The Post – Virgin Leh Diaries were a series of posts written by the very inspirational – Karen C, after she rode a Royal Enfield Bullet from Leh – the roof of the world and to Delhi making pit stops en route. Her first hand advice to riders and travellers to Ladakh is important as a lot of tourists have been making this trip without following the necessary protocols. Enjoy the post!
1. You can do your planning & packing in half an hour.
Yes, a 6 day motorbike voyage to the Land of the Llamas can be packed for and flights booked in 30 minutes. But make sure your team consists a very well traveled Captain and a few trusted & adventurous mates as well as a very excited boss & colleagues who will help you with your travel bookings.
2. Those who have gone before you will give you the most apt advice
They will tell you it will be cold, that you won’t be able to keep up with the other riders and among other gems – you can’t smoke at high altitudes. Choose not to listen to that. Instead get those essential tips from Bandra’s famous Valles Brothers (don’t bet against them in a game of beer pong you will lose!) and Charlie – the ever helpful car & bike expert. These helpful fellows will tell you about how to interact with the locals, precautions for dealing with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and those crucial bits and pieces of biking gear that just have to be carried.
3. Put the Helmet in your bag.
Carrying your helmet besides carting around your two heavy bags is definitely not convenient. But as a woman – who carries her helmet into the Bombay airport – you will be treated with surprising respect and kindness. (I found out later Indian Police Women Riding Corps. and/or airport employees are the only ones who frequently carry helmets apart from their luggage.) So that got me a personal airport-employee guide till the check-in counters and even got assistance for my unmanageable bags! It was all sunshine and rainbows for said helmet until I reached the Delhi airport.
4. Know your Airports.
Cousin Dave informed me that the kind folks at the Bombay airport will graciously provide free wifi. Oh, bless you Bombay! Police officers will smile while giving you directions. Strangers will tell you how to get to the smoking room in the quickest way possible, and the airport bar will make lone women travelers feel safe and welcome. No gender bias here. After landing at Delhi, some of the friendly Bombay fliers even helped me get my unreachable helmet from the overhead compartment! I may have inadvertently gotten lucky with my helmet, but the kindness and welcome I got at the Bombay airport was priceless.
But Delhi, oh Delhi, you desperately need some lessons in hospitality from Bombay! Since there were no illegal substances/objects on me, my helmet became the bone of contention. I was told to somehow shove it in a bag that was too small or leave it behind. So shove it I did, in my too-small bag and trekked to the far side of the airport where I was grudgingly informed of the smoking room – a shady back room, with broken down lighters affixed to the wall like a depressing afterthought, with no chairs and no ventilation. Delhi might allow you to smoke, albeit reluctantly, while making quite a punishing point. I did not see another woman in that smoking room for the entire time I was there. There were shifty characters following me at the Delhi airport, and they only stopped when I parked myself and bags next to a policeman. I couldn’t wait to get out of Delhi.
5. Always pay heed to the more experienced man (or woman!)
Listen to the team mate who’s done more trips around India and world than you. His advice will make the difference between you getting carried away to hospital on a helicopter, or coming back home without a single fall or mishap. I was advised to sit tight and drink plenty of water. The constant drinking and minimized exertion helped me deal with the onset of AMS.
The charming (Army) Para-Military Col. we had the fortune of meeting advised us to do the same, and regaled us with tales on how he rode non-stop for two days to reach his base. The extreme training that all army personnel go through made that ride a breeze! That being said, warnings must be paid attention to, even the most severe, as there is quite a distinct possibility it could happen to you and if it does, you will be prepared for it – which brings us to the next point…
6. Extreme cautionary advice could encourage some team mates to go AWOL
You will lose team members on the way, but you can be sure the ones you’re left with will be trustworthy enough when it comes to life and death situations. Besides the high altitude riding, we were warned about the freezing temperatures at Sarchu, the possible black-outs, the throwing up, the need for diamox… oh the list went on. This was when my team member decided that hopping on a bus to see Nubra & Pangong Lake was the better option, rather than risking life and limb on some silly ride into the mountains.
7. Stop to help lone riders. Karma works both ways
Our Captain chose to stop & help two riders with broken-down bikes. The reason for this he said later was that their depleted engine oil would leave them stranded at the side of a 17,000 ft. mountain road, where the cold and low oxygen would be fatal without proper insulation.
8. When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
Riding a bike into the mountains of Leh and coming out alive is NOT an achievement. But braving extreme terrain and intense weather, carrying a 40kg backpack while dodging enemy snipers and firing back to protect your battalion with your life certainly is.
This was one of the many markers we passed on those inhospitable mountain roads, erected by the Army – paying tribute to the sacrifice Indian soldiers must make, so you and I can ride through the mountains without fear of getting hit by unfriendly fire or bullets. Each of these fine men and women are there to protect you. Give them the respect and honor they deserve.
9. You can light up at 17,480 ft.
Just make sure you don’t jump up and down like a silly idiot trying to get the best shot to put up on your social networking page. First ride through the 15,400 ft plateau of More plains like the cops are chasing you – fast, don’t forget to bank though! Then put that ‘teenager on speed’ mindset away and ride like my granddad walks.
I’d like to think that my natural instincts to embrace my old age kicked in – I conserved my energy to the point that I managed to smoke quite a few sticks and take out those ‘look, I reached the top, mom!’ photographs with ease.
