The run down from Tanglang La was fast and furious. The Southern side of the pass was dust and rocks. Much of the road was almost non existent and provided a bumpy mountain trail that threatened to rattle a bicycle to pieces.
After the almighty slog to reach the pass it was an opportunity to release energy and freewheel down. It was dangerous and exciting. It would be easy to take a spill. I tried to avoid using my brakes and overheating the ‘kool stop’ salmon MTB pads which had served me so well during the trip. A biggish rock leapt up and caught my right shin. My aluminium fuel carrier jumped out of its fitting beneath the cycle frame and suffered a huge dent. Lastly a fixture on my rear carrier came loose but it held together until the mudguard slipped. I was forced to make a ‘pitstop’ to replace the lost Allen bolt and Joachim caught up. It was all great fun.
During the descent it was possible to view the remains of some old buildings and a series of crumbling chortens in the valley. However it all looked long abandoned and as if from a different age.
The valley stretched out into wide plains with high mountains providing distant surroundings. These were the More Plains. It was a barren ‘alien’ desert with very little vegetation and stretched as far the eye could see.
A collection of roadside dhabas created a welcome oasis. One provided tea and a thali for lunch. Once the worst of the sun had passed we bought supplies and set off again through the More plains.
Nomads herded goats and yaks across the plains. I stopped at an encampment and asked to pitch our tents. I was shown an area between their own tents away from the goats. At several tents men sat shearing goats. The goats, with their legs tied together, did not mind being clipped. However the softest wool on the belly of goats was pulled from them using a large comb. The goats cried like babies!
We set off the next morning following another chilly night with the plan to reach the ‘parachute’ camp at Pang (4,600m). The road stretched out ahead for miles and miles..and miles.
Finally a wide river curved below and led quickly to Pang and lunch. The ride down into Pang was in itself quite thrilling.
At Pang I met and chatted to a French couple cycling to Leh. After the usual thali for lunch I cooled my legs in the river behind the dhaba.
The scenery after Pang changed quite dramatically. The road led through tight turns past rocky outcrops and chasms cut by fast flowing rivers. By late afternoon we encountered one such river that flooded the road. Motorcyclists were having some difficulty crossing with their machines.
I waded across and considered possible options. Given the time I thought it wise to stop, make camp and tackle the river early the next day when the water level had dropped. I also had to replace my front inner tube as it had developed a slow leak resulting from a thorn embedded in the tyre. It was only the second puncture since my trip had begun. All credit to the Schwalbe XR tyres.
Early the next day I climbed up to a cave in the rock face. I gingerly clamoured over a thick sheet of ice and admired the icicles that had formed from dripping water and created little ice mountains on the ground beneath.
The river had become a stream. I ferried my front panniers across before walking the bike to the other side. Together we set off again. The scenery was incredible. Finally, and climbing once again, the landscape opened out with large drifts of snow pulling us towards the Lachulung Pass.
The Lachalung Pass at 5,065 metres marked the second major pass of four including the Nakee La. The weather had held up well and the ride had been a dream.
Crossing the river Indus at Upshi represented, from my point of view, the real start of the journey to Manali. The scenery changed quite radically as the road weaved through canyons towards Tanglang La. About 60kms from Leh we made camp by a river. I was impressed by my Swedish companion’s stamina. As a novice cyclist he had completed a fair distance without any major difficulty.
The valley widened and the road passed through the Ladakhi villages of Rong, Gya and Rumtse. A stop for tea and then off again.
My intention was to ride beyond Rumtse (4,100m) and get as close as possible to the main ascent to the pass. At 5,328 metres the Tanglang La was to be the first and highest pass to cross. There were two main considerations and which also applied to the other passes: Firstly the altitude. I felt it important to further acclimatise before attempting the climb. The potential combination of exertion and altitude sickness could become a serious problem. Secondly it is important to avoid crossing rivers and streams in the afternoon. The snowmelt greatly increases flow often turning gentle streams into raging torrents of water crossing the mountain roads.
