Road Trip: Leh to Pangong Tso
Posted by Cool Your Jets IV on August 9, 2011
Our bike, the classic Royal Enfield, Thunderbird 350 has no brakes – no functioning speedometer or milometer, horn nor locking petrol cap, zero mirrors and the thing stalls every time it drops below 2k revs! Given all its faults, we were not deterred from our road trip – riding from Leh to Pangong Tso – a five hour bike ride, taking in the third highest mountain pass (apparently the most difficult) in the World, pah – piece of cake…
The day begun badly, rising early we made our way to the bike only to find it was missing – it was gone. We checked the place where we’d left it, nada. The alleyway next door, not there. The little stretch of tarmac outside our hotel, zilch – we were worried some scrota had stolen it. Thankfully the travel company next door had the number of the hire guy and called him.
He’d taken it home! So here we were all good to go, having got up nice and early with no wheels. Eventually he turns up, all smiles and good humour and we’re like ‘…just give us the bike…’ or words to that effect.
The ride out of Leh is straight forward enough you still have the same old cars, trucks, buses overtaking on bends and coming straight at you, forcing you into the side or off the road – I swear, one day i’m going to turn around and go after some twat, pull him from his SUV/Truck/Bus and stick a rather large onion bhaji up his ass. Once off the main road and riding in the mountains its a whole different experience, true you still have the SUV racers, hurtling around bends on the wrong side of the road. Buses ‘owning’ the road, forcing you to pull over – I’m sure they change gear just to belch diesel ‘smog’ in your face as they pass! In the distance you see vehicles coming towards you, tiny in comparison to the mountains surrounding with the road opening up ahead.
After 40 or so KM, tarmac becomes dirt road or what use to be tarmac and is now pitted, holed out cracked tarmac full of boulders, small rocks and smally rivers passing over. Thankfully its only 10 or so KM before the pass and whilst avoiding the edge and it’s drop, the pass is soon upon you. At 5350m ASL, Chang La is the third highest mountain pass in the World – it’s also a military base with a small ‘cafe’ offering free tea, a medical centre (for those suffering with altitude sickness) and the obligatory Buddhist temple other than that, it’s barren!Crossing over the pass and heading further into the interior you really get a feel of the remoteness of where you are – literally miles from anywhere, no mobile reception, no people, no anything – if anything unfortunate were to happen you’re pretty much fucked.
After a good 120 or KM, the bike was starting to make all sorts of noises, more so up hill – a lack of power and scrunching noises from the gear box had me worried, it was getting late, we had minimal ‘warm-gear’ nor any tool kit or comms to help out our situation and whilst crossing a deep, fast flowing stream the worst happened – the gear leaver loosened from the gear box and was pretty much hanging off the engine. I had no gears and it was getting dark. The chain was slipping on the sprocket – somehow it had either stretched or the back wheel had ‘jumped’ forward and what with the gear situation I really did think the chain was going to fly off. Thankfully, I managed to ‘stomp’ the bike into first and we spent the next hour or so riding along in first gear wondering whether we’d make it to camp.
We caught our first glimpse of the lake through a distant pass and our spirits lifted, we’re almost there.
Eventually we arrive, the camp is like a scene from Mad Max, battered old buses, field tents and SUVS all parked up in a haphazard fashion. We had about an hour before it got dark so after taking a quick couple of photos of the lake, which was beautiful, turquoise, green and blue in colour, surrounded by mountains with fluffy white clouds above was really special and certainly worth the effort of getting here. Asking around the tents we quickly found a ‘mechanic’ or the guy with the biggest tool kit and we set about fixing the gear leaver. Removing it from the bike, we used a malleable metal strip to wrap around the rod coming from the engine and with a lot of effort (and large rocks) managed to get the gear leaver reattached though we still had the problem of the very loose chain. During all of this Shelley blagged a ride to the ‘local’ phone box to speak with the hire company – our options were to either leave the bike and hitch-hike back or nurse it back to Leh…
We rolled out of camp a little before 9, I had first, third and fourth gear and a 30km uphill ride to the nearest mechanic – on the smallest incline the chain was sliding off the sprocket making any ride uphill a real effort. Riding over bumps caused your heart to stop thinking the chain would fly off at any moment with the option of either hitting the mountain next to you or indeed going over the edge! Eventually we make it to the small village and quickly locate the mechanic. He sorts out the chain, tightening up by loosening the bolts and moving the wheel back – he also sorts out the rear brake (I didn’t realise this and whilst riding off and hitting the brake just before cornering saw us skidding to a halt and stalling the bike!)
We could see the pass ahead of us in the distance, black clouds ominously forming above, it was getting cold and we were tired and just wanted to be on the other side, going down rather than up. We arrive just in time and as we get off the bike to grab a cup of tea it first starts hail-stoning followed up a squally sleet shower – only the day before we’d been basked in glorious sunshine at this very same point! After an hour or so there was a small break in the weather and setting off with a French couple we decided to get off the mountain asap. The few KM of un-tarmacced road was testing but thankfully we negotiated this with no issues and before long we were back on tarmac. At this point I took off, hurtling down at great speeds at one stage hitting a bump, gaining some air with Shelley also grabbing some behind, arms and legs flailing I thought she’d come off the back!
Riding in to Leh, a good seven or so hours after setting off, was a great feeling. We’d ridden over the third highest mountain pass in the world, got an injured bike to camp and then nursed back to the mechanic, experienced, bright warm sunshine, hailstones and then sleet and experienced the wonder of riding in the foothills of the Himalayas and whilst we were both shattered, with no hotel room yet located we were both very smily and looking forward to our next trip, the Nubra Valley and the World’s highest mountain pass, the Khardung La at 5602m ASA.