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Putting the KTM 390 Adventure through its paces in Ladakh

Authors Image

Anuj Mishra

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Introduction

“All of this looks wallpaper perfect!” shouts a fellow passenger on my Delhi-Leh flight, waking me up with a jolt from my 45-minute deep slumber. I look down the window and what I see is difficult to comprehend - huge piles of sand and stones, some capped with snow, stretched as far as eyes can see. They look like thousands of gigantic anthills or stone quarries that are hundred-fold bigger than those I have ever seen. For a first-time Ladakh visitor like me, this is beyond fascinating. This is something I have never seen before. 

I land at Leh airport, fighting my urge to click pictures at this no-photography premises. So, I just visually soak in the jaw-dropping view and reach the hotel where KTM’s master trainers and the managing team warmly welcome me. I am here to be a part of the KTM Great Ladakh Adventure Tour. I join the expedition from Leh four days after it began from Manali. While I have missed some of the action, there’s no regret as the real essence of the tour lies over the next 10 days. 

Awestruck

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

On day one, after 24 hours of acclimatisation, I hop on my steed, the 390 Adventure, and join the convoy on a short ride to Chilling valley, just before Zanskar. Snaking our way through the immaculate tarmac with breathtaking mountains and the Zanskar river in sight is beyond surreal. Catching my attention deeply are the multi-colour sand patches on the mountains as if a maestro painter has demonstrated their confident strokes of a brush. It’s otherworldly. Meanwhile, I can’t stop admiring the handling capabilities and comfort the 390 ADV offers, making the ride all the more enjoyable. 

A quest to conquer dunes

Zipping our way through the winding and rocky trails on day two, we reach Khardungla, the erstwhile highest motorable road. Despite the pass being located at 18,000 feet, riding to the top isn’t tough due to the kindness of the weather.

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

Our next stop is Nubra dunes, where KTM’s High-Altitude Adventure Training is to take place. Here, apprehension takes over every other emotion amongst the riders, who are new to off-roading. The task is to learn to ride through extremely fine powdery sand with varying depths. While scaling this terrain looks scary, KTM’s master trainers Nelly, Chacko and Sangram boost our confidence by demonstrating the right technique at an intense pace. 

KTM 390 Adventure Rear View

We muster some courage and get on with the drill, only to realise this is way trickier than it looks. A lot of riders fall while I save myself by literally dabbing through the course. As I return to the starting line, struggling to catch my breath, Chacko asks me if I want to do it again. I nervously attempt it once more but do it at a higher pace and lesser flapping of the handlebar.

After three-four hours of training, we are thirsty and famished, but a satisfactory grin is plastered on everyone’s faces. Interestingly, this was not just fun but equally advantageous over the coming days of the ride.

Last village of India and an emotional story

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

Day three’s agenda is to visit the last village in India called Turtuk. We cut our way through the breathtaking mountains, accompanied by the Nubra river and intermittent sightings of quaint villages. We reach the last point of Turtuk village and spot the Pakistani bunker on the border. Before a patriotic feeling kicks in, sadness descends upon the whole group after reading the heart-wrenching tale narrated on a hoarding. 

In 1971, when the LOC was formed here, the Thang and Pharnu border villages were split into India and Pakistan, respectively. The abrupt formation of the border meant family members, including husbands and wives, were separated and divided on either side. Now, they can see each other from a distance but can’t be together. 

A lone wolf on its way to Pangong

I can’t put enough emphasis on the beauty of today’s destination, Pangong, with its colour constantly changing under the clear blue skies and the backdrop of rustic mountains. Interestingly, our ride to Pangong was equally fascinating.

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

Standing on the pegs, coasting at about 80-90kmph on a vast dusty trail through Shyok village, I reach a diversion point where an arrow directs me to take a nasty trail down the main road, which culminates into an enormous plain of rocks and sand. I look in the mirror and don’t see my teammates approaching. There’s no way this is the correct route, and I am not taking it. 

After a minute of pondering and waiting, I see an SUV struggling its way towards me through the same unconquerable-looking terrain. This assures me about the route’s legitimacy, and I leap into the trail. This is where the Adventure Academy’s training comes in handy as I throttle, fishtail, and manoeuvre through sand and boulders. I keep charging alone in the direction of the oncoming vehicles until I see my relatively faster mates waiting where the trails intersect the main road. The taxing ride ends with the majestic view of Pangong lake, which takes away all the tiredness with its serenity. 

