Ladakh-Ride to the roof of India

In most part of the globe, tourists head to beaches when they want to party or laze in the sun. But when they are looking for peace or adventure, they head to the mountains. To take a break from the insanity of city life, I do the same. This year, it was Ladakh.


A friend passed on the phone number of Mannish, a native Ladakhi, to help me plan the trip. A month before starting out, I called him to inquire about the best time to visit the region. After an exchange of information, he recommended that I book a hotel in advance, and offered to do it on my behalf.

He turned out to be so helpful that I started doubting his intentions. I received two calls from him asking about the progress. For transportation in Ladakh, he offered a car for free or rented bikes at discounted rates. When two friends and I reached Ladakh at 9.30 in the night, he came to pick us up. When he realized that we didn’t have a booking, drove us to a hotel. We tried to pay him for the transport; he refused to take the money.

Mannish asked us to join him for dinner. We agreed and planned to pick the tab in return of all the favors. But things didn’t go as we thought.

While on the table, I tried to trick him into revealing his game of favors. When none worked, I made the straightforward statement. “A person would not help strangers if he needs to dig into his pocket and put priorities at stake,” I opined. To my philosophy, he responded: “Maybe that’s how the world works in big cities where you come from.” He tried to pay the bill but we managed to convince him to go dutch.

This left us thinking if he would charge us for services at the end of the tour or will get a commission on our spending. It was our first night in the town of Leh. After discussing his intentions on our way back to the hotel, we decided to let the topic rest and catch up on sleep, and acclimatise.

****

We refused the car offer, as none of us were experienced in driving on narrow mountain roads but did rent bikes from Mannish’s reference (at discounted rates). On our first trip to the popular tourist spot magnetic hill, where cars go uphill with engines off, we realized the enormity of the region.

Except for army settlements, all that a person sees for hours endlessly are the eroding mountains. Shades of brown and perfect blue sky are the only colors one sees most of the time. Despite the barrenness, the landscape is always soothing.

The winding mountain road presents a dramatic scene at every turn. One turn you see criss-crossing mountains and a river flowing through them and at another you see group of yaks grazing. Further ahead, you might see marmots staring at the passing vehicles. As you go up on a mountain, you can see symmetrically arranged roads below, on one turn, and a small village with clouds floating on it on another one.

Sometime you compare the landscape to the Grand Canyons and movies like Lord of the Rings and then you also come across a scene that cannot exist anywhere else in the world.

Suddenly a small stupa along the road turns up at one curve and when you reach the next, prayer flags with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ written on them flutter spreading peace, as wind spreads the prayers wherever it goes.

***

While in Leh, Mannish became our virtual guide. We called him whenever we needed help with restaurants, shops, markets, routes, and so on. He would call the owner of the establishment before we arrive and everything was convenient thereafter. Sometime we met for dinner and he answered our questions on Ladakh and its natives. After the first night, I gave up on knowing his intentions.

He educated us about the region until we marveled at the spirit of the natives. For about eight months in a year, Ladakh is unreachable by road. It is virtually cut off from the rest of the world , save for erratic flights that may operate if weather conditions are feasible. Peak winters, the temperature can be as low as -28 degrees Celsius. November to February, all markets and trades are shut and they live on preserved vegetables and meat. It’s all about survival for almost half a year.

***

One evening, Mannish suggested us to visit Nubra Valley. I was looking forward to the trip, too. To reach there, we had to ride through one of the highest ‘motorable’ passes in the world, Khardung La.

The journey was not easy. Not an inch of the road close to Khardung La was free from pot holes. It didn’t seem the administration’s fault that they could not keep the surface even. Mountain slides are common at Khardung La, as it snows throughout the year, and the slides affect the road condition.

Even when the snow on the road melts, it creates potholes. Three-meter-wide, and even bigger, water streams passing through the road becomes a common sight as you keep getting closer to Khardung La.

Riding in this patch wears you down and also the vehicle, as you move mostly in the lowest gear. It stressed every part of the motorbike, especially the clutch wire that needs to be pressed and released constantly to manoeuvre on the bumpy road. Thankfully, we reached Diskit, the biggest village in Nubra Valley, without any vehicle break down. We made this village as our base to visit nearby places over next two days.

***

Next day we headed for hot springs at Panamik village, about four hours away. We crossed mountains after mountains and villages after villages. While passing through villages, excited and smiling kids ran behind our bikes. Some stretched their arms out to exchange hi-fives. Some asked for pens and others shouted “chocolates” while we passed them by.

While returning, my bike’s clutch cable snapped. The effect of the Khardung La ride started showing up. I asked my friends to go ahead as I would move slowly. This way, I could easily negotiate turns and oncoming vehicles.

I passed through a cluster of villages and reached a plateau. A road ran right through the middle of the flatland until the horizon. The mountains were distant on either side of the road. I could see some men working in the mud up ahead. As my bike approached them, it felt silent.

I tried to kick-start it until my legs hurt and gave in finally. Engine overheating could be a possibility. I decided to let the motorbike rest and thought the same for myself. While sitting by the road I started making Buddhist cairns, piling one stone on top of the other. Such cairns, or Buddhist Mani, were a common sight in Ladakh. After making around five stone piles, I tried to start the bike. No response. I started the usual troubleshooting. Checked ignition plug, it seemed fine. Checked petrol flow to carburetor; no issues. When I checked the oil-levels, there was not a drop of engine oil.

I approached the men-at-work, who were building a stupa, for help. They asked me to wait. One of them approached me, after finishing his work. He saw the cairn and grinned.

