Samir Jung Thapa is an environment and adventure photographer and documentary filmmaker based in Kathmandu.
I am riding in high speed and I see a van fast approaching me. I hear someone whisper my name and that’s all I could remember of the unsettling dream. Few days later, I receive a message from a visiting friend who proposed to go on an adventure trip together. I suggested Ladakh and in 10 days we were set to hit the road.
For me traveling is meditation and riding my motorcycle is a way of life. Lilu KC, my other half, crazy but patient and always willing to face challenges, was another travel companion. With minimal planning and 46 horsepower of excitement, we agreed to explore 5500+ km away from home on motorcycles.
At first we were supposed to cross the border together, but, my friend had a change of heart and decided to have his start point in Delhi. It then changed to Chandigarh, then Manali and in the end, he decided to fly directly to Ladakh. I could understand his situation, a father of a two years old, he must have had difficulty to manage taking time off while his wife worked in Dubai.
Our travel route was Kathmandu – Bhairawa – Mahendranagar (cross India-Nepal border at Banbasa) – Haridwar – Dehradun (Mussoorie, a day visit) – Shimla via Solan – Chandigarh – Manali – Sarchu – Leh and our return home was still to be planned.
Without delay, the journey to Ladakh began. I found a guy in Delhi, Varun from Transformerz, who promised to deliver Scorpion trail tyres which was suited to Enduro motorcycles with a touring setup, capable of tackling long journeys and excursions with light off-road stretches, which was perfect for our journey to Leh, Ladakh.
It is very difficult and expensive to buy spares and tyres in Nepal; besides, it is always out of stock. Our first mission was to ride with a worn out Metzeler Tourance tyres till Chandigarh, change it and continue.
Monsoon was upon us. We were hit by a severe rain shower in Mugling-Narayanghat highway. It rained incessantly for two more days. The ABS worked as a miracle and our cruising continued even in heavy shower at 100 km/hr. Border crossing at Mahendranagar-Banbasa was easy. Nepalis do not require Carnet de Passage but only basic documents as India and Nepal share an open border. In case of road permit for motorcycles for a month, the embassy charges 10 USD and a bank guarantee of 100 USD for Indian manufactured motorcycle and 1,000 USD for foreign manufactured motorcycles which is refundable upon return.
Once we were on the Indian roads, we were welcomed by horns, stray cows and transport vehicles carrying the slogan ‘Horn Please’. With better roads than Nepal but busy as a bee, Indian highways are colourful with soda joints, juice stalls and dhabas, an Indian name for a place to eat.
On the fourth day while riding towards Mussoorie from Dehradun, I felt the bike lose its acceleration. We were still a day away from Chandigarh where I was to meet Varun and replace my tyres with new ones. I decided to fix the brakes in Chandigarh itself. As we were riding in the rain for couple of days and while crossing Mugling (Prithivi Highway) in Nepal, there was a serious mud slush for 36 km stretch, possibly that’s why my brakes were not working. I meditated.
The pin that connects the piston of the brakes gets rusted easily and jams which does not let the wheel move, leading to engine heating problem. During monsoon season, it is always advisable to carry WD 40 to clean all the sensitive parts of the motorcycle right after a stopover. Once you are in your garage, regrease all the metal parts.
Hot and humid, wearing kilos of gears, we met Varun in Chandigarh with tyres. Poor Lilu, I could see how uncomfortable and exasperated she was with the heat and by the fact that we had to spend a whole day in a garage. It was Sunday and Triumph garage was closed so we decided to change the tyres at the local Enfield workshop. As the mechanics could not fix the brake problem, we had to stay overnight in Chandigarh.
I was impressed with Triumph’s facilities and service. After thorough cleaning, the brake was fixed and was as good as new. We decided to head towards Manali the same evening to get rid of the exorbitant heat and to cool off.
As we ascended to 205 m from Manali, Lilu took a dose of Diamox to avoid altitude sickness. To cross Rohtang pass (3,978 m) one needs vehicle permit which is easily available online or in Manali but for three times the real price. We then set off for Leh.
As we rode up, we got caught in heavy rains again! On one hand we were half-drenched and on the other, the temperature was dropping. So we stopped at a local shop and made covers out of plastic. There were hundreds of Indian tourists who created traffic in Rohtang pass as it was the most accessible sightseeing destination.
Onward from Rohtang pass, the valley opens and arid mountains begins.We witnessed vast and stunning valleys along the Tsarap and Beas river. The roads are narrow but well-maintained. Besides, it is a famous route for motorcyclists. We made sure that our jerrycan was refueled en route Sarchu – Leh where we made an overnight pit stop. We were in a hurry to reach Leh and rest so the throttle was maintained at 100 km/hr. It was one of the best scenic roads that I have ever crossed and the aridness continued till Leh.
