Monday, August 8, 2011

9 lessons from Ladhak

It is more than a year now since we’d been to Ladhak, and I’d like to record here some of the interesting stuff  that I learned along the way, I’m not censoring the events described here in any way, I might sound a bit rantish in places, but that’s how it was.

There were seven of us, each on a different bike:
  • Naren on a Bullet Classic 500 EFI, with Santosh on pillion
  • Myself on a ‘06 Electra 350
  • Akash on a ’94 Std 350 (all of 18 years old, probably the youngest guy ever to ride to Ladhak)
  • Jaideep on a Classic 350
  • Himanshu on a Karizma
Before we started, a vague set of rules was made about the riding order, and keeping headlights in rear view mirrors – Logic says that behind every rookie an experienced person must ride, but experience is a vague term, and the pecking order is hard for some to get. The rules were not really followed with discipline – this would lead to some grief later on.

Ideally I would have liked it if Naren had been in charge 100%, with everyone doing exactly as he planned and advised – after all he’s done more tortuous kilometers on hilly, icy, slushy, snowy, roads and highways than the rest of us put together (later events would vindicate this truth) – but well everyone knows better until the time when something goes wrong, so preparations were not exactly as Naren (and I) would have liked.

Lesson #1: Riding long distance on rough roads is a dangerous thing – you must have a proper hierarchy and command in the group, and a follow the leader approach – The person whose riding, mechanical, logistical and managerial skills is a superset of the others is the leader - as simple as that. A mission critical approach is necessary; it’s not all fun and games.

Having started out from Dehradun, we rode towards Chandigarh; we were taking the J&K route to Leh.
We rode on into Punjab and the only way to beat the sun was to soak our shirts and helmet at every possible location. I will omit the obligatory descriptions of what we ate and where, because you ride to ride, not to eat – No morsel so tasty as could exceed the pleasure of a well ridden curve, or drink with so much “kick” as that of the beat of an Enfield at peak torque.

Through Nahan, Chandigarh and so on we rode… somewhere near Gadshankar the head gasket of my bike gave out – 350s are not meant to do 80 to 90 KPH all day in the summer heat, especially those whose engines have not been examined or overhauled. First day of a ride, everyone was enthusiastic and the bikes were pushed hard. At one point I was both appalled and awed by some Jat munda doing 90 on a Honda Activa – May he rest in peace.
When an Enfield starts sounding like a choo-choo train – head gasket it is, blown it is. No sooner than we pulled over to assess the damage than some dudes hurried over and told us there was a mechanic close by. So the next three hours we waited until the chappie could dismantle the head (took a while for it to just cool enough to be handled) and refit a thicker gasket – “Moti gasket daali hai, ye knocking khatam kar denda hai” – that’s what he said.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped to admire the view on a small hill. Himanshu had a cig. lighter fitted on his bike and Akash was messing with it, and somehow it ended up with Himanshu grabbing the hot end with this thumb and getting a spiral “branding” on his thumb. That lighter would cause more grief later.

Lesson #2 : Don’t fool around – playing is good, but tomfoolery often leads to pain and sourness.

We rode on in the heat, and as we started wondering about lunch, we spot a “MacDonalds” in the middle of nowhere – A small town called Dasuya, which we will forever remember as the “MacD” place. It wasn’t really about the burgers but the fact that we’d get to sit in an air conditioned space and get plenty of cold water to drink, and a bathroom!

We reached Pathankot late that evening – A very depressing place, seedy and messy, and there was a bit of indecision amongst the chaps as to where to stay and how much it cost. Then there was the chore of unloading everything from the bikes, a tiring ritual that we would have to repeat everyday – I and Naren swear that the next time we go, we will travel light - One cramster and one rucksack per bike should be all – If you cant carry each bikes luggage it singlehandedly, it’s too much!
We were concerned for the safety of our bikes – the place had a ghetto air about it - so we parked them in a complex configuration in a small shed, in such a way that no one bike could be removed easily and cable locked the wheels of the outermost ones.