“Can you help me with engine oil?”

He asked me for the viscosity. I answered.

“I have something close but not the same viscosity. It’s the oil we use for power generators.”

I agreed. After half an hour he came back from the village with one liter of oil. Filling up the oil, I tried to start the bike. Failure.

***

I hoped my friends come back looking for me. I would somehow adjust on the same bike and go back to the hotel room and rest. There was no way I could contact them. Only the state-owned BSNL mobile phones worked in Ladakh and none of us were using its service.

After telling him my story, Tsering, my rescuer, suggested that we head to the village. There is someone who owns the same motorbike and could be helpful in fixing mine, he said. Also, I can call up the guest house to update my friends on the break down.

We parked the bike by the road just in case my friends come looking for me. We also wrote the mobile number of my rescuer on a piece of paper and stuck it at three different places.

***

Namgyal was riding the bike to and fro between imaginary poles when Tsering called him. Namgyal, in turn, called his elder brother Jigmet to join us and all four of us headed towards my bike. In between, my friends called up and said that they will join me soon.

Jigmet applied all his knowledge for over two hours but the bike failed him. His hands, shirt and face were all black with grease.  Over time, we had a crowd of 10-12 youngsters suggesting him to check different parts. The bike failed everyone.

A motorbike similar to my friends’ was approaching us. But there were two Ladakhis on it. One was lean and tall, the other well-built and short. Both had small eyes and red-brown skin.

“Your friend sent us to repair the bike,” said the tall one showing me tools and spare parts in his hand. He owned a store that sells auto parts in Diskit. The shorter one had recently started assisting the only mechanic in Nubra Valley hoping that someday the number of mechanics in the region would double. He worked full time at a garment store. With Jigmet, they tried again for an hour. The result was same.

The plan now? I will head to the hotel with the men, who came to fix the bike. Jigmet and his brother would work on the motorbike during the night. Tomorrow, I could collect it.

“Can I take half a liter petrol from your bike as mine is empty?” asked the younger of the two brothers. I couldn’t say no.

When we left, I kept thinking if it was a wise idea to leave the bike with them. They could replace parts, damage the bike, or can drain the petrol out of the fuel tank. After all, no one would be kind to a stranger and spend the night repairing the bike for free.

***

Next day, the owner of my hotel gave me a lift in his car to Sumur, the village where I had left my bike. He offered his phone to call up Jigmet, who gave me the location of the bike and informed that he was actually close to my hotel in Diskit.

“Is the vehicle working now?”

“Need to check it. I couldn’t do it as you had the keys”

The bike turned out to be as dead as yesterday. Someone suggested that I should show the bike to another person in the village, who had a similar bike seven years back. I knew that my bike needed a professional hand; not a bike owner who would know the basic repairs. Even I ride the same two-wheeler and have some knowledge of its working. Before I could say anything, the person was already on his way to ask for help.

I opened the fuel tank to check if there was any petrol left or whether the brothers took it in exchange for the help offered. To my surprise, the fuel level didn’t dip at all. Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around and saw a person smiling at me. He was dressed in light blue t-shirt and navy blue jeans. He had black Ray Ban aviators. It was difficult to ascertain his age, as he was lean but had athletic physique and could pass for any age between 30 and 40.

He dragged the bike next to a cobbler sitting by the road in a small tent. A crowd gathered around us. When he asked for tools, some of them ran in different directions and three people came back each carrying bags full of tools. He inspected the kick of the bike. For the next few minutes, he went back and forth between the bike and cobbler’s tent. I saw him picking eyelets, washers, metal rings, threads, hammer, bow saw and pad saw. He did not touch the tool bags after taking two screwdrivers and two spanners of the three brought. He kept fidgeting with the engine’s timing gear.

“Kick”

Nothing happened when I tried to kick-start the bike three times. He signaled me to stop. Went back fidgeting with bike’s engine again.

“Kick”

The bike roared back to life. Everyone clapped with enthusiasm as if they just witnessed a startling magic trick.

I couldn’t believe that the bike was fixed with materials used in repairing footwear.

I took Rs 300 (about $6) out of my pocket and offered him.

“Don’t need it. As a native of Nubra Valley, it’s my pleasure to be of any help to visitors. I apologize on behalf of Nubra Valley residents for all the inconvenience yesterday.”

“Take some oil, at least?”

“Don’t be hassled. It’s our misfortune that a tourist faced any problem here.”

Before I left, I thanked and hugged him. I realized people do help strangers even if causes them inconvenience and their priorities take a backseat.

On my way to Leh, I stopped to offer fuel to someone, who lost all of it due to leakage, putting my journey at stake; dropped school children from one village to another; and pushed cars stuck in heavy water streams running through the mountain roads.

Helping them came naturally. Some of these people could have been stuck for endless hours in the cold mountain desert. I had just learned this. I think the natives of Nubra Valley, who helped me, and even other Ladakhis, experience the lesson I learned every day. Harshest of conditions makes hearts of gold.

On our last day, Mannish helped us with (discounted) bus tickets for Manali. While saying goodbyes, he asked: “do you know why I helped you?” He grinned. “Because I like making friends.” I, however, knew that it was the benevolent Ladakhi spirit.

Author: Tinesh Bhasin

Presently, a freelance writer, he has worked as a business journalist for over seven years

Comments

  1. Lovely photographs.
    That person who helped you in fixing the bike is the real craftsman. Such people can produce results with minimum tools. And his guesture of refusing payment speaks volumes about him.
    Nice article. Hope you make more forrays like this.

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