Day 1 – Warming Up, 4+ Hours
Day One was to be a solo ride. If I was riding to my death, Steve didn’t want to go there with me. (He also had the shits.) I’d planned a relatively short warm-up, out to the hilltop gompa town of Thiksey and on across the Indus to the canyon-nestled monastery at Hemis and back along the other side of the river.
At the petrol pump I met a middle-aged German guy who was going the same way, so we banded together. I told him it was my first day on the bike. He smiled and asked if I wanted to lead. I said hell no and off we went. As we wound through crowded villages and truck-studded roads, him speeding around and between all possible obstacles, the distance between us grew. When a truck pulled out in front of me, bringing the count to three squeezed in the the two-ish lanes, he officially lost me.
Careening that heavy monster around the invariably curvaceous and truck-clogged Indian roads took some getting used to, but the leaning felt natural by the time I got to Thiksey. Walked around the gompa, took some photos of the urinals, then hopped back on and shot across the river towards Hemis to practice a steep ascent/descent studded with dozens of hairpin turns. Got it down. Next it was back along the other side of the river, on what the map indicated was a road, but what turned out to be a one-hour exercise in sudden downshifting/braking and strategic path-selection over more washed-out chunks of road than I can remember.
Crossed back over the river and on up the hill into the labrynthine traffic jam that is downtown Leh, where I got a fresh taste of lane-splitting and pissing off car-drivers. (Only forgot about the idling issue once!)
Not a bad afternoon, or tutorial. Four hours in, I already felt ballsy enough to take on the highest passes on earth. Wrongly or not, that’s how I felt.
Day 2 – Towards Pakistan, 11 hours
Choosing our shared guesthouse toilet over the back of the Bullet, Steve wished me godspeed around 6am. Today was to be a long one, along the highway back towards Srinagar to the military checkpoint at Khalse, then up the Indus River canyon to Dha, the farthest foreigners are allowed to travel before they get shot at by both the Indian and eventually Pakistani armies.
The Bullet took its time to wake up, but by 6:15 I was shooting through town, the streets eerily emptied of hippies, the stray dogs and cows off breakfasting on last night’s garbage. My first stop was 20 minutes past the sprawling military camps and desert combat training facilities, and up the switchbacks above the Indus View at the Phyang petrol pump. When I arrived it was deserted. I honked, waited, honked, waited, then dismounted and rapped on the scrap-metal door to the service-boy’s sleeping hut. Nothing. Balls. Had no other choice but to turn back for the Spituk pump, 15 minutes back. Did so, honked, gesticulated to the sleepy-eyed 14-year-old attendant to fill ‘er up, which he did as literally as possible, enough that some spilled out when I put the cap back on.
Fourteen litres between me and a shitty end to the day, I retraced my tire tracks on forward. As I passed by the Phyang petrol pump, the hut door was open, a boy milling about the property. The snoozy bastard.
Got a taste of open, truckless desert road as I gained altitude, slowing down for the hairpin turns around the guardrail-devoid cliffside descent into Nimu, the rocks painted with crude images of bugles and the words “BLOW HORN!” Stopped for bananas in that dirty town, then wove around the gates and military barriers back onto the highway, slowed only by
Over the next hour I climbed up to a wide barren valley troughed by dwarfing rocky peaks, home to about the only straight stretch of road I’d seen in Ladakh. The asphalt was clean, the traffic was nonexistant; serious 4th-gear territory. Couldn’t tell how fast I was going, just that it was as fast as I could go for as long as that road would allow it.
For a moment I thought I was somewhere between Fallon and Austin on Nevada’s US-50. When I saw no bombing ranges, whorehouses or asshole state troopers, I returned to reality.
The speed test ended on a steep jumble of switchbacks back down toward the Indus, with some Volkswagen-sized chunks missing from my side of the pavement; at some points, serious 1st-gear territory. 25 minutes later I was bouncing and fording through the chewed-up, watery village of Saspol before rejoining the river for a spell.
Then I rediscovered on two wheels what I should’ve recalled from our harrowing two-day bus trip: an endless stretch of rutted, sandy, tarmacless Indian road construction. By now, jeeps were awake and transporting tourists, competing with trucks, work crews and tractors to shoot dust and fumes into my face. For the first time, the full-face came down.
If you’ve ever seen an Indian road crew, you know it’s about the sorriest most brokedick excuse for progress known to man. Children, old ladies, whoever they can find carrying or simply kicking rocks around from one pile to the next, sometimes off a cliff, sometimes just back to the original pile. Dozens of men standing or squatting around while one man scratches at a cliff with a toy-sized wooden shovel. Portable cement mixers spinning brainlessly, not mixing cement. And always a tractor or dump truck parked right in the middle of the mess forcing you around and dangerously close to an immeasurable dropoff.
