It all started with a phone call. “I’ve got good news for you. You’re going to Ladakh with KTM,” said Rishaad. Although I’ve been lucky to have visited Ladakh in the past, this would be my first time on a motorcycle. To say that I was jumping with joy would be putting it lightly. But then came the caveat, “There’ll be a number of off-road sections and I want you to learn how to get comfortable on an adventure motorcycle through such terrain,’’ he added. I suddenly considered backing out, but hesitantly agreed and hung up the phone.
You see, I’ve always been a tarmac-bred rider and I don’t enjoy riding off-road. Hence, while a part of me was elated about the trip, the fear of crashing the KTM 390 Adventure had me in its grip. Did I just sign up for an insurmountable challenge?
The question lingered in my mind as I landed in Chandigarh and got the keys to a spanking new KTM 390 Adventure at the hotel. I was surrounded by a motley bunch of KTM 390 Adventure owners, most of whom had ridden down from various corners of the country. Kedar Deo, from Pune, was the odd man out; the only one on a KTM 250 Adventure. Representing our neighbours were Bijay Moktan, the general manager of KTM Nepal and two of his customers, all of whom made it to Chandigarh from Kathmandu on their respective 390s. I guess the fact that everyone was astride similar KTM machines was a common thread that bound them together from the first day itself.
Moments before flag off, on a balmy Sunday morning, the excitement in the air was palpable. Thirty odd riders, in a convoy led by three KTM trainers, Nilesh Dhumal, Varad More and Sangram Patil, made their way out of Chandigarh towards Manali via Bilaspur and Mandi. It was quite a sight to see us rolling down the highway, support vehicles in tow.
I’ve always held the 390 Adventure in high regard for its highway mile-munching abilities, and it delivered here too, making for an effortless day of riding.
On entering Manali, we were greeted by a lovely nip in the air amidst the lap of the mountains.
As we set off to higher altitudes the following day, everyone got into a rhythm with their motorcycles. The roads leading to Jispa, our halt for the night, were winding and smooth, giving us a chance to revel in the willing, but neutral handling of the 390 ADVs. The highlight was the ride through the 9km long Atal Tunnel. An unparalleled engineering feat, the hours of travel time that it helps you save is incredible.
The scenery also takes a stark turn as you exit the giant hole in the mountain. Lush green valleys, crisp blue skies and towering mountains abound, all the way to Jispa.
While we stood mesmerised by the vistas around us, the trainers decided to take things up a notch later that evening. The plan was to ride up to Shingo La pass, to give us a taste of water crossing on a motorcycle. While the trepidation I felt was evident on my face, I decided to resist fear and go with the flow – no pun intended!
Upon reaching the spot, I did exactly what the trainers told me to do. Standing on the pegs, I gripped the motorcycle between my legs, held the handlebar as loose as I’d dare and kept the throttle steady. “Look up and ahead, you’ll make it,” adviced Nilesh a.k.a. Nelly as I entered the deep end of the water body. The rocks underneath were invisible and while the bike did get tossed around, I maintained a steady momentum up the incline. It was all that was required to make it to the other side, without falling. This drill certainly came in handy the next day, en route Sarchu, as we crossed the Pagal Nallah that consisted of shallow water, but heavier flow.
THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Sarchu is infamous for being a windy and cold place to stay at. It was here where Acute Mountain Sickness reared its ugly head, with some people in the group falling into its clutches. Drinking copious amounts of water and faith in the Diamox pills we’d been popping since Manali is what got many of us through the seemingly long and sleepless night.
To compound matters, the next day’s ride from Sarchu to Leh was long, with over 250km to cover over myriad terrain. From talcum powder-like sand to rock strewn mud paths, the first 30km from the Sarchu checkpost were nerve-wracking, to say the least.
Such magnificent rock formations abound in Ladakh.
An hour later, the all-inviting tarmac of the iconic 21-hairpin Gata Loops appeared as a welcome relief. This was followed by my favourite section of the Manali-Leh highway. The entire stretch from More Plains to Leh via Tanglang La, Rumste and Upshi is a motorcyclist’s delight. It consisted of smooth tarmac, tight and technical corners, and stunning mountain faces as companions.
This is where I was reminded of why motorcycling and Zen are spoken of in the same sentence.
SHIFTING UP A GEAR
The rest day in Leh was spent surfing through marketplaces and savouring the local cuisine. It was that essential recharge pill that we needed before embarking on the tougher leg of our journey.
“Remember, you don’t conquer the mountains, they let you pass,” said Varad More in a stern tone as we gathered to leave. It was a warning for us to respect the mountains and ride cautiously as we made our way up Khardung La, the highest mountain pass on our trip. Cresting the summit, it was all uncharted territory for me as we rolled down into the stunning Nubra Valley.
Compared to the rest of Ladakh, this place has a contrasting mix of greenery and sand dunes, with the Nubra river running along. The trainers thought of this as the perfect place to pitch a high-altitude off-road training camp and teach us to ride on sand. Talk about diving into the deep end, eh?
