Hunder to Pangong Lake :
Mr. Glen Livet made waking up a tad bit difficult for the lot of us, yet we managed to get on the road at a very early 8 a.m. (very early for me!). Me on my Ebony (my rented RE 500) and Jae, Saji, Arun and Geraldine in the XUV 500 headed towards the sand dunes of Nubra Valley. With the sun slowly rising behind the gargantuan peaks, the desert lit up like an Indian bride on her wedding day.
The road from Hunder to Pangong Tso (Tso means Lake in Tibetan) takes about 5 hours and goes alongside the River Shyok till Shyok village and this road like all the others in Ladakh is filled with wonder! Even after 8 days of riding in Ladakh, the landscape continued to surprise me and fill me with wonderment on how this heavenly land came to be. Some mountains are made of some sort of rock while some seem to be just piles of sand, some are grey in colour, some are green, some yellow, some purple and some with a mix of a million shades of brown. Never in all of India had I seen this landscape where there’s absolutely nothing but in that nothingness there’s everything! For long I’d abstained myself from going to Ladakh as it was on the mouths of every wannabe biker in India and assumed it to be just an overrated holiday destination, but man was I happy to be wrong!
I rode on dirt and gravel for most of the hundred-odd kilometres till Shyok village along which I got to do some tiny river crossings, well you can call them stream or puddle crossings as it was the beginning of winter and the water levels were quite low.
After Tangste though, the roads were arrow straight, pitch black and butter smooth! And the best part about travelling to Ladakh in October which is the end of the tourist season is that there are hardly any vehicles on the road! So empty that the gang and I had a makeshift photography studio right on the road with the clear blue skies as one of the most perfect backgrounds that one can imagine!
My friends had to return to Leh city that very night so we kept moving and in an hour we reached Lukung Village of Pangong Tso. Pangong has 4 main villages on its banks on the Indian side – Lukung, Spangmik, Man and Merak and some smaller villages. The majority of the lake is in the Tibetan a.k.a Chinese side.
The 5 of us got down to the shores of the pristine, multi-blue coloured Lake, jumped around like little kids, took more pictures, shared more stories and made more memories till it was time to bid goodbye to them. I’ve had the blessing of meeting hundreds of people in my travels, but it’s not always that I find someone, in this case, a group of people that I got along so well. I wished I had more time with them. To date, I miss the company of Jae, Saji, Arun and Geraldine.
Lukung had only a few campsites operating at the end of October and I’d chosen one for the night’s rest. A night which was probably colder than the one in Lamayuru (Day 3) owing to the cold winds blowing over the vast lake. Google had forecast the temperature to be -5° C. But even with my sleeping bag and a couple of rugs on top, it certainly felt a lot colder than that.
Lukung to Tso Moriri
Fortunately, being in Ladakh for more than a week, I’d gotten used to the cold and I could manage to sleep quite well which was essential for the very long day ahead. With no cellular network and neither offline nor paper maps, I had to rely on people for directions.
“Take the road right alongside the lake and in three hours you’ll reach Chushul and from there Tso Moriri is just another 4 hours,” said the owner of the campsite with great certainty. He added, “The roads are all Kaccha (dirt roads) but it’s not too difficult”. I took off with his suggestion and got lost three times in the first half-hour. There was a tarred road for a short distance but it was either split into bits by landslides or just wasn’t complete, which got quite frustrating. There were several trails available to keep moving forward, but with so many options came confusion. The trails were a mix of sand, talcum sand (the tricky one), gravel and rock. If I had my bike which was much more capable (with the tyres) to handle these terrains, I would not have worried. But the RE had road tyres and I did not want to get stuck with no vehicles nor people around to help me if I did. I slowly reached Spangmik, asked for directions, continued to Man, asked for directions and finally reached Merak. The trail took me inside the village wherein after a turn I came across a steep ascent. I hadn’t looked far ahead enough to rev the bike right and ended up losing power very close to the top. And once you lose power on an ascent, especially on gravel, it’s almost impossible to regain traction from that point. One has to make their way back.
Pangong Tso is at an altitude of approximately 11,500 feet and some bikes suffer from altitude sickness here. They lose the capacity to rev high and climb steeper ascents. While freer-flowing air filters make a difference, I wasn’t going to buy one for a rented motorcycle. Furthermore technique is far more useful and effective (till it’s not!).
