Back in one piece from the ill-fated Chang La expedition, mine and Steve’s friendship still intact, all lesser roads checked off the list, it was time to tackle the big daddy: Khardung La, at 18,380 feet the highest drivable road man has ever known.
Originally, we were going to take the pass over to Nubra Valley and stay the night. Then just I was going to do it. Then we found out World Cup was on that night and it became a day trip. Then I went out on a limb and asked Steve if he wanted to come; to my surprise, and to the credit of the doctor who prescribed him some appropriate giardia pills, he did.
So we got the Bullet in the mood, topped off the tank and, around two-and-a-half hours later than we’d planned to, we started our ascent. Despite a wrong turn up a piss-sodden (Steve helped) dog-strewn dirt road out the ass-end of town, we found our way to the reasonably-paved, possibly two-car-wide road.
Immediately, we began to wind up the succession of countless blind hairpins, high above Leh and the adjacent valley, passing dozens of stupid BRO signs and nearly losing a fight to a charging yak. Somehow in the day he’d been off the bike, Steve learned how to lean properly; I barely felt he was there, aside from when he was clinging to my torso like a sexually confused koala.
With barely anyone on the road in either direction, we got brazen and made excellent time up to South Pullu Army Camp. Here we showed our Inner Line Permits, this being the road to the infamous Siachen Glacier, the place the Indian and Pakistani armies have been christening “Earth’s highest battleground” off and on since 1984. Then we rode on.
As I’ve mentioned, in India, when you come to an army checkpoint, you know two things: that your passport information is about to be filed away into a worthless drawer never to be used for anything ever, and that the road is about to turn to shit. On the road to Khardung La, both these things were reproven.
Between here and the top lay 40 minutes worth of dirt ruts, rocks, flowing water, uneven unpaved terrain and Shiva-knows-how-many muddy hairpin switchbacks. As the altitude rose, the air’s oxygen content fell, as it tends to do. Consequently, so did the Bullet’s power. The closer we got to the top, the more chewed-up and water-overrun the soggy, snow-banked road became, and the more Steve had to get off and hike while I negotiated the bike up through the slop, sometimes in the seat, sometimes on foot myself.
Finally, the road flattened out and around a snowy cliff we rode to the drab, awful, Tibetan prayer flag-swathed army post that marks the world’s highest drivable point.
There we walked around, got unfathomably winded, sat, drank chai, posed for some Mom Photos, walked around a bit more, got winded a lot more, sat again, pissed onto some incredible views, shot the shit with some matching-tracksuited Indian Army, refused a ride to a soldier who asked to hitchhike down to the next post, started missing oxygen, got bored and turned around.
Well, they say it’s the journey that counts.
Here’s a bunch of photos:
Before we left, we remembered the oil was low. Dangerously so. I’d meant to fill it but forgot. Communicating our problem mostly through gestures, some generous and/or extremely bored soldiers searched the premises, scrounged up an old water bottle full of the thickest sludgy oil I’ve ever seen, smelled or tasted, and offered its contents to us. Well fuck it, we figured. Not our bike. And by the time it does any serious damage, I’ll have my deposit back. So we poured it in, wiped our hands, returned the bottle, waved thanks and rolled off.
By now it was late afternoon and the sun, though high in the sky, wasn’t relatively all that far away from the ridiculously high-altitude snow lining the road. Thus, the trickles and streams we’d forded on the way up were now terrifying torrents of fast-moving mini-rivers.
However, half of us being veterans of the monumentally more horrific Chang La, we plowed on through undaunted, hypothermically soaking our socks and jeans and losing control of the bike only a few minor times.
A little over an hour later we were back on pavement, emboldened by our accomplishment, into the groove with each other and the Bullet, hornblasts announcing our presence as we flew down and around the hairpins, s-curves and anything else that came at us in a flurry something just short of reckless.
At least until a sandy patch on one curve stole control of the front wheel, just momentarily but plenty long enough to shatter our confidence, remind us of our mortality, and keep us in 2nd the rest of the way down — a harrowing experience topped only by the giant bus that pulled out blind, nearly t-boning flat into its left side just kilometers from town.
Soon we reached the bottom, passing a feces-scented neighborhood, a hill covered in untold millions of scattered glass fragments gleaming in the late-afternoon sun, and a filthy second-hand market we resolved to revisit. In town we covered our tracks with some proper-grade oil, motored up to the guesthouse, had a kooky European man take some awful photos of us and hopped off the Bullet for good.
After sitting on that thing for the better part of a week, my haunches hurt, my arms were sore, my clothes were filthy and my lungs were filled with enough foul pollutants soon to be coughed out with not just a little mucus and eventually blood. All signs of a week well spent.
In retrospect, it may not have been the safest, smartest or sanest way, place or time of life to cut my teeth on motorcycling, on my own and often the very, very hard way. But what the hell, right? After all, you only die once.
Here are some quick links to the previous articles, although hopefully you read this saga in order:
- Biting The Bullet: Motorcycling Ladakh
- Biting The Bullet II: Theory Into Practice
- Biting The Bullet III: Upping The Ante
- Biting The Bullet IV: A Tale of Too Shitty Days
- You Are Here
And here’s the Unofficial Epilogue: