The Long Road Back

Baltistan had been extraordinary – completely unexpected. To find a place so untouched by tourism, and in so idyllic a setting, was rare indeed. According to my guidebook, the furthest north it was possible to travel was Hunda, and yet we had gone 80km further to Turtuk – culturally and ethnically remote from the rest of India, and as far up the Nubra Valley as it was possible to go before entering Pakistani territory. Now it was time to retrace our steps back to Hunda and Diskit, and then try the next valley to the east. This ended in the Siachen Glacier, famed for being a high altitude battlefield where India and Pakistan periodically fired artillery at each other’s positions across the glacier. More troops on either side had died from the conditions than military action: in 2012 130 Pakistani troops died in an avalanche. We knew that as a military area we wouldn’t get far, but hoped to reach Panamik, which lay close to the border with Tibet and the disputed region of Aksai Chin. Chinese troops had set up a camp 10km inside Indian territory earlier that month, and tensions were running high. 

But these strategic issues were not the foremost thing on our minds. We were all suffering from a debilitating sense of fatigue – a mixture of altitude sickness, dehydration and exhaustion. The weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures in the mid-30s, and Nubra Valley itself lies at an average of 10,000 feet, so any exertion left you breathless. My bike had developed an alarming rattle from the steering column – I watched the front wheel wobbling back and forth as I rode, and fervently hoped it would remain attached to the rest of the bike. We tightened it as best we could with molegrips and cranked the steering head bolt round almost one full turn. On a brand new bike you sort of expect it to be screwed together properly, but we had already covered some rough terrain. More was to follow. The road back to Diskit was relatively good, but there were multiple hazards to watch out for. Stones littered the tarmac from recent landslides, and the wind had blown sand in drifts across the road in places. It took every ounce of concentration, and the end result was that after a few hours’ ride we were shattered. 

Diskit hadn’t improved much in our absence. We filled up again at the petrol pump, which was hand-cranked into a five litre jug. We needed to photocopy more Inner Line Permits, as these were retained at army checkpoints, and we found a photocopier in the back of a fruit and veg stall off the main square. We were running low on cash as well. The only ATM in town was down an alley and then up a flight of stairs. Kitch had gone on ahead, and when I made my way up the stairs and into the doorway I saw the room was crowded with soldiers. “Two of them just had their hand in my bag,” he informed me, so I watched his back while he got cash out. Ahead of me in the queue were three local lads, one of whom had five different bank cards, and who withdrew 10,000 rupees (£120) on each one. Fortunately there was still cash left in the machine by the time I reached it. We headed down to a hardware shop in search of a bolt for my luggage rack, with no luck, and Kitch headed off to a workshop to get some welding done on his. Eventually we all congregated at the junction on the main route south, and set off once more. 

The landscape seemed almost dessicated, with every last drop of moisture squeezed out of it by the sun and wind. Rocks glittered with mica and the mountains shifted colour continually as cloud shadows drifted down their flanks. Riding through the desert we came across a gruesome sight – the carcass of a dog by the side of the road, impaled with a metal spear through its head. Later Dan reported having seen another one on the way up – a dog that had been speared. 

There was rarely a section of road that ran straight for more than a few hundred yards – the road followed the contours of the hillside so we were continually leaning the bikes over to negotiate the bends. But there was almost no other traffic, so we often used the entire width of the road. Round a couple of tight hairpins I managed to scrape the back brake pedal, and reminded myself that a Royal Enfield didn’t have quite the same ‘chuckability’ factor as an FZ6 Fazer. My steering rattle was much improved after tightening every bolt in sight, which was a relief. Coming round one bend I saw Kitch pull in to the side of the road, and rolled to a stop just behind him. It was an impossibly scenic location: a group of horses grazed knee-deep in a water meadow filled with lilies, the foliage across the valley floor lush in the strong sunlight, and in the background a line of snowcapped Himalayan peaks. It was a small oasis in a high altitude desert. We praised the scenery with characteristic enthusiasm: “Well that’s just bollocks. Don’t know why we bothered coming. No point taking any pictures – they’ll just be shit. Might as well turn round now and go home.” 

