I counted 20 hairpin bends, whooped with excitement and watched the vista change colour at every turn. At the 21st and the last of the Gata Loops, I had a closer look as I was sliding on the gravel. It was only a few moments ago I charged past the last of my fellow riders in a rush of exhilaration and adrenaline. Now everything was happening in slow motion as I slid still straddling my motorcycle; I saw the two guys pull up, eyes popping out of visor. I remember wondering if it was blood or engine oil seeping over my legs. If it would be the last of my riding days. Or all kind of days.
A ride that lasts a fortnight and covers over 1,800 miles, taking you through temperatures from 40 degrees to -8 degree Celsius, over attitudes from 600 to 18,380 feet – the Ladakh run is epic in scale. In India this is where you earn your motorbiker stripes. June is among the precious few months between life-stilling cold and landslide-prone monsoons in the Himalayas. The snow-covered passes are open and the weather is usually rider-friendly. The snow is only starting to slush over. Even then there could be the occasional thunder shower leading to massive flash floods and landslides like in Uttarakhand this year. This means you could be stuck for several hours or days. This is still your best window to give it a go.
It was around the same time many years ago a cargo truck passed by on its way from hill town Manali to Leh. Winding up the Gata Loops, it broke down and the driver walked to the nearest village – many miles away – looking for help, leaving the cleaner in charge. The driver reached the village when it began to snow heavily and he was stuck for several days. The faithful cleaner never left the truck; ran out of food and water and died. Many have reported seeing an emaciated person standing by the roadside, begging for water; when they pass a bottle it falls through his cupped hands. Today a makeshift shrine has been erected in the area and regular drivers place bottles of mineral water which has now grown into a tidy pile.
This tale was narrated to me the previous night at Leh. I was still exulting at crossing Khardung La – which at 18,380 feet is believed to be the highest motorable road in the world. After a small party at the hotel, my fellow riders retired but I was still too excited to sleep. Looking around for company I befriended a cabbie who was ferrying a newly married couple around the country’s major honeymoon destinations. He introduced me to the ghost of Gata Loops.
“You should save the tale for your passengers,” I told him. “If they have any dearth of fun, that is.” And I laughed. But I don’t remember him laughing.
“You won’t miss the bunch of bottles,” he continued as if I hadn’t interjected at all. “They actually stand out like a sore thumb in those surroundings.”
“If it were any closer, I could do with a bottle from the heap.” I said and went to the kitchen looking for water.
Day 11 on the road and we were heading to Sarchu from Leh. What marked the ride till now were the incredible landscapes and the impossibly straight Morey Plains – which goes on without a twitch for almost 40 kilometres. It was probably the closest I would ever get to Bonneville and I settled for full throttle. Most of us did. The Gata Loops were soon upon us. Everybody else slowed down but I just tore ahead counting the hairpins and watching in awe the kaleidoscopic canvas that unfurled at every turn. So enthralled I was by the captivating scenery that realisation happened only in retrospect.
“Did I just pass by a heap of plastic bottles?” I remember asking myself loudly.
I kept riding and counting the loops; I was too numbed to recollect.
“20.” I remember counting unnaturally loud.
Soon I passed by a shrunken man in tattered trousers, matted hair and sunken eyes. His right hand kept tracing an arc to the mouth.
Fright revved my machine and I braked when I lost control at the bend.
Somehow I stopped sliding right next to a steep fall.
I laughed at the honeymooners not the ghost, I mumbled as I was helped up.