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.
The ride to Mandi was incredible. Once again and after a fair amount of hill work I was treated to a superb run down into the riverside city of Mandi. It was just as well since the temperature was unusually high. Mandi itself is not terribly interesting but a focus for traffic in every direction. The cheap rooms I viewed close to the central sunken garden square were very poor. Having finally viewed one that smelled like the worst kind of public toilet I opted to ‘splurge’ out on the Raj Mahal hotel. It was still time to recover from my traumatic experience at Bir and the secure comforts of the old palace helped assuage my anxiety.
Mandi has many beautiful Hindu temples by the riverside. I took a long walk that took in the island which divides the river and circled the city back to Victoria bridge. I dined like a king in the the old palace hotel and decided to head for the tourist playground of Manali. Time was on my side and I needed to get out of the heat.
The towns of Bir and Billing provide a destination for paragliders. Every year visitors compete in world championships and enjoy magnificent views as they soar above the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range.
Bir is also home to a large Tibetan community which includes several monasteries and a beautiful temple. Strictly speaking it is the village of Chaugin rather than Bir which has become a second home for Tibetan monks and families. The outlying area of Kangra provides good farming land and is characterised by large tea plantations.
I took a short walk around the grounds of the temple, looked in on monks seated in the hall and saw butter lamps being cleaned outside. I then went a little further down the road to the Garden Cafe at Palden house for dinner.
I was struck by the beauty and serenity of Bir and was keen to stay and explore for a few days. I returned to the Garden Cafe the next day having failed to find accommodation. Another visitor to the cafe; Jessinta directed me to an Eco Village (Namlang Himal) nearby. They provide cheap rooms for ‘volunteers’ in a tumbledown flat above a row of shops.
During my two days at Bir I visited a monastery, spent time sitting with metal craftsmen fashioning religious items and enjoyed time chatting with Jessinta who was engaged in a buddhist course at the temple. We tried walking to the American run Dharmalaya buddhist environmentalist centre but realised it was a lot further away than imagined. However it led us across fields and to bump into a retired Aussie/US real estate manager outside his home. He had set himself up in a rented modern building on farmland to live semi permanently and had settled into the ‘good life’. He had become a vegan and practising buddhist. His sour dough rolls and salad were delicious. He was keen to see my bike as he too had a Surly back in Oz. We arranged to all meet at the Garden Cafe for lunch the next day.
The hot weather continued through the next day. Northern India as a whole was experiencing record breaking temperatures. Once again I visited the temple and took a short stroll past fields of tea. After a local takeaway meal with friends at the flat I retired for the night. Sadly a burglar awoke me in the middle of the night and after a flurry of activity he left empty handed. I was somewhat shaken by the violent encounter and packed to leave the next morning. I was offered alternative secure accommodation at the Tibetan run Palden House. An extra two nights there and then I fled Bir. It was not exactly the personal oasis of peace and calm that I had anticipated. I warned local people about the armed intruder and contacted the British Embassy with a view to creating a few red flags. Some local business people including the French owner of the ‘eco village’ were not exactly enamoured with the idea of involving the local police. Appearances are deceptive. Back on the bike into the heat and dust….
The last few days at McLeod Ganj were good fun. An Italian chap called Stefano had moved into the next room and we hit it off quite well and talked for hours. We visited the Lung Ta Japanese restaurant for lunch and took a short hike to St John’s in the Wilderness church. Stefano is a good photographer and shared some great pictures from his trip. On the Sunday Stefano set off for Amritsar. I packed up and left early the next day. In the process of loading my bike some git (and I think I know who) stole my binoculars. Nice. This happened whilst I was paying my hotel bill. The hotel owner gave me some seeds in a small packet to carry and which he said would protect me from danger on the roads.
It was a bloody hot day. The region was experiencing a record breaking heat wave. I rode down towards the plains and turned onto highway 17 east. The road bobbed up and down through the foothills. Occasionally it was through pine forests but consistently it was hard work up through arid rocky ground. I passed Palampur and then the shrine or mandir at Baijnath. The heat of the day got to me. The temperature was in the 40s. I was well hydrated. No amount of stopping helped. My heart pounded on the slightest exertion and started playing jungle rhythms. I realised that it would no longer be wise to cycle during the main part of the day. By late afternoon I found a scruffy hotel just past the turning to Billing and called it a day.
As has happened on so many occasions with main road hotels I was the only guest. The hotel was made from concrete, barely finished and the room was filthy. I recall reading a little about the Tibetan settlement at Bir so I set off uphill to see what that was all about and see if I could get something half decent for dinner.
At McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, two narrow streets run uphill and parallel to each other with a narrow strip of shops, eateries and a temple separating them. At the top end is a junction of six roads including those sandwiching the temple. I found the Green hotel recommended by the big guides. It was full. I was relieved. Their prices are relatively high. But on request they pointed me to the Tashi Khangsar lodge opposite.
