INDIAN HIMALAYA TOUR BLOG
Biking to the Roof of the World
A Cycle Tour through the Indian Himalayas
By Tom Bruce
This three week adventure was the most spectacular three weeks of cycling that I have ever experienced. The trip was in four legs; the road from Chadigahr to the “start point” of the famous highway between Manali and Leh, which makes up the second journey; the third is a trip from the beautiful high altitude lake of Pangong Tso to Leh via the highest motorable pass in the world, the Khardung La; finally, leg four is the last section of another famous highway between Srinagar and Leh. The journey had everything, from bustling cities and monkey infested forests in the Himalayan foothills, to remote river valleys and high altitude desert roads containing unique and beautiful rock formations. I completed the trip with my friend Harry and the account of the trip is below
(Photo illustrated book about this wonderful adventure through the Indian Himalayas)
DAY 1: FROM CHANDIGAHR TO THE HIMALAYAN FOOTHILLS
We left our hotel at nine in the morning after a slightly dubious “continental” breakfast and were flung straight into the hustle and bustle of the large city of Chandigahr. Having so far spent our time in airports and a relatively expensive hotel, we had avoided “real India” but now we were well and truly immersed; a vast contrast from Sheffield! Our ride began on what may have been the busiest road of our entire trip and I didn’t know in which direction to look. There were hundreds of people on bikes, stray dogs with their heads in piles of rubbish, cows in the road, people hunched backed under heavy loads in large white sacks, large and colourful customised trucks with equally impressive horns and buses that change direction with no notice, swerving across three lanes of highway to pick up another passenger to add to their already overcrowded interior. We had to have our wits about us for most of the first couple of days, but this was probably the most dangerous part of our trip to the highest motorable pass in the world. We were reminded quite graphically of this danger by an unfortunate stray dog that had been hit by a car, lying panting on the side of the road.
Our first transaction came in the form of two bananas, which were five rupees each (one rupee = one pence). It was easy to communicate with people here as most spoke reasonably good English. There also seemed to be plenty of entrepreneurial market stall vendors selling fresh fruit, crisps and chocolate all the way along the road, so supplies were very easy to come by. The road was in good condition and there was a large and wide hard shoulder to cycle in, so it was easy to keep out of harm’s way, except at junctions. Bikes appeared to have zero right of way in India, we really may as well not have been there at all for all the notice that drivers took of us. Whenever a small road joined the carriageway and there was a gap between vehicles, a car joining the main road accelerated into the gap, despite the fact that two heavily laden British touring cyclists were filling said gap. Fortunately, mainly due to last minute braking and swerving on our part, we escaped Chandigahr unscathed and were soon on the “Himalayan Expressway” and out of the state of Punjab, of which Chandigahr is capital.
Himachal Pradesh, the “home of the snow leopard” welcomed us and the climb to Shimla began. One thing we didn’t need to worry about was being caught unawares by an approaching vehicle. Most had clattering engines and various bits of luggage rattling loudly on their exteriors, but all had very loud horns which were blown without fail by every single driver who saw us. Some were fairly standard, but most of the trucks had modified horns that played various tunes at top volume. We could also smell the vehicles, often before hearing them because the amount of thick black smoke that they were emitting was quite astonishing... that fresh Himalayan mountain air...
The climb was hot and muggy, the air temperature being just below 40 degrees Celsius with high humidity. We bought two litres of water every time we stopped, one to drink, one to pour over our heads. Fortunately, after around 30 kilometres the road was lined by trees which provided welcome shade from the sun’s heat. We passed a cable car that led to the peak of a large mountain to the east. A restaurant looked over the spectacular view of a wooded valley and the slopes of the first of the Himalayan foothills. Through the hazy air we could make out the vast North Indian plain we had ascended from. Our trip had begun at 350 m in altitude. Our destination; the top of the Khardung La, was over five kilometres in height above us! Did I really need all those thermals? I had a heavy load to drag up the climbs that lay ahead. As we sat there in the sweltering heat it was hard to believe we would be cycling in sub-zero conditions in little over a week’s time.
We stopped at the restaurant, named “Kashyap Fast Food”, and were ushered in by the “Chandigahr Bullet Club”, a motorcycle group who were on a day’s ride from the city. Their destination was this restaurant and it looked as though some of their members had dined here a few too many times! They recommended a couple of dishes from the menu and we sat and admired the view eating deep-fried battered vegetables, or bhajis.
The climb continued gently up the busy road. We had now passed Kalka, the start of the famous Viscount of India’s “Toy Train” to Shimla. Shimla used to be the summer capital of India and home to the British Raj. The government moved to Shimla from Delhi every summer to escape the heat of the summer. This narrow gauge railway connected Shimla to the outside world and was an incredible engineering feat, climbing over 1,500 metres in altitude, crossing 864 bridges and originally passing through 107 tunnels.
Although we were very tempted to take the train up to Shimla, we thought that would be cheating, so continued our climb on the road that follows almost the same route as the railway. Oddly, we passed an out-of-place-looking McDonalds perched above a picturesque stream in a small village on the roadside. Cooling down inside over an ice cold coke, we discussed the magnitude of the task that awaited us. We were both feeling tired already after around 1,000 metres of climbing with our heavily laden bikes and the thought huge amount of altitude that needed to be gained over the next three weeks was quite intimidating.
After our brief stop, the traffic levels on the road increased and a large traffic jam formed at a bottle-neck caused by a narrow bit of road. We tried out “truck-surfing” on the slow moving lorries. This excellent "sport" involves grabbing onto a loose bit of rope or strap hanging off the back of a truck and holding on until the bumping, speed or exhaust fumes are too much to bear. Soon though, the traffic stopped entirely, which slowed our progress. We had to weave through the stationary vehicles, to the delight of many of the drivers and passengers who waved at us with giant smiles spread across their faces. There were lots of different faces here; Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Indian tourists, locals, Tibetans and a few Europeans. There were also lots of monkeys, and of course, cows in the road. It was a very entertaining afternoon, although there were five moments where we nearly got run off the road by drivers attempting quite astounding overtaking manoeuvres. To drive on a winding country road in India, you need a horn; it’s a vital component on any vehicle. Overtaking isn’t limited to straight sections of road where the driver can see that there is nothing coming; corners and hills are fair game in India. The horn is sounded to warn other drivers that you are coming around a corner on the wrong side of the road and if there is no responding honk, the overtaking manoeuvre is attempted. In our case, we had no horn to respond so we had to swerve into the verge to avoid high speed collisions.
To escape this death trap, we took a shortcut at the town of Kumarhatti, up an older, smaller road, which was much quieter and far more pleasant. Worryingly for Harry, his knee started hurting so he adjusted his saddle height in the hope that it would stop the pain. This section of road was much steeper than the main route but we enjoyed the climb to the top of a small pass with beautiful views over the wooded hillsides. While we were taking photos of the view, a group of children came over to look at us; we must have appeared quite odd, in our tight fitting clothing and strangely loaded bikes! They were very friendly though and a cheerful group. I let one have a go on my bike and then cycled down the hill with a small child who demanded a ride, sitting on my back rack. The short descent to Solan was great fun and the first opportunity for us to travel at a decent speed. We descended quickly, sweeping around hairpin bends, before being spat out into the city, also known as “little Shimla”. Solan is similar in appearance to Shimla, but it certainly isn’t little. I was expecting a small village, but Solan spread into many of the surrounding hills; a sprawling mass of colour and noise.
Continuing through Solan, we hoped to have dinner at a brewery that was marked on our map. We passed the toy train railway again. The tracks were being used as a path by lots of the inhabitants of the town as well as a cow. I wondered whether the train would stop for a cow like cars do on the road! We were soon through Solan and now on a flat part of road but unfortunately the brewery was very private and certainly didn’t have a place to eat. It had a large fence and looked like a prison from the outside. Alcohol isn’t very widely drunk in India and isn’t served in many restaurants so in hindsight, it was ambitious to expect to find somewhere to eat at the brewery. Cycling on, we soon found a restaurant where we had our first curry of the trip. We had both decided to eat vegetarian food at roadside restaurants because the meat available in rural locations is notoriously unhygienic. I had palak paneer, which contains spinach and palak cheese and was delicious. Indian food is excellent for cycle touring because it is full of calories, very tasty and incredibly cheap.
After dinner, it was dark at the early time of half past six so we fitted our lights and looked for a place to camp for the night. It took us about an hour to find somewhere because the road was built into a steep hillside and all the flat bits had buildings built on them. We first asked around at a small town but were told we couldn’t stay there. Although very friendly, the people here weren’t very helpful when it came to looking for places to sleep. We asked one man if we could sleep on the flat roof of his shop which had a staircase leading up to it, but he refused. Continuing along the road, we eventually found a flat, hidden spot about 100 metres from the roadside, around the back of a hill. It was perfect, so we pitched the tents for the first time, ate some fantastic flapjacks that Harry’s mum had made, and then went to sleep.
DAY 2: A CLIMB TO SHIMLA FOLLOWED BY A WONDERFUL DESCENT TO THE SUTLEJ RIVER
Our second day on the road started just after sunrise (seven in the morning) with a push through undergrowth back to the main road. Awaking in daylight, we could see a bit more of our surroundings; we had slept on a flattened area of a steep forested hillside. All the way down into the valley bottom, there were houses and small areas of land that were being used to grow food. Slightly concerned that we had eaten all of food supplies, we set off in the hope that we would find somewhere to get breakfast at this early hour. We needn’t have worried however, as around the first corner in the road were five restaurants, each with an owner who seemed very keen for our custom. In the difficult position of knowing that our choice of restaurant would make four people unhappy, we selected the nearest and sat down to the approving look of the chef. Soon afterwards, we were filling up on omelette, delicious masala tea and not-so-delicious, overly-sweet mango juice. Having eaten, the friendly restaurant owner bade us farewell with a smile and a wave after overcharging us for our breakfast. We didn’t mind being ripped off to a certain extent because it was only by pennies. If anyone tried to take liberties though, we tended to try to barter them down a bit.
The road began climbing again, something we were getting used to! The driving was particularly dangerous that morning, until it reached a standstill again, when we had to navigate our way through the stationary vehicles once more. This was challenging due to the large verge on the left of the road and the fast moving oncoming traffic on the right. We reached a busy town, at which point Harry’s knee pain returned. He pushed on, in the hope that it would mend over time. The new saddle position was definitely helping to some extent. We were both getting a bit tired of the traffic on this road but after Shimla we were expecting the road to become quieter.
