Ladakh – Himalayan Odyssey


A coffee shop called “South Winds” on FC Road used to be a regular “adda” (hangout) for some of us studying at the Film Institute. One day there was an excited bunch of Medical College students hanging out there. They were animatedly discussing a “daring” ride to Ladakh. 3 girls and 3 guys, all soon to be Ortho surgeons in the US, were going to do a month long ride on 3 Royal Enfield “Bullet” motorcyles and 3 Kinetic Honda scooters all the way from Shirdi to Ladakh! I was seduced by their energy and soon went from listening in from outside to joining the group. I only had a Yamaha 135 then but hey, if a Kinetic was going to do it, I could certainly try!

Life got in the way however and I couldn’t join this exciting road trip! But the seed had been sown! It was 6 years later in 2005 that I finally had the resources, the time and a new Royal Enfield motorcycle to do the ride! And after that first eventful ride across the Himalayas, I was hooked! Back then, Both of us worked for companies that had this “compulsory annual leave” thing – basically Managers/Team Leads had to hand over our projects to other TLs/PMs and go on Compulsory Leave. Those annoying Auditors need time to “audit” our projects and write those long winding reports criticizing us na? ๐Ÿ™‚ We both resolved to use our Annual Leaves to ride to Ladakh every year! He would soon forget all about the pact, but I am glad that I kept that resolution – well, almost!

Rohtang La

I did my fair share of touring by bike and car since – but I was never a streotypical “biker”! That was never the attraction! But Ladakh had a certain draw that no other place has matched to date! It wasn’t about the “challenge” thing either! Nor was it about the “notch in the belt” thing that drives some bikers. I was drawn to the unique flavor of Buddhism, Ladakhi culture with its Tibetan influences and ofcourse the stunning views! It was also a great place to meditate and find an answer to troubling questions! I also met some very interesting people on the road who taught me a lot of life lessons!

Zing Zing Bar

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Planning for Ladakh

Some tips for the benefit of those planning your own Himalayan Odyssey. I am no expert but these are my personal opinions based on my experiences!

There are 2 main routes to get to Leh. The first route runs through the Lahaul Valley from Manali to Leh. This is the route that was featured in the 2010 British TV series “World’s most Dangerous Roads”. This route has 5 of the highest mountain passes in the world requiring us to cross passes from 13000 ft ASL to 17,480 ft ASL. The terrain is treacherous, weather is unpredictable and there is the ever present danger of Altitude Sickness. The other “easier” route to Leh is via Srinagar in the disputed region of Kashmir. This route has 3 passes which are significantly lower – between 11500 ft and 13500 ft ASL.

Which route should you choose? The Srinagar route is certainly “easier” and less challenging physically. However you want to do Ladakh because it is challenging right? ๐Ÿ˜

Personally, I always prefer circular Road Trips – Go out one way and come back another way. So to Ladakh, you can either go clockwise (Srinagar to Leh and back via Manali) or anti-clockwise. Does it matter? Not at all! There is one significant advantage of doing it anti-Clockwise though. When you do the Manali-Leh route first, you are finishing the most difficult part of the trip with the highest passes in the beginning when you are still fresh. By the time you cross Tanglang La, the hardest part of the ride is over! You have crossed the highest passes and are well acclimatized to the high altitudes. So I would advise doing it anti-clockwise.

A variation of the circuit is to go via Simla instead of Manali which will take you via Spiti Valley and from there into the Lahaul Valley at Gramphu. The first pass crossing if you take this route will be Kunzum La (14,900 ft) – significantly more than Rohtang La. Takes longer and can be more challenging in many other ways. The night sky over Spiti is the best I have ever seen! Best to plan Spiti as a separate trip rather than as part of Ladakh trip. SPITI IS NOT LADAKH! No it IS NOT!


1. I always keep one Buffer day for every 3 days on the road. Buffer days are useful in case of holdups due to bad weather, Landslides, breakdowns and other unforeseen events. Believe me, this can happen! On our first ride in 2005, there was a sudden insurgency warning in Kashmir and we were stranded in a place called Kangan for 2 days before the roads were reopened for traffic. In 2010, I was stranded for 3 days at Sarchu because a sudden flash flood brought down a bridge and closed the road. In 2011, my gear box broke in Jispa and I was stranded for 2 days till it was fixed. Buffer days help keep overall timelines in place!