That night Akash was in bad shape, stomach upset, exhausted and he refused to eat much or take any medicine. He kept moaning that someone put him out of his misery. We had half a mind to…
He wasn’t helped by the fact that he’s not quite the fittest 18 year old, and his heavy “Harley Davidson” jacket, while looking cool and providing good safety, was not ideal for the ride in the heat, besides it was a heavy thing with shoulder padding stuff and would have weighed heavily on his slender frame.

Lesson #3: Get the rookies to prepare for the journey – I myself had never ridden in the hills, I’d ridden all of 15000 KM perhaps, Akash perhaps only a couple of thousand, and he wasn’t really prepared for such a ride physically. Santosh himself rode pillion with Naren, but having never been on a bike much, he didn’t balance well, and considering his huge heavy frame, it wasn’t ideal for Naren – Thanks to the power of the CL 500 he managed fine. Jaideep and Himanshu had probably ridden the distance, but I didn’t think they had “biker” written on them anywhere.

The next day we reached Udhampur, passed through the picturesque Patni Top, Peed, and finally bedded down in Ramban – Not much to describe about these places, go see for yourself!

Lesson #4

The real mountain roads started after Pathankot and for a novice biker like me, there was much to learn – It helps if you use common sense and a knowledge of physics, you can work these things out. I’ve always believed that theory is more important then practice, practice should be done after the theory is known.

Here I list some of the simple “common sense” stuff I learned
  •  “Apex driving” – This was something Naren explained – Ideally, if you were on a race track, and were making track records you would drive on a racing line – outer to inner on every bend, but on an unknown mountain road with two way traffic, blind corners and poor traction, you really don’t want to do this, not unless you are some Isle of Mann TT champ, riding a Ducati or something. Simple physics – A bike is most stable when travelling in a straight line, it moves the fastest, it brakes the best and it wants to be in that state – therefore, if you can see a distant point on the road across multiple S bends, and you see that no traffic will approach the line from you to that point, you aim and ride arrow straight to that point, not swinging left and right following the bends. You essentially “apex” each S curve whenever possible.
  • Don’t brake uphill! Why would you ever want to be so fast uphill that you need to brake!!! Back off the throttle and you anyway have some fraction of a G of braking. I found it odd that everyone except me and Naren were doing this.
  • Early braking on bends – Leave late braking to Schumi and The Doctor – Brake well before you approach a tight curve, if you are on the tightest possible curve when you enter, you can accelerate and widen your curve in an emergency. If you enter wide and fast and expect to tighten the curve by braking, you put your faith on the least reliable parts of a motorbike – the traction and the brake – and on dusty, sandy, rough roads, you are mocking death by braking late.
  • Downshift before entering bends and keep the engine revved close to peak torque when taking a bend – A turn involves change of velocity which means force is required, in order to maintain speed along the curve – At peak torque you get maximum force and you are at the right RPM to accelerate rapidly to control the curve diameter – Don’t be lugging the bike at 1000 rpm in top gear on a sharp bend – it leaves no margin for error or emergency.
  • Throttle modulation – Control the bike with the throttle, gently, keep the rates of change of velocity low. Don’t rev out and accelerate or slam the brakes, anticipate changes in speed and do it gently.
A lot many more things, things the body learns as the connection between man and machine grows… As I’ve said before, at least for me, it was all about the ride – the destination being Ladakh was the icing, but the ride itself was the cake.

The next day we crossed the Jawahar tunnel, 2400 meters of darkness, with the thump of 4 Enfields and the whine of one Karizma resounding through the length.
On that “note”, an interesting phenomenon that happens with a thump of Enfields riding together on the road is the amazing effects caused by the harmonics of each bikes RPM. Each of the Enfields we rode was a different one and none have the exact same gearing, so when we did ride abreast at the same speed, the sound effects were quite mesmerizing.

