Although our contributor had purchased a Kawasaki Ninja that many warned was ill-suited for travel in the Himalayas, he remained determined to embark on the extreme journey.
Its two a.m. and I’m six or maybe seven drinks down, surrounded by well-dressed, beautiful girls in this club with music so loud you can’t hear the person next to you. I close my eyes and can hear the wind flowing through my helmet again as I envision vast brown, barren terrain. It has been two months since I came back from a road trip to Ladakh Valley but it has left a lasting impact on me.
It’s very difficult to say whether it’s the kind of riding or the kind of bike which makes you decide on a particular machine. I thought I made a compromise when I bought the Kawasaki Ninja 250, but it was the best compromise I could make. Now that I had a bike, my friend who had a Royal Enfield Classic 500cc, had been pushing me to buy one just so that we could go on road trip. We decided to go for a big ride to Manali, Leh, Srinagar, Jammu and Delhi. I had been on the Manali – Leh route a few years back, but this time I wanted to complete the full ride. Like always, lots of my friends and colleagues got excited by the idea of riding to Leh, but when it came to actually going there everyone had reasons to back-off. So just like the last time I was left with one other friend. We both had done several road trips together, not on bikes though, so we knew it would be fun to ride together.
I was warned by Bajaj Auto (assembler and reseller of Kawasaki Ninja 250s in India) that the Ninja 250 is not meant for such terrain and I could face problems. While they were 200% sure that its engine and other mechanical parts wouldn’t pose any problems, they also warned that this particular motorcycle couldn’t be fixed by any road-side mechanic, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Oh yes, a few others declared me insane to even think of taking a Ninja (a sportbike) to Ladakh. But I was sure that I had to go. I said to myself, “If this isn’t the right bike, too bad Abhishek. You have already bought it so live with it.”
Abhishek's friend chose to attack the mountain passes with a Royal Enfield Classic 500cc, which faired better in the rougher terrain than the Kawasaki.
Most riders like to splurge on their bike, and getting ready for this trip was just the opportunity. My bike had no provisions to carry luggage, but for this trip I not only needed to carry my luggage but also to carry extra fuel. I went to a local bike expert (Kaulson’s Racing Products) who created a very interesting carriage space for me to carry two five-liter jerry cans. Also, original tires were not meant for the kind of terrain I planned to go through so I got my rear tire replaced with a knobbier enduro tire.
On July 17th at 8 a.m. we packed our rucksacks on the bike, fueled up the tank and jerry cans and started the ride. We both had been eagerly waiting for this morning. While my friend was enjoying the steady ride I kept revving my bike whenever and wherever I had the chance.
At the end of Day 1 we reached Manali after 13.5 hours and 550 kilometers of riding. We were tired but happy. We spent the next day in Manali, and while I wanted to continue the journey my friend wanted to take it easy.
Day 3 we left for Leh from Manali, a route of approximately 474 kilometers. The plan was to reach Sarchu (about 253 kilometers from Manali) but Rohtang and the grueling pass delayed our plans enough that we just managed to reach Jispa, which is 140 kilometers from Manali. It took almost three hours to cross Rohtang Pass with slush, traffic jams, fog and rain making it horrible. The only positive way to look at it was that Rohtang was the first pass on the route, and because it was the worst it will prepare us for the rest of the trip. Shortly after Rohtang the road become smooth and as we approached Jispa road conditions improved drastically. Roadside mutton, which consisted of rice at Koksar, was a good lunch break to keep us going until 6:30 in the evening.
Baralacha La was one of the more interesting passes of the journey that left our travelers freezing in the high altitudes.
The Ninja was a bit out place for the terrain, but the most popular bike for this kind of ride was the Royal Enfield. Frankly, I think it’s just a lack of choices that makes people take it as an option. I was happy riding my baby Ninja, however, zipping across small patches of tar mixed into an otherwise gravel track.
Day 4 we started from Jispa. Looking at good road conditions just before Jispa, I had an overly ambitious plan of covering the remaining 334 kilometers to reach Leh by late evening. This was not something that my friend really appreciated, but I didn’t want to lose momentum and in the back of my head I was counting the number of days before we had to leave. On this day we saw the worst water crossings. The area had witnessed heavy snow last winter which was now melting and forming not just water crossings but, at times, small rivers in the road. I had been over the road before but this time it was a different ball game. Every time I became skeptical before each water crossing, but I knew my Ninja and I would sail through it.
