After riding through the stunning Zanskar Valley, Ravi comes back with dusty gear, a messy beard and a story to share.
As I read through the mail, I was extremely ambivalent. It was a mail from Royal Enfield, inviting us to participate in the HOXplore – a 12-day ride through Kargil, and in light of recent developments in Jammu and Kashmir, it was hard not to be nervous. With my mind plagued with such thoughts, my fingers froze on the keyboard. It was almost like a war was waging in my head.
Being an avid traveller, it’s been my undying dream to explore the Himalayan region, and this ride gave me an opportunity that I had to seize – especially since I had never been to the Zanskar region before. All the more reason to say yes! Interestingly, it was a first for Royal Enfield too. The excitement of it all far overpowered the anxiousness, and I thought to myself that, if the mountains are calling, I must go.
So, I daringly called dibs on the ride before any of my colleagues had the chance. And before I knew it, I was in Leh – the starting point of our ride. We were to ride from Leh to Kargil and, then, along the Suru river into the Zanskar Valley. Having ridden in the Himalayan region on several occasions before, I had a fair idea of what to expect from the ride and terrain, but the intensity of this ride was unknown.
Despite that, in the two days that we spent in Leh, getting acclimatised to the high altitude, I was yearning for the ride to start. In retrospect, the wait to start felt longer than the ride itself.
Day 1 was a quick and easy ride from Leh to Kargil. The roads were absolutely fantastic. Riding the Royal Enfield Himalayan after a long time – and for the first time with a fully loaded pannier – I took the first half-hour to get acquainted with the motorcycle while enjoying the landscape. This was possibly one of two days wherein I could park my backside on the Himalayan’s seat – and I must say that it’s quite a comfy place to be. From the next day onwards, it was pretty much all off-road riding until we returned on the same highway on the last day.
Dancing like a ballerina
The ride from Kargil to Rangdum was our first taste of off-roading. Now, usually, I don’t quite enjoy the rough stuff. I like to have my fun on the tarmac, but this ride was different. I can’t really say whether it was the comfort of the Himalayan or the breath-taking landscapes, or that I was getting better at off-road riding – maybe a bit of everything – but deep down I was craving for more.
And I got more the following day, over 100 kilometres of it – from Rangdum to Padum. It was pretty much all gravel roads that allowed us to go full guns blazing, with the rear-end of the bike sliding and dancing like a ballerina.
The biggest highlight, for me, on that stretch was without a shadow of a doubt our regrouping at the Drang Drung glacier. Situated just after Pensi La, Drang Drung is Ladakh’s largest glacier accessible to tourists. As we saw this massive 22-kilometre slab of ice, most of us just sat there in silence, mesmerised and awe-struck.
Continuing the day’s ride, the home stretch to Padum was a welcome change. Oh, I can’t begin to tell you the joy I felt when I saw that butter-smooth stretch of tarmac. For one, it was smoother than anything in or around Mumbai. And, second, this was the first bit of tarmac we had encountered in the last 200-odd kilometres. More importantly, the smoothness of the surface meant that we could cruise and enjoy the freedom of soaking in the scenery as well.
Padum marked the halfway point of our ride. We spent the next day riding and exploring the other side of Zangla. It was a quick one and, then, we were back, for the next day was going to be one of the longest. The ride back to Kargil down the same road via Rangdum was to be covered in a single day.
While most of us expected it to be extremely strenuous, we managed to cover it in good time, thanks to shorter breaks and almost no photography stops. Of course, the terrain was now familiar to us as well, which allowed us to maintain good momentum and arrive at Kargil comfortably before sundown.
While off-roading distances only tell half the story
The most demanding days of the ride were over, or so we thought. On our second last day, our schedule was to cover a distance of about 150 kilometres from Darchik to Photoksar. After all the rough terrain that we had been through, and the distance we had covered, we assumed that it would be a walk in the park. But, while off-roading, distances only tell half the story, and we learnt that the hard way.
The terrain was a mix of large rocks, fesh fesh, and extremely loose gravel. The ride seemed never-ending and was extremely demanding – both on the body and the motorcycle. But the camp for the night, along a small stream, with a panoramic view of the mountains, was indeed worth every bit of effort.
We spent 10 days in the mountains, exploring some of the most unexplored villages in the region. We had some interesting and humbling encounters with unfailingly warm and welcoming locals, young army officers stationed at an alert check-post in Darchik just a few kilometres off PoK, the self-sustaining community at the last of the Aryan villages, and tradition-following Muslim brothers distributing food and kahwa during Muharram.
We rode through some of the most dangerous roads in the world and, all the while, the Himalayan felt right at home. To me, however, the sheer size of the mountains was a constant reminder of just how small and insignificant we really are on this planet. It was a humbling and calming experience – a calmness inspired by the beguiling mixture of serenity and beauty that surrounded us for those ten days. The journey, which started with anxiety, concluded with emotion so fulfilling that, despite my best efforts, I haven’t even been able to express the half of it.
At times, the ride seemed never-ending and was extremely demanding – both on the body and the motorcycle. But, with a panoramic view of the mighty Himalayas, it was indeed worth the effort.