We were well and properly into J&K by this time and all the military presence was conspicuous. When we reached Srinagar, we heard that there had been some violence that morning, things seemed ugly and there was a soldier visible every 20 meters, loops of barbed wire (the high tech kind) blocking off certain areas. A general air of unpleasantness…
We’d accommodations at one Ashram place and A lone bottle of Fanta amongst a sea of Sprite was how Naren put it. After some discussion on whether to take bikes or not, we decided to hire a SUV and see Gulmarg.
The ride was picturesque and so was the destination, for the most part, except that it’s a huge tourist spot filled with Chunni, Munnu, Mummy, Daddy, Didi, Bhaiyya and Dadi times 500, all wrapped up like Eskimos against the “cold” June weather.

The next morning, we had a nasty surprise when we discovered the CL500 would not start. Naren quickly noticed that someone had ripped out some wires – surprising, sice we were parked within an “Ashram” premises. The previous evening had also been discordant, Naren and couple of the others had been on a walk near Dal lake and saw some eighth graders chanting some partisan slogans, and had also observed that the lake was rife with pimps dealing their “ladies of the lake”. Nothing like the lake that Shammi Kapoor fell in.

After some “jugaad”, Naren spliced the wires back, and we were off – We were never going to miss this place…

Soon all the follies of humans were forgotten as we were enveloped by raw nature riding onto Sonamarg, steep grassy slopes, the river below, cold dark morning… We climbed higher and higher, road got more and more rugged, as we climbed towards the dreaded Zozila pass.

Somewhere along the way there was a huge traffic jam, about a kilometer long, I managed to weave in and out of the stalled vehicles and rode on ahead…. Despite wearing inner and outer gloves, my hands started freezing, so I stopped by the wayside, waiting for the others to catch up, and warmed my hands on the toasty hot timing cover of the bike.

After regrouping, we rode on, and then hit “the bends” – Oh what bends, 21 hair raising hairpin bends, the road mostly rubble. On the second bend, I saw the first Shaktiman truck, and pulled to one side. It’s damn hard to stop a bike on a steep slope – Holding the front brake is useless, it just slides back. You can press the rear brake, but you need purchase with the other leg first, and that’s quite difficult on the rubble. Somehow you need to manhandle the bike until it stops sliding, then hang on.

First came one truck, then another, then another, and another, and so on – I believe 40 trucks passed in the convoy. Whew! After that the problem of getting the bike moving arises – there’s not enough traction, not enough balance, not enough torque (Yes, I know the 350cc Enfield has 2.8 KGM of peak torque,  but it’s still not enough). 

It got colder and colder and we saw huge mounds of frozen snow and slush – we were crossing little pools of melt water, and inevitably boots and pants were soaked. The temperature was dropping fast, dark and gloomy weather. We finally reached the Zozila war memorial and no sooner than we stopped for the obligatory picture-taking, than a couple of army chaps told us it would be wise to leave, since it had started snowing, a flurry of light snowflakes blowing around.

We were off, descending down towards Drass, and the snow turned to pouring rain, and gusty winds made the face numb, and drove the cold right into the bones. After what seemed like hell frozen over, we finally reached a military encampment, where we’d arrangements to stay. There was really no heat, and we had to eat lunch shivering, observing decorum with the Major who was our host.

The saddlebag that my bike had, was a “Desi” one and it finally showed its true colors… The splashing water had gotten in and everything was damp or wet.

Lesson #5 : Never compromise with substandard stuff! Take a Cramster saddlebag!

After some hours of being tucked into blankets, life returned and sleep had never been sweeter. That night we sat chit chatting with the Major, he told stories about his time in Siachen, how he’d seen Kashmiris who didn’t consider that they lived in India. I was feeling a little under the weather and some rum was most welcome.

The next morning was cold and blustery, windy and misty, we planned to get off to an early start, but that camp was officially “The coldest military encampment in the world” and it was about 8 AM by the time we had laden our bikes.