With the pass within striking distance I set up camp just short of the start of a major and somewhat daunting ascent. The road snaked up and towards the deep snow through a series of loops. At 4,700m it became the ‘basecamp’ to rest and acclimatise before tackling the Tanglang La. I decided it would be sensible to stay camped at that altitude for another night.
The night was bitter cold and ground water froze. I realised my ‘3 season’ Mountain Equipment Dreamcatcher 300 down filled sleeping bag was barely adequate. Waking early the following morning I walked up the valley across a thick blanket of snow and took a long view at the pass towering above in the distance. Tiny looking lorries wound their way slowly along the road. It felt like a massive task to join them.
Returning to camp I was delighted to find myself sharing my route back with a large herd of yaks. Two herdsman had brought them down from a side valley to graze in the grassy meadows. Once the morning sun hit the valley everything quickly heated up. I sat with the brothers and shared their salty tea made with yak butter. In return I gave them rice which they cooked for their lunch. The yaks spread some distance down the valley. By late afternoon they began to walk back up and without any persuasion from the herders or their dogs.
The next day went well. It was an early start before the sun could begin to makes things uncomfortable. The long haul through the loops took us up past wet stony broken roads. Road workers laboured to shore up the worst parts. Thick frozen drifts of snow created high walls alongside. After many hours cycling, the road arced up hugging the mountains until finally reaching Tanglang La at 5,328m above sea level. What a morning!
At Tanglang La I made a celebratory fresh coffee using my paraffin fueled MSR dragonfly stove and mocha coffee pot and enjoyed the view from the second highest road pass in the world. It tasted great.
The route from Leh to Manali covers 475 kilometres of quite extraordinary high altitude scenery. It is, apparently, the world’s second highest ‘motorable’ road.
I was disappointed at Srinagar when, owing to heavy snowfall, I was unable to cycle to Leh via Kargil. Plan B had taken me South into Punjab and then East from Dharmsala to Mandi. On a wild impulse I had struck North to Manali and despite my intention to rest in the peaceful Parvati valley before heading home. Once there it became apparent that I could easily get a lift to Leh with my bike. To finally reach Leh and to have the opportunity to cycle back to Manali was a dream come true
It took careful planning. Altitude is a big factor. Acclimatisation is a must to avoid serious sickness resulting from the low oxygen pressure. Three of the highest passes were over 5000 metres For a large part of the journey there would be no lower altitude than 4,600 metres. I compiled a trip projection detailing distances and altitudes together with potential facilities.
Having already spent time at Manali (2,050m) and then at Leh (3,505m) I had made good progress in terms of adjusting to altitude. I did suffer some nausea during my first few days at Leh but had prepared a little by taking 125 mg of acetazolamide twice daily before my arrival. This helps with the alkalosis caused by an increased respiratory rate. To increase my cardiovascular fitness I climbed up to the Shanti Stupa in Leh early each morning. My first attempt was very slow and I had to take frequent rests. However, and within a week I was able to walk fairly briskly to the top without stopping. I did not cycle every day but made three solid rides that took me beyond Leh and provided some taxing hill work. After two glorious weeks in and around Leh I made preparations to leave. I was to be joined by a young Swedish chap called Joakim who, although had little cycling experience or knowledge, put his faith in me as a seasoned long distance cyclist to get him through. We had to find him a bike and panniers to rent. I turned my nose up at the crap mountain bike a shop tried to unload on him. But we found a half decent touring bike with good mechs and ortlieb panniers. I also persuaded him to buy warmer clothing and kit suitable for the trip. I could see no reason to deny his earnest request to tag along. He was a good bloke and had a decent tent. I set him a provisional date to leave.
Weather was a big factor too and, unusual for Leh, it turned quite wet and cold. Most of Ladakh resides in a ‘rain shadow’ which results in its distinctive powder blue sky. But the weather across all of Northern India was exceptionally bad and severe floods caused many deaths in Uttarakhand. The forecast revealed a window of opportunity within a further 4 days. The sun shone once again and I said my farewells to friends and acquaintances and set off to follow the Indus River. I felt a little apprehensive about such a major expedition much of which would be fairly remote with no available communications. However I felt that I had planned it well and that should serious assistance be needed there was a fair amount of other traffic on the road. Moreover there are, at least, temporary camps at set locations providing supplies along the way.
