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Motorcycle Diaries: Balaji’s Soul-Searching Sojourn in The Mountains

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“We ride not to escape life, but for life to not escape us.”

After a whole year of dreaming, planning and deliberating, and six months of mapping out my epic road trip to the magical lands of Leh-Ladakh, I finally hopped onto the train from Chennai to Delhi on the 21st of August, 2016. Choosing the places I would cover on my route was fairly easy, although the North East does spoil you for choices when it comes to views. I shortlisted places based on accessibility by bike, their historic importance, and the fact that many of these places cannot be visited all year.

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My roadmap was something like this.

  • 22nd August, 2016 Rode from Rupnagar to Manali
  • 23rd August, 2016 Made my way from Manali to Keylong
  • 24th August, 2016 Onwards from Keylong to Pang
  • 25th August, 2016 From Pang, I moved towards Leh
  • 26th August, 2016 Spent the day exploring and traveling within Leh
  • 27th August, 2016 Continued my journey from Leh to Diskit
  • 28th August, 2016 Headed from Diskit to Turtuk
  • 29th August, 2016 Rode from Turtuk to Pangong Lake
  • 30th August, 2016 Rode back from Pangong Lake to Leh
  • 31st August, 2016 From Leh to Sonmarg
  • 1st September, 2016 Biked my way to Patnitop
  • 2nd September, 2016 Entered Ludhiana
  • 3rd September, 2016 Made my way back from Ludhiana to Delhi
  • 4th September, 2016 Stayed the day in Delhi, before taking the train back to Chennai

Although, by this point in time Leh-Ladakh has earned for itself some “mainstream” popularity, no amount of Instagram pictures and Go-Pro videos can prepare you for the real deal. Everywhere you turn to look in this pristine land, you will find a view that’s nothing short of an artist’s favourite masterpiece, created to take your breath away.

14556498_1147485405327605_6948865887064649897_oMy seemingly endless series of gasps and sighs began at Keylong, to which I rode from Manali on my trusted Mahindra Mojo. Keylong (pronounced kelaang) is a lovely little place of untouched beauty located in the Lahaul-Spiti region. Although people only pass through Keylong in the dark of the night while on their way to Ladakh, staying back and watching daylight descend on this sleepy town will reward you with breathtaking views of luciously green mountains, historic Buddhist monasteries and a laidback vibe that’s typical of small sleepy towns forgotten by the ravages of time.

Next stop, Pang Valley. I was only passing through Pang en route Leh, but I couldn’t help but stop and stare at the sheer magnanimity of the natural beauty all around me. From the plains of Pang, you can catch a glimpse of the Himalayan peaks. This glimpse into the overwhelming beauty that lay ahead of me, made me nervous and breathless with anticipation. With this restless feeling, I rode on to Leh.

Perched at a dizzying height of 11,400 feet, safely tucked away like precious treasure from prying eyes, Leh is a place that, as soon as you catch your breath and acclimitise to the thin air, will make you ask yourself some serious questions about life and the universe. But, more than anything it’ll humble you. Mountains loom over the Old Town like proud but indulgent parents watching over their precious child. Traditional Ladakhi homes and hotels whimsically woven with gushing streams, narrow lanes, pristine landscapes and heart-warming people will charm you into staying here forever. I, with a heavy heart, instead moved on to Diskit, after spending a whole day exploring.

14372118_1133384663404346_6695240774497365704_oThankfully, the glorious Nubra Valley continued casting its spells of enchantment with every town I entered. Diskit was an experience unto itself. Located some 120 kms from Leh, this town is the headquarters of Nubra Valley, which also makes it a favourite among many backpackers and road trippers. It’s easy to see why. Diskit is home to the largest and the oldest Buddha statue in the valley, is dotted with apricot plantations, pristine streams, looming mountains and the languid and brilliantly turquoise Shyok River.

So engrossed was I in taking pictures and gawking at the vistas, I left behind my camera bag loaded with valuables and original Ids, and obliviously rode on to Hunder. When realisation hit me, I rode back about a 100 kms, to find the bag there untouched, in the exact place I left it. Without wasting another heartbeat, I zipped forward to Hunder village. Hunder is bursting with fascinating sights – from the two-humped Bactrian camels, who were initially native to Mongolia, but found their way into Nubra Valley during the era of silk route trade; to the magical silver-grey sand dunes; to the Leh Berry. Hunder stands like an oasis – a mirage – in the middle of an otherwise barren and imposing landscape.