We entered Panamik dulled by fatigue, but decided to press on to see how far we could go. Not very, was the answer. Three kilometers after the last buildings there was a barrier across the road. As we approached there was a whistle blast from a nearby house, and I looked to my right to see a man wearing a tracksuit leaning out of the window and waving us back. We parked up at the roadside, and he came running out. “End of road,” he said. “Not possible to go further.” Then, curiously, “Where are you from?” England, we replied. “Ah, England!” He shook our hands. I showed him one of the Inner Line Permits, but he shook his head apologetically. “Not possible,” he said again. We said goodbye and turned the bikes round before roaring off back to Panamik. We followed the sign up to the hot springs, anticipating some sort of natural jacuzzi, but when we got there the whole place was distinctly underwhelming – a rather grubby indoor pool and a bored teenage attendant who asked us for cigarettes. We headed back down the track in search of a guesthouse, and soon pulled up at a neat house set back some way from the road: Nebula Guesthouse. A young girl was playing in the garden, and on seeing three bikers turn up she bolted indoors, yelling “Mum! Mum! There are guests!” A middle-aged Ladakhi lady emerged wearing a headscarf. “Please, come in.” She showed us a couple of rooms, which were beautifully clean – the cleanest we’d seen in weeks. The bedcovers had Snoopy on them. Pictures of Hannah Montana decorated the TV cabinet in the lounge, and the TV itself was covered with a lace doily. We sat on cushions against the wall, demolished a thermos of chai, and stared uncomprehendingly at piles of magazines full of pictures of celebrities. Walking into the bathroom (also sparklingly clean) I caught sight of myself in the mirror: a wild-haired, wind-burned and silvery-stubbled face with eyes that shone fever-bright with happiness. 

Later that evening a lone cyclist arrived at the guesthouse. We’d seen him earlier in the day out on the road, and admired his endurance. He was Slovenian, and was a policeman by profession. We all had dinner together in the lounge – the usual Ladakhi menu of dal, rice, some kind of greens and chapattis. “Do you have music?” he called to the owner. The owner’s son put some local pop on the stereo, and the two little girls danced in the corridor, giggling with excitement at being allowed to stay up late.

The next morning we all emerged from our assorted rooms feeling exhausted. But Kitch was still curled up on the floor. “You alright?” I asked him. “No,” came the reply. “I feel fooked.” He had a fever and a banging headache. I wasn’t doing much better myself. I found a nail in the front tyre of my bike, and rather stupidly removed it. The tyre went down with a hiss. There was a puncture repair shop at the end of the village, so we superglued the pump back together, blew up the tyre and I hopped on. I got to the end of the drive – a steep and bumpy dirt track – before it deflated again. Somehow I rode it through the village and found the tyre shop, which was a dusty compound full of old bike and truck parts. The owner propped the bike up with two rocks under the centre stand and removed the front wheel. Using a couple of large screwdrivers he popped the tyre off to expose an inner tube that had already been patched several times. I crouched in the dust, narrowing my eyes in the mid-morning glare, as he deftly patched the tube. His two small sons came over to watch as together we wrestled the wheel back into the forks. 

Now that I was mobile again, the plan was to explore the other side of the valley together with Kitch, while Dan and Denise headed back towards Leh. But we were still struggling with fatigue – almost as soon as we left the guesthouse Kitch dropped the bike during a U-turn: I saw it topple and he was only just holding it up, so I quickly stopped and ran over to help it upright again. We’d found a dirt road that appeared to head across the valley floor, but having gone a short way down it we saw that there was a channel full of water a few feet wide that cut across it. It seemed impassable. “We could just pile a few rocks across it,” said Kitch.
I looked at the head-sized boulders that lay around. “Mate, we can hardly stand up. And you want to start lugging rocks about?”
He laughed. “Maybe we should just go back to Leh. While we’ve got the strength.”

