'The Journey is the destination'
The night was as black as the back of a stag-beetle. Turning off my midnight alarm I noticed, we were accompanied only by the sound of crickets. At an altitude of 14,070 feet, the temperature pulmitted to -16c and we stood still and lost in the midst of Northern Himalayas.
Getting closer to some little known gems of the world, such as hypnotic Gata Loops, multi-hued More Plains, Magnetic Hill; where cars roll uphill and the Lamayuru, a cave monastery with moonlike landscape founded in the 11th century.
With effect from 31 Oct 2019, Ladakh is a region administered by India as a union territory, therefore, your Indian visa is enough to visit. However, to explore certain areas, like north of Leh and the Nubra Valley, a special Inner Line Permit is required.
The price depends on the length of the permit, but it will run in the small neighbourhood of four to six British pounds (400-500 rupees) and can be obtained online on www.lahdclehpermit.in.
From the capital, New Delhi, we boarded in a decrepit blue and white striped bus that honked and gasped its way over death-defying steep roadcuts. Majnu-ka-Tila, an old Tibetian colony in North Delhi, worked as a perfect appetizer to embark the journey with, the recommended place to board the bus from and savour traditional Tibetian dish, Thenthuk, a hand-pulled noodle soup cooked with red and green chillies.
Their unconstrained hand with the spices and herbs left me pondering how many of my English friends could eat the whole dish without water in their mouth-and eyes!
Indians are big on their breakfasts- Aloo ka paratha, or potato stuffed bread with butter, yogurt, gherkins and Lassi is what scrambled eggs and coffee are to Brits. Local places to eat, called Dhabas, have turned it into a traditional breakfast in major parts of northern India; suggests the number of farms that only grow potatoes. Each Dhaba entices you with their aroma of bread flour and raw, wet potatoes, and an evocative scent of burning sunflower oil that queerly reminds you of fish and chips.
Found at every corner of Manali Bazaar, we rented the renowned designated Indian bike of choice for our journey, the Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc, stuffed with petrol cans tied to each side and our luggage in the center. It comes without saying to be sure to buy a first-aid kit and biking gear before getting en-route. Acclimatization and minor injuries are fairly common on this ride to paradise. First checkpoint was Rohtang La Pass, 51 kms away from Manali, followed by Keylong and Jispa. After driving for 137kms, we took our first halt in Jispa. A bargain awaits as you can find cheap and comfortable tents overlooking grandeur Himalayn mountains with a private bathroom from £7/pax for a night, including an assortment of Indian delicacies. It was important to rest as my back and buttocks felt like a pancake sitting on the backseat.
"Leave Jispa by 6:30am to reach Pang before the sun goes down."
The road gets worse from here and you might get stuck in the dark with nowhere to stay,” explained Mr. Bhuti, the owner of the hotel. He left two butter teas as a goodbye gesture for us. It tasted salty instead of sweet while still retaining the ‘soup-like’ consistency, making the Yorkshire tea bags in my backpack feel shy from the other corner.
Crossing over Zinging Bar, Baralacha La Pass and Sarchu on our bike, we met a plethora of Europeans, on the same journey from Manali to Leh- only difference was their bikes were manual.
“We stop when we’re tired and rest in our sleeping bags,” exclaimed a German couple already on their 13th day of their journey.
From Sarchu, we reached Pang; the coldest place in Ladakh during the month of September. It was there where we got stuck during the late hours of the night. A wholehearted thanks to Google Maps which worked offline as we made our way to Pang.
Prepaid sims do not work in Ladakh, said Radha, the owner of this small two-bedroom house, made of stone, timber and mud, covered on top with a thick metallic sheet. She allowed us to stay at her place for the night for a small amount of money.
“Each year at the end of September, we have to descend down to Manali. There are no fixed homes for people living in Pang,” she said. Going on tells us, “Our last shelter collapsed due to strong winds and heavy snowfall.”
It was a great paradox. The cold desert was a home to the warmest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. She offered some Old Monk rum; a traditional dark Indian rum with a distinct flavor of vanilla, often mixed with Coke.
“We all drink it to keep ourselves warm here. Even she does,” Radha said pointing to her eight year-old daughter.
The next morning we covered the last 117kms to finally enter Leh. Two days of freezing deserted landscapes, quaint signboard warnings which read ‘ Darling, I like you fast but not so much,’ and exhilarating bike rides led us to a land of lush meadows and Chinar forests where monasteries dot the landscape. A trickle of maroon-cloaked monks streamed at the door of Hemis monastery.
“I am on the evil side,” said monk Chi-Huan, from the corner while painting a big mask for the Chham dance.
Preparing for Chham Dance, Leh-Ladakh