As we approached Shimla, the trees on the roadsides thinned and we were treated to spectacular views over the surrounding foothills of the Himalayas. We saw two “toy trains” pass, one climbing and one descending. Stopping at a view point, we gazed over a landscape of 3,000 metre high mountains covered in dark green forests and dotted with picturesque villages under a cloudless, perfectly blue sky. This was supposed to be the bit of the ride that got us to the start of the Manili-Leh Highway; the bit that not many people do because they want to cycle through the more beautiful scenery ahead. I thought that if this area is overlooked, the road ahead must be unbelievable.
The last 10 kilometres of the climb were much steeper and hard work in the hot sun, particularly for Harry, who was now doing most of his pedalling with one leg. It passed quickly though and then on the outskirts of the city, we found a quieter back road into the centre. At the top of the climb, we finally reached Shimla safe in the knowledge that the afternoon would be spent descending. We soon found a good-looking restaurant which served tandoori (clay oven cooked) chicken.
Shimla was an interesting place that clearly had British-influenced architecture. The British took control of the land where Shimla now sits in the early 1800s, when Shimla was just a small village. It soon became a popular summer holiday destination for British officers due to its mild climate. A bridge was built to connect the town to an existing road network and the settlement grew rapidly to over 1,000 houses by the 1880s. Shimla was made the summer capital of India in 1863 by the Viceroy of India, despite the fact that this meant moving the entire administration over 1,000 miles from Calcutta, on a difficult journey twice a year. A few years after independence, the state of Himachal Pradesh was formed, of which Shimla is still the capital. Many of the older buildings would not have been out of place in an English village, for example the town hall, with its stone front and Tudor-like black and white wooden top storey. There was a large church, a pedestrianised centre and the roads had names like “The Mall” and “The Ridge”. However, it has also changed a lot since the British colonial days, when my wife’s (Laura's), grandmother had lived here. Now there are many typical Indian buildings, with many storeys, brightly coloured and not particularly architecturally interesting. However the mix of the two influences and the surrounding scenery combine to form a beautiful city perched on the top of one of the hills.
The city is very busy in the centre with crowds of locals going about their business and crowds of tourists (mainly Indian) looking around. Market stalls were everywhere and it was a real challenge to wheel our bikes through the crowd. There are also thousands of monkeys in Shimla, that can be a real pest and quite aggressive if you approach them.
Once we had navigated our way out of Shimla, via a few busy surrounding towns and a dark tunnel, we finally reached a quiet road. It began in thick, monkey-infested forests and then led us onto a steep, grassy hillside. The road contoured 180 degrees around the meeting point of two large valleys, formed into such a shape by the confluence of the two large rivers below. The monkeys were constantly fighting one another, until we approached, at which point they watched us warily and the mothers picked up their tiny babies who clung onto them by grabbing handfuls of hair. They were very loud and could be heard from a long way off. After the forest, the road was cut into the hillside, sometimes with a steep drop on the left side. The views were wonderful once more, the giant U-shaped valley dwarfing everything and making us feel tiny and insignificant. We descended on a perfect gradient all afternoon. When losing height on a bike, the ideal gradient is around three to five percent; enough to move you forwards easily, but not so steep that you lose the height you’ve gained too quickly.
As the sun sank beneath the mountains in the west, we reached a village near the bottom of our descent to the Sutlej River. Thankfully there were a couple of good shops still open so we bought rice and vegetables to cook dinner that night. My map showed an off-road shortcut, which we decided to attempt. It began as a bumpy but wide track, with loose stones. It wasn’t technical riding, but our panniers kept coming loose from the clips holding them onto the racks. Eventually we reached a fork and picked the left track at random. It became very steep, probably around a 30 percent gradient, which was a real test of our disc brakes. We were spat out into a tiny village which turned out to be a very beautiful dead-end. Disheartened, we were just about summoning up the effort to turn round and push back up the ludicrously steep incline, when we were surrounded by a group of young children and a man who could speak fairly good English. We asked him the way to Chandi (the next village on my map). He said “no, wrong way” and pointed back up the slope. Our worst fears confirmed we made to set off, but then he pointed along a concrete irrigation channel saying “path”.
With nothing to lose, we thanked the man and made our way along the irrigation channel. There was a narrow concrete artificial bank, with a vertical drop of about half a metre on either side, so we had to cycle carefully. The group of children ran alongside us, trying to keep up and shouting excitedly. It was great fun, cycling along the challenging path, which after around a kilometre, joined back up with the track we had left the junction. Soon, we were on the tarmac road that follows the Sutlej River north-east towards the bottom of the first major pass of our journey: the Jalori La. That was for the following day though. After reaching the riverside, we soon found a pretty campsite on a beach situated at the side of a small tributary flowing into the large river below. We set up camp, cooked, ate, washed in the river and lay down with a cup of tea; watching the sky darken and the blanket of stars appear. A bright white Milky Way filled the sky; so much more visible than in England. At the end of day two we were fully immersed in the adventure, the worries of home a million miles away.
DAY 3: ALONG THE SUTLEJ RIVER AND THE START OF THE JALORI LA
After a while spent stretching, Harry managed to get his knee moving; it had locked up in the night. He seemed hopeful that it wasn’t too serious though, so we continued as planned. The road along the Sutlej River was stunning, cut into a steep gorge and mainly flat so the miles passed quickly that morning. We passed more fighting monkeys and houses with flat roofs covered in drying chilli peppers. Even in this very remote and sparsely populated area, kids were walking along the road and climbing up paths in the hills to tiny schools. The road was about 90 percent tarmac, but the bumpy bits meant that the mountain bikes we were using for tourers were necessary. It was a quiet road, with impressive and varied views of the bright blue river and gorge around every corner.
A tributary joined the other side of Sutlej River after 44 kilometres of riding and we could see our road climbing steeply up the new river valley. Unfortunately, the nearest bridge was a few kilometres up the Sutlej, so we had to cycle around 10 kilometres upstream, only to cycle back along the other side. When we finally made it to the bridge though, there were a number of shops selling excellent samosas and sweets so we stocked up before beginning the climb.
The start of the Jalori La was fantastic; a narrow, well paved road up a lush, green river that flowed steeply down the mountain side. Every couple of miles, we reached a small village that each had a shop or two with an identical selection of crisps, noodles, drinks and sweets. Soon, the road started to follow a smaller stream and climbed more steeply through remote and pretty countryside. The hillsides were cut into flat terraces, where food was grown. Cows still roamed free and we often saw them on the road, blocking the traffic. The people seemed very friendly and were keen to be photographed. It was clear that this road is rarely used by cycle tourists because the locals shouted and pointed at us when we passed. Soon after the road started following the stream we reached the first town of any size, which was called Anni. It is at an altitude of around 2,000 metres and had a central market and a few good restaurants. We stopped at one at mid-afternoon and had the best food we’d had so far: a large pile of deep fried tiny fish that were caught in the small stream behind the restaurant, with a spicy breadcrumb crust. It was a huge meal for about 50 pence each.
The climb continued with an average gradient of 10 percent (this is very steep; we were using our lowest gears most of the time). After following the now roaring, white-water stream for a few more miles, the road started its snaking path up the hillside. Entering a pine forest in the early evening, we were stopped by a serious looking man in a four by four. He told us that the road ahead was very dangerous, that there was nowhere to buy food and nowhere to stay. We said we had food and tents, but he told us again that we would be in danger. Slightly wary, we continued up the gradually steepening road and soon found a small shop that was still open. We bought plenty of food in case there were no more shops ahead and started looking for a campsite. Again, wild camping spots were hard to find due to the steep hillside. Reaching a small village on a hairpin bend in the road, we asked if we could camp on the school playing field which was perfectly flat. There were lots of people sat around smoking marihuana, which grows on the roadside in that area. They didn’t seem to be particularly interested in us arriving at their tiny village at dusk and we were told we could pitch our tents outside the school. We were a bit wary due to the slightly hostile feel to the place but reasoned that so many of the inhabitants of the village now knew that we were there that nobody would try anything. After unloading our bikes, a guy beckoned me over and tried to communicate something to me but I couldn’t understand. I followed him to his shop and he gestured at the floor. He was offering us a place to stay for the night and we gratefully accepted. We moved our stuff into his shop and he put two seats down next to a table, then gave us a cup of tea each, which he wouldn’t let us pay him for. A few of his friends came round and seemed to communicate to us that somebody was bringing food.
After around an hour, which we spent chatting with the group of men that had gathered in the shop, the shopkeeper’s son turned up with a friend; very drunk. He didn’t treat us like the older guys and straight away seemed angry, probably partly due to the drink.
“You want to stay here?” he asked.
“Yes please, your father has offered us a place to sleep on the floor” I replied.
“Are you crazy? You want to stay here? Are you going to pay?”
“Your father didn’t want any money from us” we said.
At this point he got very angry and then calmed down, before this conversation repeated itself four times. He was becoming more and more aggressive, so we asked how much he wanted.
“1000 rupees each”
This is about £20, which is a very large amount of money in this area. As a comparison, this would have paid for a good hotel with breakfast and dinner. We refused and this got him very angry, his dad seemed to get involved in the discussion and was treated quite violently and pushed by the son. It was time to leave so we packed our stuff and escaped, as the son became more and more angry. Fortunately, that was the end of the incident, but it wasn’t very pleasant. Shaken up, we cycled away from the village discussing what had just happened. Paying for the room hadn’t been an option, not because of the money, but due to the principal that some people in this area seemed to view westerners as only a source of money. There was nothing we could have done differently to have avoided the situation.
Cycling on in the dark, we found a small area of flat land on the side of the road, where we unrolled our sleeping mats and settled down for the night. It was late and we were shattered but we had to eat so we cooked some noodles before crashing out. It was a shame to have had such a bad end to a wonderful day but the incident wasn’t a fair reflection of the people we had met so far, most of whom had been very friendly and welcoming.
DAY 4: OVER THE JALORI LA
The sun woke us up at half past five to a very average breakfast consisting of the remainder of our supplies; biscuits, chocolate and tea. I spent a while adjusting the position of the clips on my panniers to stop them falling off on the bumpy sections of the road that lay ahead. Fortunately, despite what we had been told by the driver the previous night, there were plenty of shops on the roadside. Unfortunately, they were full of the same very bland selection of crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks. One shop sold something that looked a bit like nougat but was very sweet and crumbly. I’ve no idea what it was called but it was sugary and full of energy so we bought a stack of it for the climb ahead.
Soon the road got steeper again and gained 1,000 metres of altitude in under 10 kilometres. Sometimes the gradient was around 20 percent with loose rocks and a very poor surface. Almost all the tarmac had been eroded and washed away. I found it surprising that some of the heavily loaded trucks that we had seen on the road had made it over this pass. I wanted to ride every metre of the climb and managed to do so, with regular stops to catch my breath. Large birds of prey circled overhead as we passed through the pine forest on the upper slopes of the mountain. Houses dotted the hillside and there were lots of kids on the road on the way to school. One was walking up the steep hill on his own, so I offered him a lift. He sat on my rear rack, grabbed the back of my saddle and I cycled him about two kilometres along the road. Fortunately he was small and didn’t weigh too much, but the steep road made the climbing very tough and extra weight didn’t help! Finally, we came across a large group of small children walking to school, so we dropped him off with his friends, before continuing up the pass.