The tarmac is not always friendly

The ride to Hanle starts with high-speed coasting through dusty plains and sporadic sightings of grasslands and a herd of Tibetan asses. These gorgeous animals run with us for a distance, emulating a dramatic movie sequence shot in Texas. And in no time, we hit a narrow yet freshly laid dead straight tarmac.

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

Now, while I am engrossed in the 100kmph cruising nirvana, I see a fellow rider overtake me, pull off a few meter lead, and suddenly disappear down a slope and come out with a high jump on the other side. Terrified, I jab the front brake and slowly approach this first of many dips we were warned about in the morning. These are watercourses built by Army every few kilometres to avoid waterlogging in monsoon. These ditches are difficult to spot from a distance, and stories of speeding four-wheelers crashing into them are rife. To prevent a similar misfortunate, I tread carefully till Hanle. 

As soon as I reach Hanle, I ride up to the monastery and sit there for hours, gawking at the marshland spread over miles, serpentine water streams, and clusters of houses and Army camps. But what truly takes me aback is the dreamy view of the milky way at night.

The world’s highest motorable road

Riding up to Khardungla without a hiccup not only uplifted my confidence but also made me underestimate Umling La. Big mistake.

KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View

The last few days have trained us to fearlessly take on twisty and slippery mountain trails. But what we are not habituated to is being at an altitude of over 19,000 feet. The last few kilometres to Umling La is a set of tight turns and hairpins, which I take on with aplomb. However, as the ascent steepens, winds get chillier and start seeping into my gloves, boots, and jacket. My hands nearly freeze and pulling the clutch and brake lever gets difficult. I somehow make it to the top, click some pictures with trembling hands and shortness of breath, and quickly start the descent. Oxygen and warmth never felt more important.

KTM 390 Adventure Left Side View

The following day, the ride from Hanle to Tso Moriri is literally the best of everything. It starts with marvellous tight and sweeping corners to Mau village, where I come into my element and belt the 390 Adventure, extracting all the handling capabilities and peaky performance it offers. In fact, all the riders ride like a leash taken off wild animals. After this is short-lived nirvana, long gravel and stone-filled trail up to Tso Moriri awaits us. By now, everyone is proficient enough at riding off-road to maintain a good pace and arrive at the divine Tso Moriri way before dusk.

More plains and Gata loops

KTM 390 Adventure Left Side View

This is the eleventh day, and I am super excited about the tricky and confusing More Plains on our way to Sarchu. As we coast on these plains, we stumble upon multiple trails, making it difficult to choose the right one. Here, people get scattered far in the quest to take the easiest trail. Looking at the situation, Nelly stops and lets everyone huddle up. Then he examines his GPS device for the correct direction to head in and asks everyone to follow. 

KTM 390 Adventure Rear View

Now, after a few more minutes of fighting the sand, we find the tarmac. Again, the riders pin the throttle and enjoy the cruising prowess of the 390 Adventure until coming across Gata Loops - a mind-boggling set of unending hairpin bends. For us corner lovers, it would’ve been a fun playground had there not been a long traffic jam and sand around every corner. To cover the route faster, many courageous folks start taking shortcuts – downhill trails connecting the lower section of the road. While a couple of riders successfully make it through every shortcut, most others take a tumble due to the slippery surface and steepness of these trails. By evening, the whole pack reaches Sarchu safely and enjoys the bone-chilling wind this valley offers. 

Culmination

KTM 390 Adventure Left Side View

This is the last day, and I, and a few others, ride like a maniac, gobbling up a series of seamless chicanes, hairpins and sweepers from Sarchu to Manali. The scenery gradually shifts from arid to lush green, and a lot of feelings evoke within me. The strongest is the pride and joy of nearly completing it without a major blunder or crash. Also, a deep melancholy sets in. In a few hours, I will be parting ways with the highly proficient master trainers and the friends I made along the journey. Above all, I need to return the keys to my relentless companion, the capable KTM 390 Adventure. The motorcycle took every terrain and altitude in its stride without a hiccup or breakdown. Like a thoroughbred horse, it charged ahead with a profound vigour. Kudos to that!

Photography by KTM India and BikeWale 

Gallery

KTM 390 Adventure Rear View
KTM 390 Adventure Left Side View
KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View
KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View
KTM 390 Adventure Rear View
KTM 390 Adventure Right Side View
KTM 390 Adventure Left Side View
KTM 390 Adventure Front View
KTM 390 Adventure Front View
KTM 390 Adventure Front View
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