As we were descending Tang Lang La pass at 5,328 meters, we got hit by rain showers. We had to stop as Lilu and I were growing increasingly vexed with the cold. We stopped in a small village in Rumtse for a cup of hot tea to keep ourselves warm. We could see clouds clearing up towards Leh but the destination was close so we decided to continue after 45 minutes of waiting.
Yay to Leh!
A scenic road that passed through beautiful monasteries, Tibetan structured houses and green lush valleys seemed like a ride in an oasis valley. We reached Leh with no idea of where to stay. As luck would have it, we met a Nepali guy who inquired if we wanted a room. In a small guesthouse run by a local family, we were offered a room with 24-hour hot water service for only 15 USD including breakfast for a couple.
Next morning, we decided to go to Nubra valley (five hours from Leh) and traverse to Pangong lake (four hours from Nubra) and then onwards follow fellow riders, if we find any, going towards Srinagar and Kashmir. It was a pleasant day with no clouds and when we reached Khardung La pass (5,359 m), the highest pass in the world, we were boiling inside our riding suit. Nubra Valley, which is close to Pakistan border, is famous for its sand dunes and camels, vast valleys and small touristic towns. The ride to Nubra was absolutely stunning with small creeks overflowing on the road, wild lavender highlighting the purple with grey hued mountains in the background.
To get the perfect picture on a shallow stream in Turtuk-Diskit highway (Nubra, Leh Ladakh) with awe-inspiring views of the landscape in the background, we chased the setting sun. The clouds were low and shadows were scattered over the parched stunning hills. Everything was perfectly set, Lilu was behind the camera and I rode off to the stream. On the second gear with a 48 HP engine, the bike took its speed and as I was riding, I stood up to take better control. When I stood on the footrest, I must have pushed the gear lever and from second gear it jumped to the first which wore out the teeth of both the front sprocket and the shaft. To our dismay, the bike froze in the middle of the stream.
When 191 kg bike stalls in the middle of nowhere, the best thing to do is push the bike few meters away to safety and wait for help and that’s what we did. While Lilu’s thumbs were up on the road, I checked the chain cover.
Far from a distance, we saw a Gypsy heading our way. Right after it crossed the stream, I shouted for help, and they stopped. They happened to be fellow Nepalis serving the Indian Army Gurkha regiment and were kind enough to lend helping hands. Following the Gypsy was a full utility truck including an army mechanic. When the mechanic opened the sprocket to diagnose the problem, he informed that the sprocket needs to be changed. “Sprocket” I whispered. I had none.
The only option left with us was to put the bike in the truck and go near town so that the next morning I could load the motorcycle in a pickup truck and go to a mechanic in Leh which was another 115 km away. From there, Lilu and I had to cross Khardung-la pass, the highest motor road in the world. The Gurkhas volunteered to drop us at Diskit which was another 15 kms away.
That morning, three hours back en-route Turtuk (India – Pakistan border) one rider had caught our attention. I asked Lilu to take pictures as faces and landscapes were changing. At first I thought it was a local from the surrounding village and as we passed him, my rear window view proved my assumption wrong. It was a foreigner wearing a wool cap that shared close resemblance with a Kashmiri cap.
While our noodles were boiling in the pot, the same person in the wool cap walked in the restaurant. A black Enfield, a left over British company, parked outside and he looked hungry just like us. After learning that he was a German, I started praising German technology which I was in love with. We agreed to meet once again in a beer bar after reaching Diskit.
After lunch I met an interesting local character. When he knew about our nationality, he quizzed if we knew why the name Bahadur is commonly used for Nepalis. He gave a 30-minute history lesson on how India, with the contribution of the brave Gurkha regiment, occupied the three villages that used to be part of Pakistan till 1971. He opined that without the Gurkha regiment India’s victory would have been difficult. I could sense high respect for the brave men who gave their lives to conquer this place and till this day with the Gurkha regiment deployed in the border all feel safe. These three villages under India’s Take Control Point now have several bunkers and barracks to protect the India-Pakistan border.
I knew that Endrik, the German guy, was behind us and if I did not get any help on road, I would definitely get a ride back to Diskit in Endrik’s bike. The last option was to get help from the Gurkhas or wait for advancing jeeps or wait for Endrik. Just then I saw a pickup jeep and a looking glass of a motorcycle popping out from its trailer. I knew it was another bike that was being towed. To our surprise, Endrik was hit by the jeep but escaped from possible injuries. However, the collision broke his gear lever and he could not ride so the driver agreed to drop him till Ladakh. I convinced the driver for a ride till Ladakh as I knew nothing could be done in Diskit. I found my lift – next to an Enfield with a German guy and a German machine. We agreed to pay 5,000 INR on the same pickup jeep and he was to drop us till Leh the capital of Ladakh.
Next morning before driving to Ladakh, we checked our luck in Diskit. The only motorcycle garage was shut. With two bikes loaded in the pickup jeep, we started our seven hour long journey to Leh. The first stretch was alright till we reached the checkpoint and then after the road started to get worse. It was very uncomfortable to sit in the trailer balancing the bikes to avoid collision with each other. Despite every effort, I was not able to protect my side lights and the seat. The two hours’ drive was one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever experienced. But the memories of it, now, are priceless.