Then Akash’s bike would not start – ignition problems or a weak spark, it would fire once and sputter out. After some relentless kicking, it finally started to eight stroke! Instead of the DUG-DUG-DUG  it was more like DUG-SH-DUG-SH. The slightest modulation of the throttle would make it die.

A few patient minutes later, it came to life finally, perhaps something dried up or perhaps the battery came back to life.

Lesson #6 : Electricals are the most vulnerable part of a bike. Later events would show why.

We rode off in the cold, passing Dras town, along the Dras river, a lovely section of road, no greenery anywhere, but patches of pink flowers growing on bushes, randomly. Passed by Tiger hill and stopped at the Kargil war memorial and museum – what a wretched region to fight in!

At a point, there was a board saying “You are under enemy observation” and there was apparently a Pakistani border outpost visible across the river on top of a hill.

Speaking of boards, the BRO (Border Roads Organization) had some catchy ones like “Difficult will be done immediately, Impossible will take some time”. It’s quite amazing that they manage to keep that road open and maintained. Hundreds of army trucks and perhaps hundreds of motorbikes in the touring season ply that route and three cheers to the BRO for keeping the road working.

Kargil was a messy unpleasant town, we tanked up and were out of there as soon as possible. It reminded me of several places I’d seen before in the mountains, a “bazaar” kind of town with filth and decadence all around.

The terrain got picturesque soon – dry rolling mud hills and mountains, we climbed and climbed, and we reached Fotu La, a high mountain pass about 4000 meters high. I, Akash and Naren took a break there and we hob-nobbed with another group of biker guys on an R15 and Pulsar.

After a while Jaideep and Himanshu reached and once again we set off. After several miles on some really lovely hairpins and bends, in the glorious evening sun, we found that Jaideep and Himanshu were nowhere to be seen (the road was visible for several KM, but no trace of them). Naren decided to turn back to investigate. Jaideep soon turned up and told of how there had been a tiff between him and Himanshu and that Himanshu’s bike had issues.

Apparently, at Fotu-La, Akash had lent Himanshu’s lighter thing to one of the guys in the other group. Here is the thing about modern Japanese (or any) bike – They’re precision engineered, made to be used as is – you don’t go messing with it and modifying it unless you really know what you’re doing. That lighter attachment in Himanshu’s Karizma, somehow managed to blow the electricals of his bike completely.

The Karizma would not start – when Jaideep pressed to offer assistance, Himanshu was irritated and words were spoken – “Let me off” – this phrase was often repeated when this incident was recounted.

So Naren took my Electra back uphill and I gingerly rode the CL500 down to the Lama Yuru valley a few kilometres away (it’s real hard to ride with a heavy pillion!)
We waited and then Naren and Himanshu arrived… Himanshu decided he would stay at Lama Yuru, and wished to separate from the group. We “let him off” and wondered whether we should visit the monastery or what. It was quite late now, 6ish and we decided that we would press on and reach Ladhak – It was not the wisest thing to do, but it ended up being a nice adventure.

Then we discovered Akash’s bike had lost air – No problem… Akash had brought this glorious brass cylindered antique foot pump – Only problem was that when we tried it, it did not work. So much for delegating responsibility... The guys from the other group saved the day, they lent us their pump, and we decided to all ride together till Leh.

It was darkening now and we dropped right down into the valley, riding beside a stream in a narrow space. The rocks all around were of a peculiar purple color and the road was not quite a road, but rubble and dust and gravel. We crossed this stretch of about 20 kilometers on this really rough road. It was quite difficult. At one point I stopped and was unable to hold my bike upright, the ground underfoot was so full of gravel and rocks that it was quite impossible to even lift the bike up. It took me, Akash and Naren to get it back on track again. Riding down that road was a continuous sliding sort of motion, the bikes losing traction at every possible stage, rocks flying off the tyres, jolting and juddering… In the dark!