The initial part of the journey was like a pleasant Summer outing. It took in the towns of Shey, Stakna, Thiske and Igu before finally hitting the major junction and Indus River bridge at Upshi.
Shey palace and Gompa provided a wonderful distraction. It was all still part of the magical Kingdom that had stolen my heart.
By the third time I had asked for some chicken the men at the Kashmiri poultry shop finally gave way and provided me with some meat. The problem was that the chickens were, as in Srinagar, held live on cages and killed for customers. they were sold by their live weight. I did not want a whole chicken and had no cold storage.
Persistence had paid off. It probably helped that most days I drank tea at the Ladakhi tea stall diagonally opposite and in passing commented that there was ‘no chicken’ for me..whilst also greeting them with a friendly early morning ‘salaam’.
A chap cut up my meat which he had produced from the bottom of a plastic tub covered in a cloth. Hygiene standards are, in typically Indian fashion, non existent and nothing is washed or cleaned. The cutting blocks used by butchers look like hollowed out slabs of tree trunk. My chicken was cut into small pieces and I told them to keep the less useful bony parts.
I was grateful for any meat I could get. There were meat stalls selling lamb or goat but prices were a little above my daily budget and preferred fish or chicken. The lamb ribs I had bought and cooked were really chewy. Ladakhi animals lead tough lives in spartan conditions.
A little further along past the tea stall were small shops specialising in cooking stoves and their repair. In Leh kerosene or paraffin is in plentiful supply unlike Manali where it is, inexplicably, as rare as hens teeth. The blue liquid is stored out front in clear glass spirit bottles. In passing I would greet my elderly kerosene supplier with a cheerful ‘Julet’ pronounced ‘joo-lay’. This Ladakh word is very useful as means both hello and goodbye. It also expresses thanks. For my limited local vocabulary it did a lot in the same way as the spiritual greeting of ‘namaste’ in India. Although well stocked with kerosene I needed to get a little extra for my camping stove before my long cycle ride through Ladakh.
Turning back towards the main bazaar road I walked past the long row of dried fruit and nut sellers (pictured previously) sitting under their tarpaulin shades with their backs to a long curved stone wall. The last woman in the row sold me a mixed selection. She always tipped the scales in my favour and her prices were better than in the shops. The last time I bought from her she noticed my chapped lips and offered me a little of her lip salve. The nuts were always good and became quite addictive. Occasionally tiny pieces of shell would threaten to break my teeth. I do love my nuts.
Walking back towards the mosque were several second hand ‘antique’ dealers with whom I spent some time socialising and buying a few choice items. The first, with an Aladdin’s cave of old and new goods, provided me with a herdsman’s food pannier. After that first encounter he told me I had brought him luck for the rest of that day and had done plenty of business.
I had to repair seams and some holes in the panniers using a darning needle and wool from a knitting store close to Leh Gate. Oddly the woman that ran that shop did not want any money and I had to insist on paying something.
A little time spent sitting in the antique shop on the main bazaar road was quite entertaining. People would bring interesting things in to sell. One elderly traditionally dressed woman brought in a large quantity of Tibetan jewellery. The shopkeeper explained that the woman was an ‘original’ muslim from Lhasa in old Tibet. Much family wealth was brought out of Lhasa in the form of jewellery and precious metals. The shop also provided a good point of exchange for local herdsmen. There was a large collection of animal bells, saddles, bridles and blankets. It was also a dropping off point for worn out traditional clothing much of which was sold on to dealers in Europe. For fun I bought a small yak wool trimmed Ladakhi hat for a pound.
My trip to Stok Palace and its museum collection had piqued my interest in the old currencies and I was able to pick up a 1920s Tibetan ‘Sho-gang’ copper coin from this particular dealer. Having already done the rounds he produced a good selection of coins and Tibetan examples at a fraction of the price of one of the other dealers. Sadly the silver Tibetan coins were a bit expensive (to me) to buy on a whim. Undoubtedly collectors would have jumped on them. The other two second hand dealers in Leh were quite shrewd. One, a Tibetan, had an amazing stock of older items including traditional footwear but wanted ‘top dollar’ for most things. That said I did pick up some plain patterned Tibetan woollen seat covers for a good price. But I factored them in to buying a few things to get the price down.