Finally, after an entire morning spent climbing just 18 kilometres, we reached the top. It was a stunning view. Looking back, we could see the road climbing up from the river valley below and ahead was our first view of the really big mountains in the distance, with their rocky slopes and snow-capped peaks. At the top were a couple of small restaurants and a Hindu temple. One of the restaurants looked very cosy, with a wood burning stove heating its interior. Chatting to the owner over lunch, we learnt that the road was usually closed for three months of the year when it was covered in snow. At that time, the owner moved away from the restaurant and lived in Anni, where we had eaten the previous afternoon. Harry talked about farming and said that he owns 200 sheep, which the guy was very impressed with. He didn’t mention the fact that he also farms cows for beef, a fact that wouldn’t have gone down too well here! We joked about this and were told that they didn’t eat beef because they think that the cow is sacred. Apparently, by honouring the cow, Hindus regard all living creatures as sacred. It’s a nice idea, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a bit inconvenient due to the fact that cows are allowed to roam around busy roads. They must cause accidents all the time. It was also strange to see cows in towns scavenging for litter to eat rather than grass.
The restaurant owner served us sweet tea until it was time for us to leave. He had been so friendly, which was great after our problems the previous evening. The descent was just as bumpy and steep as the climb, which was thoroughly depressing because we lost all of the height we had gained very quickly. Harry had a dodgy moment on the descent when his front brake pad sheared off. His back brake wasn’t working well anyway and for a second he accelerated wildly until his front brake kicked in enough to stop him. We replaced the brake pad, before continuing, having reached tarmac once more. It was wonderful to speed downhill on a good road surface again, following a roaring river, which led us to a busy town. We were well and truly back in civilisation, dodging trucks, cows and people on the road as we descended. The gradient gradually decreased as we followed a wide valley and had to start pedalling again due to the strong headwind. Eventually, we reached the bottom of our descent and the end of the Jalori La. It was an incredibly difficult pass, the hardest I have ever done. The combination of the poor road surface and the ridiculously steep gradient made for very slow progress, but it was also incredibly rewarding to have beaten it. We refuelled on a chow mein in the town of Carji, before starting up the famous Kullu Valley, in which Manali sits.
My map showed a shortcut, which we were unsure whether to take, given the challenges the previous “shortcut” had thrown up. We asked a guy in a car about whether the shortcut was passable and were told:
“It’s a connect road, yes it’s very good quality and much quicker than the main road”.
He said this with such confidence that we decided that our usual tactic of asking for directions at least twice and comparing answers wasn’t necessary. We began the shortcut and soon realised that the guy had absolutely no idea what he was talking about! The road wasn’t in use and appeared to have collapsed into the adjacent reservoir many months or years ago. There was a poor track and then a sandy beach, followed by a challenging series of mounds that we needed to push over. Unfortunately the mounds had been used as toilets so foot positioning was very important! Eventually, we passed the obstructions and reached a bridge that led us to the other side of the valley and the main road to Manali. Lesson learnt; we would never trust directions again!
The road to Manali was busy and dangerous because the traffic was moving very quickly and overtaking manoeuvres were prioritised over knocking two cyclists off the side of the road. We decided to call it a day at the first sign of dusk as cycling on this road in the dark was certainly not a good idea. With nowhere to camp due to the level of development of both sides of the road, we decided to treat ourselves to a hotel room for the night. Showered, with drying kit hung up and washed clothes, we headed out for a curry, which kept getting refilled as we ate it; exactly what we needed! It had been an excellent day, and we were just a few hours ride from Manali; the start of the famous highway to Leh.
DAY 5: MANALI AND THE START OF THE ROHTANG LA
It took us a while to get stuff packed away in the morning and then breakfast at the hotel was 40 minutes late. This was quite funny because although the hotel had promised that it would be served at seven in the morning, our schedule wasn’t too important. The hotel was marketing itself as a business hotel, both in its appearance and its cost, so I’m not sure a business man would have been quite so forgiving of this. India isn’t renowned for its punctuality though, so we weren’t surprised. Breakfast consisted of an omelette on toast and a cup of porridge, which was pretty good for the energy we needed that day.
The road was busy again and the driving was even worse than the previous day. Particular culprits were the buses full of Indian tourists heading for the Rohtang La; the next pass we would be crossing and a popular tourist destination. The buses passed very close to us and when they overtook lorries, they just swerved around them, honking their horns and expecting whatever was coming on the other side of the road to get out of their way. Unfortunately, oncoming buses passing lorries didn’t give us any room at all, so we often had to get off the road.
The morning passed in this terrifying manner and was not very exciting. It was amusing to see a herd of cows on a road bridge over the river near Kullu. Piles of straw had been left for them to eat and they clearly spent most of their time there, being encouraged to do so by the provision of food. This was slightly odd given the fact that it was an important bridge, linking a large town to a main road. After Kullu, we took a toll road (free for bikes) that was much quieter, as most of the traffic was using the free road on the other side of the valley. The road climbed slowly to Manali and it was hard work due to the heat of the middle of the day. It was hotter again because we were now at a lower altitude of around 1,000 metres.
The final few miles before Manali were steeper and harder. We stopped for a break and a snack of samosas. I bought some Polos and offered one to a local man, who had never had one before. He looked at it in an odd way (I suppose they do look strange), took it, put it in his mouth, then promptly spat it out before walking away and saying nothing! I couldn’t stop laughing for a couple of minutes. The road became prettier as we approached Manali. The river was faster flowing with white water, woodland covered the valley and we were surrounded by giant mountains making up the valley sides. Eventually we reached Manali: the start of the “trip proper”. Despite the fact that these first five days were planned as a way to reach the start of the highway, it had been fantastic. The Jalori La was an enormous physical challenge, Shimla was very interesting and the scenery had been beautiful. We had also experienced “real India”, with the hustle and bustle of the cities we’d passed and the busy road. Ahead lay Ladakh; Buddhist monasteries and high altitude passes, but first... lunch.
DAY 5 CONTINUED: STARTING THE ROHTANG LA
With bellies full of delicious food (we both recommend Chopsticks restaurant on the Mall), Harry and I explored Manali. We bumped into another cyclist who told us that we were cutting it very fine to get across to Leh at this time of year as if snow fell now it would be there to stay. We assured her that we would be careful but this did make us a bit nervous. Unfortunately, the only bike shop in the town wasn’t open because the owner was away. It was our only chance of getting mineral oil to bleed Harry’s disc brake. A past experience when I was forced to use olive oil drained from a jar of stuffed chilli peppers in my brakes during a race in the Lake District had taught me that alternative oil would do the job just as well. We purchased some mustard oil, which seemed to be the standard cooking oil in this area of India and decided to bleed the brake that night; Harry wouldn’t need it until the top of the Rohtang La anyway. We stocked up at many of the excellent shops in Manali, including the fantastic German Bakeries, full of delicious cakes and biscuits. Eventually, we had everything we needed and, with much heavier bikes, began the ascent of the next pass.
The Rohtang La is a famous tourist attraction in India, it being the most easily accessible location to see and touch snow. This is a big deal for Indians because most have never seen snow before and so travel for many miles to the top of the pass. Unfortunately for the tourists, but fortunately for us, it was warm for the time of year and there had been nothing but sunny weather for the previous week. As a result, there was no snow on the pass and the tourists were very disappointed. Following the road out of Manali, there are hundreds of shops set up on the roadside, selling and hiring warm equipment including thick, full length fur coats and wellington boots. Just before the road heads up the pass, there is a turning to the new Himalayan ski resort. The shops also hired ski equipment, which looked very old. Clearly a lot of used boots and ski suits from Europe had been shipped out en-mass. If you want to get hold of some retro ski gear, this is definitely the place to go!
Soon after leaving Manali, we were surrounded by beautiful scenery again and out of the hustle and bustle of the Kullu Valley. Once we had climbed high enough, the view was stunning and we were still near the bottom of the pass. Huge mountains surrounded the valley and looking back in the direction we had come. The river wove its way through the towns and farmland we had recently cycled through. Clouds sat on the peaks of the larger mountains but the sky was otherwise perfectly clear, as it had been for the whole week. The climb was easy, on a wonderfully smooth road surface that wasn’t very steep. Dusk was approaching and it had been a long day. We hadn’t got as far up the pass as we had hoped, but it didn’t matter. Beginning our search for our evening campsite as we did most days, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be difficult here; we were spoiled for choice. Almost as if it had been strategically placed there for our use, we stumbled across an alcohol vendor. These odd-looking shops sell wine, beer and spirits and look very official. We had seen a few such shops that all advertised “English Beer and Wine”. I don’t know much about wine, but I do know that England isn’t a renowned exporter and that this shop definitely hadn’t imported any wine from the small vineyards in the south of our country. Their “English Beer” was either Budweiser, Carlsberg or Tuborg, none of which are English. We jokingly tried to communicate this to them but were assured that we were wrong and that the beer was definitely from England. We bought two Indian, Kingfisher beers and continued up the road. Soon afterwards we came across a large cave on the side of the road. It was a perfect place to stay for the night and we wouldn’t need to pitch our tents.
Harry’s knee locked up as soon as we stopped, it was still causing him problems, so I pushed our bikes up to the cave and we unloaded our stuff. Harry started cooking as I went off to get water from a nearby river. We bled Harry’s brakes with the mustard oil, which was reasonably successful, then sat down to eat. A few minutes into our meal some giant bugs that looked like they had escaped from hell scurried over to us! They were huge, scaly and disgusting looking. I’ve camped in the desert with scorpions and snakes and am generally not at all bothered by bugs but these were terrifying! There was no way we were sleeping in this cave surrounded by these horrible monsters, so we pitched our tents for some protection. I quickly fell asleep.
DAY 6: OVER THE ROHTANG LA
Our early start was delayed by a road block in the form of a herd of a few hundred sheep descending the pass. We stood in the road like two rocks in a fast flowing river as the sheep ran around us, under the watchful eye of three shepherds and their dogs.
Eventually we began riding again and progressed at a good pace all morning. In comparison to the Jalori La, the Rohtang was a piece of cake. About 90 percent of the road was paved and all the way up were places to stop to eat or buy supplies. It is a wonderfully aesthetic road, with perfect switchbacks offering superb views back down the pass. The lower slopes were forested but as we climbed above the tree line, we entered a grassy landscape that eventually became rocky, with less vegetation. Beautiful waterfalls lined the valley sides and birds of prey circled ahead. The only downside was that there were a large number of lorries and army trucks emitting vast quantities of lung filling dark black smoke.
