Adventure on two wheels- Kathmandu to Leh Ladakh
I was riding somewhere with high speed and ahead I see a van coming towards me, I hear someone from the back whisper and that’s all I could remember.The unsettling dream. Few days later, I received a message from a friend who was visiting Nepal and wanted to go on adventure trip together. I suggested Ladakh and in 10 days or so, we were set to go.My name is Samir Jung Thapa – an environment and adventure photographer and documentary film maker based in Kathmandu. For me traveling is meditation and riding my motorcycle is a way of life.
Lilu KC, my other half, crazy but patient, also loves adventure and always willing to face challenges. With minimal planning and all of 46 Horsepower of excitement, we agreed to explore 5500+ km away from home on a motorcycle and with a friend who never actually made it.
At first we were suppose to cross border together (with the friend) then later he decided to start from Delhi, then from Chandigarh, then Manali and then later he decided to fly directly to Ladakh. I could understand his situation, a father of 2 years old, he must have had difficulty to manage taking time off while his wife worked in Dubai.
Our travel route was Kathmandu – Bhairawa – Mahendranagar (cross India Nepal border at Banbasa) – Haridwar – Dehradun (Mussoorie a day visit) – Shimla via Solan – Chandigarh – Manali – Sarchu – Leh and our return home was still to be planned.
Without delay, the journey to Ladakh began. I found a guy in Delhi, Varun from Transformerz, who promised to deliver Scorpion trail tyres which was suited to Enduro motorcycles with a touring setup, capable of tackling long journeys and excursions with light off-road stretches, which was perfect for our journey to Leh Ladakh.
In a country like Nepal, it is very difficult and expensive to buy spares and tyres, besides it’s always out of stock. Our first mission was to ride with a worn out Metzeler Tourance tyres till Chandigarh, change it and continue.
Monsoon was upon us. Our first experience was in Mugling Narayanghat Highway (in Nepal) where we got hit by a severe rain shower and the highway – paddy field cum potholes extravaganza. For two more days we were wet like a dog. The ABS braking system was a miracle and our cruising continued in heavy shower at 100 km/hr. Border crossing at Mahendranagar-Banbasa was easy. We do not require carnet de passage but only basic documents, as India and Nepal shares an open border. Road permit for a month, for motorcycles, the embassy charges 10 USD and a bank guarantee of 100 USD for Indian manufactured motorcycle and 1000 USD for foreign manufactured motorcycles which is of course refundable after your return.Once we were on the roads of India – welcome to the land of horns – stray cows and transport vehicles carrying the slogan “Horn Please”. With better roads than Nepal but busy as a bee, Indian highways are colorful- the soda joints, juice stalls and Dhabas, an Indian name for eatery.
Problem? On the 4th day while riding towards Mussoorie from Dehradun, I felt the bike lose its acceleration, I was still a day away from Chandigarh where I was meeting Varun and replacing my tyres with new ones. I decided to fix the brakes in Chandigarh. As we were riding in the rain for couple of days and while crossing Mugling (Prithivi Highway) in Nepal, there was a serious mud slush for 36 km stretch. Maybe this was the reason why my brakes were not working. This was our first hand experience (in picture) while starting the journey towards India. The pin that connects the piston of the brakes gets rusted easily and jams which does not let the wheel move, leading to engine heating problem. It is always advisable to carry WD 40 to clean all the sensitive parts of the motorcycle right after a stopover, during monsoon season. Once you are in your garage it’s always good to regrease all the metal parts.
Hot and humid, wearing kilos of gears, we meet Varun in Chandigarh with Tyres. Poor Lilu, I could see how uncomfortable and irritated she was with the heat and the fact we will have to spend whole day in a garage. It was Sunday and Triumph garage was closed so we decided to change the Tyres in a local Enfield workshop. As the mechanics could not fix the brake problem, we had to stay overnight in Chandigarh.
Looking at Triumph’s facilities and their service, I was very impressed. After thorough cleaning, the brake was fixed and as good as new. With sweat dripping down and the stickiness, we decided to head towards Manali the same evening, to cool off.
As we ascended up from Manali, with increased altitude of 2050 m, Lilu started with her half a dose of Diamox to avoid any altitude sickness. To cross Rohtang pass (3,978 m) one needs vehicle permit, which is easily available online or in Manali for 3 times the price. With her tingling fingers, Lilu and I set off to Leh. As we rode up we got caught in heavy rain (again!) and when in high altitude, we had to keep ourselves dry and warm. With temperature dropping and half drenched, we stopped at local shop and made covers out of plastic. Tired and cold? No Problem there! There were hundreds of Indian tourists who created traffic in Rohtang pass as it was the most accessible sightseeing destination for them.