But there was a small obstacle. The Khardung La. 18,300 feet of it. When we’d tackled it a week earlier we had all been in relatively good health, and it had still been exhausting. I had got altitude sickness and wasn’t looking forward to repeating the experience. Now, after seven days riding in the Nubra Valley, we were just hanging on. But we had no choice – we had to get back to Leh. We stopped at a chai stall in the village of Sumar, collapsing in the shade against the wall. We downed a couple of chais, and then two bottles of Nimbooz – a kind of ready made Nimbu Pani lemon water. Into each we tipped half a tablespoon of salt, to try and replace the minerals we kept sweating out. Immediately we felt better. Not great, but better. It gave us the energy to get back on and keep riding. 

Snow had fallen on the Khardung La a few days earlier, according to some other riders we met, and we were concerned about meltwater running across the road. At first the surface was good, and we quickly overtook a convoy of people carriers snaking their way up the hairpins. But soon the surface deteriorated – we were back on a mixture of shale, sand and boulders which bounced the bike around and caused the rattle from my steering to reappear. Round one bend a line of vehicles had halted, blocking the road, and a crowd of people stood around. It was the first river crossing. A car had got stuck halfway across, in the shallow section. We surveyed the tumbling water that poured over the road before cascading over the edge and continuing on down the slope. It looked possible: large boulders jutted out midstream, but to the left of them, just by the cliff edge, there seemed to be a small shelf where the water was only a couple of feet deep. Threading our way round the queue of cars we entered the river, gunning the engines to stop water flooding up the exhausts. Kitch got halfway across before getting stuck on a boulder which blocked his back tyre: he accelerated but the tyre spun slickly on the wet rock and showered me with spray. I looked at the crowd who had switched their attention from the stalled car to ourselves and who were standing and gawping. “Push him!” I yelled. Nobody moved. Kitch began to rock the bike back and forward while still sitting on it, the water pouring around him in streaming white braids. His bike lurched sideways but he held it up and, fishtailing wildly, suddenly bounced across the river and up onto dry land. It was my turn. Making a note to avoid the boulder where he had nearly come unstuck I gunned the engine and immediately started bouncing over the rocks. One struck the front wheel and nearly twisted the bars out of my hands, my feet came off the pegs and I kicked out with my right leg to fend off a boulder – the water came up to my knee. But the Enfield kept going, and I careened across and out the other side, the engine coughing and stumbling. A few yards further on Kitch pulled over, and I drew up alongside, trying and failing to keep my own engine going. The bike stalled. “Just let it dry out for a few minutes,” he said. “It’ll be fine.” 

We looked back at the crowd on the far side of the river who were still gawping at us, and at the car moored in midstream. More vehicles were arriving on the other side. I took off my combat boots and tipped half a pint of muddy brown meltwater out of each, wrung out the yak wool socks and put them back on again. “Fag break,” I announced, so we had a smoke leaning against the bikes. After a few minutes, sure enough, I tried the engine and it roared back into life. We set off again. 

The road took all of our concentration, but periodically I would glance to my left at the panorama that unfolded at every turn. Streaks of snow against the black rock, a deep valley which plummeted away, scored by the faint trail of the road that looped back on itself, climbing steadily upwards. In the distance marched a long line of white peaks, set against a deep blue lapis lazuli sky. Down in one of the gorges lay the carcass of a burned out minibus. I was aware of my own ragged breathing inside my helmet, and I had the beginnings of a headache again. I had a raging thirst, and stopped to drink from the bottle of Ladakh Indus mineral water in my rucksack pocket – it tasted of warm plastic. Rounding a couple more bends I saw buildings come into view which marked the top of the Khardung La: a row of portakabins, a chai shop and souvenir stall. A line of Royal Enfields were parked up alongside the monument, which belonged to an Indian motorcycle club. They all looked remarkably clean – both the bikes and the riders.
“Are you going to Nubra Valley?” we asked.
Not today, they replied. Coming back tomorrow.
“What, so you are riding to the top of the world’s highest pass, then going back down, and coming back up it tomorrow and down the other side?”
Yes, said one of the riders, who was an accountant from Mumbai, and looked like it.
“Bollocks,” Kitch muttered. I could only agree. We later flew past them all on the descent. They were riding like learners, wobbling into potholes, getting in each other’s way and sitting a few metres behind other cars in the middle of the dust thrown up by the wheels. 