A little ahead of Darcha we came across the worst crossing with knee-deep water gushing across the road. Not to our surprise there was already a car stuck in it. While we did our bit in helping the driver take his car out, we also managed to pull our bikes across. Both of us required a good amount of manual force to push our bike through. I was sure that I had damaged my bike’s body cover and maybe my silencer, but nope - zero damage. We stopped after crossing it, took off our shoes to pour out all the water, wringed our socks and got back on the saddle. Our lowers and socks hadn’t even started to dry when we came across another water crossing followed by another. From my last trip I could hardly recall three water crossings, but this time we were witnessing multiple. Also,
Many of the roads featured giant water crossings like the one above. It was tough going, but Abhishek and his friend made it through.
compared to last time when there was at least 30-40% good tar on the road, this time it was hardly 10%. But isn’t this what we were there for? It wouldn’t be half the fun if there were no bad roads, no riding in freezing water or a chilling breeze.
We came upon Baralacha La, which I thought was the most interesting pass of the route. As we approached, the brown landscape started transforming into white, and very soon we were riding through snow-covered mountains. We were beyond the feeling of cold. To top it all off we were wet also from the water crossings on our way up. We stopped for a while, taking pictures and again we started moving up towards the pass. As we were climbing up it was getting colder and the landscape was becoming even more amazing. Though we wanted to stop, we were too engrossed in riding and crossing the pass, so much so that we didn’t even stop when we saw the breathtaking, half-frozen aqua green lake on one side of the road called Suraj Tal. It distracted me and this was the only time on the trip that I fell. I noticed a pothole way too late and by the time I did my front wheel was already in it. Though I managed to pull it out, I lost my balance and dropped the bike. Dropping the bike was one thing, but lifting it was something else. The same bike which I could easily lift at home was almost impossible to lift here. I had no choice but to wait for help - which wasn’t too long. After 10 minutes a few fellow travelers stopped to help. It might sound weird but it took three of us all our strength to lift it up. This is what altitude and lack of oxygen does to you. I remember from our last trip that I was almost dead when I had to push my bike for 100 meters right after Tanglang La Pass.
Many of the climbs involved hairpin turns and switchbacks on a steep incline.
Next was Sarchu. This is where most of the travelers stop over for a night’s stay. It is a vast open valley between mountains, with several semi-permanent camps set up. The area is between two passes so it’s always very windy. Sarchu marks the end of Himachal and the beginning of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There was a noticeable difference in road conditions here. The roads were smooth but with sudden dips, so if you had a loaded bike, you better be careful as you might end up breaking your back. Since I didn’t have much luggage on my bike I played a bit on this see-saw type road. I soon realized, however, that I was crossing speed limits and considering that the type of bike I was on was not designed for the off-road, I had to slow it down.
We didn’t intend to stop here but we had to as we came across a few Spanish/Germans with a broken-down Royal Enfield. This is a common sight on this route. Royal Enfield bikes are good on these roads, but the probability of them breaking down is high - something to keep in mind in case you are planning to rent one for the ride. I suggest riding it around for a day before you start your journey on this route.
As soon as we crossed Sarchu we started climbing up the next two consecutive passes - Nakee La at 15,547 feet and Lachulung La at 16,616 feet. Numerous loops with 21 hairpins makes this climb fairly interesting. Be ready for dangerous skidding on loose gravel and sand just in case you decide to try shortcuts on hairpins on this steep climb. Before I started the trip I was concerned whether the Ninja’s low-torque engine would manage such steep climbs, but my apprehension was proven wrong as I had no problem going up. I would typically downshift to first gear on hairpins, shift up to 2nd or 3rd and rev it hard just until I reached the next hairpin. The quick ride between the hairpins was no doubt good fun.
Our next stop was Pang. Just a few kilometers short of Pang was one of the most dangerous water crosses called Kangla Jal. The width of water flowing across the river had increased at least three times from what it was two years back. While a bridge has been made, it covers only one-third of the stretch so
Our fan report contributor stopped over in Pang following a hard day's ride. There were several camps set up here with basic food and shelter.
one still needs to pass through the wide stretch of water. Since there was continuous water flowing here, there was no road and we had to be careful about rocks and the slippery surface. The only good thing is even if you fall, you won’t go down in the valley. Crossing this stream made us relieved. Little did we know that the stream didn’t end there but was just beginning. We were riding the stream for another 200 meters on our way down. My Ninja didn’t disappoint me even on such bad roads. That’s the best thing about this entry-level sportbike - maneuverability at slow speeds and on bad roads is not a problem, and on nicer roads the throttle satisfies the urge for a quick pick-up.