Onward from Rohtang pass the valley opens and starts the arid mountains. Beautiful ride along the Tsarap and Beas river while crossing vast and stunning valleys. The roads are narrow but well maintained and is a famous route for motorcyclists. We made sure that our jerry can was refueled en route Sarchu-Leh, where we made an overnight pit stop.
Enroute Leh everything seemed fast for us, we were in a hurry to reach leh and rest so the throttle was maintained at 100 km/hr. It was one of the best scenic road that I have ever rode and the aridness continued till Leh. We both were fascinated with the scene and all the other bikers who gave us a ‘thumbs up’ were Indian riders who had conquered their dreams and were heading home passing us the good vibes of being on the road all by ourselves.
As we were descending Tang Lang La pass at 5,328 meters we got hit by rain showers and with the speed, we had to stop as we both were getting irritated with the cold. We stopped in a small village in Rumtse for a cup of hot tea to keep warm and we could not afford to get wet anymore. We could see the clouds clearing up towards Leh which was not that far from where we were so we decided to continue after 45 minutes of wait.
YAY to Leh!
A scenic road that passed by beautiful monasteries, Tibetan structured houses and green lush valleys seemed like a ride in an oasis valley. We reached Leh with no idea where to stay and there we met a Nepali guy who asked if we were looking for a room. We ended up in a small guest house run by a local family which had a beautiful vegetable garden and a room with 24-hour hot water service for only 15 USD including breakfast for a couple.
Next morning, we decided to go to Nubra valley (5 hours from Leh) and onward traverse to Pangong lake (4 hours from Nubra) and if we met any fellow riders going towards Srinagar and Kashmir, we would follow them. It was a pleasant day with no clouds and when we reached Khardung La pass (5,359 m) the highest pass in the world we were boiling inside our riding suit. Nubra Valley is famous for its sand dunes and camels, vast valleys and small touristic towns which is close to Pakistan border. The ride to Nubra was absolutely stunning with small creeks overflowing to the road, wild Lavender flowers highlighting the purple with grey hued mountains in the background.
We were 2499 KMS far from home chasing the setting light, with awe-inspiring views of the landscape, to get the perfect picture on a shallow stream in Turtuk-Diskit highway (Nubra, Leh Ladakh). The clouds were low and the shadows were scattered over the stunning arid hills. We wanted to reach that stream just before the sun disappeared behind the hills.
Everything was perfectly set, Lilu was behind the camera and I rode off to the stream. On the second gear with a 48 HP engine the bike took its speed and as I was riding I stood up to take better control. When I stood on the footrest I must have pushed the gear lever and from 2nd gear, it jumped to the 1st which wore out the teeth of both the front Sprocket and the shaft. To our dismay, the bike stopped right there and then in the middle of the stream.
When 191 Kilos bike stalls in the middle of nowhere, the best thing to do is push the bike few meters away to safety and wait for help and that’s what we did. While Lilu’s thumbs were up on the road I checked the chain cover.
Far from a distance we saw a Gypsy and right after it crossed the stream I shouted for help, they stopped. To our luck, we met fellow Nepalis serving the Indian army Gurkha regiment. They were kind enough to step out from their jeep and call for more help. After sometime there was a truck with full utility including an army mechanic to help. When the mechanic opened the Sprocket to diagnose the problem, he told me that the Sprocket needs to be changed. Sprocket, I whispered and I had none.
The only option that struck in my head was to put the bike in the truck and go near town, so that next morning I could load the motorcycle in a pickup truck and go to a mechanic in Leh which was another 115 kms away. And had to cross Khardung-la pass, the highest motorable road in the world. The Gurkhas were ready to help and drop me to Diskit which was another 15 kms away.
That morning, three hours back en-route Turtuk (India-Pakistan border) one rider had caught our attention, I asked Lilu to take picture as the faces and the landscapes were changing. We would see changing of Buddhist faces to that of Muslim tribes. At first I thought it must be a local from the surrounding village and as we passed him, my rear window view proved it wrong. It was a foreigner wearing a wool cap that seemed so Kashmiri.
While our noodles were boiling in the pot, the same person in the wool cap walked in the restaurant. A Black Enfield, a left over British company, parked outside and he looked hungry just like us. After knowing that he was a German, I started praising about the German technology which I was in love with. Our conversation was interesting for both of us to agree to meet once again in a beer bar after reaching Diskit.