I think perhaps no ride has ever felt so difficult in my life – teeth on edge – the realization that we had to cross this stretch fast, falling down was not an option. Somehow, I found what it took to ride that section out without mishap. The road got slightly better and when we got about 80 Km from Leh, it turned into this glorious stretch of black smooth tarmac. We let it rip – It was fully dark now, it was past 9 PM and there were millions and millions of stars in the sky – We’d never seen so many, even in the Himalayas where we had once lived.
It was bone chilling cold and the wind chill didn’t help either, but it was a glorious ride and we reached Leh finally.

We lodged in one of those nice boarding houses, bed and breakfast kind of place. Sleep at last!

We’d talked about what we’d do the next day, go here, go there, this and that, the next morning however, we were greeted with chilling rain, I was down with a cold and everyone decided to snuggle in and make it a rest day!

In the late afternoon we roamed around Leh, a lazy relaxed day after so many days riding 12 hours or more.

I’ll skip the obligatory tedious descriptions of the places we roamed around – The Bactrian camel farm, Chang-La pass -  halfway to Khardungla, the Monasteries, The T-Shirt places (where you can get custom monograms embroidered)

Khardung – la!

That was the very peak of the whole deal – The highest motorable road in the world 18360 feet above the sea level!

The day we got the new that the pass was possibly open, we rode up and waited for quite a while at Chang-la to get confirmation. A military chopper arrived, tried to land 3 times, and they gave up and left. Some people came downhill and we decided we should attempt the steep 14 KM.

Chilling wind, flurries of snow, slushy gravely road, big gutters right in the middle, asthmatic bike revved out in 1st gear, slipping, sliding, losing traction – The blowing wind and snow made keeping the eyes open almost impossible – My strategy was to hunch over and focus on the road one meter ahead of my wheel. There was no room for error or pauses – If you stop, it’s unlikely you can restart again, there’s just not enough traction.
We’d replaced the Air filter of my Electra with a kids sock, but I’m not sure whether it helped!

Lesson #7 : Don’t take a bike with less than 20 horsepower on tap – Considering that the CL500 did that stretch comfily with a pillion rider – There’s no point flogging a less powerful bike, you just set yourself up for a fall

On the return journey, Santosh left via flight to Delhi and Naren gave me the CL-500 to ride back – It felt awesome – To quote Waldo Weatherbee : “Sheer raw bestial power! Unconstrained by the rules and conventions of civilization!”

We blasted along at a great pace on the slick black road, and reached the “Magnetic hill” place. Some simple tests showed there was nothing magnetic about it… Water flowed downhill, bike rolled downhill, apples hypothetically fell from trees and there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary as far as I could see. Disappointment – So much for other-worldy phenomena

We pushed hard on the ride back, went via Hambotu-la and Batalik - a lovely section of the road - There was a huge mountain there across the valley whose sheer cliff showed the entire rock strata in a wavy curved pattern– Rock can bend and flow!

The ride back seemed effortless on the CL-500 – That extra power and good tires make all the difference – Awesome roll on, effortless passing manoeuvres, great brakes – over all tension free riding.

Somewhere near Kargil, some villagers were hammering steel rods on the road, Akash panic braked, I panic braked even harder to avoid hitting him and took a small fall. Nothing bad happened except the bike would not start for about 5 minutes – It has some kind of safety mechanism that shuts off the engine for a while after a fall.

On to Zozila we rode, the entire road was soaked and slushy – You dare brake much, just mild feather touches – just sidle along in 1st gear on the slick mud, hoping you can reach the next bend at low enough speed not to die. Even downshifting too fast was enough to lock the wheel for a couple of feet and give me the ol’ shiver-me-timbers.

The first evening we made it to Dras town and halted there for the night – Seedy place, unpleasant and shabby, cold and dingy.

