THE last five kilometres to the top of the highest road in the world was tough. Not only was the road rough and unpaved, you are also battling your own problems.
I was slightly dizzy and disoriented and ‘Ah Boy’ had double vision. It felt as if the road would go on and on and being quite devoid of road markings, we were unable to determine how far the peak was.
Earlier that morning, both of us woke up disoriented. Outside, the sun was shining brightly though it was only 6.30am. However, it was bitingly cold. After a hot shower and breakfast, we felt a little better. But it was tempting to stay under those blankets.
Finally, by 11am, it had warmed up enough for us to suit up and start the journey upwards. Leh (Ladakh) is located at an altitude of around 15,000 feet and the ride would take us up another 3,000 feet in around 30km.
As usual, there was a dearth of signs from our homestay to the little road up in the sky. It was easy enough to follow a convoy of small tourist buses that were steadily winding their way through the maze of streets in Leh. Eventually, the buildings and homes lining the streets disappeared altogether and just a winding ribbon of (quite nice) tarmac and the inimitable small tourist buses were left.
A police checkpoint registered our presence and luckily we were ushered to the front of the queue of buses. This meant we saw very few of them from then on.
The Duke 250s were very easy and made no additional demands of us. We had the winding, dusty road and the buses to contend with. The dizzy headache we had made this road more challenging than usual. The fact is that the Dukes hardly registered in our minds and let us get on with navigating the hazards safely.
As suddenly as a gust of wind would catch you from behind a corner, the road completely disappeared. A few road workers were busy arranging stones and rebuilding damaged embankments. Being the first to arrive at that spot that day, we were greeted by them with rousing cheers. Perhaps they were a bit lonely up there. It was a little boost of enthusiasm.
Progressively the road became just a wet ribbon of dirt with ice as the side table and a sheer drop on the other side. We proceeded cautiously but were getting more excited by the minute. A sharp right turn and suddenly we saw Nissen huts, ribbons of colourful flags and a few soldiers. And the road was now covered completely with snow and ice. In the distance we could finally see our target, a large yellow marker with the legend ‘HIMANK-KHARDUNG LA TOP’.
It had been a difficult five days getting here. The pictures tell a lot but not the whole story. My words can only paint a larger picture but only by experiencing this journey and India yourself can you truly understand how we felt at the pinnacle of the highest road in the world. A mixture of emotions which cannot be put on paper.
There was still the road back to New Delhi. And it would take us another four days to get there. The euphoria drains from you as you leave Khardung La. It’s all downhill from here.
If you are thinking of riding in India, it would help immensely if you are fairly proficient and/or have plenty of time. Indian people are really nice but they turn into something else behind the wheel. Plus you may not know the unwritten rules of the road. Please be extra careful. Avoid busy cities like Delhi as the traffic snarl can be horrendous. Avoid highways as they are even more dangerous, especially at night.
My little episode with the lorry blocking the highway is not a figment of my imagination. It is a reality of driving or riding in India. I survived that particular episode due to the capabilities of the Duke 250 and perhaps, a little bit of my experience. Every day, at least three or four of these episodes will take their toll on you. Take a rest day every two days or so to recoup your energy and also acclimatise to the altitude.
Indian roads and drivers are not to be trifled with. If you keep this in mind and keep safety first, they become part of the charm and adventure of riding to the highest road in the world.