After lunch I met an interesting local character. When he knew we came from Nepal he asked us why the name Bahadur is commonly used for Nepalis. I had my own explanation but it was a hypothetical question that he had thrown at me. He gave 30 minute history lesson on how India took over the three villages that used to be Pakistan till 1971 and of course without the bravery of the Gurkha regiment it would have been very difficult. I could sense high respect for the brave men who gave their lives to conquer this place and till this day with the Gurkha regiment deployed in the border all feels safe. These three villages under India’s Take Control Point has now several bunkers and barracks to protect the India Pakistan border. We decided on a group photo and unknowingly it had to be a trailer of a parked tractor. Who would have thought in an hour’s time we would end up in a trailer with our broken motorcycles?
Endrik, the German guy, left early as he was riding slow and we decided to go to India-Pakistan border in hope for some juicy pictures. While coming back we saw Endrik’s bike parked on the side of the road, I stopped and looked around and saw Endrik’s face behind the bush. So we nodded with a smile and carried on.
I knew that Endrik was behind us and if I did not get any help on road I would definitely get a ride back to Diskit town in Endrik’s bike. So I was as calm as I could get, the last option was to get help from the Gurkhas or wait for oncoming jeeps or wait for Endrik. Just then I saw a pickup jeep and a looking glass of a motorcycle popping out from its trailer, I knew it was another bike that was being towed. As the jeep appeared nearer I could not believe my eyes, Endrik was in the front seat and when he saw me he was surprised and maybe thought that I was in trouble as I was surrounded by army personnel. It was hilarious!
To our surprise, Endrik was hit by the jeep but escaped from possible injuries however, the collision broke his gear lever and he could not ride so the driver agreed to drop him till Ladakh. I convinced the driver as well as Henry for a ride till Ladakh as I knew nothing could be done in Diskit. I found my lift – Next to an Enfield with a German guy and a German machine. We agreed for 5000 INR on the same pickup jeep and he will drop us till Leh the capital of Ladakh. It sure was a bliss to get a helping hand from the fellow nepalis. They helped load the bike in the pickup truck. I had nothing to offer and all I could do, was to be thankful. I felt very close to them yet I was many miles away from home but their humbleness made me feel that I was safe. That late evening, we filled our thirst with a bottle of Godfather beer each, not in a beer bar but in a hotel that we checked in.
Next morning before driving to Ladakh we checked our luck in Diskit. The only motorcycle garage but luck did not favor us as we could see the garage was shut. With two bikes loaded in the pick up jeep we started our 7 hours long journey to Leh. The first stretch was okay till we reached the checkpoint and the road started to get worse. It was very uncomfortable to sit in the trailer and trying to balance the bikes to avoid collision with each other. Nevertheless, with all efforts I was not able to protect my side lights and the seat. Two hours drive was one hell of an experience that was the most uncomfortable of rides ever. But, the memories of it, now, priceless.
Jugaad was not the name of the mechanic but a quick fix that all Indians rely on. The mechanic advised me to change the front sprocket and later, also the shaft itself as it had worn out badly. He looked at my face and said “Jugaad karengay” (we will get a quick fix for it) . The jugaad was to wield the Sprocket with the nut so that it would be easier to dismantle later when I reached Chandigarh. In no time, the wielder attached a bracket in the sprocket. I asked if it could hold the acceleration, he looked at me with a smile and said “you can now do all India tour without any problem”. The bike looked normal to me but doubts hammered my head as I had many miles to cover with no help. The mechanic had said please go slow on the uphill and not exceed 80 Km/hr speed. I still had doubts if I would reach home on this and how could I?
13 hours (473kms) away from Manali and to cross two high passes above 5000 meters, Tanglang La at 5,328 meters and Baralacha la at 5,030 meters, with motive to reach Manali we tried to cover as much as we could. But we had started late around 11 AM from Leh. We had only covered 304 kms on severe rain, and wind with a wielded sprocket. As it was getting very difficult to ride in in the mist and visibility was getting worst, we decided to call it a night.
What’s in that 25L Givi luggage bags?
