Riding through the picturesque Ladakhi landscape by day or stargazing at night – a month after the Royal Enfield Astral ride, Ravi still can’t decide what he loved more.
Many believe in astrology, and how stars and planets align to have a bearing on your life. While I’ve never really given this particular pseudoscience a second thought, if there is any merit to it, the stars really must have aligned in my favour to enable me to make a 10-day trip to Ladakh in the midst of a power-packed month. It had to be either that or maybe it was just Royal Enfield playing Pandit and aligning a million stars for an adventure of a lifetime that packed a heavenly blend of motorcycling, star gazing and astral photography. Unsure of which of the two it was, I decided to simply thank my fortunes and boarded the next flight to Leh.
The only instruction that I received on arrival was to get rest – a directive that I was more than happy to adhere to. But after only half a day of acting like a sloth, I was raring to hit the road. Thankfully, later that night, the kind folks from Royal Enfield handed me the keys to the 2021 Himalayan – my ride for the next 10 days. I utilised the next day to make a quick customary visit to the Shanti Stupa and then unwind some more through the rest of the day.
With the exception of a few stretches of no roads, the ride on Day 1 from Leh to Pangong Tso was rather smooth. After about four hours on the saddle, we got the first view of the lake, and saying it was absolutely mesmerizing would be a gross understatement. Of course, at the time we were oblivious of the sights that awaited us in the days to come. From there, it was on to our destination for the day – a tiny quaint village called Man. The ride was on jet-black freshly laid tarmac. Now, I’ve been part of a few Royal Enfield rides in the past, but they’ve almost always been more about the journey rather than the destination itself.
The Astral Ride was quite the contrast, for we had the time to relax and soak in as much of the beautiful landscape as we could, and still be left with some free time. Having reached around mid-day, we sat on the porch of our homestay, sipped some tasty namkeen chai and watched the setting sun cast a magnificent orange shimmer on the calm surface of the lake. It was breath-taking – and the Astral ride had only just begun. I remember thinking to myself, can it get any better than this? Turns out it could.
As the sun hid itself and darkness crept into the valley, I dressed in what could easily be mistaken as a fat suit and headed out for the first astral photography session of the ride. Riding towards the lake and away from the light pollution (a key aspect for astral photography), we arrived at a wide-open space. And as soon the lights of the motorcycle and the support cars were switched off, and the eyes got acclimatised to the darkness, my jaw dropped in absolute amazement at the sight before me. We could see the Milky Way with our naked eyes! Out came the camera and the tripod. In the land of Ladakh, along the banks of Pangong Tso, our astral photography mentor Navneeth Unnikrishnan shared with us an open secret – a master setting to get the perfect milky way shot. A few long exposures later I got the money shot.
While we were supposed to attend Navneeth’s post-processing class the next day, Arjay Pramanik (Royal Enfield ride lead) and Arvind Singh (founder of Tourbugs and Royal Enfield friend) asked if Kartikeya Singhee (head honcho of the editorial team at GirnarSoft Group) and I would like to join them in exploring the region around the lake. We spent the day just riding along Pangong, eventually settling along the banks and just gazing at the myriad colours of the lake – from crystal clear waters closer to us, to different shades of blue and turquoise a little further. It was a spectacular sight indeed.
Aiming for the Stars
The terrain from Pangong Tso to Hanle was a fair mix of off-road and tarmac. With all the participants now comfortable with their motorcycles, the near 200-kilometre distance was covered in no time. I distinctly remember the last stretch before we arrived at Hanle. Riding down an arrow-straight road, on the left, there were cotton-like clouds casting a shadow on the desert mountain and along my right was a gentle stream cutting through the grassland. And from the corner of my eye, I could see a herd of Kiangs playfully running along. Had I not been part of it, I would have assumed it to be a scene straight out of the Wild-Wild West.
Hanle arguably offers the clearest skies for stargazing and astrophotography. You see the topography of the region blocks out the clouds for the most part, and the complete absence of any major settlements results in extremely low light pollution. The agenda for the night was to shoot star trails, but since my camera didn’t have an intervalometer, I spent much of my time just gazing at the stars – something that we don’t often get to do back home. And, at that moment, I felt like it was just the kind of setting that could have inspired van Gogh to paint Starry Nights.
The ride from Hanle to Tso Moriri, although short, was quite demanding with a non-existent ‘road’ for the last 50-kilometres. Thankfully, most of it was hard gravel and we only had to keep the throttle pinned and let the motorcycle find its way. And having spent the last few days on varied terrain, the participants all seemed to be enjoying the off-road stretch this time around. And since Tso Moriri was our last destination, nearly everyone chose to spend the evening relishing the ride and chatting over chai and Maggi. The ride to Leh the next morning was long and smooth.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of two completely different Royal Enfield rides – both absolutely epic in their own right. But there was one common link between the two – the Himalayan. As always, the Himalayan was absolutely unbreakable – in spirit and otherwise. We sure had our moments – when all hope of traction was lost and she scared me silly or when I hit a large rock too hard – but the Himalayan took it all in its stride and carried on. In fact, as the days went by, the trust in the motorcycle grew exponentially and I would almost not care about the terrain, knowing that the Himalayan would see me through. The Himalayan is truly ‘built for all roads, built for no roads.’
The Astral Ride, however, was an experience like no other. Over the 10 days, we met the warmest of souls in this bone-chillingly cold territory. The low oxygen passes truly took our breath away, and, at night, the skies looked like they were dotted with countless fireflies. When in Ladakh, you really need to bid goodbye to all the luxuries you’re used to on an everyday basis if you truly want to experience the best that the region has to offer. Like one of the participants, Suyash Khanna, aptly said in the closing ceremony, ‘You’ve got to leave the comfort of a 5-star hotel to enjoy the beauty of a 5 hundred-thousand-star homestay.’