The other dealer had a shop stall close to the mosque (and the cheese/lassi makers) which had thousands of small old items. It was mostly jewellery and a good range of small objects. Many were broken but it was potentially a good source for any discriminating magpie. His stall also had many personal items floating around on it including family photographs and souvenirs of his pilgrimages.
Early that evening I cleaned, cooked and spiced the ‘chicken’. It was my usual curry using garlic, onions and ginger. It cooked for a long time. When finally it was ready I sat down to eat the meal at the plastic table by the vegetable garden of the Lhari guest house. Whatever the meat was I could not be certain it was chicken. It was tough and stringy. In fact I thought it could be lamb. However, and having briefly seen the carcass in the shop and its short legs, I could only conclude that it was a small mammal of some kind. But what animal.. I had absolutely no idea. My imagination goggled.
Another afternoon I cycled to the Buddhist Gompa at Spituk. It is quick journey from Leh downhill past the military base and Leh airport. Behind the Gompa lay the river Indus which provides an essential and symbolic link with Northern India.
As a ‘tourist’ it is easy to feel like an unwilling contributor to the gradual demise of Leh. Ladakhis are very much aware of the radical changes brought about by tourism. But the bottom line is that tourism equates with money and income for the region as a whole. It is ‘acceptable’. No doubt in a few years time the main bazaar road will boast of a Macdonalds, Starbucks and maybe even a Dunkin Donuts.
Leh is filled with clothing, trekking and souvenir shops catering for tourists and backpackers. Add in the profusion of hotels, restaurants, travel and sports centres and Leh has become transformed into a tourist Mecca. As in Manali motorcycles are big business with many gas guzzlin’ wannabe ‘easy riders’ wanting to explore Ladakh to its remote borders with Pakistan and China whilst conquering some of the most arduous and highest roads in the world. Every day in Leh a new ‘tourist’ shop, restaurant or hotel opens. Sadly, and with so many beautiful destinations; Leh, Ladakh and its remote locations are slowly becoming just another adventure playground for the West and wealthy tourists. But at least the harsh winter conditions provide some seasonal respite from the gradual assault.
Leh remains, at present, a little slice of heaven. Buddhist chortens and shrines dot the roads and Ladhakis cultivate the fields as they have done for generations. The city is nestled in the most incredible scenery with snow capped mountain ranges in every direction. The view from the Shanti stupa on a hill overlooking Leh is one of peace, tranquillity and enduring beauty. It is the closest I am likely to ever get to Shangri-La.
The monastery at Hemis provides the atmospheric setting for an annual festival and largest world gathering of ‘drukpa’ masters. The red hatted Tibetan Buddhist monks open the gates of the monastery to visitors. The highlight of the two day festival is the masked dance and symbolic victory over evil deities.
I tried to take a local bus to Hemis to Leh. I sat on a bus in the station along with a group of local girls. It did not appear to be going anywhere. After a fair old wait we all got off and took a shared taxi. I was offered and took the front seat. It was a great ride in the desert sun through mountain villages punctuated by buddhist stupas and Gompas.
Together we walked up to the 17th century drukpa monastery and viewed the mask dance from a balcony overlooking the main courtyard.
At over 3,500 metres Leh is a city in the sky. Rainfall is low and the air is dry. The desert atmosphere desiccates everything it touches. With so little ground water the limited seasonal output from the melting snow puts pressure on the population to conserve every drop of water. The increasing influx of visitors exacerbates the problem. Leh has become two cities. During the Summer when the mountain passes are open it is filled with tourists and seasonal workers. As the cold weather closes in Leh returns to its Ladakhi roots. The airport provides a vital supply link. In some respects Leh’s isolation helps to conserve its cultural identity in the face of globalisation.