There are no petrol pumps for 300 KM + stretch and the reason why Ladakhi rack on Enfield is famous is because the rack has space for luggage and for fuel. It’s a common site to see riders with bulky luggage packed on their bike. I always wondered what was inside. We had packed very light, a down jacket which could fold into a size of a palm, good inners, 3 t-shirts, 5 underwear, slippers, towels and of course toiletries. We were in the biking gear with a camera vest throughout the day anyway. We were carrying a jerry can which could hold 10 liters and quite surprisingly GS 650 sertao was cruising at 80km/hr with an average mileage of 29 km/L in such terrain.
I had read reviews from other riders that the road to Leh was busy with motorcyclists and there were small villages that we could take shelter if the bike broke down. So we did not bother to carry tent, sleeping bags or food supply. We were ready for anything and for all.
With welded sprocket, an early start to reach Chandigarh and visit Triumph workshop was all I had in mind. We wanted to ride as much and reach Chandigarh. Just before the uphill in Rohtang pass in Yari Khoksar where we had met a Nepali tea shop owner en route Leh we stopped for tea and to enquire about the road condition to Manali. The road was closed due to landslide. GREAT!!
After a filling “alu paratha” we were back on the road again. After we crossed Rohtang pass, we saw a stretch of about 4 kms of trucks, bus and private car jeeps in line. In a matter of few minutes we reached the end of the traffic where the landslide had triggered. Waiting is the worst part in any ride, it just drains you out completely. I was getting smell of urine from nearby so I knew that the traffic jam had been for a long time. After 3 hours, the bikers were lucky to get out first. Due to traffic had to spend that night 100 kms away from Chandigarh.
No jugaad? No problem! Unfortunately, the Triumph had no solution for my case as I came from a different breed altogether. Triumph stood for English and BMW for Germans though the language is different; they share the same philosophy of comfort on two wheels. They were convinced by the “Jugaad” (wielded sprocket) and told me to go slow as there was no other option.
Now I was on my own, with the same Jugaar I had to reach home and the only fast track that I could think was of taking express way to Delhi – Agra – Lucknow and enter Nepal through Sunauli. Just before we reached Noida in Delhi, I could feel the bike heavy and after 40 kms or so I could hear the tyre wobble, the tubes were flat. WHAT? Lilu was furious!
As the bike uses wire spokes rim and tubes, I had no choice but to use puncture prevention sealant inside the tube that could resist minor punctures for sometime. It was a hot day with excessive heat on the tarmac, my guess is that the tubes could not resist heat and the rubber around the valve stem was cracked. With a full gear in 35˚C heat it is not at all pleasant to have a flat tyre. Coincidently Varun’s house was only 7 Kms away from where we stood, he reached us in few minutes and rest is all history. We had to stay back in Delhi for a fresh start next day.
We were now only 1,159 Km away from home, after a day break in Noida near Delhi we took the express way to Agra and pit stop for a breakfast followed by sightseeing of Taj Mahal. The gigantic monument, one of the seven wonders of the world – in that hustle and bustle, people were busy taking selfies. For a moment, I thought to myself, looking at my camera, we were the photographers from stone age.
After a night in Lucknow we managed to reach Nepal border, the chaos town in Sunauli near Bhairawa. With open borders, we were already in Nepal. I walked back to Indian side of the border to get the exit stamp on my documents which I will need to get back my 1000 USD bank guarantee. And convinced the officer the bike was parked in Nepal. As hilarious as it may sound, it was true. So, he sent a guy to take picture of the registration number plate and we were set.
HOME! Finally, after 21 days! As soon as I entered Nepal I was least bothered about my broken sprocket. I felt 20 pounds lighter. What else could go wrong now? The fun was not over yet. Next day the battery died and had to jumper charge it. With hope of no more troubles in remaining journey, we headed towards Kathmandu.
Despite all the difficulties and chaos, it was a lifetime experience. Breakdowns are part of the adventure. They teach us lessons and get etched in our memory. Lilu was ecstatic to have gone on this journey together. During the trips, she felt it was painful to ride (with minimal luxury and no makeup!!) but now she can’t wait to go on another adventure ride.
I personally loved the discontinued version of GS and riding it long distance for over 20 days I did understand the machine better. It is a great engine altogether with the best comfort. In a country like Nepal where import duty for foreign brands goes up to 300 %, there is minimal after sales services. Like India, Nepal also believes in Jugaar and that is how many motorcycles in Nepal is running in the roads of Kathmandu.
Very soon the shaft will be changed and replaced with a new one; till then, the beauty will rest in the garage. Without a doubt, once the motorcycle is repaired we will hit the road again. I recall the experience and smile. Troubles? no problem!
Edited by: Lilu KC – Consultant and freelance writer and Photographer