Triumph Tiger Trails: Zanskar Valley
Darcha to Padum, a gruelling trek that often took two weeks to complete — with a detour to Phugtal Gompa thrown in for good measure — would invariably run short of supplies towards the last few days. Prayers would be offered enroute to the sacred mountain Gumburongjon for safe passage, by the Zanskari guides, while trekkers would stay up late at night staring at the dark, granite walls of the mountain, hoping for a sighting of flickering butter lamps, which locals confirm are seen only by the extremely blessed. The relief of both the participating trekkers, pack mules and muleteers, as they saw the narrow gorge of the Tsarap Chu open into the wide valley around Padum, was palpable. Padum meant supplies, rest and transportation.
For over 30 years we dreamt of taking a motorcycle across the Shingo La to this remote, hard, land famous for its sapphire mines, its lean, tough horses, completely inaccessible monasteries and the striking aquamarine blue of its rivers. So when, on the 20th Raid de Himalaya last year, we were informed by the Border Roads Organisation that crucial bridges would be launched before the start of the winter, and the road would be through post monsoon in 2019, we could hardly think of anything else for six months!
Triumph India was equally enthused and though the Splendid Spiti Ride was running Version 3 in mid-July, opted to attempt the Zanskar crossing as well in October. It would be the first organised manufacturer’s ride offered up and immediately filled with signups. Due to the total lack of infrastructure on the route — not even a tea shop for miles — we capped the ride at 14 participants.
The ride began in Manali on a perfect mid-October day. The Rohtang Pass was already covered in snow and black ice was a possibility in the nallahs. The roads, however, were clear and tarmac, the traffic minimal and the ‘meat-chawal’ at Koksar, quite epic. The cold was there, despite the clear skies and a sunburn-hot brightness. Reaching Padma Lodge at Jispa had everyone in high spirits with many even commenting on how easy this so-called epic ride had been thus far. All that was about to change. Very quickly.
The climb to Shingo La (16,558ft) from Zanskar Sumdo is rough, with ice forming in the washes, huge stones with razor-sharp edges littering the roads and the promise of a snow-covered tops looming ahead to stop the bikes in their tracks. Leaving Darcha at 0800 hours meant taking a start in minus 3 Celsius and by the time we reached just below the top of the pass, the score was minus 7. The snow was packed and with a terribly high water content that turned to ice instantly. The cold wind blowing cut into one’s clothing despite the sun being out mercilessly. Tyre pressures were reduced to 9.5psi in the rear wheels. Three bikes were quickly chained up and sent ahead. Despite the chains they struggled in the icy conditions before they could cross the pass. Not yet fully acclimatised, the altitude played havoc with the riders breathing and later in the day Femin from Cochin would fall prey to an attack of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Slowly all the bikes would cross the pass, but the snow and ice cost us five hours of light in an already shortening day.
The descent after Shingo La is treacherous. The hairpin bends seem more suited to a mule train than long 4x4 support cars. Apparently, a lama from a nearby monastery (probably at Kargiak), impatient with the BRO’s slow progress up the mountainside brought in two JCBs and cut out a road to the top of the pass! Obviously untutored in grading a road, the final effort is reminiscent of a Giant Slalom ski run with endless tight turns which terminate abruptly inside the bed of the Kargiak river! Fortunately, the flow of the river was stemmed by the onset of a glacial freeze and the infamous deep water crossing at Lakhang reduced to a tame trickle, albeit frozen in places. The rocky bed was another story altogether, dealing out punctures like a croupier on a busy table! In the meantime, one motorcycle was left behind in Kargiak, when exhaustion and AMS combined to incapacitate the rider temporarily, to be collected on the way back two days later. Kargiak’s small tea shop struggled to provide relief to the group and we moved on to Purne, the next stop, realising our arrival at Padum would be well after dark! The rest of the day’s ride involved crossing deep fesh-fesh — a talcum powder-like dust that has no structural support, often engulfing the bike and rider in an instant — loose shale and very icy water crossings. To top all these adversities, the route ran atop an endless gorge that housed the combined waters of the Kargiak and Tsarap rivers. Two riders took a wrong turn in the dark and wound up trapped in deep sand. A burnt clutch and yet another bike rescue cost the caravan a further two hours! We did 150km in a 14-hour day — such was the difficulty of the trail.
Exhaustion had hit everyone and we decided to stay back in Padum the next day, recuperating our strength and attending to the bikes. Punctures had plagued us and these had to be fixed. Refuelling was done at a hand-driven dispenser from the last century. The monastery at Karsha was paid a visit, after a hot solar-powered shower cleaned the fesh-fesh from our nostrils. Meat-chawal added the finishing touches to a perfect day. Life was good once more.
The next day, the ride back to Jispa was well begun. A hot breakfast, a spotless blue sky and the amazing landscape which we had missed on our night run to Padum, unfolded before us. We arrived at Purne without much incident. A rock falling from a cliff slammed into the bonnet of one of the 4x4 support cars but that was now considered de rigueur. Short of Tangzey and just after a water crossing, I noticed spilled oil on the road ahead of me. The riders ahead were reeled in and halted. Instantly oil was seen pouring out of the fractured sump of a Tiger XCA. Two hours later the sump repaired and refilled, we resumed attacking the narrow shale and fesh-fesh-covered road. Our advantage of an early start and good pace was lost. Loading the bike we had left at Kargiak into a Mahindra pick-up cost us another half hour. We hit the pass, after the regulation picture with Gumburongjon behind us, at 1530 hours, too late for any warmth the sun might bring.
As the icy winds picked up, we came up against the strangest of problems. The ‘side-stand down’ switches on several bikes froze in the open position killing the engine the moment a gear was engaged! Hammering the side stand against the switch provided temporary relief till the switch froze again. And again. Two bikes had to be loaded onto a trailer and rescued from the high pass that night.
The next day’s departure for the Pangi valley took us into the most beautiful areas of Lahaul and Pangi. Riding atop the Chenab for almost 100km we arrived at the campsite below the Suraal Glacier just as the sun was going down. A great dinner, amazing stories and a campfire that burnt all night fuelled by dried dung pats made for an amazing experience. We went to sleep contemplating the climb up Sach Pass the next day.
It was not to be. Snow was falling when I unzipped my tent in the morning – the grassy meadow outside covered in a white dust. Sach Pass was experiencing heavy snow and we decided to head back to Manali instead. Two punctures, another sump repair and damage to a Scrambler after a fall continued the adventures of this amazing ride. Our attempt to climb Rohtang La was foiled by snow, black ice and a huge traffic jam. We returned to a warm hotel in Sissu to lick our wounds. Rohtang would be surmounted easily the next day and Manali reached with no fuss.
A celebratory dinner at the Corner House eatery would mark the end of an epic ride – one that threatened to eclipse the standards of adversity laid down by the Spiti Ride completely!