The bike troubles were not meant to end soon. During the struggles in getting the bike up and running, the rare breaks had somehow stopped working. It was getting dark and there wasn’t much time left for us to inspect and fix the problem. We treaded in a slow pace using front-wheel breaks and made it to Thangse just before dark.
The break problem turned out to be easy to fix and took no more than a minute. But we had a bigger issue to address next morning.
We were warned earlier by jeep drivers about a stream-crossing few kilometres before Pangong Lake. The bridge across the stream had collapsed long ago, thanks to the ferocious currents. The stream would look like a pretty brook running down the mountain in the early hours, but as the day progressed and sunrays melted more ice on the slopes, water would rise to chest levels, making it impossible to cross. Its unpredictability had earned it the name ‘Pagal Nala’ – mad stream.
It seemed like a simple task to leave early from Thangse and make the 40-kilometer journey before the water level rose. But crossing a big stream usually came with its share of troubles. The path could be strewn by boulders, slippery rocks and shifting sands that could make things difficult. We had no idea how hard it would be, but there wasn’t an alternative but to try it out.
The road from Thangse turned out to be unusually green and beautiful. Excellent roads helped me forget the pains of riding and focus on the scenery instead. The narrow valley was filled lush grass, supported by a stream that ran in the opposite direction. The near-flat terrain occasionally became marshy with small streams criss-crossing the road. We saw cows and horses grazing peacefully on the way, their owners nowhere in sight. Himalayan marmots played in the grass with child-like enthusiasm. They would look cautiously from their hole before getting out to wrestle playfully with each other. I am told that the marmots have become tame enough to accept food from tourists in these parts, but none came up to us with a begging bowl. We were in a hurry as well, anxious to get across Pagal Nala before the water level started rising.
Water was less than a foot high when we got to the stream, but it didn’t look like an easy crossing. With the unpredictable nature of the nala, BRO made no attempt whatsoever even to make a temporary road across the stream. If they had ever done so, the mad stream has done sufficient hard work to ensure that there was no sign of it left.
A few vehicles were already parked near the nala before we got there. Some had given up and asked the tourists to walk across, while a few others were contemplating on crossing. The stream bed was a fifty-meter wide boulder strewn expanse with no definite clearing anywhere to let vehicles to pass. Two-wheel drive vehicles like Qualis and Innova made no attempts to get past, while a few Gypsys laboured hard over the stones.
I could not make up my mind on what to do next. A smaller bike would have had no trouble wading across the nala. You could simply push it across and even lift it over the stones if needed, but something like a Thunderbird came with its disadvantages. As we waited at the edge of the stream wondering at the next step, unsolicited advices came on our way. ‘You will never make it,’ said someone, while another said ‘it should not be a problem.’ An army officer in civilian clothes looked at us and said that we were attempting something suicidal. It did not look like an easy job in any case, but we decided to take the plunge.
We trod slowly and made it to half-way mark with some difficulty. It seemed like we will make it in no time, but quickly got stuck at the main channel, stopped by big stones that blocked our way. The bike too, decided that it is a good time to stop co-operating with us. Each time I started and revved the engine, it would struggle for ten seconds and go off again. For sometime, we were stuck on the main channel and risked the possibility of water entering through the silencer that was just an inch above the flow. Add to all this, the chill of the water was affecting my feet immersed in it as I tried to balance and support the heavy bike.
This repeated for a few minutes when the army officer took pity on us and came back to help. He ‘ordered’ us to dismantle all our luggage and instructed a jawan standing nearby to assist us. The jawan, with his perfectly polished leather shoes stood on a rock wanting to help, but couldn’t afford to get his shoes wet. As the engine failed to stay alive despite repeated attempts, he asked me to switch it off and wait for a few minutes. ‘The engine is heating up and going off,’ he told me, ‘wait till it cools a bit.’ This seemed to work and we were now guaranteed of the bike’s horse power. We managed to get across the main channel, but there were still many boulders to cross before we reached the other end. By this time, we must have spent good thirty minutes struggling in the middle. A few onlookers now came to help, pushing the bike bit by bit and getting it closer to the other side. A hefty jeep driver took over the bike from me and made the final effort to take it across. A big ordeal was over, but it was still not the end of all the troubles.
The struggles with pagal nala had left me tired and drained all my energies. Another smaller bridge a little ahead had recently given away and we were forced to tread slowly and carefully on an alternate track full of sand and gravel. Somewhere at the end of this dirt track, when we just got back to smooth tarmac road again, we had our first sighting of Pangong Lake.
The lake appeared as a small blue strip barely visible in the middle of the mountains. Its colours were of a superb deep hue that I had never seen anywhere else before. We had finally set sights on our destination. The effort, the struggle with starting the bike yesterday and efforts of getting across pagal nala were worth every single drop of sweat. It was moment of joy worth working for.
We struggled further for another half hour, riding through gravel, small streams and poor roads to reach Spangmik Village on the bank of the lake. The next three days were to be spent gazing at the lake and the mountains beyond, doing little else but admire the landscape.