‘Everyone should sit by a stream and listen’
Maurice Sendak’s utterly simple yet poignant words from one of my favourite childhood books, Open House For Butterflies, rang in my head as I boarded the flight to Leh. After months of being locked up within the concrete walls of my city abode, my weary mind needed a pause, some chicken soup to reignite my soul–one I hoped the journey to Zanskar in Ladakh would bring me.
Fast forward to four days later, after a back-breaking ride through the high passes and gravel roads of Zanskar Valley, my fellow travellers and I paused for a quick cup of chai at the Dolma campsite in the sleepy hamlet of Purney. As I stretched my weary legs, huffing and puffing to breathe the light air of the mountains, I noticed a sign on the walls: “Taking care of you is a privilege,” it read. I knew, in that moment, that the soup I was searching for was right there, disguised as the geniality of the locals in a place far from the madding crowd.
I was in Ladakh’s less-trodden region of Zanskar Valley along with the good folks at Royal Enfield (RE), who had meticulously planned a 1,000 kilometre off-roading adventure through this pristine region. Saddled on top of the sturdy Royal Enfield Himalayan, I rode over passes as high as 18,000 feet, manoeuvred dusty, unpaved roads, crossed streams, and embraced the valley’s simple life.
In the company of nine other riders, I began the ride from Leh towards our first stop–Dras. Thanks to the burgeoning road infrastructure in the region, this 230-kilometre stretch of road was smooth as silk, one that allowed my eyes to occasionally wander and absorb the sheer emptiness that surrounded me. Along the route, I got my first taste of the openness and warmth of Ladakhis–be it the hundreds of starry-eyed kids wanting a quick high-five as we zoomed past or the chai shop owner who kept us warm while humming folk tunes to entertain.
While the landscape along this route was quintessentially what I had known of the region–rugged, raw, and rocky–the view dramatically changed as we rode into Dras. The coldest inhabited place in India, Dras is surrounded by rolling hills lush with greenery and colours that stand in complete contrast to those you see in Ladakh. There isn’t a list of sights to tick off a bucket list here, but Dras’ kaleidoscopic background more than makes up for it. We spent only a night here, listening to tales of those who arrive here in winter unprepared for the deep-freeze and of the many treks (such as the Suru Valley Trek) one could take from here.
Stay: Roots Ladakh, a responsible tourism firm, organises campsites in Dras replete with barbeque and bonfire while ensuring proper waste-management and power usage.
The true riding adventure started on the second day, when we made our way from Dras to Rangdum–a Buddhist village 188 kilometres away. Instead of taking the longer paved route via Kargil, the adrenaline junkies in us chose to cut across the Manman-La and Umba-La passes on rough unforgiving roads. This turned out to be a blessing as the passes allowed for a helicopter view of the valley’s many hamlets spread across like pins on a map–one tailor-made for your Instagram feed.
At the lunch stop, by the side of the Suru River overlooking the Suru Valley, I caught the first sight of Ladakh’s most-loved twin peaks: Nun and Kun. With the Toblerone-shaped snowy peaks for company, I struck up a conversation with the cook about the meal he’d prepared. Of the many things on the table, it is the flatbread khambir that he proudly proclaimed as ‘our local’. I dug into the khambir with mutton curry, and the flavours were so good, I’d recommend eating only local in these parts.
Satiated, we rode on further arriving at Suru Valley’s last inhabited village – Rangdum. Our campsite felt right out of an episode of Heidi: horses galloped across as the sun set, rocky mountains stared down from every angle, and the river gushed through right by it. At night, the locals running the campsite graciously invited us over for a cup of chhaang–Ladakh’s local fermented barley beer. When I poured a cup for them, they refused, telling me that guests must have the chhaang first: a level of hospitality that I wasn’t quite used to.
Stay: Nun and Kun Camp, run only in the summer (April-September), is one among a handful located near the monastery with astounding views.
