We had wanted to cycle over the Himalaya from Nepal into Tibet but it was not possible, instead we devised a longer route to China that will eventually take us over the Karakorum from Pakistan, but like crazy fools there was still this nagging desire to cycle over the Himalaya, especially since we had not even managed to get up in among the mountains in Nepal and had then been forced to skip Uttaranchal, thus missing the Nanda Devi range and the source of the Ganga.
Except we weren't forced to to miss it, we chose to, 'cos instead we had the idea to try and escape the monsoon heat and rains by heading north, over the mountains into the rain shadow of Ladakh, a small part of Tibet that finds itself in India while the rest finds itself in China (in much the same way that Shropshire is on the wrong side of the Welsh border).
Ladakh means "the land of high passes" and in order to get there you do indeed have to cross many high passes. The old trading routes are many but are only accessible on foot or with a very good horse, until in the
1970's a road was built from Kashmir over the Zoji La and Ladakh was properly linked to the rest of the internal-combustion powered world. Then in the 1980's another road was opened from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, crossing not just one pass and mountian range but four. This road is now something of a legend amongst cyclists and the temptation to try it was just too great, plus it would be good training for if we ever get to Tibet proper.
The road is less than 500km long, but mostly unpaved, and cycling north from Manali each pass gets progressively higher until the final descent to the Indus valley and Ladakh. During the 5 days of waiting for Erika's cold to clear and for her to feel strong enough for this challenge I had probably too much time (the Israeli hordes being none too welcoming to us non-chosen ones) to sit and read about the road and the mountains, conjuring images in my mind of the amazing sounding "Gorges of Pang" or the 5000m high More Plains. I had been really frustrated by the 3 weeks in Kathmandu and our failure to hit the hills and badly needed a
Women in Kyelong
Our first encounter with Ladakhi culture and costumes
mountain fix, and I began to fear reality might not live up to my expectations. Fortunately nothing could have been further from the truth.
Finally the morning to leave came and we were up before first light to prepare for the immediate 2000m climb from Manali to the Rohtang Pass on top of the Pir Panjal range. Erika noticed a wobble in her rear hub as we were loading the bikes which could have ruined everything but fortuntely we could quickly tighten it up. Leaving town we passed by dozens and dozens of small wooden shacks hiring out thick coats and "Dangri Sets" (aka Dungaree's/Salopettes) to the Punjabi tourists, who seemingly thought they were going to the north pole or something. Soon the road began to climb steeply in tight switchbacks up through the pine forest, before this began to give way to alpine pastures and rocky slopes. Our early start was good because we had a couple of hours on the Indian tourists who all drive to the top for the day, but soon we were being passed by hundreds of cars and buses and the traffic began to get a bit crazy. After 4 hours of hard
work we had climbed slightly over half-way up and stopped at Muri, a strip of tourist cafes for lunch. The place was swamped and we had to pose for numerous photos for the Indian tourists. Just uphill many of these same Punjabi's were being launched off the hillside on tandem paragliding flights and we amused ourselves watching them all crash land just below our cafe.
Then it was time to re-enter the fray, climbing higher and higher into cooler and thinner air. We were now well over 3000m up - the highest we had ever been on our bikes - and starting to feel the effects of less oxygen. The road clung to a narrow precipice in a steep rock wall but most drivers were seemingly oblivious to the drop as they drove rally style to get to the top first. It got pretty hairy at times and the final 5km to the top were almost bumper-bumper traffic jam. It wasnt quite what we had imagined. Finally the road levelled out and we entered the mist and cloud on top of the pass at almost 3900m. The broad pass was a huge car park and circus of snack bars,
tea stalls and more Dangri-hire places. We forced our way through the crowds to the actual top, posed for a photo by the summit and managed to avoid hiring a pony ride, paying to have our photo taken on some snow or hiring some huge wooden ski's to ski on the 50m of snow left from last winter (really, it made the Lecht look impressive). We had hoped to find a spot to rest and enjoy the peace of the mountains but there obviuosly was none so we rode over the top and after 50m the crowds vanished, the cloud cleared and the most amazing view of huge snow-clad peaks soaring to the sky and deep glacier filled valleys opened before us. This what what we had been hoping for and amazingly none of the Indian tourists seemed remotely interested in simply admiring the view. We found a boulder to shelter behind from the icy wind and soaked up the view while enjoying a well earned cup of tea, and could have been a million miles from the circus 100m behind us.