We passed the small settlement of Murrhi, where we stopped briefly for a cold coke and relaxed on a sun lounger. The road got a bit steeper at this point and surface was more cut up but it was still a comfortable climb. The altitude began affecting us at around 3,000 metres so we stopped for a curry at a restaurant before attempting the final section of the pass. We were attracting a lot of attention from the tourists at the cluster of restaurants, who couldn’t believe we were cycling up this giant pass. We assured them that lots of people came this way by bike but they wouldn’t believe us. I bought a pair of cheap woolly gloves to wear under my thick ones then we continued to the top. The final 10 kilometres were probably the most beautiful, with elevated views of the scenery I have already described as the road snaked up a steep rocky mountainside. We met an Austrian cyclist named Thomas (good name), who told us that the highway to Leh was beautiful, clear and mostly a pretty good surface; great news. I sprinted the final two kilometres to the top of the pass and arrived absolutely shattered, out of breath, but full of adrenaline and buzzing. Harry followed shortly afterwards and we celebrated conquering our second major pass before admiring the Buddhist shrine and prayer flags.
And then finally... a descent. We had been climbing for the best part of two days and were due a long, high speed whizz down the other side of the pass. Around the first corner though, we stopped; both completely gobsmacked. The view was like nothing I’ve seen before. A vast valley with 3,000 metre high sides lay in front of us, the road weaving down to the light blue Chandra River at the bottom. To the east was the famous Spitti Valley, which carved the landscape in half, offering views of the giant snow-capped mountains far away in the direction of Tibet. To the west, we could see our path in the form of the road to Keylong. We had been cycling through what we thought was one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world for the past week... we were wrong. This was the most beautiful place that we had both ever been to. After an unknown period of time, we began descending into the giant landscape. This side of the pass was not paved and the road was sandy and bumpy, so progress was slow. Off-road tracks linked the hairpins on the main road, providing shortcuts for those who dared to brave the steep, rocky surface. I enjoyed the challenge of staying upright on my heavy touring bike on what were pretty serious mountain bike trials. Sandy, as ever, responded amazingly to this challenge and it was great fun racing lorries and cars that were descending on the main road.
At the bottom, we had our passports checked, before being waved on by the guards. The road was clearly still open. Following the river, we descended along the valley in the early evening. Rays of sunlight shone over the valley sides making the already spectacular view even more so. After twenty kilometres or so, we reached the small town of Sissu. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to ask a restaurant owner for a takeaway chow mein for our campsite that night. We waited as she cooked, entertaining her children who were both very interested in the giraffe mascot I had on my bike; a present from my friend Nino, whom I met on the Danube River when I was cycling around the world. Soon the meal was delivered to us in a plastic bag and we cycled to the nearby woods which provided a beautiful place to camp. Through a gap in the trees a giant waterfall was visible, the ground was flat and we were well hidden here. It was a perfect spot to camp.
Harry went to get water as I fixed a broken spoke and reheated the chow mein. It was delicious, although very spicy as I put too much chilli sauce on it. For pudding, a cinnamon roll from the German bakery in Manali rounded off a perfect day. This adventure was getting better and better...
...or so I thought. At about midnight I woke up feeling dreadful. I managed to get out of my tent before vomiting three times at various locations around the wood. It must have been the chow mein. This repeated at around two o’ clock. At around three I heard Harry suffering from the same problem, which repeated for him at around four; a rough night. Eventually we both got a bit of sleep but we would be taking it easy the next day.
DAY 7: LIMPING TO KEYLONG
Both of us felt appalling in the morning, but I was in a slightly better state than Harry, having got whatever had caused this illness out of the system a few hours before he had. As food poisoning goes this wasn’t terrible, we were both functioning, but things happened very slowly. We both had no energy at all and the thought of riding our bikes all day wasn’t particularly enticing. Our plan had been to pass through Keylong and begin the climb up the Baralacha La that day but given how we were feeling, just reaching Keylong would be an achievement. Embarrassingly, two ladies from the nearby village had entered the wood and seen us. They were bent over, searching for what looked like cotton blossom that had blown into the wood, collecting it and placing it into a bag. It was embarrassing because in random locations around the wood, were puddles of our vomit. Eventually they moved on, not at all bothered by our presence. When we felt up to moving, we packed up our tents, loaded our bikes, pushed to the road and began cycling. One mile later we stopped for a coke. It was hard work...
The road undulated as it followed the river through fertile agricultural land. Each of the tiny climbs felt harder than the Rohtang Pass! I was well enough to appreciate the valley we were travelling through as I looked up at the glaciers on the 6,000 metre high mountain tops to the south. Finally, the road began descending and we could freewheel slowly against the slight headwind. There had been a landslide and the road surface was awful, consisting of a layer of stones covered by sand. Every time a lorry passed, it threw up a dust cloud which we had to breathe for about a minute each time. Eventually, the road reached the side of the river and the descent ended at a bottleneck with a traffic jam. Road workers were letting traffic through, and then stopping it again while they threw large rocks down from the cliffs above the road, evidently attempting to prevent future landslides. I looked behind and realised that Harry was nowhere to be seen so I stopped to wait. He arrived about ten minutes later saying that he had had to stop as he felt so tired. We limped on another kilometre to the village of Thandi. I had enough sense left to remember to buy some fuel for the stove (the last petrol station for a few hundred kilometres) then we sat down for some “lunch”.
It was a bland meal but neither of us could stomach anything other than Pepsi, crisps and roti (small round Indian fried bread). We sat at the restaurant on the roadside for a couple of hours deciding what to do. I was feeling slightly better than Harry still and wanted to cycle to Keylong. Harry felt so bad that he was considering hitching to a hotel. In the end he decided to cycle, a decision he was very pleased he had made when fully recovered. We began the climb to Keylong, which lasted a couple of hours and could have been worse. The wind was with us and the road was good. Not far from the town, we passed a striking memorial for the workers who had died building this road:
“When you go home, tell them of us. For their tomorrow, we gave our today”.
We reached Keylong at about four o’ clock and checked into a very cheap and excellent hotel, which had a menu that included some perfect food to aid our recovery: honey on toast and sweet tea. Shopping when ill was difficult because nothing looked appetising, but we bought a few kilograms of vegetables, some rice, and one kilogram of Indian sweets for the climb the following day. Keylong is the last town of any note on the highway before the Indus Valley, over five days ride away. Ahead there would only be very basic shops and truckers stops. We took the opportunity to purchase some good supplies. Ominously the weather was closing in, it was lightly raining and the wind was roaring. Speaking to a group of motorcyclists who were debating whether to continue up the Baralacha La the following day was disheartening. The hotel owner was more positive though and assured us that the weather would be good the following day. Absolutely shattered, but feeling slightly better, we went to bed.
DAY 8: A SLOW RIDE UP THE BARALACHA LA
Harry made what turned out to be a wise decision to take some antibiotics to aid his recovery. I had decided to “man up” and let my immune system do the work. I soon found that I had made a mistake and learnt that (in Harry’s words) you should "never man up", at least when it comes to food poisoning. I felt okay in the morning though and, for some reason, volunteered to carry the entire bag of vegetables over the 4,890 metre Baralacha La. The bike felt ridiculously heavy that morning. We left our hotel in good spirits at eight o’ clock and were happy to find that the bad weather had passed; the sky was perfectly blue again and the wind had died away. Following a picturesque and relatively flat road along a wide valley, we passed the last buildings we would see for about a week. Any people living on the road ahead would be staying in temporary canvas accommodation, named parachute tents. At the last village, we stopped at one of these tents for a cup of tea and sat with a couple of well behaved dogs, watching a large number of military trucks descending the Baralacha La. Life in this valley was pretty idyllic and it was difficult to believe that this is the same country as the hustle and bustle of Chandigahr and Shimla. It seemed that most people here farmed the land, although there were a number of shops, hotels and schools. It seemed to be a peaceful way of life, but living here in the winter would be very different. Ahead the mountains looked like an impassable wall. They were absolutely gigantic and the tiny road disappearing into the distance looked completely insignificant compared to the rest of the landscape. It was going to be a tough day spent climbing.
The valley road undulated with long climbs followed by short descents as the altitude reading on my GPS slowly increased. The road left the river at the small settlement of Darcha and started climbing more steeply up a rocky side valley. Another track forked off to the left, heading to the Zanskar Valley; a famous trekking route. We continued on the “highway”, following a glowing blue tributary underneath high snowy peaks until we reached the parachute tent camp at Patseo next to a small lake named Deepak Tal. There was a pedalo boat that could be hired from the restaurant there, which was claimed to be the “highest pedalo in the world”! I wouldn’t be surprised if that boast was true. When we stopped for lunch, I realised I was feeling awful again, my energy levels were very low and I didn’t want to eat much. I managed to force down some “Maggi” noodles (instant noodles made by adding hot water to a dried packet) and some tea before we started riding again. I took some antibiotics, inspired to do so by Harry’s relative energy levels.
I didn’t enjoy that afternoon one bit and found it incredibly tough. The scenery was still absolutely stunning but I was feeling horrendous. I found the next 10 kilometres, between Patseo and the wonderfully named camp at Zing Zing Bar, so tiring. My stomach was churning so I paid a much needed visit to the horrible squatter toilet at Zing Zing and then had another stop at the parachute tent across the road. I only managed another seven kilometres up the switchbacks, reaching an altitude of 4,400 metres, before deciding to call it a day. Fortunately Harry was very chilled out about me not wanting to push on and besides, the place we’d found to camp was wonderful; a large grassy area at the side of the roaring mountain stream about 500 metres from the road. We didn’t bother pitching the tents and as it was freezing, I got straight into all of my warm clothes and my sleeping bag. I was shivering, probably partly due to the fact I hadn’t been able to digest much that day. I think the antibiotics had started working though because my appetite was returning. We lay down peeling vegetables, cooked a pan full of rice, and then boiled the vegetables. It took a long time to cook the vegetables because at this altitude, water boils at a much lower temperature. In the end we had a fairly edible meal. I hoped to feel better the following morning.
