Motorcycle Diaries: Cold desert of Hanle, Ladakh

Road trip on Motorbikes to Hanle, Ladakh

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

On the road from Tangtse to Chushul

Hanle, a remote village in the Ladakh Himalayas, less than 20 km from the Line of Actual control (LAC), was the last leg on our motorbike road trip to Ladakh. Hanle valley in Changthang is a high altitude cold desert that receives scanty or no rainfall due to lying in the rain-shadow area of the mountains.

Hanle village

To reach a place as isolated in the Himalayas on motorbikes requires a heart full of courage and a spirit of adventure, other than a map of course, or you could end up in China!

Getting there: Accessible on road from Mood, Hanle requires a permit to visit that can be obtained from Leh.

Route: Leh – Hemis Monastery – Chang La pass – Tangtse – Chushul – Rezang La – Mood – Hanle (about 320 km on Google Maps)

A village on the way to Parma

Changthang plateau is a part of the Tibetan plateau, the highest plateau in the world that extends from China into Ladakh. Home to the Changpa, pastoral nomads who raise goats & yaks, it is dry & cold with mostly cloudless skies. To reach a place as isolated in the Himalayas on motorbikes requires a heart full of courage and a spirit of adventure, other than a map of course or you could end up in China! Crossing some of the highest mountains passes in the world on broken, sometimes non-existing roads or mere dirt tracks to lead the way; it’s a challenging bone-chilling ride, but as with any place in Ladakh, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. (Read about Breathless Himalayas: Crossing Chang La)

Road from Parma to Chushul

From Tangtse near Pangong Tso to Chushul the landscape changes from hard rocky mountains to smoother mound-like hills in various hues. This road runs parallel to Lake Pangong across Kangju Kangri Mountain in the Pangong range. The tar road turns into a dirt track after the Army checkpoint at Parma. After a bowl of delicious thukpa at a dhaba in Chushul as we headed to Mood, we were advised to strictly follow the dirt tracks and take a right in case of confusion, NOT a left turn as the Chinese border was just 10-15 km away! This stretch of the dirt road goes on for kilometers in the vast flat plateau surrounded by mountains on both sides and as the valley widens the tracks going in all directions get confusing. We had to ride slow as the bikes were skidding on the sand and loose gravel. Following the electric poles it was only after we saw the Indian flag at Rezang La from a distance, we realized we weren’t lost!

Dirt track after Chushul

We were advised to strictly follow the dirt tracks and take a right in case of confusion, NOT a left turn as the Chinese border was just 10-15 km away!

Rezang La pass in Chushul valley is more than 2.5 km long & 1.5 km wide, at an altitude of 17,000 feet. On the pass there is Rezang La War memorial dedicated to the Indian soldiers who fought the India-China war in 1962. Read More. Another memorial from the same year stands at the easternmost town of India, Walong in Arunachal Pradesh.

Rezang La War Memorial at Rezang La pass

The dirt road continues till a few km from the Army checkpoint at Mood, surrounded by mountains of various hues and a stark black road it’s a surreal Mars-like landscape all the way to Hanle.

Stark black tar road to Hanle

Hanle boasts of housing India’s Chandra telescope and a 17th century Buddhist monastery of the Drukpa lineage. Located on a hilltop the monastery looks more like a fort but the view of the valley from the monastery is gorgeous!

View of Hanle valley from the monastery

Sitting by the edge of the broken wall of the monastery, two men repair the wall. In such remoteness taking a break from fixing the wall, it would be a pleasure to see someone drive by that lonely road!

Walking around the monastery one of the monks invited us for a cup of tea. Sipping hot chai and nibbling on glucose biscuits as we chatted he told us, with the new road its easier to visit Hanle now, and he was happy to meet those who make it this far.

I felt blessed to have had this opportunity to explore Ladakh riding pillion with plenty of time to gawk on the unbelievably gorgeous landscapes and do photography, it was an adventure of a lifetime, that wouldn’t have been as much fun if it weren’t on a motorbike!

Motorcycle diaries: Road trip to Ladakh

This piece is a part of a series on my travels to Ladakh, other posts –  Ride of a LifetimeLadakh Blues: Enchanting lakes of LadakhSmiling Faces of LadakhWild LadakhHidden treasure of Ladakh– prehistoric Rock Art that dates back to 3000 BC and Breathless Himalayas: Crossing Chang La pass! Watch wild Kiangs cross the road in front of us and mountain dogs run along our bikes in a short video of our road trip to Changthang shot mostly on the motorbike.

Reflections in Ladakh
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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Bama says:

    You know, your series on Ladakh is so impressive and the photos mind-blowing I now associate that part of the world with your journey, as much as I associate others with those who had written astonishing blog posts on those places. It has been wonderful to travel vicariously to this remote corner of India with you, Ritu. Thanks for writing about your adventures!

    1. Ritu Saini says:

      You can see I’m quite enamoured by Ladakh! 😉 Thanks a lot Bama, this is best compliment I have received and it inspires me to write more! Thanks for going on this virtual journey with me to one of the most challenging and beautiful places in India. 🙂 Cheers!

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