Cycling in the Shadows of the Zanskar
Beads of sweat rolled down my forehead, the afternoon sun blazing in all its glory, swathed its might on us as we ascended the mountain. I ignored the hot sun, and focused on my pedaling, my breath coming in short gasping for air in the rarefied atmosphere. Somewhere else , my body seemed to be fighting fatigue, yet my legs find bewildering strength, my arms strained at the handlebars , the elbows stiffening having been at the same position for over 3 hours. Far in the distance, some thousand feet below, I could spot the speck that was Zingzing Bar, our previous night’s campsite. A few seconds later, a cloud blotted the sun out and as if in symphony, a strong gusty and chilly wind, embraced me, sending a sudden shiver through the body, and I found myself wishing that I had not taken off my thermal jacket. This was the Great Himalyan region, as predictably, unpredictable ! I was cycling on my mountain bike at 15000 ft above sea level, with 7 other adventurous and gutsy cyclists, on the ride of a lifetime, in one of the most magnificent but toughest terrains and inhospitable regions of the world
Adventurers from India and the world over have been bewitched by the stark beauty of the Ladakhi landscape and it was no different for me and my friends, when we chose to embark on an expedition, dared only by a select band of crazy cyclists each year, a 515 km cycling expedition from Manali (6000ft) to Khardung La, disputedly the highest motorable road in the world at 18300 ft, via Leh. Most of the route is extremely inhospitable and has no infrastructure. Travellers and adventurers have to be self sufficient in food, water, warm clothing, oxygen cylinders, medical supplies and repairs as there is absolutely none available for over half of the route. Being thoroughly prepared can make the difference between life and death.
The treacherous Manali – Leh highway has been traversed by army trucks, trading caravans, sturdy jeeps, and hardy Royal Enfields for well over two decades. But only in recent years, has the cold semi arid Himalyan desert been conquered by the humble mountain bike, in a quest for the ultimate cycling adventure! The average elevation of Leh-Manali highway is more than 4,000 m (13,000 feet) and its highest elevation is 5,328 m (17,480 ft) at Tanglang La ( La means pass in Tibetan) . It is flanked by mountain ranges on both sides featuring some stunning sand and rock natural formations. The highway is the lifeline for the army and the civilian population from as wide as Rohtang to Leh, open only for a few months in the year ( May – September) and then is snowed in for the remaining months, crossing many small streams of ice-cold water from snow-capped mountains and glacial melts. There are steep ascents and deadly ascents , many on just mud and stone roads, for which its rated as a 9 /10 in grade of Difficulty internationally amongst cycling enthusiasts. The distance in Himachal Pradesh between Manali and Sarchu is 230 km and the distance in the Zanskar region of Ladakh (J&K) from Sarchu to Leh is 260 kms. Then its another 40 km, all uphill to Khardung La.
The 10 day route was Manali – Marhi ( camp) Rohtang La – Gramphu – Kokhsar – Sissu ( camp) – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa ( camp) – Darcha – Upper Zingzingbar ( camp) – Baralacha La – Bharatpur – Sarchu (camp) – 21 Gata Loops – Nakee La Pass– Whisky Nallah ( camp) Lachung lang La – Pang – More Plains – Debring ( camp) – Tanglang La – Gya – Upshi – Lato ( camp) – Leh ( camp) – Khardung La – Leh .
It was day 3, and I was on the verge of the first triumph of our journey, the ascent to Baralacha La at 16500 ft. This mountain pass finds special mention in most blogs as its perhaps the first memorable and challenging climb on the Manali – Leh road rising to dizzying heights of 5000 mts and above. Its also the pass from which one crosses over from the Lahaul region to the Zanskar range in Ladakh. The road was in fairly good condition and was surrounded by massive mountains, in all hues of grey, brown with tinges of golden light. Many times I was reminded of the 1970’s western classic McKenna’s Gold. A few kms , and some twists and bends before the Baralacha La, we reached a sapphire blue lake created from glacial waters- Suraj Tal at 16000 ft. We were deliriously in good spirits at the Pass and our fatigue from the 4 hours of cycling just washed away at the sight of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags and an unusual sighting of a Hoopoe that I was lucky to capture on camera. The Hoopoe have a large crown and are spotted at high altitudes in the Himalayas during their migration to the tropics.
After descending from Baralacha La , and passing Army posts with innocuous names like Killing Sarai and 6 hours of cycling later, we were greeted by the enthralling landscape of Sarchu, which lies at the unmarked border between Himachal and J&K. Perched at 14000 ft, Sarchu has some great campsites and is the halt for many travelling by car/jeep on this route. After 3 days, I was able to wash my face and cleanse myself with some chilled water . This was a luxury in this dry region. In the evening, we were witness to the antics of the delightful Himalayan Marmot who is a distant cousin of the rodent but looks like a beaver. Himalayan marmots are some of the highest altitude-dwelling mammals in the world. They are widely distributed in the Himalayan mountains at elevations of up to 5,000m or even higher. These marmots dig unusually deep burrows for the colonies to hibernate in for winter, so they prefer alpine meadows and sloping grasslands where the soil can easily be excavated. A thick fur coat helps to keep out the worst of the Himalayan weather.