DAY 9: OVER THE BARALACHA LA AND INTO LADAKH
We woke up with the sun at six o’ clock to find the outside of our sleeping bags covered in a thin frost. It had been below zero degrees in the night, but I’d been perfectly warm and felt a million times better than I had done the previous afternoon. Breakfast was awful; we’d been sold some “porridge” but it was lumpy and not made from oats. It was the blandest tasting food I’ve ever eaten. The road continued up the pass with vegetation becoming sparser and sparser as we cycled through a field of large boulders. A truck with a large cage divided into hundreds of compartments stopped on the roadside. The compartments were full of chickens and smelt awful. I was shocked to see the driver get out and check each cage to see if its inhabitant was still alive. If not the driver removed the chicken and lobbed it down the bank on the roadside. At a rough guess, I reckon at least 10 percent of the chickens were disposed of in this way. I suppose this is deemed to be a risk worth taking and that enough chickens survived for the driver to make money by driving them along this road. He must sell them to the various parachute tent camps. I felt sorry for the chickens. It wasn’t a great journey for them, being exposed to the elements in the freezing cold and being bumped around in a cloud of diesel fumes.
Nearing the top of the pass, we negotiated our way past a landslide. Half of the road was covered in stones and on the other half, they were distributed randomly across the surface. A team of road workers were busily moving rocks to try to get the road open again, while traffic waited either side, trying to squeeze past. The gradient eased as we approached the top but it was seriously hard going at 4,800 metres. The altitude was having a considerable effect for the first time. We slowly made progress and passed the beautiful lake near the top, named Suraj Tal. This lake is the third highest in India and is sacred; its name translates to “Lake of the Sun God”. Finally, after more than a day spent climbing the pass, we reached the sign that marks the top. It was a great feeling to have conquered the climb but we didn’t spend long there as it was exposed and very cold. We were both very hungry and keen to shelter in the nearby parachute tent camp, just five kilometres down the road.
Having taken the “summit photos”, we began the long descent. The parachute tents were warm and cosy, providing more maggi noodles and a bread omelette. Outside was a flat plateau, formed underneath an ancient glacier. We were now in a desert landscape, having left the fertile valleys behind. The next part of the road was one of my favourite stretches, down a spectacular gorge formed by the Tsarap River. The gorge contains some absolutely spectacular rock formations; a series of spikes that look like stalagmites but are large in size and have formed in clusters on the side of the river. Neither of us had ever seen anything like them before and spent half an hour taking photos and admiring the view.
Along most of the roads so far were signs, put there by the Borders Road Organisation (BRO) to attempt to inspire people to drive safely, slowly and not under the influence of drink or drugs. Some of the signs are hilarious and are not particularly commanding in the way that they attempt to enforce the law. My favourite sign, for example, read “after whisky, driving risky”! A tailwind was roaring and blew us along a flat stretch of road at 30 kilometres per hour; a reward for our hard work over the last few days. We reached Sarchu, stopped for a drink and a couple of passport checks in more tents and then crossed the state border from Himachal Pradesh into Ladakh: “The Paradise of India”.
The road followed the river, now at a lower altitude, where small patches of grass grew close to the water. There were hundreds of sheep in the valley along with the shepherds guarding the flocks. They were walking with their sheep, taking them away from the high mountains and the immanent onset of winter, to grasslands at lower altitudes. It was a long and tough migration that takes many days of living in tents and eating basic supplies. They must have a very difficult life. At dusk, we came across a small hut that was empty and asked some nearby shepherds if we could sleep there. They were fine with it so we unrolled our mats and started cooking. Harry hung a light from the roof and we put some music on as we wrote our diaries; the end to yet another fantastic day. It seemed like we’d been on the road for far longer than nine days.
DAY 10: TWO GIANT PASSES AND SOME THIRSTY SHEPHERDS
Not having to pack up tents helped us get away early and at half past seven, we began our assault on the “Alpe d’Huez of the Indian Himalayas”; the Gata Loops. The lower part of the Nakee La consists, like the famous Tour de France climb, of 21 hairpins. That is where the comparison ends though as the scenery is completely different, much more barren and desert-like. I’ve also never seen hundreds of sheep ascending Alpe d’Huez in the middle of the road! Another difference is that the Nakee La tops out at over 4,900 metres, which is higher than Mont Blanc; the highest mountain in the Alps.
In the morning shade, the air was cool and the climb was relatively easy, with a perfect road snaking slowing up the steep valley side. There is no structural reinforcement though; it is just built into the side of the mountain. One landslide could wipe the entire road out in one go. Each hairpin offered a different view of the Tsarap River below and as we climbed, the view of the road weaving up behind us was a spectacular sight. Incredibly, at almost the same vertical speed as us, entire herds of sheep were being ushered up the slope, taking the most direct route. The shepherds were walking up what was a very steep, rocky incline, with very basic footwear and clothing, ensuring that their sheep kept moving at a good speed. We crossed their path every 10 minutes or so and cheerfully waved at each intersection.
It took us about two hours to reach the top of the Gata Loops, at which time the sun had appeared over the valley side, shining down on the river below and causing it to glisten a shimmering blue colour at the base of the giant valley we had just climbed. A particularly tight bit of road caused a traffic jam as two trucks tried to pass each other and others queued behind. No driver wanted to reverse along the treacherous road so there was gridlock for a long time until one side of the jam relented and allowed the other to progress. Fortunately for us it was the ascending side that moved first and a slow moving, heavily laden truck provided about 500 metres of uphill truck surfing towards the top of the Nakee La.
The altitude was really affecting us again and I was finding progress difficult, being constantly short of breath and with my heart racing in my chest. Stopping for a rest, we came across two shepherds, who were also having a break from their arduous migration. They had long ago run out of water, having not carried much from the river below. We were also running low but we gave them some of ours as we had enough to reach the parachute camp on the other side of the pass; Whiskey Nala. They also had no food so we were happy to share our heavy and, in our opinion, disgusting homemade sweets from Keylong. They were just far too sweet and seemed to be flavoured sugar lumps. Harry was delighted to offload them as they had been weighing him down for a couple of days. Having fed the shepherds, they allowed me to photograph them and then waved us on our way before taking the most direct route to Whiskey Nala, up a 40 degree scree slope! I would have elected to walk along the road in their position.
Soon afterwards we reached the top of the pass, where it was very cold and very windy. After the obligatory summit photo, the descent began and it was possibly the most fun section of the trip. Harry and I raced to the bottom. The racetrack was exciting and had many route options. The fast, flowing, perfect tarmac of the main road certainly allowed the highest speed, but taking short cuts down the off-road tracks linking the hairpins was sometimes quicker. I was in front until Harry sprinted past me with about one third of the descent left. Looking ahead I saw an opportunity to pass but I wanted to leave it late so he didn’t have the chance to get back past. Being in front is a disadvantage as the slipstream you create offers your rival a boost to pass you and afterwards it’s very hard to catch them again. I followed Harry very closely at high speed until about the third corner from the bottom, shot off down an off road section and came out in front of him, before sprinting off to take a well-earned victory (idiotic competitiveness on my part!).
We had reached Whiskey Nala; a horribly remote army base which is the short straw for any unfortunate soldier that finds themselves stationed there during the long winter. Nala means glacial melt water and the resulting river provides a lifeline to the parachute camp that is set up there while the road is still open. Stopping there for a well-earned lunch, we were both buzzing from our recent race. Looking ahead was a relatively short climb to the top of the first 5,000 metre pass of our trip; the Lachulung La. Not wanted to camp at this altitude, we had made the decision to push on over the next pass that day. Some people do stay at Whiskey Nala (4,750 metres), but there is no way out from there, the only way out is up and if altitude sickness hits in the night, up is not the direction to travel. It is a risk that we didn’t want to take and we had enough time to climb the second pass that afternoon.
The relatively short looking climb to the top of the Lachulung La was not easy. I was setting the pace after lunch and I could see that Harry was finding it difficult to get going again; a common problem after stopping for lunch. With two kilometres to go, Harry shot off to the top with an unbelievable amount of energy. I wasn’t able to keep up and arrived a few minutes later, feeling fairly good but with no energy to travel at Harry’s speed. He said he’d started feeling dizzy so went for it. Clearly Harry’s fitness was excellent, his acclimatisation complete and his knee feeling much better. Well done that man! We looked back over the giant bowl containing Whiskey Nala and the pass on the other side that we had passed over earlier that day. We were doing brilliantly and were on schedule to make it to Leh in good time to fit another multi-day trip in before we flew home. I had started to feel dizzy too now, being over 5,000 metres for the first time in my life (beating my previous record of 4,985 metres at the lowest of Mount Kenya’s three peaks that I climbed over a decade ago).
The road deteriorated on the descent to Pang, but the scenery certainly didn’t. It was unique again; another landscape that was different to anything I have ever seen. We descended at first through a wide valley, following a meandering little river, surrounded by giant red mountains that looked as though they were on fire. Continuing downwards, the descent followed a canyon, carved out of the rock by the river leaving stunning rock formations around every corner. Streams coming from the mountain tops had formed frozen waterfalls and large icicles. At this altitude, in the windy, shaded canyon, it was freezing cold so we both wore lots of layers. At the bottom, we passed a natural arch and were spat out into a wider, sunny valley, with similar stalagmite-like rock formations to those we had seen the previous day.
The descent had been harder than we’d anticipated due to the poor road and a headwind, but finally in the early evening, we reached Pang. It felt like a metropolis and it was the largest bit of civilisation that we’d entered since before the Baralacha La. Twelve parachute tents lined the roadside and as soon as we saw them many of their owners approached us, offering beds for the night. We chose to stay with the lady who did not try to sell us a bed. It was luxury; a warm front room with tables and cushions and, with a large store room out the back. On the other side of the store was the bedroom, containing 12 roll out mats and blankets. We had the whole place to ourselves. After the standard parachute tent meal of dhal rice and chapattis followed by a pile of chocolate bars, we entered the back room with a glass of rum and coke as a nightcap. It was lovely to sleep inside that night, although I didn’t sleep well, perhaps due to the altitude.
DAY 11: THE SECOND HIGHEST MOTORABLE PASS IN THE WORLD
After a giant breakfast, we left the parachute tent in the early morning. We had really splashed out, having spent a comparatively barmy £16 on two dinners, a bed for the night, two rum and cokes, two omelettes for breakfast and loads of biscuits for the day ahead. The climb out of Pang looks relatively insignificant on the elevation profile, but was a difficult 200 metre climb at the start of the day. The army base next to road is quite large and we had a good overhead view from the climb over a number of barracks and a helipad. At the top of the climb is a sweeping view over the gorge disappearing in the direction of China and the More Plains; a flat wilderness stretching out to the horizon. It was an impressive landscape between two mountain ranges and with a strong tailwind to blow us along at 30 kilometres per hour until the wind direction changed as we rounded a corner to travel in a north westerly direction. Now we were cycling into a strong headwind and not far along the road was the Tanlang La, the highest point on the Manali-Leh Highway.
