Naturally I was apprehensive, after my experience crossing the Changla pass. Dehydration is a major factor in AMS, so I drank 2 liters of water and some electrolyte supplement that Ian gave me. I bundled up super warm and made sure that all my gear was organized so I wouldn’t need to mess around while we were up over 17,000 feet. And it worked.
We made it to the top of the pass with no issues, and even spent a few minutes taking photos and wondering why my GPS said we were only at 17,500 feet, but all the signs said it was 18,380… After researching this I have come to the conclusion that the sign is wrong. I suppose you can reach this height if you climb up the hill behind the sign, but it seems that the road itself is a mere 17,500 feet.
The road after the top was a little stressful. Very steep hills, loaded with snow that looked really heavy and ready to come pouring down. There was a lot of evidence of previous avalanches, so it seemed pretty clear where the really dangerous areas were. Putt-putting along on a motorbike seemed like it had positives and negatives. The putt-putt of the exhaust might set off an avalanche, but the bike itself could hug the inside wall of the cliff and hopefully not get taken over the cliff with the snow if there was a small avalanche. Obviously we didn’t get taken over the cliff by any avalanches or landslides, and who knows, maybe that is partially because we were all concerned about it and did whatever we could to keep a low profile and get out of there as quickly as possible.
At the bottom of the pass, after the outpost of Khardung, the Nubra valley opened up like a land out of time. We were asked if we had Inner Line permits, but simply saying Yes was enough, they didn’t actually ask to see them. It was like we had just crossed a harsh and difficult pass to enter a secret valley that was warm and protected, beautiful and isolated. The first town was called Diskit and there is a large monastery with a huge Buddha statue. The monastery was founded 700 years ago and is still very active. The town itself was kind of beat, so we passed through pretty quickly. The next town is called Hundar and its known for sand dunes and double hump camels. It is unique because most places with large areas of sand dunes are generally really hot, but the dunes at Hundar are generally really nice. People can go hiking around the dunes, riding camels, and all without roasting themselves.
We began looking for a camping spot in Hundar, but couldn’t really find much. The fact that an honest to god sand storm whipped up in the afternoon was partially responsible. It was really hard to find anything that would act as a shelter against the gigantic brown clouds of sand that were blowing down on us. Eventually we settled on an area of dried river bed that had a lot of really thorny and spiny brush that we could hide behind and a river nearby that we could use to wash our cooking pans. It actually worked out pretty well except for the thorn that popped a hole in my camping mattress.
The next morning we had a decision to make, did we want to go ride camels and thrash around in the sand dunes, or ride to the end of the valley and see if we could get into Pakistan.
I had heard interesting things about Turtuk, the last town in the valley. It had been so isolated for so long that they still spoke a language with no written alphabet. It has been closed to tourism from 1947 to 2010.
The rest of the guys all wanted to hit the dunes and camels in the morning and then head back over the pass. They had flights booked from Leh to Delhi and if for some reason they didn’t make it back over the pass that day they would probably miss them.
I had no such issues, so I took off and headed for Pakistan, intending to meet back up with them the next day. I made it as far as Turtuk, and the last Indian Army check point before Pakistan. I didn’t even bother trying to get past that check point. I stopped for a tea and a snack nearby and watched the check point, and it was clear that they were very serious and checking everyone for proper paper work. Which I did not have.
Turtuk was beautiful, a small village with a lot of green farms and very friendly people. All the kids would come out and wave when they heard a motorcycle coming, none of the drivers tried to run me off the road, and I could see why people would want to spend time there. Very peaceful. But I couldn’t find an internet café, or any way to communicate while I was there, so I thought I might have time to make it back over the Khardung pass if I pushed it.
I made it back to Diskit by about 3 PM, but that was getting a little bit late to try for the pass so I spent the rest of the afternoon riding around looking for a camping spot. I crossed over to the other side of the valley and rode through many small towns, but there really weren’t any good camping spots. I was hoping for sheltered, near water, and not next to a road. I found many with 2 out of 3, but none with all 3. So I wound up at a hotel in a town called Sumur. I rode up, and asked if they had electricity. Yes. Did they have internet. Yes. Did they have hot water. Yes. How much was the room? Well… they tried for 3000 Rupees, about $50. After we settled on 1/3 of that price, as long as I had dinner in their restaurant, I unpacked the bike and settled in. I was looking forward to taking a hot shower and relaxing, but the hot water that they did indeed have, came in a bucket, and only in the mornings… Then the sandstorm came up and took out the power and the internet. I was the only guest in the restaurant for dinner and the helper boy stood at the wall and watched me the entire time, ready to bring me more rice, or chapatti, or pretty much anything that looked like it was running low. You might think that its nice to have a personal attendant, but I think Ill stick with the Western dining experience whenever possible.
The next morning I did receive my bucket of hot water, but I was anxious to get over the pass as early as possible. I wanted to get ahead of the trucks and taxis. I was on the road by 6 am and was crossing over the pass way ahead of everyone else. It was really nice, I had the road to myself almost all the way to the top of the pass. By the time I was half way up there were a couple of cars oncoming, but I didn’t see a single vehicle going my way until I had crossed over the top and was coming down the backside. At the lower check point, the unmanned one where we had all stopped to take photos on our first attempt to cross the pass, there was a road block.
A group of local motorcycle renters have decided that its not ok to ride a motorcycle over the Khardung pass unless you have rented it from them. Basically its like highway robbery. They are telling tourists that they need to park their vehicles and only ride bikes rented from locals while in the region.
The guys at the blockade had already called Anu and told him they knew there were 5 foreigners riding his bikes in Leh, but they didn’t say anything to us when we were together. When there was just one of us, me, they had enough confidence to stop me and try to convince me that I should give them money. I had other ideas though and simply rode through them; I had kept the bike in gear, with the clutch in, and when the conversation got to the point where I was asked to get off the bike because it had out of state plates I just started moving. They managed to jump out of the way and not pull me off the bike, but I expected them to hop on their bikes and chase me down. They didn’t. They did call Anu and whine that someone on one if his bikes wouldn’t stop for them.
I had known that this might happen, these guys have been doing this for years. I was hoping that one of them would hit me, or some sort of minor violence might occur, which I could escalate into a minor international incident. Because what they are doing is pure bullshit. Its not like we are paying an additional tax to a local government organization, it’s a bunch of guys cornering people and scaring them into paying up. I can only imagine that a lot of more civilized foreigners fall for it and don’t fight back. They are a bunch of bullies. Once I was back in Leh we all went walking along Changspa road, hoping to see some of the guys, or rather, hoping they would see us, but naturally they were nowhere to be found. Punks.
The next day we sorted out the bikes, dropping them off at a safe location to be picked up by Anu once the Baralacha Pass, on the road to Manali, was opened. The rest of the guys all had a 5 am flight to Delhi, and I had set up my bike to head to Manali as soon as the pass was cleared of snow and opened to regular traffic.
My Bullet’s starter had stopped working a week before and it was burning so much oil that no one would ride behind me, so I actually pulled the racks off and put them on Rex’s bike which had been the most reliable of all 5.
I had news that the Baralacha Pass had opened on the 15th, the same day that the guys were flying out to Delhi, so about 3 hours after they headed to the airport I headed South, to make for Manali with the bike and complete the Ladakh circuit, the 3rd of my goals on this trip. First was crossing Khardung La. Check. Second was seeing Pangong Lake, check. And finally, completing the circuit.
Manali – Srinagar- Kargil- Leh- Baralacha la- Manali.