14379791_1133382986737847_3986505985055944888_oFrom Hunder, I rode through a landscape that seemed to be turning whiter by the minute. Here I was in Turtuk – quietly nestled in the Nubra Valley, on the edge of the Shyok desert. Turtuk – the last village on the Indo-Pak border. A place straight out of an adventure picture book. A land whose name you’ll seek delight in rolling off your tongue over and over again. Turtuk is the last village Indians are allowed to enter, and was initally a part of Baltistan, which was once under Pakistan’s control. It became a part of India only in 1971, while Indians were allowed to enter only after 2010. Turtuk is home to the Balti people, who with their high cheekbones and tall, well-built frames stand in stark contrast to the Ladakhis. Apricots grow with wild abandon in Turtuk, and serve as the village’s main source of income. Wild colourful flowers and verdant green grass cover this village like nature’s favourite blanket. Turtuk’s locals are an amazingly artistic bunch – they’re known for their walking sticks and sculptures carved from the horns of an Ibex,  pressure cookers made out of stone, bronze utensils, and so much more. The villagers are eager and earnest folks, happily letting you into their lives, even if it’s for a short while.

14361409_1133385230070956_1845528052708534665_oAlthough reluctant to leave this slice of heaven behind, I rode further on to Pangong Lake and its unmissable prayer flags. Pangong Lake is located at a height of 14,200 feet above sea level, and its 134 kilometre long shore extends from India, all the way to China. There’s a sense of surreal stillness when you’re standing by the banks of Pangong Lake – the sheet of vivid blue, held in an embrace of majestic mountains and white sand. If you hold still for a minute, you can hear the winds whisper and the mountains sigh, a song only they know.

I made my way back to Leh from Pangong. From Leh I rode to Sonmarg (which translates to Meadow of Gold) and further on to Patnitop – a little hill station that looks like it’s straight out of postcard. Patnitop is surrounded by a dense fence of lush green Pine trees, like solemn soldiers guarding a treasure. From Patnitop I rode to Ludhiana, and before I knew it, I was on the train back to Chennai.

14425344_1133383896737756_8205228588487392828_oThey say the farther you move away from the mainland of the country, the finer the line between life and death gets. Everyday is a battle for survival. Electricity merely lasts a few hours each day. Cell phone reception is borderline non-existent. There are no ATMs. Exotic cuisines and fine dining is unheard of. The bathroom is all but a hole in the floor. And amidst this, live these weather-hardened folks with the softest hearts and warmest hearths.

If you ask me for travel advice, I would just tell you this: stop dreaming, start moving, make new friends, embrace new cultures. You can’t do that from your office desk, you can’t experience that rush via Facebook. My 15-day long adventure felt like a lifetime filled with unforgettable views, humbling moments of self-reflection and the realisation that there is no greater artist than Mother Nature, and we still have much to learn. Nothing changes in these cruel terrains, except those who dare to seek them.

Motorcycle Diaries: Mahesh’s Kaleidoscopic Bike Trip From Chennai to Manali!

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When you get to a certain point in life, you find comfort in monotony, in the predictability, the routine – you know the drill. All’s well until one day, you’re in office, glued to your computer. And slowly, like drums approaching towards you from a distance, you feel it rising – the thumping in your veins, the electricity in the air, the unquenchable thirst for newer sights and sounds. The call of the open road, the pull of the unknown. You know nothing can hold you in your place anymore. That’s pretty much the story of how I ended up in Manali.

I had been planning this trip for nearly two months, and spent about 1 week mapping the itinerary. My aim was to cover the distance between Chennai and Manali on my bike, and explore some of the nearby villages in the area too. Finally, with my Pulsar 150 as my sole companion, I set out on a journey that was equal parts daunting, exhilerating and therapeutic. Over the course of the 8 days that followed, I would see all kinds of shifts in weather, terrain, cultures and views. I was more than ready.

My route went something like this:
Chennai – Hyderabad – Nagpur – Gwalior – Agra – New Delhi – Chandigarh – Manali – Rohtang La Pass.

11893722_1061490243868968_3362034656006847081_oNot mentioned above are the innumerable obscure hamlets and lazy towns that mark this entire journey. Anyone who’s done an epic road trip from any one part of India to another will know just how magical it is zipping through this constantly shifting geographical and cultural landscape. It’s like living inside one big kaleidoscope. Chennai to Hyderabad to Nagpur was smooth sailing. So far so good, no dramatic developments, no hiccups. I was riding at a good speed and making good time. It was on my exit from Nagpur and into Gwalior that I got a close glimpse into the treacherous terrains spread all over my roadmap. The road was too rough, too rugged and I had to struggle to maintain firm control over my bike and keep my sanity in check at the same time. With no place to stop at and no room to rest, I had no option but to continue riding. On this stretch, I ended up riding for 15 hours straight in a single day! It is during these moments I seriously end up questioning my decisions and why I do what I do. But then again, this is exactly why. Would biking bring a self-respecting biker any joy if it wasn’t such a giant terrifying pain sometimes?