Many people detour to Tso Kar from the More Plains; a beautiful lake surrounded by lush vegetation. We decided to push on though, having been told that most of the grass had disappeared due to the late time in the season. We also wanted to get over the Tanglang La before the weather changed, this strong wind was ominous and we didn’t want a snowstorm to delay our progress. So after another hour spent fighting the headwind, we stopped at the final parachute tent before Leh for yet another dhal curry.
And then it began. Just approaching the base of the second highest motorable pass in the world was very tough; the road being very rough and the headwind still gusting. The gradient steepened at the bottom of the slope and we could see the top of the pass, which remained visible all the way up the climb. Making progress was so hard and every metre of altitude gained meant that a little less oxygen was available for our lungs. I cursed all of the unnecessary clothes that I had bought with me for slowing me down on the climb. Slowly, in two kilometre chunks, the 20 kilometre climb became 18, then a 16 then a 14 and so on. With six kilometres to go, the end seemed in sight and the mental challenge was over, we knew we’d make the top before nightfall. Finally, after over four hours of maximum effort we reached the top of the pass. “You are passing through the second highest pass in the world. Unbelievable is not it!” read the sign. It certainly did feel unbelievable to have arrived there on a bike.
The wind was twice as strong at the exposed summit and it was absolutely freezing. We quickly took some photos and then hid in the roofless shell of a hut while we put all of our very necessary but heavy clothes on that I was now very glad to have hauled up the pass! I also changed my disc brake pads as the old ones were almost worn out. Finally ready, we began the 20 kilometre descent to the valley floor, where we planned to camp for the night. The descent was fantastic, on a brand new road surrounded by stunning mountains filling the horizon in every direction. After another hour of fast descending down switchback after switchback in the evening gloom, we reached the valley floor and the river that we needed for our water that night. Flat grassy pastures lined the river bank and 100 metres or so downstream, some shepherds had set up their camp for the night. We pitched the tents, cooked potatoes, onions, noodles and rice and then crashed out. I fell asleep instantly.
DAY 12: ALONG THE INDUS VALLEY TO LEH
The wind had continued and strengthened in the night. I awoke at around 11 pm and left the warmth of my tent to tighten its guy ropes only to find that there was a blizzard blowing outside. It was well below zero and within about 30 seconds I was shivering. I re-entered the tent and after about 10 minutes, warmed up again. It was dangerous to be outside in these conditions and it was looking like we had made the right decision to cross the Tanglang La the previous day rather than detour to Tso Kar. In the morning it was still snowing, but the wind had died down. Our tents were covered in snow but we’d both been warm inside. This shows the importance of the good camping equipment that we had brought with us.
I cooked some tea using my stove and we ate the last of the peanut butter and bread we had brought from Keylong. We set off in the falling snow and descended all morning as the weather improved and the temperature rose. Stopping at a café about 10 kilometres into the day, we warmed up over a couple of sugary teas. It was the first permanent building we’d been in since Keylong. Shortly afterwards, the road took us into a canyon carved out of purple rocks. The fertile bottom was covered in agricultural land and people were growing crops again at this, now lower, altitude. There were yaks in the fields that were being moved along the road by herders and many Buddhist monuments in the villages we passed through.
Soon our river met the much larger Indus, and we were in the famous Indus valley. One final, horrible dhal curry before reaching Leh fuelled us along the road for a relatively easy afternoon, following the Indus River on a slightly downhill gradient. We were back in civilisation with large towns and army bases every few miles. The highlight of the valley was the beautifully situated Buddhist monasteries, the most spectacular of which were Stakna, which was perched on a large hill in the centre of the valley, and Thikse, the most photographed of all of Ladakh’s monasteries, with its many layers of bright white buildings built all the way up the side of the hill it sits on.
Soon, Leh was in touching distance and at the bottom of the hill eight kilometres before the end of the road, we stopped to buy some bananas before the final climb. As we were eating the sky darkened and a sandstorm began. The weather had changed so quickly. The final hour on our bikes was spent in the rain, trying not be blown off by the gusting wind. Eventually though, we arrived on the steep ascent into the ceremonial entrance to the beautiful city of Leh. We didn’t linger long, both wanting a shower and a decent meal so we headed straight to the Main Bazaar. A Scottish guy named Alex approached us and recommended a hotel, named the Indus Guest House, which we went straight to. It was fine and very cheap (the equivalent of £2 per night each) so we checked in, showered, and then met Alex and another cyclist, named Mick, for dinner at another restaurant named Chopsticks. The three course meal was delicious; dumplings, noodles, pancakes and best of all… beer! The other travellers had enjoyed their trip along the Manali-Leh Highway as much as we had. What an adventure! Everything had been perfect, the challenge, the weather, the constantly varying spectacular landscapes, the bikes, the company and now the well-earned meal at the end of the trip. Only it wasn’t the end of the trip. We’d have a rest day tomorrow, then we’d plan the next leg; something we hadn’t got round to thinking about yet.
DAY 14: ON THE EDGE OF TIBET
After a rest day in Leh we were desperate for another adventure, our panniers were full of good food and our bikes weren’t creaking or squeaking anymore. We had also obtained the Inner Line Permit that is needed in order to visit the area of Ladakh close to the Chinese border via one of the many "Tourist Information Centres" in Leh. After much deliberation, we had decided on a route from Pangong Tso (an expansive high altitude lake that stretches into Tibet) back to Leh, via the Khardung La, which is the highest motorable pass in the world. Our journey would begin with a taxi ride to the start point on the south shore of the lake. We had arranged to join a group who were already going to Pangong Tso, in order to share the cost of the drive. Like most things in India, the taxi was late, but the half hour wait was very entertaining, watching the pack mentality of stray dogs scavenging for food in piles of litter. When the alpha male came along to investigate what was being eaten, the other dogs moved out the way to allow him to eat whatever food they had found and put up no resistance at all. Any other dog that approached would have a fight on their paws to steal food, but not the alpha male. All this was going on around some very docile cows that were also scavenging for food in the rubbish; once again, it was odd to see cows eating crisp packets and piles of stinking vegetables.
Once the taxi eventually arrived, Harry and I lifted our bikes onto the roof and spent a long time fastening them securely to the rack; lashing them down with rope and using discarded cardboard boxes to protect the frames. Finally satisfied, we piled into the back of the minibus and our journey began. The drive alone would have been worth the £20 fare; it was absolutely stunning, but at times pretty nerve racking. We were driven back along the Indus Valley and then over the Chang La, another 5,000 metre plus mountain pass. The route wound up and up a tiny road that hugged the mountain side, seemingly forever. It was all too obvious what would happen if our driver made a mistake as there were many vehicles in pieces all along the roadsides. One lorry had clearly rolled down the steep slope from almost the top of the pass and there were different parts of the vehicle scattered all over the mountainside; a horrible sight. Fortunately our driver seemed pretty sensible and didn’t drive too fast. We made it up to the pass and then began the long descent to Pangong Tso. Perhaps we should have asked to take the bikes off because it would have been a brilliant ride down the north side of the pass.
After five hours of driving, including two passport checks, the crossing of the giant Chang La and a drive along a long, winding, beautiful green valley, we were deposited at the village of Spangmik, about 10 kilometres from the north-wastern end of the lake. Once the bikes were loaded up with panniers, we rode off along the southern shore of the lake. The road gained altitude allowing us an elevated view over the incredible landscape we now found ourselves in. The shimmering blue salt water lake of Pangong Tso, stretched 130 kilometres into the distance, straddling the border into Tibet. It is an endorheic lake, which means that it doesn’t drain into any other body of water, being at the bottom of a closed drainage basin. As a result; towering mountain ranges line its shores. The name “Pangong Tso” means “long, narrow, enchanted lake” and it’s easy to see why it is thought to be enchanted. The view didn’t seem real; it was like observing a perfectly edited photograph. This trip had already provided so many different and unique landscapes but this one was certainly a contender for the most beautiful of them all.
The 10 kilometre ride to the end of the lake took a long time because we stopped at almost every vantage point to admire the view. Eventually though, we reached the cluster of tourist trap restaurants at the end of Pangong Tso and bought a tasty curry at one of them. There were far too many people there for our liking so we ate quickly before continuing north-west over a small pass and into the remote valley that we had earlier been driven along. Thinking that we could avoid some of the climb, we rode along a flat off-road section that appeared to join up with the road after it had descended further along the valley. This turned out to be a mistake and we probably lost about an hour pushing our bikes through sand and then climbing over a landslide that had covered the track. Unloading our panniers, we gave up on the shortcut and carried both bikes, and then our luggage, back onto the road up a 30 metre high and very steep rocky slope. Very tired after this physical challenge at an altitude of over 4,000 metres, we decided to stop at the next suitable campsite. It wasn’t exactly difficult to find a suitable place to camp in this gorgeous green valley. About five kilometres along the road, we came across what was probably the most stunning camping spot of our trip; on the grassy shores of a small fresh water lake named Chagar Tso. We quickly pitched our tents in the bitterly cold evening air, before cooking pasta; a rare treat from the well-stocked shops of Leh. Cinnamon rolls from the German bakery finished off the day perfectly.
DAY 15: AN UNEXPECTED ADVENTURE
Question: how does the perfect trip become even better? Answer: add some uncertainty and the excitement of the unknown for a real adventure. When you attempt something that you genuinely don’t know is possible and succeed it is even more rewarding. We definitely found ourselves in that situation during day 15 of our trip.
It started very peacefully, following the same lush green valley as the previous evening. The small river meandered down the fertile, peaty flood plain, cutting a metre deep trench through the soil. Soon, we came across a sign with a picture of a marmot on it. Looking around, we spotted a real marmot, then another and then anther. There were loads of them, standing tall and upright next to their holes on their hind legs and looking like fat fluffy meerkats. They make a bird-like screeching noise to warn each other of danger. Laying our bikes down on the side of the road, we took some photographs, being very careful not to scare the marmots away. We tried approaching a little closer, then a little closer and so on until we were only a few metres away. The marmots watched us intently, and then a brave one approached us, followed by two more. They came right up to us and let us stroke their soft fluffy fur. I wondered why they were so tame; perhaps they have no predators here. We hadn’t seen any birds of prey near Pangong Lake. Or maybe tourists feed them and they are used to humans. They were very cute.