This I got to know throughout the next hour-and-a-half of my day. There was a nice view to my left the whole time, but I couldn’t have told you that; my eyes were fixed ten feet in front of me on the boulders, sand pits, and wayward equipment I had to avoid, and occasionaly just two feet at the dust clouds with which the jeeps kept blanketing me.
At the almost-town of Nurla the road suddenly looked more like a First World highway than any previous stretch — it even had lane lines — and I cathartically floored it through a wide-turning fourth-gear blur to Checkpoint Khaltse. Seeing no guards on duty, I sped past the gate, mentally noted the location of the petrol pump — the only one between Phyang and Kargil a day away, and my main hope for making it home — and hung a right off the highway up to the last leg, the Indus River Canyon.
Lane lines and dark asphalt quickly gave way to a cracked but manageable golfcart-sized road hugging the constantly S-curving canyon walls high above the roiling brown Indus, occasionally broken up by a miniscule village, water running over the road, or a view off to a whitewashed Tibetan monastery.
At one bend where I stopped to photograph the view an old woman appeared, shouting at me I guessed to help her with something. I walked up to her, her scattered pots and the bundle of sticks she had no matches to light. I searched my bag; somehow stashed in my little pack was half a book marked Great Basin Brewery, Sparks, NV. Like many Indians I’d met, she was used to boxes and didn’t know how to work the packet. Three matches later we had a fire going. Three seconds after that, her husband came up with a lighter. I smiled and rode on.
Eventually I came to a small military checkpoint where a soldier shouted at me to dismount; I had reached the Inner Line. I sidled up, showed him my permit, proved I wasn’t a Pakistani spy and asked him how far to Dha. “On this road… one hour?” I checked the time and realized I’d already been out 6 hours. Beginning to feel tired and hungry, a 14-hour ride didn’t sound so worth it.
Instead, I walked up to the Wet Canteen and bought more bananas, a coke, and some potato chips I couldn’t eat since they were sprinkled with that weird Indian seasoning that tastes suspiciously like farts. I ate alone in the shade. Then, satisfied with having reached at least the checkpoint, I turned and rode back.
At Khaltse I rolled into the Petrol Pump. Honked, waited, honked, waited some more. A teenage boy came out of a shack 50 feet away, shaking his head and hand. “What do you mean, no?” I called. “No petrol!” he shouted back. “Nowhere at this whole station? Not even in a can?” I asked. “No, sir. No petrol here,” he confirmed. “Well, fuck me!” I concluded. “Sir?” he cocked his head, not understanding. I waved him off and checked the tank. The slosh method indicated there was something in there. When I opened it up, there was, but it was hard to gauge. Regardless, there was nothing left to do but shoot for Phyang.
The ride back through the construction zone was just as shitty as before. But the rest seemed to fly by pretty quick. There were more trucks and buses on the roads, which meant more obstacles to speed around. The passes were just as fun in reverse, and the wide open desert section was even faster going this way, evidently slightly less than flat.
At times, I remembered the situation and tried not to burn too much fuel. It was beautiful out there, but it wouldn’t be for long if I had to push that big damn Bullet.
Hours later I recognized the mountains outside of Phyang. Minutes after that, relieved, I rolled into the Phyang petrol station. Before I could honk, Sleepy Boy lifted his hand and shook it with his head. “Don’t tell me there’s no petrol here.” “No petrol, sir!” Well that explained it. With a few exceptions, it was mostly downhill from there to Spituk, so I crossed my fingers and rode on.
The same boy who’d filled and spilled me up that morning came back out, grinning to see me again. “Tell me you haven’t run out of petrol since this morning,” I half-growled. “Yes, petrol? Want?” Sighing, I had him do it again.
When I made it on back through the dozens of military camps, cutting up to Changspa before town along Shanti Stupa Road, and back to the guesthouse, I pushed the heavy bastard onto its stand, peeled myself off the seat and stumbled on up to the room. Assuming Steve’s same position, lying prostrate on the bed and drained (yet for a very different reason), I vowed to plan some shorter trips.
Here are some quick links to the articles, even though the saga is best read in order:
- Biting The Bullet: Motorcycling Ladakh
- You Are Here
- Biting The Bullet III: Upping The Ante
- Biting The Bullet IV: A Tale of Too Shitty Days
- Biting The Bullet V: Topping It All Off