Not one to be bogged down so early into my journey, I rallied on like a trooper on a mission. Finally, I touched base at Delhi. After sufficient rest, appeasing the hunger Gods and checking up on my bike, I made my way towards Manali via Chandigarh. I was so close to this place I’ve been dreaming of, I was sure if I stuck my tongue out into the air, I could taste the electric anticipation. Anticipation was soon met with further agony when I was crossing the Punjab border and the rain Gods decided to welcome me with brutally torrential downpour. I had to wait for it to pass, and was further greeted by now slushied roads and a frighteningly slippery terrain, which lowered my speed to a crawl. But soon, all of that cleared and I was came up close and personal with the picturesque vistas that Himachal is so known and loved for.

11896541_1061490313868961_5332947928571265584_oI rode through the tiny towns of Swarghat, Bilaspur, Sundernagar and finally to Mandi. Mandi is a charming little town dotted with innumerable apple trees. The air is crisp, mingled with a sense of sweetness and adventure. I couldn’t help but stop and admire this quaint beauty that we usually see only in the movies! Keeping me company was the River Beas that snaked its way through Mandi. Beas rises from the southern face of Rohtang Pass at about 13,326 feet above sea level, cuts through Mandi at 1,920 feet, divides itself into three in the Kangra District and once again merges into one at an altitude of 1000 feet. Beas eventually joins the River Sutlej at Harike in Punjab. Its foaming white waters gushing forward to meet its destiny, relentless yet tranquil, reinforced my resolve to make it to my destination without further ado. Manali was just two hours away now, and the magnificent Rohtang La Pass was four hours away. My next stop was Kullu, nestled on the banks of River Beas. Serene temples, majestic hills and tall, solemn Pine and Deodhar trees, and sprawling apple orchards weave together this enchanting valley. Life moves at its own pace here – a jolting reminder to us cityfolk that slowing down is a good thing too. Although lured intensely into staying a little longer, I made my way to Manali.

Perched blisslfully between the peaks of Pir Panjal and Dhualdhar ranges, like a precious jewel in a crown, is Manali. Although ridiculously popular and crowded throughout the year, Manali still has its own charm. It’s a real challenge to keep your sanity together when the thin mountain air coupled with adrenaline thumping through your veins, leave you heady and restless. And so, I rode further to Rohtang Pass.

11893829_1061490443868948_4733545317511545164_oThe distance between Manali and Rohtang Pass is 200 kms. But consider traversing these 200 kms as tightrope walking over a valley so deep, you can’t even see the bottom, while in the backdrop a fickle but turbulent weather is set in its ways to show who’s boss. I got on to the legendary Leh-Manali highway which, with its hairpin bends, sharp twists, curtains of fog and whatnot, is pretty much a death-defying roller-coaster ride. Located at a dizzying elevation of more than 13,000 feet. I start from Manali at around 6,400 feet and drive upwards to Marhi, which is at 10,800 feet. The climb is steady and the air is getting thinner by the minute. Finally, I reach Rohtang sitting at 13,060 feet. My intense ride is sprinkled with some rain and light drizzle.

When I finally reach Rohtang is when I finally stop in the real sense. There was no longer anywhere to rush to. This was it, the proverbial and somewhat literal zenith. I get off my bike, take off my helmet, try to catch my breath and gather my wits. All in preparation for the wondrous work of nature spread out in front of me. You can see the most HD images on the internet, you can get all excited listening to your friends’ exciting tales from their trips, you can watch as many films as you like, but the real deal, witnessing the magic firsthand is an experience that’s just downright spiritual. If I had a camera, I had forgotten its purpose. If my jaw had dropped to the floor and shattered, I didn’t really care. The skies are the brightest blue, the mountains stand tall, proud, unafraid and fully aware of their splendour. Where the earth ends and the sky begins, I could hardly tell. I was too occupied being awestruck by this love affair between the mountain peaks and the clouds. Time stood still. The only thing fluid was the and the wind.

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What I was feeling in that moment is hard to put into words. I had made it this far, from the tail end of the country to where I was, at the edge, the precipice of wonder and awe. I could live here forever, or for as long as the treacherous forces of nature would permit me. But I knew it was time to leave. A good guest never overstays. I felt a dull ache in my heart at not being able to go further along all the way to Leh. But, I knew I wasn’t prepared, physically, mentally and even with my resources. However, that only filled me with more optimism – the sweet, sweet promise of return and the thrill of pushing my own limits. Travelling alone through a journey brimming with all kinds of risks and dangers is scary, but it’s also zen. It’s the perfect route to self-discovery – of being your own hero, your own most trusted friend and your own sanctuary.

I braved sun, snow, rain and heat. I was stuck in a forest in an unknown land and made it out unscathed. I negotiated language barriers, high altitude passes, broke bridges, bad roads, hostile weather and the complete lack of luxuries. I ate what I got and slept where I could. And I returned, with newer lessons learnt, a grateful heart, renewed spirit and an enriched soul. This was my longest and boldest bike trip. This was my first bike trip, but definitely not the last. As for my appetite for adventure? Let’s just say, I already know where I’m going next!

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