There was a school on the other side of the road. When the kids saw me get stuck close to the top they all came running towards me, along with two men. I slowly began walking my bike down in reverse but soon lost control and dropped the bike over myself. I saw the kids who had their curious eyes on me break out with laughter and looking at them I too joined them! It was such a silly way to fall! I’d forgotten my training where Sanjay and Deepak (my trainers) had taught me that first I should always look as far ahead as possible, choose a path and then twist the throttle appropriately! In the event of getting stuck (like how I had) I was taught to always kill the ignition switch and control the bike with the clutch and not just the brakes to move back down. The exact opposite of what I’d just done.
The two men helped me up and I got the bike back down to take another shot at the incline. I told them I feared that the bike could still not make the ascent so they offered to push the bike in case I got stuck again. With that confidence, I revved all the way up (to 4000 rpm!) and reached the top!
It had taken me more than two hours to reach Merak and according to the information by the campsite owner, I was supposed to reach Chushul in an hour. And the next hour went something like this, have you ever seen a movie where the protagonist rides a motorcycle on an absolutely empty road and his position is fixed in the frame but the landscape behind him keeps changing? An effect that filmmakers use to portray a faster passage of time? In my head, it felt like I was the protagonist! Cause man, the road just did not end! Well, until it did, three hours later.
The fuel gauge blinked as I reached Chushul, which was the biggest of the small villages, yet had no fuel pump. I found a small shop which sold loose fuel and topped up my tank. While I was having my lunch (a packet of Parle G biscuits) an ITBP Officer parked next to me. We had a brief conversation and I asked him about the route ahead. “Don’t take the dirt road further, it’ll take you many hours to reach Tso Moriri, instead take the road to Mahe. It is 60 kilometres longer but the road is new and you can cover the distance faster” he said. And he was right! The road ahead was incredible! My average speed from less than 10 kilometres an hour until Chushul rose to around 30 kilometres an hour. What he did not tell me though, was that this road too would seem never-ending!
So, I had to cross a pass to reach Mahe, the next town, and the pass, in my experience was one of the longest to ascend (from the Chushul side). There were no markers to indicate how far Mahe was or even the name of the places I was riding through. There wasn’t a single soul on this road, neither human nor animal, I doubt if there were even any insects on that 100-kilometre stretch. As the sun began its descent behind the mountains, I began fearing a breakdown. I would have felt more secure if I had my tools with me but they were in Delhi with my bike. And even if I couldn’t repair the bike, I would have felt secure if I had my tent with me, but that too was in Delhi. “Getting stuck here can be dangerous” I warned myself.
As the ascent continued, the bike slowed further down, it struggled to pull in the third gear, then after a while in the second gear and eventually even in the first gear. I had only one gear to ride in, if the ascent got any steeper or if the altitude got higher, the bike would NOT move forward. And if the bike stalled and if I had to push the bike, it would take me hours to reach the summit! “This pass is a 100% higher than Khardung La where apart from a tiny headache, I had zero problems to ascend. So which pass is this!?” I asked myself in utter bewilderment.
The road being empty had a plus side though, it let me enjoy the enthralling scenery in all its glory. I came across two lakes in the valley which was crystal blue in colour, just like Pangong and looked absolutely stunning! For a while they made me forget about my breakdown worries. And just as I began to forget, the bike began to struggle more with the ascent, to an extent where my fear was about to be realised – the bike was losing air even in the first gear! And I didn’t even know how far I was from the summit. I pleaded with Ebony “Hang on dear!”. To my fortune, that was the last stretch and I finally reached the pass! There were no markers even at the top so I left the question to be answered by Google when I’d be back in a network zone. Looking at the road going all the way down, my choked lungs finally let out a sigh of relief.
By the time I reached Mahe, the clock had struck 5, the sun was down and I was both mentally and physically exhausted and I asked myself if I really wanted to go to Tso Moriri. I hardly ever back away from my plans, but if I ever feel like, strongly, I pay attention to that feeling. The town of Mahe was in sight and I put off making the decision till after I had a REAL lunch. REAL lunch translates to piping hot momos dipped in hot chilli sauce!
My flight to Delhi for the next leg of the trip would take off in less than 36 hours and after considering my tired state, I decided to not ride 60 kilometres in the dark, cold night to Tso Moriri, instead made my way to Chumathang en route Leh where I halted for the night.
The name of the pass is Kaksang La is the 8th highest motorable pass in the world, at an altitude of 17,841 feet. It was, in fact, taller than Khardung La which is the 11th highest motorable pass, at an altitude of 17,582 feet. The two lakes I came across are Mirpal Tso and Yaye Tso.
Next: Chumathang to Leh City. The last day in Ladakh!
Recommended Story – OVERLANDING IN THE HIMALAYAS #5 : KHARDUNG LA, DISKIT, TO HUNDER. (DAY 6-DAY 7)