The daughter showed me a pokey single room but I asked for better windows. The double room with ‘en suite’ I was shown was what I wanted and had excellent views. At less than £4 a night and a good central position it was a gem of a room. With a little rearrangement and thorough spring cleaning I turned it into yet another ‘students room’.
The next day I walked down to the departmental offices and library of the Tibetan Government in Exile. The canteen put on an excellent lunchtime buffet.
Back down at lower Dharamsala I picked up a knockoff Northface backpack, eggs and bells. I tried and failed to source kerosene on the road back up. I needed a permit to buy it from the government outlet.
McLeod Ganj provides, in addition to the town centre temple, a residence for Tensin Gyatso aka HH the Dalai Lama and a major buddhist temple. Next to this and almost opposite a museum of Tibetan artefacts is a monument for Tibetans lost in the struggle against Chinese occupation.
I revisited the Dalai Lamas temple early the next morning and saw the butter lamps being lit and people prostrating themselves. I returned via a route that passed above the Tibetan centre for advanced studies and which overlooks the plains below.
Back at the lodge I had the usual boiled eggs and fresh coffee but with the luxury of a local bakers brown bread. It was a good day and had hardly begun.
From the Ranjit Sagar Dam I worked my way up on the East side of the Ravi river close to Lakhenpur. It was a hot day and high in the 30s. The roadside became thick with tall heavily scented cannabis plants.
From the Dam Colony I cycled past modern colleges and pleasant countryside to the town centre of Pathenkot. I stopped at a small busy junction by Ghandi Chowk. My plan was to find lodgings; stay for a few nights, and get myself well organised for the next part of my trip. I had no specific recommendations for accommodation in Pathenkot. I asked a policemen where the hotels were. He did not have a clue. So I asked him to point me in the direction of the railway station. Once past the rail and bus station I found a fair number of hotels on the main road, some of which were shiny towers of glass and steel. They looked quite swanky. I found a small hostel down a side street. Although a little pricy and unable to negotiate down, the room I got looked out into the street at ground level. I was able to wheel my bike in and even had the luxury of power, hot water an en suite shower room, toilet, TV and cooling systems. It worked out to just under £5 a night to stay at the Preet Guest House.
Pathenkot is a thriving busy market town. It has a modern high street and where I wasted much time trying to get a new data plan for my phone, but the heart of the place is in the old town centre. I had to walk a little distance along the busy Gurdaspur road to get back there. Roads pan out around a statue of Ghandi. To Ghandi’s right is the entrance to a large walled market area for fruit and vegetables. The residential area behind that and extending North is a maze of passageways and includes a small temple. Close by is a small workshop for creating religious statues.
A great discovery was the local lassi shop in the narrow passageway behind Ghandis left shoulder. It is not difficult to find as in the heat of the day it attracts a crowd of people waving money or drinking lassi. The owner crushed ice in a large mixer on his counter and added curd or yoghurt. The curd was brought in large cakes by a boy or runner who piled them high at the other end if the counter. The lassi was served in large steel goblets with a big slice of soft curd crust on top. A taste of heaven! The second day I visited the stall I had two. I will now forever be looking for those delicious lassis being served behind Ghandi’s back.
I visited two temples close to the centre. One was very busy and I sat and drank complimentary tea with the two guys running the tea and milk sweets stall at the entrance. Saddus sat by a side wall in the shade of a large tree with huge matted tendrils hanging from its limbs. One Saddu’s hair had exactly the same appearance. I was told they only sat there on certain days of the week and moved on to other spots. The second and quieter temple stood to the East of the centre in a slightly built up area surrounded by fields of towering cannabis. I could not help myself and walked into one to briefly disappear.
The large pictures on the wall of the entrance to Sai’s Bliss temple were particularly cool.
I took an early morning walk past the bus and railway stations where the Saddus collect. I saw newspapers being sorted and folded for delivery by bike.
Ever since first seeing a large three wheeler vehicle in West Nepal I have been fascinated by their look and design. There are a lot in use in Pathenkot and spotted a line of them at the bus station.
They are great looking vehicles that appeal to me a little like steam punk art:
I managed to buy supplies and some replacement (better) glasses. All was relatively cheap. A search to buy real coffee of any kind drew a blank and had to grab a small jar of (yeuk) Nescafé.
I decided to drop the idea of visiting the golden temple at Amritsar and focussed instead on reaching the cooler hills of Himachel Pradesh. The daily temperature in Punjab was heading for the mid thirties and quite uncomfortable. With an early start I figured I could make good progress towards the hill station and home to Tibetans in exile of McLeod Ganj or little Lhasa. I ate a good meal of rice, veg and roti bread in an eatery opposite the bus station which I washed down with a fizzy fresh lemonade from a street stall I had used the night before.
