Reaching for the Stars

Cleaning the dust off the DSLR was all worth it. This ride to go stargazing in Ladakh had many inspirational and joyous moments
The Milky Way galaxy in Ladakh's night sky
The Milky Way galaxy in Ladakh's night sky

I gripped my camera passionately after three years of ignoring it in favour of my iPhone. Travels in these three years took me to beautiful places that have generated a plethora of photographs, all with the convenience of a device that sits in my pocket and fits in my palm. 

But today, I needed the talents of my trusty old Nikon D700. Its 3.5 kg weight and brick-like size felt familiar even after a separation of three years. Even in pitch darkness, my fingers could easily find buttons and dials, and more importantly, I had muscle memory about the combinations of these two to pull up menus and adjust parameters. It is a good thing because at that moment of time, light is the polluting evil. 

The evening definitely cannot be titled &lsquothe sound of silence&rsquo, because there was excited chatter around me in a multitude of languages. But the mantra of the evening was certainly the first line from the song, &ldquoHello darkness, my old friend&rdquo. 

Ten of us from places as varying as Ludhiana to Poona to Chitradurga stood in darkness, bent over our tripod mounted cameras in the midst of the Zanskar Himalayas waiting for the star of the show to make an appearance. The time of year chosen is perfect with the moon setting soon after the sun and the clouds have obliged by staying away. Soon, from behind the crest of high mountains, she makes an appearance &mdash that celestial diva the Milky Way. 

I say that darkness is the old friend tonight because to capture the Milky Way on camera the shutter needs to remain open for more time than it would take to blister a papad in a microwave. And when the shutter is staying open for over 30 seconds, even a flash of light sullies the scene like a drop of motor oil in a ship&rsquos drinking water supply. 

Navneeth Unnikrishnan, the leader of this masterclass in astrophotography, is an amateur astronomer and astro-landscape photographer from Kerala. He walked down our line of tripods giving out tips, tricks and techniques. He came to my camera and asked me to manually set focus using Saturn as a reference because that is the brightest object in the sky over the Shapath campsite, which is our base for the night. I did the same and then set my aperture to f/3.5 &mdash the widest my archaic 28-300mm lens can go down to and my shutter at 30 seconds. &ldquoSet your white balance to tungsten,&rdquo he told me before walking off to show Amit Nigam how to set the shutter release timer to reduce initial vibrations on the camera. 

I got a spectacular shot of the Milky Way in all her dense and sparkling beauty. Something that reaffirms my belief that a phone can never completely replace the conventional camera. 

We were all there in the cold and windy Shapath somewhere about 10km before Rangdum, in the Zanskar region, bonded together by the trio of travel, photography and motorcycles. 

The trip is Royal Enfield&rsquos AstralRide 2021 which is an effort to use the Royal Enfield Himalayan as a means to ride to places to practice your passion. What had made this trip attractive enough for me to sign up was the fact that I would be riding over newly cut dirt roads in Zanskar, learning how to shoot the Milky Way and have the back-up support that would transport my luggage or handle punctures or breakdown &mdash in short, a stress and load-free photography and motorcycling adventure 

Like most of my travel companions, I had flown into Leh two nights before the ride was to begin so that we could acclimatise well, since we&rsquod be eventually riding in the realm of 16,500 feet. 

The first day&rsquos ride &mdash 224km &mdash from Leh to Kargil was a black top delight. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) has tamed the topography between these two cities well and the tarmac is flawless with sweeping corners kerned with cambers. This meant that I could really put the Himalayan down into a corner. In fact, so much so that the sides of shoe soles often scraped the road. 

On that day when the needle often swept past 80 km/h, we were all getting accustomed to our motorcycles and gear. It was the perfect ride to check out how the luggage &mdash such as cameras &mdash loaded on the bike affected its balance, or whether riding jackets and pants scuffed at a certain place. 

I appreciated that ride to Kargil because of the fact that the smooth tarmac let us all fine-tune the ergonomics of the motorcycle and the comfort of our gear. Maybe the brake lever was too high or the gear shift lever too low. That evening in Kargil, Vishnu, the whiz with the tools, sorted out all these niggles on the motorcycles and had them ready to handle the off-road sections which would start the next day. 

