Leh

Leh to Diskit: The highest motorable pass, altitude sickness, and chai, lots of chai. (Part 2/6) by Bree von Bradsky

By 10:30 our permits were ready and our stomachs were full so we set off towards the highest motorable pass in India. To say I was nervous would belittle the immense anxiety I had for whatever the day would bring.

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I had been driving a 120cc Honda Win back in Ha Noi, and this 350cc Royal Enfield was monstrous in comparison; at least three times the weight and two and a half times the size. With every new bike, it takes an adjustment period to get used to both its sensitivity when changing gears and finding the sweet spot of the clutch. Even as a fairly new “biker” I was nervous that this adjustment period was about to happen while climbing up Khardung La, a difficult ride even for the most experienced featuring a combination of rough road conditions and high altitudes.

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Luckily this anxiety only fueled my immeasurable excitement for adventure. Let’s just say I was having all the feelings, and they were all strong. As the instigator of this ride, I only let my excitement be known to my girl gang, sweeping my anxiety off to the side to avoid anyone else’s anxiety levels to rise. I already didn’t know if they were going to hate me after this trip.

  Only time would tell?

 

Before being allowed to commence our ascent up Khardung La Pass, we were going to pass a few police checkpoints. This was a point of concern for me, as I, idiotically left my drivers license back in Vietnam. Eleanor, my trusty passenger and good friend, had never driven a manual motorcycle before and planned to learn whilst on this motorcycle trip in the Himalayas- that is what being a badass really is. Anyway, back to my point, although I didn’t have my license it was only possible for me to drive the first day, through all these police checks. The plan I dreamt up the night before? I had a photo of my license sent to me last minute from my lovely partner Coly, and I planned to lie. Yup, I’m not proud of it but I planned to lie unapologetically and declare my wallet had been stolen, showing them the photo evidence I do actually have a license. Would it work? There was only one way to find out.

 

We reached the first check point after rounding a rather treacherous, steep, unpaved corner. With my heart already racing due to the early dwindling road conditions, we showed the officer our paperwork and our passports and he proceeded to look up at us and back down to our paperwork many times. With my heart pounding, he eventually handed them back and told us to have a nice trip. Well that was easy.

The wide zig zagged road rapidly became narrow, steep, and rocky (yes, still zig zagging). The morning had been quiet without many other drivers on the road and it wasn’t until we reached the unpaved road that we were rudely welcomed by big trucks, stray boulders, and various other traffic including a female cyclist who must’ve started in the early hours of the morning. Besides from a few of Eleanor’s “woohooos” from the back of our bike, we were silent. Silence was the only thing that kept me from screaming out of fear. Even with the brisk air, I was sweating. Mollie was driving behind us, and I wondered if she felt similarly.

 

Nearing the top, the traffic got more congested due to trucks and workers trying to clear away the rock slides that had overtook the roads during the evening. I didn’t want to stop the bike because I still hadn’t figured out that sweet spot of the clutch and there were a lot of cars, trucks, bikes, and cyclists behind me. The inevitable happened, and we stopped on a wet, rocky, steep incline. A small river from the snow melting on the mountain above flowed under our Royal Enfield and off the cliff a few feet to our left. Little did we know that this would be the first of many, more demanding, technical river crossings. In this moment I realized the importance of having a heavy bike on these roads; it would be very difficult for any river to take us with it. Trying to start the bike again, we stalled. And stalled. And stalled again. There was a rather large rock keeping us in our place and it felt like we were going to be stuck there forever. It wasn’t until a man in the car behind us got out to give us a very necessary push that we were able to gain momentum over the rock and pass the frenzy of workers and trucks.

 

We reached the top of Khardung La Pass and parked near the vibrant yellow sign marking the highest point.  Every muscle in my body ached from how tense I was the entire ride up the mountain. That was the most mentally and maybe physically difficult thing I had ever done, but we were up and my worries faded as rapidly as they came that morning. In my mind we had just conquered the hardest part of our trip. I was elated.

 

Mollie and Steph parked a couple meters away from us which should have answered my next question. “How are you guys?” I muttered with energy fueled by adrenaline. I could tell by the look on their faces: not well.

ft. Mollie’s fake smile

ft. Mollie’s fake smile

How are we feeling gals?