The stretch before and after Pang is fairly interesting with weathered rocks/mountains on both sides of the road. I’m not sure what it’s called but I called it Indian Canyons! It was the unpredictability of the terrain on this route that made this trip such an awesome ride.
Pang was our next stop for the night. There are several camps here where you can get basic food and beds to sleep in. Be ready to sleep next to strangers in case you are in a small group and the place is crowded. Veg thupka for dinner was not a bad decision. We were too tired to complain about the bed bugs, but a strong breeze and locals gossiping woke us up early in the morning. We were all set to move along after our nice morning tea and after refueling our bikes. I realized that my bike had better mileage than my friend’s Indian thumper, as he had already consumed the entire 10 liters of extra fuel we were carrying, whereas I had only consumed five. Now it was time to experience yet another
Flat ground was a nice reprieve from dangerous mountain passes.
marvel of the trip - more plains. Imagine 20, actually 40, football fields. While BRO has tried to develop a road here, it was under maintenance. In fact, the off-roading here is smoother than on the road. But like I said - unpredictability is the nature of this route. What looked like a smooth, plain surface from a distance had patches of loose sand that made our tires skid. After crossing various water crosses, dusty roads, snow-covered lanes, steep climbs and narrow roads I was riding through these plains where you could choose to ride on a straight path or zig-zag through.
As the plains ended we started the climb to the highest pass on the route, Tanglang La. Road conditions were still bad, but there was no slush and water. For the first time there wasn’t any snow-melted water on the road, but snow blocks forced us to stop and wait for a backhoe to clear the road. This was the last pass on Manali-Leh Highway, and we were hoping that the road after this would get better. We weren’t surprised though when it continued to be bad for another 30 kilometers until we reached Rumtse. The last time I traveled this route I got stuck at Rumtse for a night when my bike broke down, so I thought it was a good idea to stop at the same isolated tea shop where I stayed the last time. The road ahead was just too good to believe. The landscape also started to transform into a few green/yellow flower patches. Just when we started enjoying this stretch it came to an end and we had reached Leh around four in the afternoon.
Zozila Pass was covered in fog and had narrow roads during the descent that were both slippery and steep.
After spending a few days in Leh and doing the rounds of nearby places, we decided to move further. Leh – Srinagar is a 430-kilometer stretch and we had heard that road conditions were good. But of course the conditions turned out to be poor. This is the highway that connects the rest of India with Ladakh valley and is open throughout the entire year, unlike Manali-Leh Highway which is only open between May and September. This was a much wider highway, but when we were crossing it was under construction so we gathered tons of dust on the gravel track. On our way we crossed Fatula Pass, the highest point on Leh - Srinagar Highway. We finally reached Kargil and decided to spend the night there.
The next morning we started riding further towards Srinagar. This road was under army surveillance all the time, not just the Indian army but also Pakistan’s. The road signs read: “Be careful, you are under enemy’s surveillance.” Road conditions continued to be poor and soon we started approaching the last pass of our trip, Zozila Pass.
There are few environmental features common to most of the mountain passes. It’s very quiet, everything seems to stand still, there are strong winds and hardly any signs of life. Zozila Pass connects Ladakh Valley to Kashmir Valley. The real trick of this pass starts after you reach the top and start descending into Kashmir Valley. The narrow, twisted, slippery and steep lane was covered in fog and ran next to a 300-foot valley on one side. Visibility was hardly five meters so you feel as though you are riding all alone on a road that’s leading to nowhere. I think this was the scariest moment of our entire journey. The 300-foot drop on the side was even scarier because it was covered in fog and, at places, we could see the frozen river at bottom.
Once we crossed Zozila Pass we entered the lush Kashmir Valley. This is when it started raining. This part of the ride was really beautiful. We reached Srinagar around 3 p.m., had lunch and from there I decided to move alone as my friend was too tired riding his over-loaded Enfield. While he decided to stop over in Srinagar, I decided to continue riding. I still had to cover 700 kilometers by the end of the next day. I kept on riding for another six hours and reached Udhampur. I was dead tired, and my butt was bruised after riding for over 16 hours. I had no choice but to leave early the next morning. The highway was busy on the last day, but as I reached the plains I had no reason to ride slow on the welcoming highway. I think the maximum I touched was 170 km/h. I covered 450 kilometers on last day and reached Delhi by 7 in the evening with fresh memories from an unforgettable ride.