Published: April 12th 2012August 6th 2011
After white-water rafting the Zanskar river, My Danish friend and I headed out on motorbikes. I was on a Yamaha and my friend on an Enfield Thunderbird. We speeded out from Leh in the early morning, leaving behind the dusty clouds of traffic. On the way to Karu fuel station, we visited Stakna Gompa with amazing views of the Indus valley. I actually spent all day trying to start the bike in gears 2 and 3, not even in neutral, so luckily by the next day as we ascended the world’s third highest motorable pass, Chang La, I had it nailed.
We slept in Tahktog, east of Leh, an incredibly remote place with dogs barking right outside all night and altitude making sleep impossible. The locals reminded me of hilltribe villagers in Thailand, the young girls in tracksuit uniform, with oriental faces, going to school and all very happy to see a foreign face.
Having passed Karu, there would be no fuel station left until Pangong Tso lake and back again. There was 100km to go over rugged mountain terrain at high altitude. The stories we had heard of the beauty of the lake gave
us plenty of drive.
At 5.30am Next day we began our ascent of Chang La. The views back over the green crops of Shakti village were magnificent against the increasingly epic mountain backdrop. The yellow rocks of the mountains contrasted stunningly with the emerald crops of the villages in the valleys. Towards the 17,586 foot pass, the road became extremely difficult and the biking became pretty much off road. Freezing cold stream crossings were required with the icy spray covering the arms and legs. Parts of the road were basically large rocks with no paving. It was also still cold from the night. The air was thin and we were both feeling pretty drowsy by the time we got to the pass. A lone burnt out minivan perched ominously down a cliff face. Clearly someone had been less fortunate than us.
Descending into the opposite valley, however, was a wonderful uplifting experience. As we climbed down, the air got thicker so naturally we felt better and the views became greener and grassier with flowers, wild horses and goats. There was a daunting river crossing that had me worried about our return. These melt-water fords
become deeper as the day wears on and the glaciers above melt with increasing speed.
After an omelette on toast and a coffee in a parachute cafe in the middle of of a gorgeous flowery valley, we continued towards Tangtse. These were the largest in scale views that we had with an enormous arid valley stretching out in the distance and as we zigzagged down the cliff face the high cliffs were matched by the giant drops beneath us.
After showing our permits for the lake at Tangtse, there was a 40 km stretch of quite unique land. Sand, lakes, sandstone, rock, flowers, landscapes of what seemed to be just dust, epic craggy rock cliff faces and cuttings for melt water fords all across the roads. On our arrival there was little water in the fords. We knew on our return would be more difficult. Eventually with a rising headache and extreme exhaustion from the altitude we finally glimpsed Pangong Tso, shining serene blue out of the yellow mountains. It was uplifting and relieving. There were many Indian tourists who had arrived in jeeps and unfortunately the sun was not shining.
We had to return to Leh that evening to change some flights. I had no confidence at all in getting back and felt really rough. Apparently the lake is at 4500m altitude though so I was feeling bad for a reason.
We caned it back to Chang la in about half the time it took us to get to the lake, even though we were riding through deep fords and getting completely soaked. The zig zag ascent out of the Pangong Tso clearing was the hardest off road type area of the journey and we did it uphill very quickly passing many military vehicles on the way. We asked at Tangtse whether it was possible to still go up the pass this late in the afternoon. They seemed confident. I certainly wasn’t, because as we approached closer to the pass at high speed the dark clouds on the pass seemed to get darker and bigger.
Eventually with every possible piece of clothing on and completely drenched legs and feet we climbed the pass. It was raining so the steep ascending curves were wet and I couldn’t see anything through my glasses. Without glasses the
icy sleet stung my eyes. My lips and face were bitten with the cold and we were overtaking and being overtaken constantly by the rush of tourist jeeps heading back from the lake.
Reaching the top felt glorious but we descended immediately. I still couldn’t see but as the storm warmed up and cleared my knees still seemed frozen. It was really painful. The views ahead towards Shakti became greater than ever. Passing the remains of the minivan that had driven off the cliff, the green fields shone against the white and yellow rocks in the only bit of sun. A genuine storm cloud brewed over an even higher mountain in the back drop. At one point, a crack of radiant lightning could be seen every 20 seconds from this cloud.
Back safe in Shakti we had a chai and met an Indian teacher from shimla on holiday, who had driven from Leh that day and done exactly the same journey as us except that he had ridden up to Chang La in the storm without any gloves. I think my hands would have fallen off if I had tried this. We rejoiced in
our victory of the pass and took pictures with each other as the ‘Chang La survivors’. We waited for 30 minutes for the rain to stop over Leh because the torrential pouring was reminiscent of the flash floods in 2010, which wiped away a third of Leh. Eventually we got the all clear and enjoyed flat paved roads all the way back to Leh.
Unfortunately in the last half hour approach to Leh I got completely covered in exhaust fumes to the extent that my face was black by the time we got to Tsavo guest house. Mission accomplished. We had driven for 12 hours that day and over the 3rd
highest pass twice. I promised myself never to drive for longer than 8 hourrs on a bike ever again. Neither of us could sleep that night because we were so wired and tense from the ride.
We treated ourselves to some Ladakhi momos in the town centre. Unfortunately because of the rain storms the city was out of beer. A glass of that would have really helped me sleep. After all I had seen some of the most beautiful images I will ever
see and I'd climbed the 3rd highest motorable pass in the world on a tiny Yamaha.
There are more photos below