We hadn’t gone far after the summit before we spotted a long line of cars halted far below us. A traffic jam. Roadworks were being carried out – in this case trying to clear a house-sized boulder off the road from landslides. Unbeknown to us, Dan and Denise were ahead of us and stuck in the queue. We decided to stay where we were, a few thousand feet higher up the pass, and sat at the roadside overlooking the vast landscape. I lay down on the edge of the cliff and looked up at the blueness of the sky, feeling the heat of the sun and the coolness of the breeze. It was surprisingly quiet – only the sound of trickling meltwater and down in the valley the rattle of the roadworks. Then we heard more bike engines behind us. Three Indian bikers – two on Enfields, one on an Avenger. They pulled up and we chatted to one of them, who worked for the Electricity Board in Delhi.
“Oh, so it was you who caused that three day blackout across all of north India, was it?” He giggled, unfamiliar with our humour. “I expect you just pulled the plug out by mistake, didn’t you. And then went off for a ride up the Khardung La. ‘Sar, power is not there. Assistant Deputy Chief Engineering Officer also is not there. I am believing he is riding his motorcycle in northvesterly direction as quickly as possible.” 

I’d been aware of a pain in my wrist most of the way up, and now on the descent it got worse. It was like wires pulling under my skin. Using the front brake and accelerator had strained the ligaments somehow, and each time I crashed into a pothole a jolt of pain went up my arm like an electric shock. After one particularly rough section where I had been in the lead, Kitch overtook, and I saw that the luggage rack from his bike was hanging dangerously apart – a weld had snapped, and ran the risk of sending a metal spoke through the back wheel.
“We’ll have to load all the luggage onto your bike,” he said. “You alright with that?”
I sat on a rock by the roadside and said: “I can carry it, but you’ll have to load it on. I can’t use my right arm.” He loaded up the back of my bike with everything he had been carrying, tied it all down, and we set off again. I rode carefully at first – the extra weight on the corners was immediately noticeable – but after a while we started to come up behind the other vehicles that had been held in the queue. They weren’t very keen to be overtaken – they would veer all over the road surface looking for the smoothest route. One bus driver stuck a hand ambiguously out of the window when I hooted behind him. I spotted a narrow gap between the bus and the edge of the cliff, and went for it, temporarily forgetting the extra baggage that widened my bike: I scraped through by inches. We were just in a hurry to get down by now, and overtook a series of trucks and cars that were crawling around the hairpins. Soon the road surface improved, and tarmac appeared again. Down one stretch I looked into the valley to see a huge river of tumbling white water, and felt sick: how were we supposed to get across that? But as we drew nearer I could see that the road curved slightly and that the river was on the far side. We went back under the raised barrier where we had been halted a week earlier, and soon were entering the outskirts of Leh again. The traffic hadn’t improved – it was the usual slow motion free-for-all idiocy. We cut through it all like a couple of London despatch riders, horns blaring, overtaking, undertaking, sometimes going up the wrong side of the road altogether. The only thought I had by now was to get off the bike and lie down. We swung left into Changspa road, bumping over the speed humps, round the sharp left before Wonderland, turn right at the T-junction – where the usual idiot failed to indicate before cutting in front of us – and up the hill past Oriental Hotel to park up beside the wall opposite Lhari Guesthouse. I almost fell over sideways as soon as I stopped. Getting off the bike I tried to put it up on the centre stand, and realised I didn’t have the strength. Moving as if in a dream now I undid the ropes which had held the luggage on for the last time, and slowly staggered into the guesthouse and back to my room, utterly exhausted. I unzipped the Barbour jacket which was still covered in dirt from where I had lay down at the roadside at the top of the Khardung La, got my boots off, and climbed straight into bed fully clothed. I slept for 18 hours, and when I woke the bed was full of sand.