Jugaad was not the name of the mechanic but a quick fix that all Indians rely on. The mechanic advised me to change the front sprocket and later the shaft itself as it had worn out badly. He looked at my face and said “Jugaad karengay”. The jugaad was to wield the sprocket with the nut so that it would be easier to dismantle later when I reached Chandigarh. In no time, the wielder attached a bracket in the sprocket. I asked if it could hold the acceleration, he looked at me with a smile and said “you can now do all India tour without any problem”. The bike looked normal to me but doubts hammered my head as I had many miles to cover with no help. The mechanic had advised me to go slow on the uphill and not exceed 80 km/hr speed.
With the motive to reach Manali, we tried to cover as much as we could. But we had started late, we left Leh at around 11 am. We had only covered 304 kms in severe rain and wind with a wielded sprocket. As it was getting very difficult to ride in the mist and visibility was getting worst, we decided to call it a night.
What’s in that 25L Givi luggage bags?
There are no petrol pumps for a 300 km stretch and the reason why ‘Ladakhi rack-on-Enfield’ is famous is because the rack has space for luggage and fuel. It’s a common site to see riders with bulky luggage packed on their bikes. On our part, we had packed light: a down jacket which could fold into the size of a palm, good inners, 3 t-shirts, 5 underwear, slippers, towels and of course toiletries. We were in the biking gear with a camera vest throughout the day. We were carrying a jerry can which could hold 10 liters and quite surprisingly GS 650 Sertao was cruising at 80km/hr with an average mileage of 29 km/l in such terrain.
I had read reviews from other riders that the road to Leh is busy with motorcyclists and there are small villages that we could take shelter in if the bike broke down. So we did not bother to carry tent, sleeping bags or food supply. We were ready for anything and for all.
With wielded sprocket, an early start to reach Chandigarh and visit Triumph workshop was all I had in mind. Just before the uphill in Rohtang pass in Yari Khoksar where we had met a Nepali tea shop owner en route Leh, we stopped for tea and to enquire about the road condition to Manali. The road was closed due to landslide. After a filling alu paratha we were back on the road. We crossed Rohtang pass and saw a stretch of about 4 km of trucks, bus and private cars and jeeps. In a matter of minutes, we reached the end of the traffic where the landslide had triggered. Waiting is the worst part in any ride. It drains you out completely. I smelled urine from nearby so I knew that the traffic jam had been there for a long time. After three hours, the bikers were lucky to get out first. Due to traffic, we had to spend that night 100 kms away from Chandigarh.
Unfortunately, Triumph had no solution for me as I came from a different breed altogether. They were convinced by the Jugaar (wielded sprocket) and told me to go slow as there was no other option.
Now I was on my own, with the same Jugaar I had to reach home and the only fast track that I could think of was taking the expressway to Delhi – Agra – Lucknow and enter Nepal through Sunauli. Just before we reached Noida in Delhi, I could feel the bike heavy and after 40 kms or so I could hear the tyre wobble. The tubes were flat. Lilu was furious!
As the bike uses wire spokes rim and tubes, I had no choice but to use puncture prevention sealant inside the tube that could resist minor punctures for sometime. I guessed the tubes could not resist the heat and the rubber around the valve stem was cracked. With a full gear in 35˚c heat, it is not at all pleasant to have a flat tyre. Coincidently Varun’s house was only seven kms away from where we stood. He reached us in a jiffy and we stayed back in Delhi for a fresh start next day.
We were now only 1,159 km away from home. After a day break in Noida near Delhi, we took the expressway to Agra and had a pit stop for breakfast followed by sightseeing of Taj Mahal. Everyone was busy taking selfies. Looking at my camera, I considered myself a photographer from the stone ages.
After a night in Lucknow, we managed to reach Nepal border—the chaotic town in Sunauli near Bhairawa. I walked back to the Indian side of the border to get the exit stamp on my documents which I needed to get back my 1000 USD bank guarantee. The officer sent a guy to take a picture of the registration number plate. He was convinced and we were set for Nepal.
Finally, after 21 days! As soon as we entered Nepal, I was least bothered about my broken sprocket. I felt 20 pounds lighter. What else could go wrong now? The fun was not over yet. Next day the battery died and had to jump charge it.
Despite all the difficulties, it was a lifetime experience. Breakdowns are part of an adventure. They teach us valuable lessons and thereby get etched in our memory. Lilu was ecstatic to have gone on this journey. She can’t wait to go on another adventure. I personally loved the discontinued version of GS and riding it long distance for over 20 days I understand the machine better. It is a great engine altogether with the best comfort I could wish for.
Very soon the shaft will be changed and replaced with a new one; till then, the beauty will rest in the garage. Without a trace of doubt, once the motorcycle is repaired, we will hit the road again.