10. Don’t forget that toilet paper.
At 14,000ft it’s cold enough for your fingers to freeze. As pretty as those crystal clear glacier springs look on your ride to Sarchu, you really don’t want to expose your delicate nether bits to it, do you? So make sure you get more than one toilet roll… and strap them, tie them, hang them or just plain shove them in your bag, but for heaven’s sake don’t forget to take them with you!
11. Ride that extra mile for a better tent.
Don’t just jump off your bike in delight as soon as you hit Sarchu. Numb butt aside, you endure that a little more and get your sweet numb ass to those luxury tents. We did, and were rewarded with a huge tent containing a bed above the freezing ground with a separate compartment housing a very comfy WC.
12. Big Chief say Ride like wind – run from sun
Considering that the Siachen Glacier is 76 kms, the ‘smaller’ ones could still swallow you whole. So do all your admiring of Sarchu the day before and set off as early as you can the next morning. Why, you ask? Because a cold ride is better than a freezing wet ride any day. We set off at 6am; the cold froze our already numb butts (listen when they say ‘it gets colder’ – they mean it). Those happy little streams we passed through flowing down the mountain roads would turn into angry rivers by mid-morning.
11. Remember… Every cloud has a silver lining.
Our team-mate 40-Fit dropped out and our guide gave us a last minute notice that he would not be able to make it too. It was a disappointment, though one with a silver lining. This is how our back-up vehicle came into existence!
We were 10 kms from Rhotang Pass when the bike’s front tire got punctured. We were lucky to get some locals to put the bike onto the trailer until we got to Manali to fix said puncture. Now if we did not have a back-up vehicle in tow, we would have to shell out at least 25k to get the bike transported to Manali. There may be quite a few cars, bikes and vans, but they will not be able to help you. Most of the snow at Rhotang had melted away leaving mucky pathways with clouds blocking the way – being stranded at Rhotang will not be a fun experience.
12. Stock up on those momos!
We (well me) decided that Captain gets shotgun in the pick-up van, while I and another team mate stood while holding the bikes on the van. Yes, it was freezing, the view was to die for, but there was a magical change. That was the end of his tales of how he’d seen all of this and done all of that, before, at NCC camp. Whew. Though a new trend took its place… the “When are stopping, I’m HUNGRY damn it!” trend. The “ooh look at the big-ass vulture!”, or “ooh pretty mountains!” did not work. So don’t forget to stock up on those yummy momos in Leh, pack in some sustenance before you leave Sarchu…. ‘Cause grumpy team-mates will kill the scenic vibe.
13. Take a breather before you ride to Chandigarh
Our merry little troop was now down to two – Captain and I. With all the wine buying and plant admiring, we set off pretty late from Manali. Besides me mooning 3 cute Punjabi chaps (there are no toilets on the mountains), we rode through never-ending twists and turns, all filled with gravel, oil spills and rude trucks. With the trucks giving us no lee-way to maneuver through and there being 300 odd kms left to complete, we decided to ride until it grew too dark to see the road and stop at the first bed n’ breakfast. Non-stop riding can challenge some of the most seasoned riders, so go easy on yourself and take that rest.
14. Get ready for great roads but with high temperatures.
From a jarring introduction to Chandigarh with potholed roads for 20kms it was a welcome relief to ride on the smooth roads of the plains. Although we were sure the road would go easy on us, we were aware that the heat certainly would not. Luckily we got cloudy skies with intermittent showers and sparse traffic. Whew. I’d heard that other riders had to stop every 10 to 20 kms to water themselves down to cool off from the blazing heat.
15. Make sure you drink those Manali wines before you depart from Delhi
We’d ridden 1,500kms, 500 of them with glass wine bottles – apricot, peach, plum, strawberry & grape, all without breaking a single one – through the twists and turns of the Manali Mountains and then on Chandigarh’s traffic-ridden roads. We rode through potholes, muck and grease with the added weight. Yes, lots of care was taken.
So when I was told that wine bottles are a no-go on Delhi’s Metro trains, it broke my heart. Though they were wine bottles, not bombs, and I hardly looked like a terrorist, I had to break each one of them – and no it could not be drunk there (I asked).
Oh Delhi, you were quite a disappointment, you certainly lived up to your reputation of what cosmopolitan Bombay has for you. Tourists, you’ve been warned.
We left Delhi by train, opting to take in the local countryside. No, this is not a ride for the feeble hearted smoker. No, this was not like our considerate Bombay trains that will understand the anguish of a smoker’s plight. The smoking restrictions on these trains are pretty harsh. So in utter desperation I did what we all do but never talk about, get the smiling waiter to keep a watch out for the powers that be, so I could partake of my much needed nicotine fix. Whew.
AND what they don’t tell you above all is..
Expect the unexpected!
– Fellow travelers will help you out willingly.
– You could lose at least up to 10kgs walking up staircases!
– You’ll get to sample the best cinnamon tea in the world.
Strangers can become friends!
…When you’re sharing a smoke with a passerby.
…When you stop to help fellow bikers.
…When you wave out and scream ‘juley’ (fellow writer, Ryan Valles, thank you so much for that tip!)
Live in the moment!
– Go on and get those shoes and leg armor soaked in that icy cold river, it will dry.
– Swim in the happy vibes, smiling does cure grumpy team-mates.
– Stop to tell that lone 20-something biker – who’s ridden from Srinagar to Leh (and then will go onto Kardung La) how proud you are of him undertaking this epic journey alone.
…Good Travels to You!