When a 150km ride takes eight hours, you start to get worried. Just a little bit. Because the next day contains three passes and 220 kilometres. But let’s back up and go back to where it begins. After a good night’s sleep in Manali, the six Mahindra Centuros began to climb to Rohtang early in the morning.
Heading for Leh this late in the year is considered a bit risky because the weather, especially as night approaches up in the mountains can be unpredictable. On the other hand, by this time, the flow of tourists is down to a trickle and that means the famous jams of the climb up to the pass simply never happened. The roads were largely in good shape and the immense army convoy we had to pass – the whole day in fact – turned out to be driven by super polite drivers who allowed us to pass as soon as they saw us in the mirrors.
Up at the top, it was cool, bright and sunny. And the whole plain before the actual pass itself – marked by a cluster of prayer flags – was littered with trash. Rohtang has to be the saddest looking of all mountain passes. I’ve seen it once in the middle of a cloud with an approaching sunset. That day you couldn’t see the pockmarks and it looked magical. When it’s clear though, it’s just an epic mess that you want nothing of. So we sat, sigh, for nearly an hour eating a delicious hot lunch – Maggi, omelettes, bread and other mountain delicacies. Then we headed down to Koksar where Sharmaji (actually the Kamring Dhaba) and his legendary meat rice awaited us.
The climb down was fun. The road was in good shape – even the dirt bits. Our guests were losing their fear of the dirt – a good thing because there’s a lot of it ahead – and the pace was rapid. The Centuros also felt tough and unlikely to break, so bashing cheerfully over bumps and lumps seemed like a good idea. I guess the sole issue was that we climbed down so fast that we were sitting in Sharmaji’s tucking into meat rice (and rajma for those who choose to remain uninitiated) before the Maggi was digested. But the mood was good. Everyone was feeling okay, we’d managed to escape mountain sickness and its effects for the moment and we knew the run to Jispa was a good one.
Back on the road, the initial stretch was in terrific nick and while I was sweeping the convoy, I had a great time falling back and then cornering as hard as I wanted for a few corners at a time. The road eventually dissolved into a mess of that fine Ladakhi dust. You could see construction crews working away but when we rolled into Tandi, the place with the famous petrol pump, our gear looked like it was dusted with flour. Which provoked no comment from anyone so I’m guessing flour-dusted bikers are a regular sight at Tandi. Anyway, fuel filled – despite the altitude and how hard we were pushing, our bikes were returning a steady 40kmpl, we’re happy with that – we headed out.
After an indifferent road into Keylong, we hit the road I was looking forward to. The run to Jispa is a perfectly surfaced tarmac road that turns and twists like a snake doing the quickstep. The sun was out, the Centuros were singing and we rolled into Jispa in no time at all.Bikes parked, we lumbered up the steps of the Ibex Hotel to get showers and an early dinner. Day Three was going to be a tough cookie. We had a long way to go to our camp near the Tso Kar lake at the end of the More Plain. Along the way were the Baralach la, Lachulung la and Nakee la passes. We would start at 4am in the bitter cold and aim to ride for two hours before the sunset greeted us. And then some guys brought their sensor-loaded digital watches and said, “Guys, the [atmospheric] pressure is dropping. I think we have weather coming in.”
Images: Suresh Narayanan
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