After breakfast I head East along the Dalhousie road. It didn’t take too long before I crossed the bridge over the Chakki river and into Himachal Pradesh. Very quickly I was climbing through green hills past monkeys and goats. I ate up the miles and a few samosas for lunch. It became increasingly hard work as the hills rolled up and down until finally, and after a full days cycling, I arrived at the typically Indian town of lower Dharmsala.
The climb to McLeod Ganj was a little steeper than I expected. Nobody cycles up. It is practically impossible. I tried and had to dismount regularly and catch my breath. It had been an extraordinary day and had travelled over 80 kilometres. I surprised myself by arriving a day earlier than I expected at the home town of the Dalai Lama.
Dropping down from Patni Top tested my brakes. Traffic made it a little more difficult as I tend to move a little quicker and am forced to brake too much. .Roadworks and an overturned lorry allowed me to slip past queues and have the road to myself. The village of Kud has many shops selling Indian sweets to tourists and I stopped for a selection. The traffic caught me up but then a major bottleneck in the village allowed me once again to get ahead of the pack. I enjoyed the ride down but stopped at an Hindu shrine to devour the sweets I had just bought and restore some energy from my climb.
It had become a lot hotter on this Southern stretch of Jammu. The vegetation more sparse, less green and much is given over to cereal production.
As the area became increasingly populated and given over to private land it was difficult to find a place to camp. However I found a little spot next to the road which was hidden well enough to avoid excessive local interest.
At this point of my journey I had to consider wether I should visit Jammu itself. Detailed as the ‘city of temples’ the guidebooks are less than impressed I decided that I should cut the corner and keep moving Southwards towards the more temperate climate and hills of Himachal Pradesh. The other consideration was a visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and left this thought for when I reached Punjab.
It was a good nights sleep although a return to the fight against mosquitos and which I had forgotten about for some time.
My route took me through Udhampur and East towards Dharamkot, Parnala and Mahampur. The journey through the dry mountain range was quite beautiful. Camping is tricky on such a mountain road with little space next to the road. But I did find somewhere and was so arid and thorny it seemed like I was in Mexico. I punctured my thermarest sleeping mat on a thorn that pushed through the bottom of the tent and despite my efforts with additional layers to prevent it.
I cycled past spectacular lakes and finally arrived at the Ranjit Sagar Dam which is the gateway into the state of Punjab. I stopped at a busy row of tea stands and chatted with a young engineering student that was helping a relative out with his shop. Sadly whilst distracted in conversation my Eastpak backpack disappeared. This was a nuisance as contained some useful bits of kit; torches and trusty penknife, my raincoat, an e-reader, a little money and some personal items. A little disappointing and a low point for my trip but my documents were safe. It could have been worse. There had been a number of tourist coaches and vehicles that had parked whilst I had chatted and so entirely possible that it had been quickly lifted with my noticing.
It was a very hot day and losing the backpack took a little weight off my back. Beyond the dam I encountered a checkpoint manned by smartly dressed turbaned police. I reported my loss, they took my telephone number and I cycled over the border into the state of Punjab. Next stop Pathankot!
In contrast to the fertile valley of south Kashmir, Jammu is a primarily mountainous state. My cycle ride took me past spectacular scenery. High mountain passes and rivers that carved deeply into the rocks; it was a wonderful experience. Traffic was fine too and not too busy. I considered a room in Banihal but it cost more than I expected and it was a little early to stop. I ploughed on and found the perfect spot to camp high on a ridge with views to die for. This is what cycle touring is all about!
As I packed to leave an Indian army patrol of three soldiers arrived and I showed them some of my kit. Their detail was to keep watch from the ridge. I was actually surprised when I found it that there wasn’t already some kind of post there as, a rule, all the best spots are usually already taken by the military.
My journey South along Highway 1A continued through the mountains of Jammu. I descended down close to the Chenab river but then climbed again at Patnitop. It was a big climb and had been warned earlier to expect a 25 km rise. It became too late and I was very tired. Finally I camped in a forest and left the rest of the climb to the next day.
Jammu is wonderful and has an alpine quality and perfect climate. It was a truly inspiring cycle ride. I felt that my decision to ride South rather than East to Leh had been a good one.
Following breakfast of coffee and boiled eggs I continued my climb. I appeared to be as high as any of the surrounding mountains. I stopped for mid morning tea at a roadside cafe that also provided a stop and grazing for herdsmen and their horses. The saddles on the lead horses are often covered in very old fabrics with beautiful designs.
Fuelled with tea I set about tackling the hill. Gradually I scaled the gradient until, and at last, I reached the top (2,024 metres) at Patni and a police checkpoint. Once again and as with reaching the kathmandu valley rim (1,500 metres) from Naubise, I felt a real sense of achievement. I chatted with a friendly policeman who insisted on taking my photo with my camera.
From here there was only one way. I knew it was going to be a long way down.