Fortunately the Rohtang La is as far as the Manali day-trippers go and the road down the
The Scrum of The Rohtang Pass
India claims to have many of the "Worlds Highest" this or that, mostly quite dubiously. At nearly 4000m this may well be the worlds highest traffic jam, though I dont remember anyone boasting too much about that....
north side was deserted, though a slow descent as the road surface was much worse then on the way up. After an hour or so of cold freewheeling, dodging rockfalls and huge boulders in the road we met the junction to Spiti and stopped for dinner in a small hut. Erika had a mild headache from the altitude but I felt euphoric at finally being up in the mountains. We had just crossed the Pir Panjal range, with is an offshoot of the main Himalaya and which further west separates the Vale of Kashmir from the rest of India. Below us churned the silver grey Chandra river (Moon River - quite appropriate given its colour) that would later become the Chenab downstream in Kashmir. We camped in alpine meadows near this river and slept far better then we had for weeks.
The next morning we were up early, hoping to make good progress towards the next pass, but first we had to ride down the valley towards Kyelong. The road was good at first, crossing the Chandra on a rickety old bridge but then turning into a rough gravel surface which slowed us a lot. Also we both felt
tired from the previous days effort and we were still well above 3000m and feeling it - I now had a mild headache too. The valley was beautiful and we decided to take it easy, and after a few feet-wetting river crossings we finally crawled into Kyelong for lunch and decided to call it a day and rest. Although we were still technically in Himachal the people of Kyelong were very different - rounder faces and narrower eyes, not quite Tibetan but halfway there with tanned, weatherbeaten skin. The women were all dressed in Ladakhi costumes and as we tucked into huge bowls of Thukpa they all smiled and pointed upwards asking "Gompa Gompa?" We soon learned there was a big festival going on up the hill at the huge Gompa (monastery) and so after lucnh we set off on foot to climb the steps hundreds of metres up the valley side. It was worth it though; the gompa was very similar to those in Sikkim but in an arena to the side a sacred Thanka was on display while masked monks danced around performing ancient ritual movements to the sound of chanting, drumming and high pitched tibetan horns. We
Kyelong Valley View
The last greenery for a long time
were glad we had stopped for the day, and by the time we plodded back to town our headaches had vanished too.
The next morning we felt great, our legs were fresh, our heads clear, the sun was shining, the sky and mountians were clear and it was one of those days where you just feel great to be alive and that nothing could possibly spoil it all. And it didn't. The road north up the valley towards Darcha and the Baralacha La beyond was slow and very dusty, but the clear air made everyhting seem super sharp and almost surreal. The warm sun filled the air with the rich smell of juniper and we no longer cared how slow we were going. At Darcha we had to stop for a police checkpoint and decided to have some Thukpa too, followed by a big plate of fried rice. The steep and narrow valley we had been following had now opened out to a huge braided river bed dwarfed by high mountians, and soon we were zig-zagging our way up the side of one of these, before climbing up a higher valley towards the miltary camp at Paseo. This section
Monks dancing as part of the Festival
of road proved to be the worst bewtween Manali and Leh, with deep gravel that made it impossible to cycle and pretty hard to push. The Bihari and Nepali road crew were slowly working towrds surfacing it but hadnt compacted the gravel yet. This was the only place, apart from one deep river crossing, where we had to push the bikes. At Paseo the valley opened out again to broad, alpine pastures and the sunlight was so intense we had to rest for while in a roadside tent serving sweet chai. It was too early to stop though so we cycled on up the valley, leaving the grassy pastures behind and entering a world of grey scree, rocks and boulders. The road camp at Zing-Zing Bar (c.4000m) had no food so we pushed on uphill for another tiring 6km to a parachute tent run by Nepali's where we could sleep and buy daal and rice. This was now the highest we had cycled and we were worried about altitude sickness as we were sleeping at the highest point of the day but we had no problems.