My own impressions were of a Kashmiri city in the same respects as Srinagar. The mosque has a central position and early each morning Kashmiris stand on the main street waiting to be picked for work. Shops, restaurants and hotels employ a host of seasonal staff from Northern India. The fascination with Leh is that it steadfastly remains a bastion of Tibetan Buddhism in the face of such potential dilution. Ladakhis are a proud people and maintain a unique identity in the face of modern pressures. Leh is filled with symbols of that identity. Much like Kathmandu, Leh has buddhist stupas and prayer wheels at every turn. The city is overlooked by Buddhist Gompas in each direction. Ladakhi families continue to farm the land within the city boundaries as they have done for centuries.
I had expected to find a cold wasteland and isolated city. But Leh is a vibrant welcoming place that enjoys good albeit dry Summers. I stayed with a traditional Ladakhi family close to the Shanti ‘peace’ stupa bordering the Changspa district to the North of the city. Early each morning the elderly owner of the ‘Lhari’ home stay would circle and purify the buildings with a smoking brazier of burning herbs. The surrounding gardens were filled with a huge variety of vegetables. Neighbours tilled their soil using yaks and planted their own crops. Visitors like myself provided an additional income but local families continued to support themselves in the same manner as they had done for generations. The isolation and independent lifestyle of Leh’s Ladakhis families is magnificent.
My upper floor room overlooked the vegetable garden and the mountain range to the South. The Shanti Stupa, built by Japanese Buddhists in the 1980s, stood high on a hill nearby. Given that I needed to acclimatise to the higher altitudes and prepare for the long cycle ride back to Manali I climbed up to it before sunrise each day. Occasionally I would meet a 16 year old Ladakhi athlete that would run to the top. He proudly told me how he had recently won the 100 and 800 metre races at an athletic meeting in Srinagar. Watching him quickly run and ascend the steps to the Stupa at an altitude of over 3,500 metres altitude it was no surprise!
During my stay I walked extensively across the city and circled it on my bike. A river cuts through the centre and beautiful old buildings lay on its banks. During recent floods residents fled up to the Shanti stupa until the waters subsided and the river returned to normal.
Leh’s Royal Palace dominates the skyline above the Jama Majid mosque on the Main Bazaar Road. Perched above is the Tsemo Fort, Gonkang and Namgyol Gompas. I climbed up in the heat past crumbling chortens to the fort and walked down past the palace into the maze of passageways of the old town.
It took around twenty hours to reach Leh by road. This included a few stops for refreshment. It was an incredible road trip which tested the vehicle and the skills of the driver.
I had booked my place early and had snagged the front seat. I watched the road carefully and considered the degree of difficulty I would experience cycling back. The road conditions were seriously bad and was amazed that a minibus could cope with the flooded rocky roads. All kudos to the driver who had been doing the route on a regular basis for over 6 years and knew it like the back of his hand. I enjoyed the luxury of being driven but felt a little guilty having scotched my ‘green’ copybook.
We were delayed at one point where the road had given way to fast moving water and mud. Vehicles were queued and a fair few people, in typical Indian fashion, stood and watched a lorry with its wheels spinning and sliding in the mud.
With a little coordinated effort there was a way for us to get through. By getting the passengers off, putting rocks under the rear wheels and enlisting the help of other drivers to push we were able to get past. Using this method we managed to get three minibuses through.
I was amused at the Israeli tourists that finally conceded to remove themselves off one minibus to lighten its load. They had summer sandals and flip-flops. Some looked like they were dressed as Rajasthani herdsmen with baggy trousers and matching hats. They did their best to avoid getting mud on their ethnic attire and gingerly tiptoed ahead past the problem. I think they would have been horrified at the thought of actually helping to push a vehicle through mud.
Having backtracked to a village to drop off an elderly lady we arrived in Leh in darkness. It took a little while to reorganise my luggage around my cycle panniers. Somewhat cold, tired and disorientated I struggled to make my way up a steep hill away from the bus station. It was pitch black. Eventually I found my way to a dirty looking room at the Indus hotel and gratefully fell in to a coma.