Falling off the bike while riding on sand is inevitable but shouldn’t hurt.
Unlike the other off-road sections we’d ridden on so far, sand was a completely different ball game. Firstly, there’s barely any traction as the front tyre keeps getting deflected on hitting mounds of sand. The handlebar sways wildly from side to side and one needs to let it do its thing while keeping the upper body loose and staying on the throttle. The best part is that even if/when you fall, sand doesn’t hurt a lot. That said, it was tough and my nerves were all over the place, as I nearly fell off on multiple occasions. I somehow managed to complete the first level, but it wasn’t enough to convince the trainers to allow me to step up to levels two and three. That involved deeper sand, followed by riding up a dune. For the ones who did manage to try them out, it was a huge learning curve. Dusting the sand off our gear, it was time to call it a night in our cozy tents, for the next day was the one we were all eagerly looking forward to.
Being an active war zone, the Siachen Base Camp is off limits for the general public. But, with special permissions in place, we were the lucky few who were granted access to the “The highest battlefield in the world”.
No amount of books or documentaries can give you a sense about the harshness of Siachen. The route to get there is largely desolate, with the hamlets of Sasoma Panamik and Warshi falling along the way.
As we approached the hallowed gates of the base camp, there was mild rainfall, showing us how quickly conditions change in the region.
After a warm welcome by the Indian Army, we proceeded to pay our respects at the OP Baba shrine inside the base. Later on, over cups of tea, the officers regaled us with tales of Siachen.
Unfurling the tricolour at the Siachen Base Camp was a proud moment for everyone.
The arduous conditions that our soldiers face on the glacier is unfathomable. Firstly, they have to hike up to their posts on the glacier, which takes about a week from the base camp. In the winters, temperatures fall below -50deg Celcius and then there’s the endless ordeal of shifting their tents as new crevices force relocation. All of this while keeping an eye out for the enemy! It is said that a soldier who serves 3-4 months on the Siachen Glacier, loses about 7 years of his average life span. That’s the very definition of sacrifice.
It’s no wonder that on hearing this, our hearts were filled with pride and patriotism as we chanted “Bharat Mata ki Jai” along with our Jawans.
For the riders, it was a momentous occasion as they could proudly state that they had ridden their KTM 390 Adventure to the Siachen Base Camp. How’s that for bragging rights?
With a swell of emotions within us and immense gratitude towards our armed forces, it was time to head to Pangong Tso, undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region. We took the proverbial ‘road less travelled’, as our gaggle of riders made its way into the Shyok Valley and onwards to Tangste and Pangong Tso.
The azure sky paled against the deep blue and turquoise waters of the endorheic lake, leaving us mesmerised by its sheer sight. As if that wasn’t enough, we then set course for another lake, after a few hours.
Saving the best for the last, the ride to Tso Moriri was ultimate, both in terms of the terrain and vistas. The smooth blacktop from Karu onwards allowed us to let our bikes loose, with the raging Indus river alongside the road making it a surreal experience. This coupled with the varying colours of the mountains, from brown to purple, makes you think that mother nature lavished a great deal of her attention towards painting this part of the world.
The last set of kilometres to Tso Moriri are completely off-road and everyone managed to carry a fair clip over these sections. Because, by this point, our faith in the KTM 390 Adventure had grown manyfold, with no broken rims or damaged suspension to report. And we weren’t exactly nursing them in the first place!
Upon reaching Tso Moriri, Varad decided to present one last challenge for us to conquer. After all, from here onwards we would pretty much retrace our way back to Chandigarh, via Tsokar and the More Plains.
He lined up his 390 Adventure and pointed it to the summit of a hill that overlooked the lake. First gear engaged, traction control turned off, he made a dash to the top. We followed suit, putting all of the off-road training to practice, and took our bikes to where he’d parked.
The Tso Moriri looks ultra gorgeous, especially from the summit of a hill that we rode up to on our KTM 390 Adventure.
Atop that cold and windy hill, the sight of the Tso Moriri left us spellbound. Relatively untouched by the evils of tourism, its waters were pristine while the enchanting, snow-capped mountains glistened in the setting sun. We were possibly the only motorcycle-borne riders to have made it up to this viewpoint. That’s when American actor Danny Kaye’s words struck me, “To travel is to take a journey into yourself”.
This trip to Ladakh has been nothing short of a revelation for me and several others. Did I become an off-road specialist in the two weeks that I spent here? Not really. But yes, I was happy that I could let go of my fear of riding off-road and have an adventure of a lifetime.
More importantly, I had the pleasure of experiencing this on a hardy and capable adventure motorcycle, with like-minded people who’d forged indelible bonds over 2,590kms. The camaraderie we shared, the experiences we underwent and the words of encouragement that flew whenever one felt bogged down by the challenging terrain. It was all that made this trip unforgettable. Come to think of it, I’m so glad I said yes on that phone call.
Photography: Abhishek Raina, Parvez Ahmed, Rishabh Bhaskar