I had read that the common stopovers on the 2 day ride were a town named Sarchu, this side of the Baralacha Pass, and Keylong on the other side. There were 2 other passes before the Baralacha pass, Taglang and Lachulung, and the Rohtang pass on the other side of it.
Taglang is the highest, at 17,500 feet, but its in a really arid area so the snow buildup is generally not a big deal, Lachulung is at 16,500, and Baralacha is 16,000, but Baralacha is the pass that gets the most snow and is the last to open each year. Typically Baralacha is open within a week of the Rohtang pass, but this year it was almost 3 weeks behind the Rohtang, which was 2-3 weeks behind to begin with.
The Baralacha pass opened on June 15th, and I was looking forward to crossing over it and completing the Ladakh loop.
The ride from Srinagar to Leh seemed relatively populated, there were small towns about every hour or so, and I assumed the ride from Leh to Manali would be even more so. I was wrong. For the first hour, South of Leh, there was a lot happening. Many little towns, Buddhist temples, military bases. But then…. Nothing. There wasn’t even a gas station in the entire day of riding.
At about 1 PM I came to a stopover called Pang, it was a few rock huts covered with blue tarps and they all had a few sets of plastic tables and chairs out front and were serving tea and Dhaba food to travelers. I spoke with some fellow Bullet riders and was warned that the road was pretty rough heading South. They were right, it was mostly rock, but the canyons and frozen waterfalls were amazing, and worth seeing.
About halfway between Pang and Sarchu, in the mountains, I felt the chain hopping teeth on the rear cog. The teeth were worn down to little round nubs and the slack had gotten to the point that the chain would occasionally let the cog slip.
While I was on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, a group of 5 riders on big dirt bikes came by and checked on me. They had come over the Baralacha pass that morning and told me that there was no way I would make it over the pass that day, it was too rough, and to try and do it in the afternoon would probably not end well. They said that there were tents that travelers could stay in about 25 Km beyond Sarchu, and that would give me a little headstart the next morning. This is also where I saw the funny looking little deer like critters, and the guys said they were Ibex.
It was good to know about the tents beyond Sarchu, because when I got to Sarchu I intended to stay there if it looked interesting. It did not. It looked like a couple of rows of metal shop buildings that had been set up as temporary structures during the building of a highway. I kept riding, hoping that I would see something that looked more hospitable. I didn’t.
As the sun started setting, which happens early when youre surrounded by Himalayan peaks, and the temperature started dropping, I started to become worried. I was watching the odometer on the bike, and I hadn’t hit 25 kilometers after Sarchu, but there was nothing around. Nada, Zip. There was barely even a road. I was pretty sure I would need to head back to Sarchu when I came around a bend and saw the tents that the dirt biker had mentioned. There was a small group of buildings with walls made of stacked rocks and roofs made of blue tarps stretched over poles. They all had small displays of snacks and water. 2 of them looked like they were up and running and the others were in various states of setup. Some were nearly done, with the tarp/roof on, others were still just walls, and there were small crews of construction guys working in the cold.
The tent I stopped at, in the middle, seemed as good as any other. When entering there was a small kitchen area to the right with 2 gasoline burning stoves that had huge tea kettles warming on them, and 4-5 people constantly huddled around for the heat they would put off. They had tea, and ramen soup. The walls were roughly rectangular and there was a platform along the long right and far short walls. The platform was about 2 feet high, built of rocks stacked on each other, and topped with a layer of cardboard. I was able to purchase lodging on the end of the platform for the tourist price of 150 Rupees. That’s about $2.50. I didn’t try to haggle, and the spot came with 2 thick blankets that were laid down on the cardboard as a sleeping pad.
It was freezing. I had a 3 season down bag, a high temp liner, and I wore my riding pants and down jacket, with a balaclava and I still woke up shivering several times. I could feel the cold stones through all that, the blankets and the cardboard. I was tempted to snuggle up to one of my neighbors on the platform, but I wasn’t sure about the local customs.
The next morning I had some Chai with the construction folks, topped off the fuel from the canisters I had brought with me, and hit the road.
The Baralacha pass was probably the most difficult riding I had some so far. A street bike, with street tires, and loaded down with luggage would not be my first choice for riding in snow and ice, but I will say this. They are very good at going slow. The design of the bike allows a rider to putt along at the pace of a slow walk, up steep hills, through rocky streams, over ice and snow and mud. And riding on snow isn’t as hard as youd think, its actually pretty similar to mud. Putt putt putt putt. Slow and steady over the pass.
Once id made it over the pass and hit the town of Keylong I was back on familiar ground. This was our route to the Cliffhanger road and I was heading back in the other direction. But this was about two weeks later and the weather was much warmer. The show banks and glaciers on the Rohtang pass were melting quickly, and most of that water was coming down the middle of the road. There were stretches of 3-4 kilometers where I was riding up against rivers of 6 inches to a foot of water. The bike did die a couple of times because of water splashing on things that are supposed to be dry, but it started right back up. And the downside to waterproof boots is they also keep water in if you’ve been dunking them all the way into the water.
This is also the height of the snowbird season on the top of the Rohtang. There were so many busses and trucks, filled with tourists, on top of the pass that it was a traffic jam all the way to Manali. The times are changing in India and the emerging middle class is exploding. These people are having holidays and overwhelming places that formerly saw mostly foreign tourists. That’s great for them, but its going to be a rough time as they learn to deal with the volume. Anyway, lots of traffic, lots of diesel exhaust, but I finally made it to Manali in the afternoon. I met up with Anu, got some dinner and a 1000 rupee hotel room for the night and tried to dry out my boots.
It was June 17th and I had a flight from Delhi to San Francisco on the 23rd. Manali is ok I suppose, there are temples and schools for Buddhism, Ive heard about hot springs, and apparently the hashish is top class, but mostly its filled with Delhi’ites on a holiday pass to a town where they can drink alcohol. The Buddhism thing was kind of interesting, but the world’s center for Buddhism is half a days ride away, so I went there instead. I arranged a flight from Dharamsala to Delhi on the 22nd, and for Anu to send one of his guys to get the bike in Dharamsala.