The ride from Kargil to Sankoo was initially on narrow tarmac roads through settlements where kids competed to give us high fives. But during the pre-ride briefing, Nihal Raheja and Arjay Pramanik &mdash the lead and the sweep of the ride respectively &mdash had warned us that palm contact with the kids at our speed could be dangerous. So even though I was often tempted to respond to an outstretched hand, I kept my palms firmly wrapped around the handlebar grips. 

Soon, tarmac was left behind in a trail of dust and then the true riding adventure began because the relation between torque and traction and core and corner got even more personal, as loose gravel, shifting sand and slush were thrown into the equation. I realised the value of good riding gear over a multitude of water crossings where I was splashed from head to toe, yet remained dry. 

The views now became wilder as the snow-capped twin towers of Nun and Kun, the highest peaks in Ladakh, made an appearance. The view was so stupendous at times that we would stop to pull out our cameras and photograph. Nihal had quite a task on his hands &mdash to keep us moving, because he was up against the superb views calling out to us photographers like a seductive siren&rsquos song. 

There were white-washed chortens with colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind, views of the breathtaking Drang Drung Glacier &mdash a 23 kilometre long tongue of ice and snow, second in length to only the Siachen Glacier, the Parkachik Glacier sparkling white against a clear blue sky and the constant companionship of the Nun Kun that kept looming larger. Honestly, on that day the ride captains got gamed by geography. 

Yet with his gentle cajoling and the upbeat pace he maintained as lead whenever we were riding, we got to the Shapath campsite well before daylight disappeared. This was a good thing because daylight was certainly an ally as riders &mdash constrained by the stiffness of armoured jackets and riding pants &mdash contorted like caricatures and crawled into compact confines of the tents and then grappled with gear to get it off. Ripe language in a host of dialects wafted over the campsite and tents shook violently as this exercise progressed. 

But all the discomfort of the afternoon was forgotten once the Milky Way made an appearance and fabulous images were captured by cameras, and viewed accompanied by &lsquooohs&rsquo and &lsquoaahs&rsquo of appreciation on LCD screens.

Now that we had captured the stars in different hues, it was time to head to the mess tent for dinner. I had already braced myself for a basic meal, because let&rsquos face it, we were in the middle of nowhere and fine dining would be a fantasy. But Hyder Ali, whose camping outfit had been hired by Arvind Singh &mdash the &lsquofixer&rsquo of this jaunt, had exceeded all expectations. There was tasty cream of mushroom soup and even better still, chicken curry and mutton curry. After that I really didn&rsquot bother about other items on the menu but I am sure that the vegetarians were well catered to as well. 

The next day&rsquos run from Shapath to Zangla was a tiring one for me. I am not a fan of technical dirt tracks where you have to constantly avoid obstacles like big boulders, and slivers of stone sharp like shrapnel or corroded metal water pipes that have rotted away and are now razor-like and running across the road half exposed. Most of the route from Rangdum (about 10km ahead of Shapath) to Padum is like this. 

My neck and shoulders were sore by the time we hit the butter-smooth tarmac, about 10km before Padum. Arjay had me salivating since the morning with talk about the supremely tasty samosas at Sharmaji&rsquos shop at Padum &mdash and in anticipation of those, I had skipped the soupy Maggi lunch at Abhran. But sadly, Sharmaji is all sold out when we ride into Padum. I was now hangry And a fleeting thought of throwing a typical Hells Angels kind of tantrum crossed my mind. But Arjay put a restraining hand on my shoulder and we climbed up and rode out to Zangla which was 25km away on a smooth tarmac road. 

Zangla is a little village complete with queen and castle and our entourage of 17 (including content crew, support vehicle drivers and a wizened but sprightly doctor who always had a look of farsighted wisdom in his eyes) had booked all the cosy little homestays in the village. 

I stayed at the home of the only teacher in Zangla and his charming wife who makes killer kadak chai that washed away most of my tiredness from the ride. 

