, so we had to compete to keep going! On assessment of all passes, Zoji La offers steeper curves up and down as compared to the others. Making a loaded bike, with a pillion, climb on such slopes was mighty challenging for SS but they did a fantastic job! Since snow had begun melting, minor streams had provided a perfect recipe for formation of slushes every now and then. We had to get down (much to my excitement) every now and then and give the bikes a push. Walked a stretch of 1.5-2 kms twice, along with the convoy. The looks that we were getting from fellow travelers, riders, locals and the army alike can be described as a combination of amazement, bewilderment, irritation, puzzlement, sometimes pride and the familiar “paagal toh nahi ho gaye!” look! We soon got used to it as it really motivated us to keep going! 

Although Zoji La was a much dryer pass as compared to others, the traffic and road construction along the very nature of its trajectory made it extremely challenging for us! Also, the most important factor in our case was that THIS, was our first pass! We really did not know what to expect. However, as they say, whatever happens, happens for the best as this very stretch of the journey totally prepared us for the challenges that lied ahead, unknown then of course!

A quick lift, twice, from a red scorpio with a group of 3 Jat friends helped Hemu and myself to get a minute-long recoup and helped SS navigate the bikes quickly in difficult patches. Once the pass was crossed, we reached Gumri and tried to have maggi and pakodas. The sheer crowding of the place set up by none other than the Indian Army (who else!!), it being the sole respite, made us do a quick exit. Capt Sanjay had his first fall experience in the mud, all whilst standing. This again, was to become routine! ;) (Sorry Capt Sanjay!) Although he did tell us a story of how our tanks were made to climb the hill right in front of us, leaving the Pakistanis spell-bound, during the 1947 war! In short, the halt was totally worth it!

We left from Gumri and were praying that the day’s adventures would now lessen a bit only to find icy-cold water falls created due to melting of snow, right ahead of us. We SAILED through the first two smaller ones but the third one decided to have a laugh of its own. Our bike was ahead (that being the case most of the time) and we slipped. I tried to do a Bollywood stunt with my feet up in the air to help Sunny navigate the bike but it proved to be a stupid idea. My weight shifted and I imbalanced the carrier causing it to skid. I tried to stand up on my feet (ohh this has totally different connotations here, believe me!!) and could not feel them! They were already wet but now had gone completely senseless. Hemu and me managed to stand up on a rock nearby and Sunny got stuck on a round stone from where the bike’s rear tire refused to budge. Capt Sanjay came to the rescue but the seconds gone by did not give the both of us courage to jump inside again. To be honest, it wasn’t even courage! I just couldn’t move! Not just my legs but even my senses went numb for a while. Capt Sanjay gave the bike a pull-push(??) not really sure which way it came free but we realized that we had to cross the same tract to go over to the other side. Without thinking, (finally!) I took Hemu by the hand and we jumped and crossed the stream. The water level was actually nothing but the coldness of it was a sensation never felt like before! Trust me, this was one of the most exciting (once feet were felt a bit) experiences ever!! 

Cold feet, only literally! 
For photu-sake!
What followed was spectacular, like literally, for others. We stood on a metal plank by the side of the road and removed our shoes. Our feet were blue. We started thumping on the plank to bring them back to life and the passers-by had loads of visual appeal thanks to us! Some of them were kind enough to stop and ask if we were okay, others looked quizzingly and zoomed by, not without giving a worried look though! Again, motivating enough to continue. Capt Sanjay had the bright idea of introducing into this scenario, the champagne bottle that he had so cherishedly brought on this trip! The snow-capped mountain wall right next to us provided for a perfect natural refrigerator. The photo of this incident alone can do justice to what I am trying to say. I am, just like my feet, at a loss of words too!

We then proceeded to Dras with roads getting slightly better as we started losing altitude. At a checkpost, we quickly warmed ourselves a bit as shoes were now hanging on top of our tent and sleeping bag at the rear of the bike. We were back in our chappals as we were not carrying an extra pair of shoes. (Tip : Always carry an extra pair of shoes) Reached Dras at around 8.30 pm. We took a quick halt at a local tea shop and had spiral-shaped croissants and tea. He told us that the road ahead was very good but we had to see it to believe it! One of the first stretches where we actually rode smoothly!! The BRO (Border Roads Organisation) by the Indian Army has done some fantastic job in this region. No matter how challenging the roads were for us, that was because WE were on bikes. Ensuring for connectivity in such a tough terrain in itself is a massive challenge and the BRO deserves a standing applause. They work when you travel because that is the only time of the year when roads are open and snow-free. Throughout our journey, we saw workers busy doing their bit in building some of the most difficult tracks of concrete in this unfriendly region.

Dras-Kargil road is ornamented by reflectors and since we rode in the night, this alone was a blissful sight for us. The valley could not be seen so we appreciated the smooth curves and welcomed the fresh breeze with open arms. (literally?? ;) ;))


Route : Srinagar - Sonamarg - Zoji La (11,575 feet) - Dras - Kargil

Distance covered : 202 kms  

Total time taken : Around 14 hours (7.5 hours of actual riding + meals (bfast and dinner)/repair/convoy/Zoji La Pass halts)

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