Jispa to Thukje on the Moray plain
We awoke to a revelation, the clouds were parting and blue sky was visible. The rain had gone and there was warm sun to dry our soaking gloves, boots and riding trousers. We sat down to a fairly average curry for breakfast as usual and then had a long chat with a group of women in their 60s from Yorkshire. They were travelling by minibus over roughly the same route as us. I met them again at the Thikse monastery a week later and again 3 days after that, shopping in the centre of Leh. After the 14 hours of riding the day before, the start today felt very leisurely and, with no great sense of urgency, we eventually set off about 9.45, into the warm sun and blue skies.
At this point I feel it might be appropriate to explain how driving and riding in India works. Firstly, there are an enormous number of motorcycles. Probably about 30% or more of all traffic consists of motorcycles. Of all these motorcycles, probably 80% are Royal Enfield Bullets, either the old Classics or newer bikes with electric rather than kick start and 5 speed gearbox that actually works rather than the hideous 4 speed version with more neutrals than gears, accompanied by awful graunching when you mess up the gear change which is probably 50% of the time. Royal Enfield have just rolled out a new model called the Himalaya which looks much more the part but which apparently is proving woefully unreliable. The Classic and more modern bike have proved incredibly rough and the newer bike has a top speed of about 65 to 70 whereas with the Classic you are lucky to see 55mph! The newer bike also has suspension which actually vaguely works whereas with the Classic if you rode the bike blindfold you would swear that the wheels were attached to the frame by baulks of timber rather than springs.
Anyway, back to the traffic. Firstly you need to remove from your mind any ideas about how riding or driving works in Europe. It appears that in India there are no rules, no highway code and everyone does what they want. The use of the horn is obligatory. It should be used where ever possible and frequently as possible. Use of the horn can mean many things. It can mean, just testing my horn to make sure it works, I am behind you and want to overtake, I am overtaking you so you better make room for me, I know you are stuck in a traffic jam but why aren't you moving, I've got bored with overtaking on the outside so I'm going to overtake on the inside, I am trying to overtake but I can't go fast enough so could you slow down, (this one never works!) or, just testing my horn again to make sure that it works. That is part one of lesson 1 on Use of the Horn!
Lorries will come towards you on your side of the road to intimidate you, swerving out of the way at the last moment. Never give into intimidation! Lorries always emit vast black clouds of noxious fumes and billowing dust clouds.
There are also a lot of cows and dogs on the road. Under absolutely no circumstances must you hit a cow. They have absolute priority over other road users. The enormous numbers of stray dogs around seem to have much more road sense than the pedestrians and will almost always give you plenty of space. Pedestrians on the other hand will stand in the middle of the road on their mobile phone with their backs to you and completely ignore the continuous blaring of your horn. Miraculously, all this absolute chaos seems to work. On bikes you just have to ride as aggressively as possible and keep the throttle wide open unleashing the massive 20 horsepower wherever possible! That is part one of riding a bike in India.
Back to the day's riding. We set off on that wondrous thing, a tarmac road. Along to Darcha and then turning right towards Baralacha La, the Baralacha pass. Through Patso and Zingzingbar and up the sweeping bends to the summit of Baralacha La at nearly 16,000ft. At the inevitable stop for chai at the top, everyone was buzzing with the warm sun, blue skies and smooth tarmac after the previous days of riding. Of course the tarmac didn't last long but at least our batteries has been recharged with a bit of easy riding on smooth roads and even a bit of slipstreaming and racing each other to the top. Then it was on through gorges, valleys, small plains nearly all on rough rocky dry and very dusty roads.
Pausing at the two army check points at Serchu to show our permits, a regular occurrence as this area is a very sensitive border area with China and everyone has to have a permit which is regularly checked, we then stopped for lunch at one of the very many part tent, part mud brick cafés at the side of the road for a very tasty curry for lunch as usual. It's amazing what great food can be prepared in such primitive conditions in the middle of nowhere, and there is always a little shop attached selling the critically important bottled water, coke, sprite and other fizzy drinks, Snickers, KitKats, crisps and loads of other snacks. It was here, sitting outside in the warm sun that I saw my first Golden Eagle wheeling and soaring high above the mountains. A stunning sight.
After lunch we left Serchu and headed towards to mighty Zanskar range and the endless hairpin bends towards the Lachung La, the only pass across the Zanskar range at around 16,500ft. At the top were 3 beautifully and very brightly decorated Stupas or monuments to Buddha. As we started off down the other side of the pass we were all feeling the strength of the powerful sun with little atmosphere at that height to filter it.
A last stop for afternoon chai at Pang and we then climbed from the Simkhar Tokpo river via at least 25 hairpin bends and reached the mighty Moray plain. This is a huge flat plain, at least 45 miles long and 10 miles wide with lakes, salt flats and grassy areas where occasional groups of nomadic herdsmen live, tending herds of sheep and goats. It has many arms which lead off the main plain and is almost deserted. The only way across used to be a sandy track littered with abandoned lorries and cars but recently the BRO, the Borders Roads Organisation decided to build a beautiful arrow straight smooth tarmac road across the plain. It was wonderful cruising along this tarmac in a ribbon of bikes about 50 yards apart and about half a mile long. Eventually we turned off and travelled along a bumpy single track road into the middle of nowhere for about 20 minutes. Deserted apart from a few wild horses in the distance and a dog resolutely trotting along the side of the road, not a sign of humanity in sight. I hope it knew where it was going.
We eventually arrived next to the dry lake bed of Tsokar at a tiny village called Thukje. At the end of the village there was a cafe surrounded on two sides with old style tents. This was to be our stop for the night at the Lotus cafe and guest house. On one side were brilliant golden hills lit by the setting sun and on the other, past the 20 miles of flat salt lake were the snow capped mountains of the Zanskar range.
We reluctantly peered into our tents to discover an inner lining, mine was a fetching pink floral pattern. There were two wooden frames beds with soft mattresses, a duvet and enormously thick fleece blanket. Through a door at the back of the tent was a proper porcelain loo and washbasin. Ok, there was no hot water but this was mightily impressive.
In the beautifully decorated cafe with new smart curtains and comfy chairs we were served a great curry with many dishes, and a sweet pudding. Unfortunately, we were at nearly 15,000ft, the highest we’d ever slept, several people were suffering effects of the altitude which put us off our food a bit. Everyone was noticeably quiet and beer consumption dropped dramatically. Luckily our great doctor was at hand with Diamoxin tablets which sorted us out although many of us woke often in the night breathing very heavily. In the morning I awoke feeling dreadful but another tablet transformed me. There were small pieces of ice on the ground but the sun was warm and we sat outside to have our breakfast.
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