2. I make it a point to not plan any Pass Crossings after 1pm in the afternoon. There is a phenomenon called Snow Melt which means many Water Bodies on the route see increased levels through the day peaking at 4pm. What might be a Trickle in the morning can swell to a raging river at 3/4pm! The weather can also dramatically change towards the latter part of the day. Also, Water Bodies can suddenly change course and come straight at you! This is difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it. But it happens. These can be a traumatic and life-altering experience the first time you see it! One time, the weather was bright and Sunny on the cllimb up Baralacha La from the Darcha side. But once on the top, the weather dramatically changed as we ran into a blinding Hailstorm with rock like ice blocks raining down! My petrol tank carried the scars for life! Similar experience in 2006 at Rohtang coming down towards Manali at 4pm. Blinding fog and Honeymoon traffic returning to Manali in the evening making it worse! I know many people scoff at this 1pm rule! But whenever I have broken it, I have had problems. In 2005, we took a call to break the 1pm rule and ride ahead to Pang instead of stopping at Sarchu according to our original plan. I ended up falling into a swollen river at 4pm just 7kms away from Pang!

What is the big hurry? Have a chill ride! Pack your bags at night before sleeping, wake up at 430 and start riding at 5am and finish the days ride at 1pm! Following this Ride Discipline when riding in a group of Testeroney guys can be challenging though! One advantage of doing it this way is you get to most photography spots at the perfect “golden hour” rule. This photo below was taken on the Moray Plains (Kiang Chuthang in Tibetan) – a high altitude desert at 16000ft ASL. Guess the time? 615AM!

3. It is always a good idea to acclimatize before heading out to Higher altitudes. A good way is to take COMPLETE rest in a relatively high altitude place for 2 days. Most people do it at Manali. I prefer going to Vashishti a little ahead of Manali. It is quieter and higher than Manali! A much better place to acclimatize before a ride. And Rest means Rest. Ok to chill around! Not ok to go Trekking or shopping in the Main market! Another key learning is that you avoid staying overnight in a place above 10000ft ASL! Unlike the local Ladakhi/Tibetan people, we are not evolved to handle that! Try to find camping/staying places below 10000 ft! Planning ahead and Ride discipline helps!

In all the years, I have only been struck by Altitude Sickness twice – one year I drove ahead without acclimatizing and the other time I made the mistake of camping overnight at Debring – 16000ft ASL. Most of my ride buddies have been struck with AMS in the same place – ahead of Sarchu while climbing up Gata Loops. Make of it what you will. Once you are struck with AMS, your next 2 weeks, and hence your ride is screwed! Better to take precautions!

4. The biggest mistake many people make is try to cram in as many number of places as they can! They have 12 days and want to the basic circuit, Nubra, Great Lakes and even Zanskar! Literally jumping all over the place without spending any time to absorb what each place has to offer! Another reason that I prefer to go Solo! Try to do fewer places but spend more time in each place.

Basic Circuit (Chandigarh to Chandigarh) should be atleast 10 days. Nubra and Pangong (Spangmik) should be 2/3 day circuits each. And budget some time for Leh Town and it surrounding areas as well. There is a lot to see there too! Ladakh has changed since I first went there in 2005 – a LOT! It is no longer the icy, isolated Himalayan outpost it was then. Back then the roads were narrower or missing altogether (still the case BTW). Leh Town had ONE SBI ATM which was down most of the time so we carried cash. Today there are 200 ATMs in town! Our favorite hangout in Leh Town is now a major road junction! There was one flight a day in 2005. There are 8 flights/day today. In 2005, there were 4 maybe 5 bikers crossing Khardung La each day. In 2005, We received carved wooden Plaques as a memento when we signed at the checkpost on Khardung La top! Today there is a Restaurant selling Maggi Noodles on K-Top and those plaques are being sold for Rs.800! I blame the Bollywood movie “3 idiots” which mainstreamed Ladakh and put it on every wannabe biker boy’s list! On my last drive in 2022, there were traffic jams at 5/6 places on the Manali -Leh route! Still worth doing? Definitely! But Ladakh is a Holy place! It is magical! So don’t be a “Gujju tourist”!

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