After a much-needed night of rest, following the tough ride and um… the chhaang, we packed up for our next destination–Zangla, a village near Zanskar’s biggest town of Padum, famed for its award-winning eco-friendly homestay programme. While only 135 kilometres away, ongoing construction made the roads hard to navigate.
Along this arduous route lies the crown jewel of the region: the magnanimous Drang-Drung glacier, a winding river of ice whose beauty juts out like it is the Eiffel of Ladakh. The second largest glacier in India, next only to the inaccessible Siachen, Drang-Drung is a perfect reminder of how we are mere specks in nature.
After clicking an avalanche (see what I did there?) of photos, we proceeded towards Zangla. This village is one of the pioneers of responsible tourism in Ladakh, having instituted a homestay programme covering almost every house, more than a decade ago. At Zangla, living with a family of seven in a basic yet clean home for two nights, I witnessed the heights of Ladakhi hospitality. At every meal, an inordinate amount of butter tea and momos were served; at night, we shared many tales of our contrasting lives while gazing at the Milky Way; when a fellow traveller felt under the weather, help was at hand even at ungodly hours; what touched me the most though is that they didn’t treat me as a guest but as a friend, a bond that we continue to share many weeks later.
Stay: Zangla Homestays: There isn’t a managed online booking process but one can just turn up and at least one family will host you, without an iota of doubt.
The ride to Shinku La, a pass at 16,700 feet, isn’t one for the faint hearted. From crossing streams through a narrow gorge to testing your back on craggy roads, the journey is gruelling. Yet, with the turquoise Zanskar River for company and jaw-dropping views all along, I felt like riding on endlessly. When we arrived at the halfway point in Purney, at the Dolma camp site, there was an obvious sense of relief but also a palpable excitement in the air. It is here that we ran into the effervescent YouTube musical sensation of Zanskar, Skitsal Garskit, who runs the campsite along with her family. Singing old Hindi tunes, she poured us several rounds of chai, often stopping to crack a joke. Despite my body reeling from the ride, a wide smile was plastered on my face–a nod to how there is never a sad moment when you’re around the people of Zanskar.
Re-fuelled with a healthy dose of sugar, we proceeded towards the Shinku La pass, a leg of the journey that pushed the rider in me to the limit. At one point, I even lost my way, only for the ever-helpful passersby to point me in the right direction. At another point, my rear brake got jammed, forcing me to ride out a section with only one brake to depend on. By the time our bruised bikes and bodies were about an hour away from Shinku La, near the sacred Gumbak Rangan peak, the road had been blocked due to water-logging. Like the adage goes, it isn’t the destination that matters but the journey – the spirit of which can only be truly understood on a journey such as this. We returned to Zangla for the night and made our way back to Leh in the coming days, passing by settlements such as Photoksar and 18,000 feet-high passes such as Singe La.
But, before we rode into Zangla that evening, we stopped by the Dolma campsite once more when I noticed a familiar sign in green against its grey walls – “Taking care of you is a privilege”. A deep breath of air, a wide smile on my lips–I was taken care of, indeed.
On my flight back home to Bangalore, as the stunning vistas of Leh slowly became little black dots, I found a little piece of my heart also amongst it. Maybe I didn’t quite sit by a stream and listen, as Sendak advised. But, maybe sometimes all we need is to be in the very lap of nature, in a place where the stars still twinkle, the sky’s still blue, and the people only know to care and to love–a place like Zanskar.
The author traveled to Zanskar as part of a group riding adventure organised by Royal Enfield. Royal Enfield runs many rides to some of the remotest parts of the Himalayas in the summer, open to all experienced riders, budding photographers, and mountain lovers. Visit royalenfield.com to know about the upcoming rides.
Vikas Plakkot isn't cool enough for a tattoo on his arm but the world map is etched in his cells. Always scouring the web for flight deals, he'll gladly trade a ticket to Antarctica for one to Sudan - such is his love for places with untold stories. He tweets @vikasplakkot and Instagrams on @beyondthewall.travel