I was woken at dawn by the calls of snowcock outside the tent
Gangs of Biharis spend all summer doing such high tech work for around $2 a day, not including their food. Bihar is at sea level, humid and tropical. Here they live often well over 4000m for months at a time.
but couldnt find them. After breakfast we set off to slowly climb the rest of the way up to the summit of the Baralacha La. The road surface was excellent but the going slow purely because of the altitude, talking to each other while pedalling became impossible or we had to stop wheezing and gasping for air. Slowly we adjusted to cycling very slowly and steadily in low gears. The road climbed in wide hairpins through rock and boulder fields that were really the terminal moraines of glaciers dropping down the mountiansides from the icy peaks above. We reached and passed an amazing tourqoise blue glacial lake at 4700m and then finally and a bit anti-climactically reached the wide, broad basin of the Baralacha La. At roughly 4800m (it is impossible to be certain of the heights as the maps show 3-4 different figures and the signs on the passes disagree with them all...) we were about as high as Mont Blanc but sitting in a big grassy bowl surrounded by high Himalayan peaks. It is really the convergence of about 3 different valley systems and so didnt feel like a normal pass but here we were on top of
the Great Himalayan Range, on our bikes, and very very happy. To the south lay all of India, to the north the rest of Asia. After over an hour sitting up there we finally left and descended down into a very different landscape, almost devoid of vegetation. The road turned to scree and rock, often with snowmelt streams running all over it, descending gently at first and then more steeply down towards the Sarchu plains at 4200m.
Suddenly vegetation re-appears but the landscape has changed, the mountians are more distant, everything seems bigger, we are in a broad, flat grassy valley with desert coloured mountians rising to each side and a river cutting deeply into the flat grassland with amazing columns formed by erosion. Huge Himalayan Golden Marmots run away as we fly past on the now good road again, or else sit up whistling alarms to warn their freinds some crazy fools are coming on bikes, and for the first time since leving Manali we can shift out of our lowest chainring. At Sarchu 'town' we sign another police book and note that the police checkpost is opposite a shack selling booze that claims it is the "Highest
Climbing towards Baralacha La in the high Himalaya
Liqour store in the world - but prices as in the down". We cross the bridge into Jammu & Kashmir and enter Ladakh proper, at least politically. We ate our dinner at one of the ramshackle huts and tents that serve as the overnight bus halt for the 2-day bus ride from Manali to Leh, but felt like cycling on and camping by ourselves. For another 20km the road remained fairly flat along the Sarchu plains, before crossing a small stream called Brandy Nala (Nala = stream) where we found an awesome campsite. Pitched in the middle of the wide valley, watching the sunset turn the peaks red all around us and then the most incredible display of stars appear, feeling like we were the only people for hundreds of miles. This is easily the best campsite we have had on this trip and it will probably take a lot to beat it.
Another day, another pass. Packing and leaving our camp we began to climb the Gata Loops - a mind bending and muscle-sapping series of 21 hairpins that would take us from 4200m up to 5000m and the Nakee La pass, though this is not treally a
Not even 2 years old and pretty much independant at 4300m.
true pass, just a shoulder we had to cross before dropping down again to Whisky Nala (nice water, but whisky it wasnt) and an ugly road building camp. At the top of the Gata Loops we caught up with 2 Lichtensteiner cyclists pulling trailers loaded with 25kg each!! They passed us again as we stopped to re-fuel with noodles, cooking them beside a small stream that crossed the road. The mountians now were all shades of brown, yellow, red and orange: the desert like Zanskar range, and but for the thin air we could have been back in Iran or Baluchistan. From Whisky Nala it was a deceptivley short but hard climb up to the Lachlung La -our first true 5000m pass. Apparently it is 5061m high but given the margin of error in Indian surveying maybe it is actually little bit under 5000m - we didnt care, it was seriously high and towards the top we could not sustain cycling for more then a few minutes at a time before pausing to recover our breath. Even once we had stopped if we treid to talk before our breathing and heart rates had dropped it felt like we were suffocating.
