They don’t call him ‘the king of off-roading’ for nothing. And this time, Vijay has taken the RE to the absolute north end of India
Daulat Beg of Yarkand was worried. The supply of jade that was to form a part of the treasure on his last caravan of the season had arrived finally, after an unseemly delay. The Uyghurs loaded the silks and jade onto the camels, and though the atmosphere was electric with excitement at the thought of another adventure and huge profits, the Yarkandi nobleman was worried. They had left this journey too late. The skies were clear but that meant nothing. Overnight the snows could come, trapping them in a sea of white. He pushed the thought away as the bustle of the caravan leaving for Leh took over his attentions. The clouds, mere wisps at first, were visible as soon as they crossed the Karakoram Pass and he tossed a bone from a dead animal onto the already high pillar that marked the highest point of his journey. It was for luck. He muttered a small prayer, as the overladen beasts headed down the slope to the start of the Depsang Plain, where they would camp for the night. The snow came softly like a thief in the early hours. By midday, it was already chest high and Daulat Beg knew that his caravan and he were doomed. His last campsite, five hundred years after his passing, is known, even today, as Daulat Beg Oldie, which translated roughly from Turkic means – Daulat Beg died here.
Lt Gen MH Thakur, the head of the Army Service Corps (ASC) was pleased. His motorcyclists had won the Team Trophy for the Moto Adventure category of the 20th Raid-de-Himalaya. No mean feat considering that the stages were snowed out almost completely and a high level of ice-craft was needed even to finish!
“The Raid is done and done well; what can we do now that will be a challenge worth doing?” he said. “Let’s take an expedition to DBO,” I replied almost instantly. The ten-year fantasy was still number one on my wish list, haunted my waking hours. “That’s not a real challenge - our Gypsys go there in July.” “I meant let’s take a motorcycle expedition to DBO,” I clarified. His eyes brightened, but not enough. “During winter,” I added foolishly.
“Done!” came the reply, his eyes now glowing brightly at the prospect.
And so was sowed the seed of what would become one of the greatest polar adventures of all time – 11 motorcyclists battling their way to Daulat Beg Oldie and then the Karakoram Pass (5660m) in minus 37deg Celsius. An adventure that would test the resolve of every man and woman astride a Royal Enfield Himalayan – the chosen steed for the ride! The Indian Army, Royal Enfield and Himalayan Motorsport joined hands as stakeholders in this incredible effort.
Preparations for the ride would have to begin on a war footing. It was already December and the passes had closed to snow. Logistically, it was beginning to look like a humongous task just to take 11 motorcycles up to Leh itself, let alone up to DBO. The Army machinery was cranked up to full speed and several meetings were held at the ASC Mess in Delhi. The plans became more and more distilled with each sitting and finally the team began to work towards a deadline – April 20, 2019.
Choosing the riders was the first hurdle. Fifteen probables from the Army were sent to Himalayan Motorsport at Shimla for trials. Three days were spent sifting through the chaff and after almost 400km of trail and dirt riding, eight riders were selected. Five were inducted into the main team and three made up the reserves. The four riders from Royal Enfield were experienced and also the only candidates for the four spots reserved for them so no choice was to be made. I was added as the solitary riding member from HMA, as it was my idea to get us all into trouble! At this point I couldn’t see whether this was a boon or outright punishment. I didn’t care. I was going to DBO even if I crawled there on all fours!
