It was 11,480 feet up in the mountains. Amid the freezing thin air, my lungs were aggressively at work, my heartbeat clear and audible. It wasn’t necessarily a good feeling when I was about to begin the JAWA Ibex Trail Expedition, which would go through some of the most challenging terrain in the world. A long-haul motorcycle journey, 31 other bikers and I would be covering more than 1,600 kilometres in only five days.
We would cross one of the world’s highest motorable passes—the Khardung La—at 17,582 feet via Leh, the Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Hanle, and Tso Moriri and back to Leh. You could call it a circumnavigation of eastern Ladakh.
Rider or not a rider? The question rang in my head more than once when I saw my fellow participants all geared up with their fancy helmets, jackets and riding shoes. I felt like a misfit, wondering if riding a 1980s JAWA 250 ‘A’ on city streets really qualified me to take part in this rugged-terrain journey. That is, until I saw 32 fresh JAWAs—including the new JAWA Forty Twos—lined up at the huge Buddha statue near the Stok Monastery, 15 kilometres to the south of Leh. Having come all the way from Maharashtra, they stood shiny and ready to flag off.
They say strength accompanies love; I took one look at the JAWA Black, with its classic chrome work, and my worries disappeared. A much-awaited bike, it has a four-stroke 300cc engine, the beloved classic design, and a twin exhaust.
As the journey began, I initially found it difficult to accept the bike’s modern avatar. There had been a lot of speculation in the community and online forums about its relaunch, but rumours were put to rest with its resurrection in 2018. We have entrepreneur Anupam Thareja, Mahindra & Mahindra, and real estate developer Boman Irani (to clear your doubts, not the actor) to thank for this. The brand has had a cult following since the 1950s when it was first introduced in India. After production closed in 1996, people began buying and restoring older models from different corners of the country. I took part in the restoration craze too—my first ever bike was a 1980s model JAWA 250 ‘A’, which I snagged for a mere Rs 10,000 from a small town in Uttar Pradesh.
In the newer models, I couldn’t deny the powers of good Italian engineering.
We battled sand dunes in Nubra Valley and rode side by side with herds of kiang (wild ass), sliding over beaten rocky paths and carving our own routes into the unknown. We rolled through stunning scenery until ending up at a beautiful site, where we got our first peek of the serene Pangong Tso. Its blue waters glimmered from a distance, visible through gaps in the giant mountains. We felt a heady sense of achievement, having made it there on our own. The riders were unknown to each other, but machine and terrain brought us together. The vast landscape became our quality-test playground, and we manoeuvred our beasts across water and potholes to assess its limits. A touch of local music eased our weary souls after the ride. Faisal Ashoor, a folk singer from Turtuk, one of our northernmost villages, and Tsewang Phuntsog, a traditional damian player from Ladakh came together to perform for us. Daniel Waples, a fellow rider, is a hang drum artist of global renown, and made the night more memorable.
I enjoyed weaving through the moving landscapes more than stopping for still pictures this time—no one likes to break the flow with intervals at every mile. Nonetheless, documenting the nomadic experience of being on this trail could not be missed, and I took a few photographs of our time. To make the best of both desires, you must be precise about what you want to capture; stick to one piece of equipment and one lens, the lighter the better; keep the camera within reach, so that you don’t have to keep parking; and—pay attention to this one—take no selfies while riding!
Delhi has non-stop flights to Leh, while other major Indian cities offer connecting options. You could also rent a bike from the capital (or Manali or Chandigarh) and drive in. After reaching Leh, take a few days to get acclimatised to the altitude. The best time for a motorcycle trip is from May to October. Refuelling points are sparse, so plan your route well. Longer, more immersive journeys can take up to 15 days. If it’s your first time or it’s not a guided tour, do carry physical maps, camping materials, a first-aid kit and a tool kit, and sturdy trekking shoes.
This article was published in our March 2020 issue.