How are we feeling gals?

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In all fairness, we were currently at 18,380 ft and we found out Steph had been feeling slight altitude sickness from the ascent. Acute altitude sickness in combination with a bumpy, stressful drive probably wasn’t the best blend and definitely not what the doctors would have prescribed. After the obligatory photo and a nice stretch, we prepared to leave the top to avoid the rest of us getting altitude sickness and for Steph to seek refuge at a lower elevation.

 

Before getting back to our ride, we watched as the solo female cyclist we passed earlier made it to the top of the pass and held her bike above her head to get a photo in the same place we took one moments before. All I could think was, “Damn, women are amazing”.

 

Wincing while I became aware of a blister that had developed on my hand due to my nervous grip, we took off down the other side en route to Diskit. High on life with the challenging part behind us, Eleanor and I were beaming, singing Beyonce and deliberating over what to name our motorcycle. It had to be after a strong woman, of course, to add to our girl biker gang, an oddity on these mountain roads. After naming many appropriate options, we ultimately chose Gloria after Gloria Allred. Before our trip to India, our Hanoi family watched Seeing Allred and fell in love with protagonist who has fought continuously for human rights. Eleanor and I agreed we needed to name our bike after a fighter to keep us safe throughout this trip and we thanked Gloria for getting us to the top of Khardung-la unscathed.

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When we reached the second police check, at a lower elevation, we decided to take a long break, each drinking two or three chai teas and scarfing down multiple packets of chips. Here we were able to recuperate and discuss our emotions of the difficult task we were faced with earlier that day. After realizing how badass we really are for doing that, we came to an agreement that even though it was testing, no one wanted to kill me just yet for making them do this trip.

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A successful police check (no questions about my license) and a few more hours weaving around the winding roads, we ended up in our desired destination ready to knock on doors for accommodation.

 

We were weirdly (conveniently?) greeting by a man who wanted to help us find a place to stay, suggesting to us what price we should pay for each place he brought us to. It was as if he was expecting us. The first homestay he led us to would let us four stay in one room for 1,600 rupees and wouldn’t let us bargain down. The room was average, with no view. The nice man we met declared that was too high and we could find cheaper, leading us to the next homestay. This one had a TV and wifi, surprisingly, so we stayed there for about 1,200 rupees and ate dinner there.

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To watch the sunset before watching England in the world cup, we climbed to the large buddha that watched over the town foregrounding the beautiful, white monastery tucked in the face of the mountain. Fascinatingly, this monastery was visited by the Dalai Lama only a few days later. Happy to be walking and not sitting on the bike, I quickly found difficulties with this hike as it look a lot of energy trying to keep up with the speedy Eleanor. It was clear I hadn’t fully acclimated yet. When we reached the top, I simply sat and basked in the beautiful quietness of the Himalayas while fending off my nausea and headache.

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We ended the day just as it began, with happy bellies and a giddy sense of excitement for how the next segment of ride would turn out.

With day one done and four more days on the road, there were many unknowns coming our way and we were eager to find out what they might be but weary of the hardships that may arise. We set our alarms early so we could face whatever the next day brought and still have time in the afternoon to explore our next destination: Turtuk.

 

 

 

 

 

The Adventures of the Bullet Babes: A motorcycle ride through the Himalayas (part 1/6) by Bree von Bradsky

Four women, two Royal Enfields, and one barely planned trip around the Himalayas.

It was the second week in July; hard pressed for time and left with minimal budget options, we hired a driver to take the four of us from Pushkar to Delhi airport, navigating the chaotic roadways in the middle of the night. At 3 am we found a spot in the airport to uncomfortably sleep under an absurdly efficient air conditioner while we waited to board our 8 am plane to Leh.

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Refusing sleep, I observed from a birds-eye view a sight I have been fascinated with seeing ever since I learned about them: The Himalayas. The only airport in the Ladakh area is located in Leh and belongs to the army.  After being stuck in a car and then an airport for the previous 14 hrs, the fresh air and beautiful surroundings practically smacked us in the face as we descended out of the plane. Despite temptation, we abided the strict advise not to take photographs until we left the airport.  