After that interesting diversion, we continued through a small hamlet consisting of a couple of houses and a yak farm, which had a small herd of the animals. The man who lived there brought his young son over to say hello to us, he was very excited to see our bikes, but like many Indians we had met so far, thought our outfits were a bit strange! The valley turned to the left and began descended more steeply to the town of Tangtse, where we had our passports checked again and stopped for a drink and a portion of maggi noodles. We showed our planned route to the owner of the parachute tent and he said “no, you can’t go that way, tourists not allowed”. That was the extent of his English, so we asked around to try to find out more from some other people. Most thought that tourists couldn’t go that way, and almost everybody confidently said that the road was closed and that we wouldn’t get through. One guy, who owned a bike shop in Leh, had a different opinion. He thought that we could get through on mountain bikes and reckoned that we would make it. Despite his opinion being outnumbered by about 10 to one, we decided to take his advice; after all, the alternative was to divert back over the Chang La and then over the Wari La (both passes are well over 5,000 metres in altitude) and this would have taken a very long time and a lot of effort. We were both eager for an adventure along the Shyok River Valley and were hoping that whatever obstacle had caused the road closure, would be passable on our bikes.
At the next town, named Durbuk, more people told us that we couldn’t get through that way but one army officer said that he knew that a four wheel drive vehicle had passed through recently. After stocking up on supplies, we turned right at the junction. A sign pointed left to the Chang La and Leh and another pointed right to the town of Shyok and after that, the road that was closed. Our final decision was made and we were past the point of no return. We were soon committed to our route because we descended steeply along the riverside road that led us to the Shyok River valley and climbing back up wasn’t an attractive proposition. Then an unexpected climb up a pass began. It is so demoralising to spend a couple of hours climbing up a steep road in the knowledge that you’ll be losing the height again straight away and without having prepared mentally for the climb. We were now much lower than Pangong Tso and it was significantly hotter. Sweating, we crawled up the relatively small pass, the road switchbacking backward and forward up the side of the steep valley. The top of the climb was marked by a Buddhist shrine and hundreds of colourful prayer flags blowing in the strong wind that unfortunately was blowing towards us. Soon, the Shyok River came into view sitting at the base of the vast landscape that it has shaped. To the north, we could see the mountains of Pakistan, and to the East lay Tibet. Our path led north-west to the famous Nubra Valley and then the Khardung La.
One thing I noticed as we descended to the valley floor was that the river looked rather large! We were under the impression that we may need to cross it at some point and thought that perhaps this was the reason that the road was closed. My initial thought was that there was no way would could safely ford the Shyok River… fingers crossed for a bridge then. We were now cycling in another wonderful landscape completely on our own. For a period of around five hours that afternoon, we didn’t see any other people. I challenge you to find another road in India where that is possible!
The closed road was excellent to begin with, a little bit bumpy but for at least the first 10 kilometres, it was very easy cycling. The village of Agham was our target camping spot that night and the markers on the roadside counted down from 40 kilometres, the distance we planned to ride that afternoon. Harry spotted a coil of rope on the side of the road which we picked up, before finding the other half of it. The ropes were heavy as we attached them to our back racks, thinking that if a river crossing was required, they might be a necessity. Five small landslides over the next 10 kilometres or so slowed us down considerably. The tarmac road surface was buried under piles of rocks and sand. It was clear that some traffic had passed through and there were clear tracks, making most of the road rideable. On the rocky sections, we rode what we could and pushed and carried over the most difficult parts. I had more success than Harry on the sandy sections, having wider tyres that were less prone to sinking into the soft surface. We were doing fine, but I was getting quite worried. None of what we had passed so far would lead to a road closure, so where was this obstacle? It would be terrible luck to cycle 39 kilometres to Agham, only to have to turn round, make our way back along the valley and then over the Chang La.
Ahead, the valley turned dramatically to the right and the river hugged the left side of the valley, carving out a tall cliff, which gave way to the less steep upper slopes of a snow capped peak about 500 metres above us. We were to the left of the river and ahead would be a crossing; maybe this was our obstacle? Nope, a good bridge was still in place so we crossed to the north side of the Shyok River for the first time. This section was scary because the tall, steep bank to the right of the roadside looked very unstable. There were lots of fallen rocks on the little used road and on the particularly unstable looking parts; I cycled very quickly, wanting to get out of danger as fast as possible. The valley swung left again and became more like a gorge with much steeper sides. We were now past halfway to Agham and becoming more optimistic about our chances.
This part of the road was wonderfully remote and, although the tarmac had now mostly disappeared, the hard-packed stony surface wasn’t bad to ride on. We were progressing well and then suddenly out of nowhere a Jeep appeared around a corner heading to Shyok. They had certainly come from Agham as they hadn’t passed us so this was a great sign, meaning it was possible to pass through. Four Indian men from Delhi pulled over very excited and buzzing and told us about the obstacle that we’d been waiting for all afternoon.
“There’s been a huge landslide and you have to cross the river to get round it”
Looking at the raging torrent to the left of us this didn’t look very likely, so we pressed for more information.
“Keep a look out on the left of the road for our tracks, there’s a shallow part of the river you need to cross to get around the landslide, you be fine on the bikes”
We told them that they would have no serious trouble getting to Pangong Tso from here and they looked delighted. It was a great moment; both parties had reassured one another that the route was possible so they shook our hands with smiling but slightly exasperated faces before parting. They obviously thought we were crazy to be attempting to ride along this road on bikes with no support.
Sure enough, a couple of kilometres further on, we saw their tracks crossing a sandy area near the river bank. We followed and looking to the right, could see that the road had been completed wiped out by large boulders. It certainly was impassable and the road workers had a serious job on their hands to get it open again. Ahead of us was the river crossing and it didn’t look bad at all. There was almost no current but it was hard to judge the depth. There was about 40 metres of water to cross but there were rocks that we could walk on to the sides of the submerged track. I tried to ride it and it was going well for a few seconds before my front panniers and feet went underwater. Dragging my bike to the rocky right of the track side, I walked, carried and heaved the bike for about ten minutes to the other side of the water. Harry did the same on the left side and soon we were reunited on dry land. Crossing another small section of river, we were back on the riverbank, having passed the landslide. It had been fine, although a normal car wouldn’t have got through.
A bit wet and with dripping panniers, we continued, crossing the river one more time on a long, well-built bridge. A group of road workers gaped at us as we passed. We asked
“How far to Agham, is the road good?”
“Seven, good road”, they replied.
Punching the air, we whizzed along the valley. Although the distance to Agham was a lot more than seven kilometres, we got there before dusk and set up camp on a pasture next to a stream that had flown from the slopes of the Wari La. Piles of dry wood provided us with a great fire and a fantastic evening, cooking and eating under the brightening stars. We'd conquered the closed road; what a day!
DAY 16: A SIDE TRIP TO SAMSTANLING GOMPA IN THE NUBRA VALLEY
After leaving the excellent campsite, we spent the morning cycling along the Shyok River Valley once more, but this time the road was good quality and officially open. Shortly after leaving Agham, we came across some workmen, building a new Buddhist stupa. Stupas are structures containing Buddhist relics, usually the ashes of Buddhist monks. The large cubic base was complete and they were working on the conical spire. There are five parts of a stupa; a square base representing earth, a dome representing water, a spire representing fire, a crescent moon or lotus parasol representing air and the sun representing space. They are usually painted white, but we did see a couple of blue ones. Different shape stupas represent different elements of the Budda’s life. We saw hundreds of these monuments in Ladakh and they are impressive and beautiful structures and are all slightly different
Another short but unexpected climb frustrated us because we knew that we would need to descend again straight away. At the top of the climb, the road turned off left to the Khardung La. We planned to ascend the pass the following day but for the moment, we took the right hand turn; a winding descent to the village of Khalsar. Stopping for mid-morning snack of maggi noodles and sweet tea, we attempted to communicate with the shop owner. We wanted to visit a monastery and there were two possibilities; one in the Nubra Valley and one further up the Shyok. With our limited common language, it took a while for him to advise us to go to the Nubra Valley (I think), saying “beautiful, Nubra”. He was a very kindly old man, with a weather beaten, wrinkled face and short grey hair. We bought six litres of water from him, and then he passed us some mints as we left.
Fighting a headwind, we continued up the Shyok until a bridge took us across the river to the Nubra Valley. We had decided to take the old man’s advice and it turned out to be a good decision. The road skirted around the confluence of two of Ladakh’s great rivers, the Nubra and Shyok, climbing and then descending into a desert landscape. We could see giant sand dunes near the river and ahead was a spectacular view of the valley disappearing to the north. In the far distance, the giant mountains of the Karakorum Range were visible. Once again the weather was perfect, but it was getting hot as the time approached midday. After around 10 kilometres of riding up the Nubra Valley, we reached the town of Sumar, the location of the monastery that we wanted to visit, named Samstanling. The road climbed to its location, following a very interesting “pilgrimage path”. The path passed many stupas, shrines and prayer wheels, winding its way past the many holy sites before reaching the monastery at the top. We saw lots of monks walking up to the monastery, having been to the shops in Sumar.
Eventually at the top, we locked up the bikes to have a look around. It wasn’t the largest monastery, containing only around 100 monks, and it had a school attached to it. We learnt a bit about the religion by asking a volunteer who was working there. Amongst other interesting facts, we learned that Buddhist monks and nuns are celibate, so I was puzzled as to where the children came from. Apparently families often encourage them to go to school at the monasteries and then to become a monk or nun. I wondered if they had much choice in the matter, because being sent to the monastery at such a young age, they wouldn’t miss being able to have a relationship or to raise a family. It must be a difficult decision for their parents to take. There were statues of Budda, with many offerings laid in front of them, including a packet of biscuits! The volunteer showed us his sketches of the Buddhist paintings in the monastery. The Buddhist art is a unique, almost cartoon like style, and looked strange to Harry and me, but the volunteer said he really liked it and that once you get used to it, you begin to appreciate the skill behind the paintings.
We descended back to Sumar, passing the shrines and prayer wheels again, until we reached a restaurant where a young guy cooked us some delicious chow mein. Neither of us could be bothered retracing our pedal strokes back to Khalsar, at the bottom of the Khardung La, so we asked around to see if we could hitch a lift. Fortunately, a group of road workers were heading for the Shyok Valley and had some room in the back of their truck. Lifting our bikes onto the back, we squeezed in to the small area of space at the very back of the open topped truck, between its side and a large cement mixer. First stop was a roadside welding workshop where the cement mixer was fixed. Nobody got out of the truck while the electric welding machine was passed up and the problem fixed. Continuing on, it was an uncomfortable drive because we needed to hold on to the bikes to stop them being thrown off the open back of the truck and had to hold on tight when we went round corners. We arrived back at the bridge unscathed though, before cycling the few kilometres back to Khalsar.
By that time it was early evening and we thought that it would be a good plan to start the climb up the Khardung La, in order to make the next day’s task a bit easier. We climbed for an hour and a half in the evening light, and were treated to fantastic views back over the Shyok. There were not many places to sleep, the ground being steep and rocky, but we found a flat area about 20 metres from the roadside where we unrolled our mats and cooked some dried camping food. This food had been our emergency supplies that Harry had brought with him from England, but we thought that we wouldn’t need it any more, being back in relative civilisation. We didn't bother pitching our tents that night. We couldn’t see the top of the pass ahead but we knew that we had around over 50 kilometres to climb. The following day was going to be tough!