So we knew that the ‘Mountain’s Eleven’, the chosen ones, could ride on tarmac and dirt. But could they tolerate the cold and ride on snow and ice? A week spent in Spiti ruled out two riders. Motorcycles and a ton of equipment were loaded onto a military Boeing C17 and flown to Leh. Some testing and the bikes too needed a rethink on several issues. The handlebars needed a strengthening cross bar, the leg guards needed a splash protector, and some strap mounting points were added to the front fork in case the bike needed a pull! For my bike, I prepared a separate set of wheels which would use, instead of chains, 200 Grip studs screwed into each tyre. They were phenomenal to say the least, biting into the most glassy ice with a crunch and keeping the bike stable even when traversing an inclined sub-zero surface. The secret weapon on my bike was gifted by Jojo Khurana of Make My Ride, Chandigarh, a 14-tooth front sprocket for the chain! Dropping the gear ratios a notch lower, it allowed the bike to remain in the power band at lower speeds and also be quicker off the start. The long first gear on the Himalayan was an issue on steep, loose climbs at high altitude and this fix sorted that problem to a great extent. A USB point wired to the battery kept my phone charged and aptly listening to Floyd and Comfortably Numb on the helmet-mounted Sena made the experience surreal. Isn’t that what you’d call heaven?
The Himalayan Sleet proved to be a most reliable companion, firing up effortlessly in temperatures as low as minus 25deg celsius with just small applications of the choke. Through the gruelling terrain along the way, the frame proved unbreakable despite the extreme cold. The welds held through with remarkable tenacity, proving it to be an extremely robust machine! Nothing fell off or unscrewed, and maintenance on my bike was limited to a refuel and chain lubrication every day! Rocks, riverbeds, ice, snow, water immersions - everything was crossed with a minimum of fuss.
Fourteen days were spent acclimatising at different altitudes and this proved a lifesaver. We spent seven nights at above 16,500ft and rode for hours above 17,000ft. Without the acclimatisation, we surely would’ve suffered the same fate as the Yarkandi nobleman – struck down by Acute Mountain Sickness, the cold and the extreme lack of oxygen. The Army has its procedures to prepare you for the worst and though we cribbed initially, we survived because of them.
After the village of Shyok – named after the river of the same moniker, there is no habitation apart from the Army units. No dwellings ever on this portion of the fabled Silk Route. The names now take on a Yarkandi hue, names of old campsites of the caravans. Charbagh, Sultan Chushko, Murgo, Burtse, Qazilangar; they all are so evocative of the trade routes, so steeped in history and legend. The sighting of herds of Ibex became commonplace, but the sighting of the Argali, as the Mongols call the Big Horn Sheep, is still a rare wonder. Weighing in at 200kg, this wild sheep was spotted at the junction of the Chang Chenmo and Shyok rivers in a large herd.
The area became totally raw after we left Chongtash for Daulat Beg Oldie. Riding in the Shyok riverbed for 16km after Bursay was another surreal experience. The frozen river, thankfully now only two feet deep under the ice crust, was a handful to cross. The front tyre went through the top layer of ice, in places, with a loud crack. This was followed by a water splash, thigh high, in an already minus 25 degree Celsius environment. No fear of getting wet though, as the water froze on my pant leg instantly. Once out of the riverbed at Qazilangar, we merely shook off the layers of ice, revealing dry pants underneath, very, very cold – but dry!
We rode to Gapshen, skirting the Depsang Plain since the international border disputes and incidents of 2013, have the Chinese Observation Posts in sight, and we did not want to be the cause for yet another border patrol meeting! The road now went on to the crest of the mountain. Putting on the studded tyres and even the ice-cleats on riding boots exhausted everyone as the altitude was well over 17,000ft! The next 60km to DBO turned to pure hell. Snow and ice, followed by deep slush and mud traps, interlaced with fesh-fesh – the dreaded talcum powder-like sand of the cold desert, made up the torture test for the next five hours. Blood pressure readings went off the scale. Mine went up to 160/110 with a pulse rate of 150! Survival is the key here.
There is no joy like reaching somewhere that you have dreamt of for a decade. To be the first to ride into Daulat Beg Oldie on a motorcycle listening to Floyd and ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ was epic. The next morning dawned with the scale at minus 30deg. The surreal 22km ride to the Karakoram Pass was the crowning glory of the entire Himalayan Heights Expedition.
I went around the forbidding bone pillar and placed a bone. For luck. A Chinese surveillance camera recorded every detail. On the way down from the pass I muttered a prayer for the souls of Daulat Beg and his ill-fated caravan.