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The four of us, Mollie, Eleanor, Steph, and myself welcomed the cool breeze that surrounded us as we walked out into a sea of taxi drivers fishing for their next patrons. Leh has become a ‘tourist’ destination since it is now easily accessible by plane and many busses. Taking a plane is likely the safest option since mountain roads can be difficult for busses to traverse. The only thing we needed to be mindful of was altitude sickness since we had gone from Delhi (728 ft in elevation) to Leh (11,562 ft) in an hour and a half plane ride. The voice on the plane’s loudspeaker, our accommodation’s owners, and the internet all advise that after taking the flight we let our bodies acclimate for at least 24 hours before doing anything strenuous. Running on little sleep, we embraced this lack of physical activity and took a long, 4-hour nap immediately after our arrival.

 

We had eight days till my flight back to Delhi and no plan other than to bask in the brisk air we’ve been missing in Ha Noi, and to explore the beautiful landscape the Himalayas offer in every direction. Over a couple orders of the best Momos on the planet, I selfishly sputtered out the suggestion of hiring motorcycles and touring around the Ladakh area on our own. Bad ass or just ignorant to the potential risks of driving a motorcycle on the unpaved Himalayas roads, I’m not sure, but the others didn’t shoot down the idea. Another option was to hire a car and a driver; expensive but we would still have the freedom to choose where we went. Lastly, we could take a bus to the other tourist destinations in the area and cut off most of our freedom to roam the less explored.

 

After letting the momos sit in our happy bellies, we walked slowly (remember no strenuous activity) and confidently door to door asking every place that rented motorcycles their prices and advice. Just past the end of the street, we spotted the Bullet Café around the corner foregrounding a monastery on a hill. Oddly named because they didn’t have much for sale or even a toilet, but they did have motorcycles to rent. Four women, unaccompanied by men, we thought we’d be given trouble, or at least questions of our ability. To the contrary, the men at Bullet Café did nothing of the sort, in fact, I believe they really convinced us this was the right choice, dulling our concerns. By the time we left their shop after test driving the available 350cc Royal Enfields, we had decided that instead of just doing a three day trip and taking a bus to Pyangong Lake, we were going to do a five day trip and include all the places we wanted to see. This included some more less travelled roads, which meant more exploration to us.

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Despite our already bought data plans, our phones didn’t work in all of Ladakh without wifi. “How are we going to find places to stay?” says the group millennials who use their phones for everything. “Just show up in the town and knock on people’s doors” they said. It’ll be fine they said… And well, it seemed like the only option unless we wanted to spend a fortune on the accommodations in the area that had wifi and a website. Moreover, not having a place to sleep at night didn’t bind us to making it to any town just in case we got into any motorcycle trouble along the way. We were essentially free to whatever the trip would bring our way. Without service, the only reason we would use our phones was for the downloaded maps.me to keep us on track and, of course, to take photos. Mollie especially didn’t mind this since she was already on a social media cleanse and now we too were happily forced to talk to each other instead of using our phones.

 

The only thing standing in our ways from setting off with the wind in our hair was the requirement of a permit. It was now the late afternoon and the place that grants these permits was closed for the evening. They opened the next morning at 10am so the generous guys at the Bullet Café finished all the necessary paperwork and raced there in the morning to make sure we could have an earlyish start. The rules of traveling on a motorcycle in the Ladakh area: you have to have a valid driver’s license (although I left mine in Ha Noi by accident), you have to be traveling with at least one other foreigner- permits are not given to individuals (not sure this rule makes sense, because if you’re with an Indian passport holder who doesn’t need a permit, but you yourself need a permit, you need to find another foreigner to get this permit with, and thirdly, we needed a written declaration that the bikes belonged to us and therefore were not stolen. There were going to be checkpoints along the way and if we didn’t have the necessary permits, we would not be allowed on our way.

That night we packed very few items in a couple of backpacks. Eleanor and I had one bag and Mollie and Steph to another. The rest of our stuff we planned to leave at the homestay we were at because we booked another night there for when we returned from our adventure.