The homestays themselves are basic but very clean and tidy. The toilets are&nbspdry ones &mdash essentially a pretty deep hole in the ground with a pile of mud around&nbspit and a shovel. So after you squat and do your bit, you need to shovel some mud over your stuff. 

We were in Zangla for two nights and on the day of rest, Navaneeth schools us in post production of the photos we&rsquove captured. The little room that is the stand-in for the classroom reverberates with words like lightroom, masks, contrast and tones. Later on, after dark, we rode up to the Zangla Castle. Demosh Roa, who has just learnt via a phone call that he is going to be a father was elated and this fueled his enthusiasm and expanded his creative spectrum, and&nbsphe took some kickass group photos of us standing under the Milky Way which today is flirting with the clouds. 

Meanwhile, Nihal and Navaneeth were standing between two chortens and dousing steel wool with petrol with such dexterity that I believed both of them could have had a career in mixing cocktails of the Molotov kind. But right now, their intent was more for art than arson. 

The said steel wool was attached to a string and once the former is lit, Navaneeth twirls it over his head and it forms a fiery halo with sparks flying off at a tangent. We&rsquove all got our cameras trained on him and this time I shoot at f/11 with a 4-second shutter speed to get a lovely ring of fire kind of photo. 

Our penultimate day&rsquos ride is the one of the main reasons I am on this ride. The road goes from Zangla to Lamayuru over two high passes &mdash the Singhe La and the Sirsir La at 16,590 feet and 15,700 feet respectively. And it was a ride that blew my mind. We rode alongside an ice blue river often crossing it and then climbed up to the Singhe La. The road was loose gravel and there were sand traps, one of which tenaciously grabbed my front wheel and as a result threw me over the handlebars and I landed on my torso unhurt because of the soft sand. But I lay prone&nbspfor more time than necessary. It served the purpose. Steven Chen who was following me parked his motorcycle and ran up all concerned and lifted up my motorcycle. I stood up, dusted the sand off, said thank you, got on my motorcycle and rode off. 

At one of the water crossings a rider went off the common traversed path through the water and hit a deep hydro trench. His motorcycle got submerged completely and all we could see was his helmet bobbing above water. Nihal dived into the water like a Baywatch babe and rescued him and then the motorcycle. That incident promptly earned the said motorcyclist the moniker &lsquoLittle Mermaid&rsquo. 

We left him there squatting on a rock in the sun, his gear spread-eagled next to him to dry. But we didn&rsquot abandon him even though it sort of reads as if we did. It was a ride protocol. The back-up vehicle with the mechanic was not far behind and they would sort his motorcycle out or load it into the pick up and bring him to camp. 

The hairpins as we approached Singhe La, got tighter and tighter like a corkscrew and I kept toggling between the 1st and the 2nd gear to keep the revs up on an engine that gasped for oxygen in the thin air. Yet it kept going on, and never gave up. The same was the case when we climbed up to the Sirsir La. At the base of this pass, though, the landscape turned into a scenery straight out of Mackenna&rsquos Gold. By now, I had been suitably schooled in terms of the slip and slide on dirt and could enjoy the Himalayan as its rear wheel teamed up with torque and fought for friction on the gravel track. The python of fear that used to rise in my belly was now defanged as I slid around corners, confident that the grip will kick in before my centre of gravity goes beyond the point of no return. 

So much so, that I was almost disappointed that the dirt ended and the tarmac started about 18km short of the point where the road met the Kargil-Leh highway. 

However, this time around I enjoyed the ride back to Leh even more than the ride to Kargil, despite the fact that I was on the same road five days ago. The Himalayan is on song and I knew it intimately in terms of powerband, brakes, grip and torque. This time, I kept the throttle wrenched open as I approached a corner, cheekily braking ridiculously late and then leaning low into it. The sweeping corners were a delight. It had rained the previous day and the tarmac was squeaky clean with all sand and dust washed off it. 

I rode into Hotel Baraath in Leh with the motorcycle&rsquos single cylinder ticking from heat expansion and an acrid smell coming from the tyres whose rubber had been rudely scoured against the tarmac. It is on that intoxicating sound and smell that I brought the &lsquoAstral Ride&rsquo to a close. 

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