In a daring but successful attempt, seven women geared themselves up for a ride of a lifetime. They braved sub-zero conditions and dangerous roads to reach the top of the highest motorable pass, the Mana Pass in Uttarakhand. This is their journey.
The blue sky above, the muddy brown earth below, the gushing wind, the crunching gravel and groaning motorcycle engines – these rather stark sights and sounds are imprinted in the hearts and minds of the seven women from Maharashtra, who recently undertook a tough expedition to Mana Pass on the India-China border in Uttarakhand. Professional rider Sheetal Bidaye, software design strategist Kanchan K. Tamhankar, fitness expert Trupti Sarmalkar, advertising professional Shubhangi Manjrekar, interior designer Shalaka Zad, business consultant Bhavana Issar, and insurance agent Sneh Joshi hopped on to their bikes and made their way from Dehradun, the state capital of Uttarakhand, towards the highest motorable pass at 18,399 ft above sea level. The rare air, bare surroundings and bitter cold may have tested their endurance but the group has made some unforgettable memories.
“Absolute focus, supreme determination and an utmost desire to beat the odds and reach our destination was what kept us all going,” shares Bidaye, 39, of Mumbai, who rode a Hero Impulse 150cc bike. But this isn’t the first time they have undertaken such an arduous trip.
Bidaye and her group, which was formed in 2011, have previously enjoyed the challenge of riding through dense forests, treacherous mountains roads and lonely stretches of desert.
From the north to the south and from west to east, some of them have covered every nook of the country including the difficult Leh-Ladakh-Manali and Spiti regions. This, however, was their first successful attempt to reach Mana pass.
Mana Pass, known as Mana La, Chirbitya and Dungri La, connects India and Tibet within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve in the Zanskar mountain range. It is 27 kilometres north of the revered pilgrimage spot of Badrinath. An ancient trade route between Uttarakhand and Tibet the Pass remained a minor trade route until its closure in 1951 by the Chinese. On April 29, 1954, India and China signed an agreement granting pilgrims and indigenous travellers the right to go between the two countries through the Pass.
“Even now we need permission from the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Indian Army to visit the Pass,” informs Bidaye. The Pass can be reached from the south by an extension of National Highway (NH) 58, which connects Delhi with Badrinath. According to the women, though it is relatively easier to ride up to Badrinath, as the roads are well-marked and well-maintained, beyond this point it is the prevailing weather conditions that govern how one proceeds to Mana Pass.
The gravel road has been weathered by frequent landslides and though every year the Border Roads Organisation does try and maintain the tracts, there are rarely any clear roads.
“In a sense, it’s just you and the narrow winding path, with stone mountain walls on one side and the steep valley on the other. One slip can be dangerous. But then that’s the challenge, isn’t it?” remarks Bidaye, who clearly enjoys a good dare.
Naturally, this audacious gang of seven had gone prepared and properly geared. Their expedition was sponsored by DRIVOL, a leading German manufacturer of premium lubricating oils and greases, and powered by the Bluechem group. The necessary riding gear and accessories were supplied by Wrangler Denims. The ride was organised and supported by The Vagabond Travel Ideas and Sambhaavna group. For 15 days, they travelled through the picturesque yet rough terrain of Nelang valley and Jhadung village before reaching Uttarkashi from where they went onto Tilwara, Badrinath and finally to Mana Gaon, the last village in the Indian territory.
“No one is allowed to go alone from this point as the road is both incredible and terrifying. One not only needs the group but also the expert guidance of the army,” elaborates Issar, 41, who rode the Thunderbird 500cc.
If the low oxygen levels, precarious highways and the anxiety of being in absolutely unknown territory were just some of the real problems the women encountered at Mana Pass, all the while they were anticipating another difficulty – that of coming face-to-face with local wild dogs. “We had been warned of these dogs by the ITBP personnel and this was one of the main reasons why we made sure we reached a village before nightfall. The problem was particularly acute in Nelong valley as we were going to Harsil on our way back. The wild dogs are bigger than our largest domesticated Alsatian dogs and their hairy appearance and big size is quite intimidating. Fortunately, we only saw them from far and managed to reach our shelter for the night safely,” says Bidaye.
Of course, no amount of dangers – be it from the weather or wildlife – could erase the wonder and excitement of seeing Jadhung, a small hamlet that was completely destroyed in the bombing during the 1961 India-China war. “It was an incredulous feeling to see the dilapidated buildings and the then chieftain’s home. Obviously, no one stays there at present,” says Bidaye.
Another amazing experience the women remember was the night they spent at the ITBP barracks.
In fact, as they were slowly reaching the border, the ITBP jawans and officers were thrilled to welcome the daring women to the sub-zero climes. “They couldn’t believe that we had made the journey within a day and without any major breakdowns!” says Issar. Add the others in excited tones, “It was so cold that day and the cook graciously fried up some crisp ‘pakoras’ (vegetable fritters) for us! Imagine eating piping hot pakoras at Mana Pass in the barracks. We spent the night there in sleeping bags although even that couldn’t really save us from the freezing cold!”
Next morning the police escorted them to the pristine Lake Deo Tal, which is the source of River Sarswati where the women bikers halted to take a drink of the holy waters. “The water was unbelievably clean and tasty, not like anything we’ve ever had in the cities. That feeling of being near the source of the sacred river, so close to nature is indescribable,” say the women.
Having achieved the near impossible, they proudly inform that “our feat shall be featured in the Limca Books of Records”.