DAY 17: OVER THE HIGHEST MOTORABLE PASS IN THE WORLD
The Khardung La is claimed to be the highest motorable pass in the world. Whether it is or not depends on your definition of the world motorable but whatever the case, it's rather high and it was definitely the highest point of our trip. My GPS measured the summit to be at an altitude of 5,374 metres, which is higher than Everest Base Camp! We started Day 17 at an altitude of 3,680 metres and it took almost all day to reach the top. Pushing our bikes over the rocky terrain on the roadside, we left our campsite and joined the road again. After the challenge of the Tanglang La, the thought of 50 kilometres of climbing at high altitude was pretty intimidating and I had to call upon all my mental strength to keep the pedals turning. We crawled up the pass though, ticking off kilometre after kilometre. Not a lot happened of note on the climb. We stopped a couple of times for maggi noodles and chai at the usefully positioned villages of Khardung and North Pullu. It was a pretty climb that started up a green hillside on the side of a rushing river. North of Khardung, I was surprised to see so many people living at the altitude we were now cycling at; over 4,000 metres. There were farms, cattle and crops and winter was close. Soon most of this land would be covered in thick snow. I wondered whether the inhabitants stayed there all year; apparently the road is kept open.
Leaving the valley, the road switchbacked up to the higher slopes of the mountain and left the vegetation behind, which slowly gave way to a barren and rocky landscape. Now the summit was in view and that wasn't a good thing. It looked miles away, which reminded us that it was in fact, miles away. Each kilometre that passed didn't seem to make much difference but ever so slowly, the summit got closer. North Pullu was a good spot to stop and restock on chocolate for the rest of the climb.
Finally, after nine hours of climbing, the top looked a more manageable distance away. On the roadside, was a recently turned over lorry, which fortunately didn't look too damaged. I left my bike on the roadside and checked the cabin; the driver wasn't anywhere to be seen so presumably he'd got a lift away with another vehicle. Rounding the final switchback there was only two kilometres of climbing through the snow. Looking to the north was a staggering view of the climb we'd just conquered. The road looked so tiny in comparison with the mountainside; an insignificant winding line on the landscape. Clouds were coming in, making the view even more dramatic. The last part of the climb was a rough gravelly road surface but having beaten the pass mentally, it passed quickly and at last we reached the top. It was an incredible feeling to be at the top of the world.
Loads of summit photos later, the descent began and it was probably the best I have ever done. The most rewarding thing about cycling over the top of a pass is that you leave behind one incredible view to be replaced with another. Ahead of us the road disappeared into the Indus Valley and Leh was visible in front of the giant wall of mountains to the south of the river. It was now early evening and the sun was low in the sky so we began the descent, racing down as fast as we could. A couple of trucks blocked the road ahead, trying to pass each other. The one that was ascending was about a foot away from a terrifying drop to the left and the descending truck was halfway up a bank, revving its engine to try to steer away from the second truck. Both drivers looked pretty scared and angry with one another. Eventually the descending truck got high enough up the bank for the other to pass by. No wonder we had seen so many trucks that had tipped off the road.
After descending a few kilometres to South Pullu, the tarmac returned and our speed increased. The sky was now orange with the evening sun and the road following the top of a ridge above Leh, before descending into the east of the city. After two hours, we had descended forty kilometres and were finally back in the city we had left four days earlier. In Chopsticks restaurant that night we talked about our latest adventure, it had been wonderful, just as good as the Manali-Leh highway that we had come here to do. This is without a doubt one of the best areas in the world for cycle touring. We were well due a rest day!
DAY 19: THROUGH THE MOONSCAPE
The fourth and final leg of our Indian adventure was a section of another famous Himalayan Road, the Srinagar to Leh Highway. This road is Ladakh's main connection with the rest of India and is a bigger and faster road than the Manali to Leh route. We decided to ride the final 125 kilometres of the highway in the final two days that we had left before our flight home. Our taxi arrived at six in the morning to give us a lift to the top of the Fotu La, the highest point on the Srinagar to Leh road at 4,070 metres. We had left most of our luggage in our guest house in Leh and were now travelling light with just one pannier each. After tying the bikes onto the roof we were taken to the start point of our final trip. On the way the most memorable sight, despite the beautiful landscapes, was a manically overloaded bus. It was completely packed full of people inside and there were at least 20 people sitting on the roof rack. It was unbelievably dangerous and many of the people on the roof were school kids.
The landscape was very different and much drier; a mountainous desert. The road quickly descended from the top of the pass and reached the monastery town of Lamayuru. The monastery sits on a rocky outcrop in front of the "moon valley" a bizarre but beautiful rock formation covering a massive area. The mountainside ahead was covered in sandy yellow craters and ridges making for a bizarre but astonishing sight, which our road skirted around the edge of, descended steeply into a beautiful gorge.
Before long, we came across a small monastery at the foot of a cliff on the other side of river by the roadside. There were hundreds of people there so we crossed a footbridge, pushing our bikes over the wobbling planks of wood, to investigate. It turned out that one of the top lamas (religious leader) from the school of Buddhism that that monastery belongs to was there and people had travelled for miles to see him. He was preaching from inside the overflowing monastery, which had a crowd of people sitting outside. Many people had hand held prayer wheels that were attached to wooden handles. The rotating wheel could be spun by whipping the wooden handle around in a circle. One old man couldn't walk very well and was struggling to progress around the edge of the crowd; however, he continued spinning his prayer wheel at all times. Most adults were wearing dark blue or maroon robes, while many of the children had expensive looking shirts on. Many of the older women were sat cross legged at the front of the crowd in front of the monastery. It was very interesting to see and everybody was so friendly and welcoming.
Soon we reached the Indus Valley again, and began following the river, before stopping for a tasty curry at the first town we came across. There are many more towns and villages on the Srinagar to Leh Road and the cuisine options are much more varied than the staples of omelette, maggi noodles and dhal. There was a pretty extensive bar attached to the restaurant we ate at. A bus stopped outside and a man from the bar tried to sell beer to all of the passengers. One man bought a large paper bag full of beer and hid it under his seat, with the exception of one bottle that he wrapped in paper and began to drink. He would have an interesting journey to Srinagar I thought!
The afternoon was easy and the combination of lighter bikes and a strong tailwind meant that we quickly reached our intended destination, a beautiful little guest house named Alchi View. On the way we passed through many small and picturesque villages. Life was peaceful here and everybody seemed very relaxed. Stopping for a drink at one village, we admired the innovative cooler made by diverting a stream through a length of pipe that entered a large bucket full of drinks bottles. At the guest house, we had a comfortable and relaxing evening. The garden was full of fruit and nut trees which we were told to help ourselves to, and inside, the house was so cosy. We were served dinner in the living room, which was built around an enormous and ornate cast iron stove. The Tibetan stew was delicious and included goat meat and small bits of dough, in a thick sauce. Sitting cross-legged on the cushions around the edge of the room, we spoke to the girl who lived there; she was on holiday from school. She told us about the winter, when it got very cold. The stove was used to heat the entire house and for cooking, by burning wood and animal dung that is stock-piled in the storeroom on the ground floor. She was very fond of a little dog that wasn't particularly friendly to us! Yapping and growling every time it saw us, it was very territorial. After a very interesting conversation and a delicious meal, we went to bed. This was a different type of bike touring; lightweight and faster paced. With no tent there was less flexibility but staying in this sort of accommodation was an excellent experience. It is not necessary to take a tent on the Srinagar-Leh highway as there are plenty of guest houses like this.
DAY 20: BACK TO LEH FOR THE FINAL TIME
We woke up to a "Ladakhi breakfast", which consisted of fairly average chapattis and jam, with fermented yak butter; a taste that took some getting used to. Leaving the wonderful guest house, we started the first long climb of the day. It was pretty easy in comparison to what we'd already done and with our increased fitness and lightweight bikes, took only about an hour. Cycling through a bleak but beautiful desert landscape, we descended again, to a small restaurant and a second, much larger, breakfast. One of the chefs at the restaurant was cutting vegetables for a meal that he was cooking. He asked us if we wanted to try "Ladakhi fruit". It turned out to be a large red root vegetable, which I had never seen before.
Now in a valley with more vegetation, on the edge of the Indus River, we passed through the towns of Basgo and Nimmu. More monasteries built on vantage points looked over the valley, which was dotted with stupas, some large and new, some crumbling, some painted bright blue instead of the common white colour. We stocked up on water in Nimmu, ready for another long climb in the desert. The road passed the confluence of the famous Indus and Zanskar Rivers. The green, silty Indus River met the glistening blue Zanskar to form a much larger Indus River downstream. For a while after the confluence the south side of the river was bright blue and the north, a murky green, before they mixed to form a single flow. The view of these two iconic rivers meeting was spectacular with the giant valleys combining to form one. The Zanskar Valley is a highlight of this region and if the opportunity arose to come back to this part of the world, it would be at the top of my list. We had been told of giant glaciers looking down on a remote dirt road... if only we had another week!
Shortly after this spectacular sight, we came across "Magnetic Hill". Supposedly, the topography of the landscape in this valley makes it appear that the road is ascending, when in fact, it is descending. We stopped in the box that is painted on the road and faced down the valley, expecting to roll forwards as the road looked like it was going downhill. We rolled forwards... not particularly impressive. Neither of us could see why the famous Magnetic Hill was an optical illusion, as far as we could tell, the valley, although very beautiful, did not disobey the laws of gravity as advertised!
Climbing quickly on our lightweight bikes, we soon reached a Hindu temple at the top of the pass. Over the top, we began the descent to Leh. At this point, the valley widened into a giant plain between two mountain ranges. Our last descent was fun but not particularly spectacular as the industry of Leh came into view. We climbed into Leh, past the airport that we'd soon be flying home from, and navigated our way back to the Indus Guest House and the end of our trip.
Looking back to the start of our trip in Chandigahr, it could have been months ago. It certainly seemed like a very long time had passed between then and now. We had covered over 1,000 kilometres of mountainous terrain and had ascended the height of Mount Everest more than three and a half times. What a journey! It was probably the best concentrated three weeks of cycling I have ever done. The most incredible thing about the route we had taken was undoubtedly how varied it was. Every day brought a new landscape, unique and spectacular. Conquering the physical challenge provided by 5,000 metre plus passes was incredibly rewarding. Camping with a good mate, surrounded by the largest mountains in the world is a memory that I will never forget. Harry and I high fived, then headed out for a beer and talked about our plans for our next trip; fat bikes to Mongolia sounded like a good plan...
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