Finally we reached the top, the contrast bewtween the khaki mountains with little snow left on them and the deep blue sky was intense - looking directly up the sky almost seemed black instead of blue. And we felt amazing. Crouching behind the summit sign to shelter from the freezing wind and thanking all the gods for allowing us to be there.
Finally we descend fully wrapped against the wind onto a really rough section of road (basically a series of boulders) that drops into a deep, narrow, rocky chasm - the Gorge of Pang. It sounded like somehting out of Middle Earth and in reality it is no different, as we descend we get views ahead across what looks like a sea of sand dunes but which slowly turns into a series of rounded, weathered, mud coloured hills above a small river valley. At the bottom is the truck stop and checkpoint of Pang (at c.4500m). Looking back the entrance to the gorge is guarded by a huge towering finger of rock. We share a parachute tent with the Lichtensteiners and discover one of them is actually Swiss and the other Austrian. The Swiss guy ran away from
Another Pass Completed
On top of the Great Himlaya Range, at Baralacha La. Somewhere near 4800m up.
national service and so had to live in Lichtenstein for 15 years to avoid imprisonment - the first Swiss refugee I have ever met. While we eat our daal and rice the Ladakhi man running the tent rocks back and forth chanting Bhuddist mantras from old scrolls and fingering prayer beads or swinging a hand-held prayer wheel. As it darkens outside this the only noise and it becomes quite entrancing, and we realise he is completely lost in it - his eyes are only whites. It is quite eerie but supremely relaxing at the same time.
From Pang the road climbs 500m up to another wide, flat valley plain - the More Plains. These stretch for over 60km and there is no water so we are fully loaded with litres and litres when we leave Pang the next morning, climbing the steep hairpins out of the valley as the sky darkens behind us. Suddenly the road levels and we are on a high, flat plateau with rolling, Cairngorm-like mountians far off to either side. The road is a mix of good tarmac and unsurfaced, soft sand. In places the sandy tracks split into dozens of choices and we gamble
High Altitude Locals
Gujar Nomads taking their flocks over the Himalya to their summer grazing pastures at Sarchu
on which is the easiest. We are lucky though, the cloud lowers and it drizzles on us but we have no feirce headwinds we had been warned about, in fact what wind there is is for once behind us and in a few hours we have sped across the 60km with ease - and we are 5000m above sea level. The road swings north and gradually climbs above the plains, hugging the side of five and a half thousand metre hills that could easily be in Scotland if they werent so high. We had thought we might need to camp on the plains before attemping this last pass but we have plenty of time now and so start the long, slow climb. The gradient looks easy and the distances look short but the thin air deceives our judgement and our perception of distance is screwed. Also we feel like we did at the top of the Lachlung La but we still have several hundred metres to climb. We cycle for 5 minutes a go at most before stopping to recover our breath and let our hearts stop pounding. Slowly slowly we climb higher, the pass never looks much closer but
Bollywood - even up here!
A Filmshoot on the way down from Baralacha La. Tjhere is no escape from Bollywood in India, even when you are above 4000m.
the plains behind us seem further down each time we look back. We are getting hungry, we reach a small snowmelt stream and stop to cook more instant noodles - our lifleline up here. Our stove roars into life and then roars some more as 3 foot high blue flames leap up around the pan - something is very wrong. I manage to calm it by shutting off most of the fuel but we realise that yet again MSR has failed us. Still we have hot noodles. Around the corner Ladakhi women are clearing rocks from the road and filling in water channels and we are reminded that our exertion up here is for fun, they are working hard above 5000m for a pitttance. Around the next corner we find a parachute tent selling daal and rice and kick ourselves for eating the noodles so close, but we had no idea it was there.