The next day we pushed very hard on the way back, everyone was in a hurry to get home, and at one point in the early evening Akash rode off very much ahead. Jaideep was just ahead of me and Naren brought up the rear…

At one point disaster struck – Jaideep overcooked a bend and took a fall – I had a grandstand view of the fall : He must have been doing about 60 kph downhill and the bike slid to the left. He was sliding ahead and the bike tumbled a bit, rotated and slid inexorably towards him – “This guy is dead” I remember thinking. The bike ended up in the gutter and he lay nearby – I cut across into the inner side pronto and raced to Jaideep, Naren was right behind – Luckily jaideep had no major injuries, and was just a bit dazed. The bikes headlight and front console was smashed, but it seemed OK otherwise.

Apparently the cause of his error had been twofold – He had just received a call from one of our friends whose family had been involved in a bad car crash (no one was hurt bad thankfully) and he was irritated at Akash for racing off into the blue – He’d wanted to catch up to Akash and ended up pushing much too hard – At least that’s what he said.

Lesson #8: Don’t push hard! 250 to 300 KM everyday for many days is not wise on mountain roads, especially if you are in a tense state of mind and in a hurry to get home

After some rest, he decided he would ride on anyway, he didn’t want to truck his bike or anything, and we rode on beyond Patni Top and halted for the night at a guest house. There was some kind of amphibious assault vehicle parked there, a mean bestial looking hunk of metal, with tracks and wheels and guns and all. Wonder how much peak torque it had…

We rode into Punjab the next day and stayed at Jalandhar at the house of some relatives of Akash, had a good rest and were treated very well by our hosts.

The next day once again the pace was pushed hard, once again Akash was way way ahead, eventually it was lunch time and we’d still seen no sign of him. Patience wore thin and Jaideep especially was quite upset with him – After lunch we eventually got Akash on phone and asked him to halt until we caught up – After we did, a few kilometres downhill, Akash’s bikes electricals gave out – complete death.

Within no time Naren hot-wired the bike and it was back on the road! With Naren by your side, great things are possible...

Lesson #9: Remember lesson #6! Learn bike theory, whether it’s changing your rear tyre single handedly or hot-wiring the ignition, changing oil or adjusting brakes, if you always depend on a mechanic, you will be in trouble when bad things happen

We were not very far from home now, and we rode in, after a glorious 2600 KM or more across some of the most awesome roads in the world. Despite all the glitches and little annoyances, the trip was the best ride I ever had in my life.

Now we plan to do it again this September!


  1. wow, spectacular post! I wish I was there., I don't know anything about inside a bike, I can change the sparkplug that's all, but hey - I can ride one good!

  2. Wind talkers Salut! Awesome thou guys are.

  3. " I’ve always believed that theory is more important then practice, practice should be done after the theory is known."
    -- Hear! Hear! - a credo that is often difficult to get across to people, especially those with a history of success in 'practice'

    " with the thump of 4 Enfields and the whine of one Karizma resounding through the length."
    --- hmmm , was there a modulating ultra low frequency beat :) ?

    " With Naren by your side, great things are possible..."
    Hey Cuz, you are lucky to have a great brother!
    (and I am sure the rest of us who share your adventures vicariously feel a sense of security taking comfort that there's two of you looking out for each other :) )

  4. Since the Enfields have almost same RPM for a given speed - The RPM variation is a maximum of about 16:18 between the various engines. This causes some interesting harmonics, you have to hear it! Often in traffic I ride beside other Enfields just for the sound effects!!

  5. Amazing writeup. We are also doing this road coming June(2012) one REs. You blog is very descriptive and informative. Though I had a question. Did you guys pre-book your stay at all the places, especially the military one(DRAS) where you mentioned "After what seemed like hell frozen over, we finally reached a military encampment, where we’d arrangements to stay....". Can you please let me know how you got these arrangements in place?

    Also, I have cramster Stallions with me, but I am not sure if they can sustain rough weather(rain/snow). What are your thoughts about it? Would I need a Tarpolin to cover my bags?

    Please do write back to me@ and I would be looking forward to your update.