The pass now looks close but is another hour and a half before we finally reach the top, slowly cycling for 5-10 minuntes before stopping for a few minutes to recover our breath. The rocks and scree all around are covered in fast moving stones
and we think maybe we are hallucinating, but no, they are Pika's and Hamsters and are everywhere. We also stop to admire pasing vultures and are joined by a Lammergeir cruising alongside us for a couple of minutes, literally only 20-30m away at head height as we puff up the hill. Just when it was getting really hard Nature provides us with this most amazing experience and we no longer feel tired or notice the thin air. And then we are there - Taglang La, 5300m or thereabouts and apparently the 2nd highest road in the world (according to India). I am euphoric, Erika is knackered and just wants to sit and rest, I am running around like a fool on top of the world. We have done it - from here it is downhill all the way. We shelter beside the concrete temple/gompa/mosque/ church/gurdwara that serves as a place for offerings to whichever God you choose, or perhaps as reminder up here that all Gods are one and the same after all, and that we are all equal before the power of Nature. There is no view north towrds the Ladakh or Karakorum mountian ranges but we do not
need to imagine the sea of peaks all around us, we can feel it deep within, and after all we have just crossed half of them to get here.
Finally we drag ourselves off the summit as it is getting dark and desecend quickly on a good surface down into the clouds on the northern side of the Zanskar range. The road soon turns to gravel, stones, even patches of snow and ice but we just keep dropping down and down until we reach the upper level of a valley, stony at first with a small stream but which soon gets wider with flat grassy pastures beside the river. We stop and camp on springy turf as it gets dark, cooking the last of our supply of noodles and go to bed hungry but happy.
In the morning we are in no hurry to leave our camp, from here the road will be easy, descending down to the oxygen rich air at 3,500m in Leh. It is strange, before this trip that was the highest we had ever climbed (in the Alps) and we could feel it, but now think of it as low. Back on the bikes
Up and Up
View from the Gata Loops, which climb 1000m in 21 loops
and easy freewheeling as the valley broadens and then we are in the first proper village since Kyelong, 5 days ago. The first permanaent buildings we have seen for 5 days and what a difference - we are not in India anymore, we are in Tibet - it looks just like I imagine Tibet to look, dry, high altitude desert mountains with tiny villages overlooked by hilltop monasteries, buildings all stone and mud, flat rooved, whitewashed walls and tiny fortress like windows, with prayer flags fluttering from the rooftops. It is stunning, we stop just admiring the huge houses and trying to take it all in. Huge stupas tower over the road at the start of each village. much bigger then those in Sikkim and then there are enormous Mani walls, hundreds of metres long and crowned with more giant stupas. Terraced fields are green with barley and on the roadside are tiny little thick furred donkeys, almost Lilliputian in scale. Everyone we pass has a huge smile, as do we, and shouts Julley! at us. This is Ladakh.
We descend further and further, effortlessly but slowly as we stop to admire every field, every house. We implicitly understand
This one caused us a bit of breathlessness it's around 5000m
the feeling behind the Shangri-La myth. Each village gets slightly greener as we descend, and then we see the first trees for days - stunted willows next to rushing crystal clear streams and now we are so deliriously happy we are shouting Julley at every cow, horse, goat, even just the rocks and bushes. Then the valley closes in again amongst the most amazing shaped and coloured mountians i have ever seen - like somehting form another planet in a distant galaxy; toothed and fanged deep purple rock ridges close around us and we roll down and down into the purple gorge, finally emerging into the borad expanse of the Ladakh valley and meet our old friend - the Indus. Only here once again the river is a different being, not the huge wide expanse of Punjab, or the raging silt laden torrent of Gilgit, but a milder, clear blue alpine river surrounded by sandy desert but with huge walls of mountains rising up to snow and ice-capped peaks on either side; the Zanskar range to the south, the Ladakh range to the North. We follow the river downstream through Ladakhi villges with gompas perched on rock outcrops in the
middle of the valley, passing the former capitals of Thiksey and Shey before a final last short climb to the current capital of Leh.
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