The following day we were mesmerised by the grandeur of the Zanskar landscapes, with fascinating wind eroded rock pillars on the banks of the river Tsarap, fed by the glaciers of the Great Himalayan range. The wind and the cold temperatures and the river has over thousands of years has carved them into amazing pinnacles, a surreal landscape akin to a Star Wars movie. Soon, we were struggling up the 21 switchbacks of the famous Gata Loops, a tough 2500 ft ascent in just 10 kms of road, before we finally ascended to Nakeela Pass ( 16000 ft) . The descent to Whisky Nallah ( 15600 ft) from the pass was precarious as the road was bad and we were hit by a sudden hailstorm but finally we made it safely to the wind swept and cold campsite. Stories abound of an army truck and its consignment of whisky which met with an unfortunate fate at this place and hence it was named Whisky Nallah ! The night was tough and cold. Rain and wind battered the tents at night and trying to sleep taking shallow breaths was difficult. But sleep was eminent as I was extremely tired at the end of the hard day and we had another pass to climb to in the morning – Lachung La a few thousand feet above , awaited us.
By 10.30 am, Lachung La was behind us and we were descending fast to Pang, an army base, with many small Ladakhi tents that served up delicious hot Maggi soup and food and cosy beds under a large parachute tent ! Today was the longest ride and we had to make a dash for Debring, covering 70 kms in a single day of which there was a 40 km ride on one of the highest basins in the world, the Morey Plains. The Morey Plains is a stretch of land at 15000 ft, 40 kms long and 5 kms wide. This is a waterless basin. Debring is one of the few Chang Pa camping grounds. The Chang Pa are nomadic herds people living in a hostile and uncompromising environment raising sheep, yak and even horses on widely distributed pastures across the plateaus of Ladakh. Our camp at Debring stood at the foot of the ascent to one of the highest passes in the world, the Taglang La Pass at 17400 ft. It took me 4 hours to ascend to Tag Lang La Pass, the second highest motorable pass in the world. We were flanked by massive barren and snow capped mountains of the Zanskar range. The lack of oxygen at this altitude made it difficult to breathe and the climb had been very tough but hugely satisfying. The road to Tag lang La was still dug up by the Army’s BRO ( Border Roads Organisation), perhaps the most magnificient infrastructure creating units in the world working in the most hazardous conditions which made it an arduous climb. But once over the pass, it turned out to be on the best roads I had ever cycled on. Once on top, at some distance I spotted a flock of the Himalayan Snowcock on the ridge, which is quite a rare sighting. Once I filmed them, I was on my way down. No feeling in the world can surpass that of hurtling down a road at 45 kmph on a cycle with the most glorious views in the world surrounding me. The descending road from Taglang la took us to the Indus basin and to the fields of Rumtse, a village oasis in the Ladakh valley. After 8 days of cycling in the most desolate and barren landscapes of the world, it was refreshing to see some trees and crops at 14000 ft. And for the first time since we climbed to Zingzing bar the road dropped to below 13000 ft. along the way we passed the village of Gya and its numerous ‘chortens’ lining the roadside, and then reached Lato, our camp for the night.
The following day, I was in awe of the Thiksey monastery on the way to Leh. It is situated on a hillock overlooking the Indus Valley with full face view of the magnificent Stok range. Spon Palden Sherab with his master Jangsem Sherab Zang, one of the six contemporary disciples of Lord Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, founded the Thiksey monastery in 1433 AD. It has a beautiful 40 ft monumental statue of Maitreyi Buddha which is a world heritage.
I arrived in Leh on the 9th day of our expedition to Khardung La, bone weary, dirty and yet exhilirated and excited to be in this capital of the Ladakh region. After a long hot water bath and a delightful cup of ginger lemon honey tea at the Open Hands cafe in Leh, an apple pie at the German bakery, we plotted our ascent to Khardung La. Maintained by the BRO, the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier and it was opened in 1988. It is also the gateway to the Shyok and Nubra Valleys, leading onto Central Asia.
It was to be an early morning start as this was a 40 km ascent from 11500 ft to 18300 ft on one of the most treacherous terrains in the world. Battling fatigue, anxiety over high altitude sickness and the certainty of a long hardy ride ahead, we climbed steadily towards Khardung La. The road intially for the first 15 kms was quite well paved but after the army check post at North Pullu , it soon crumbled to mud and gravel. The winds picked up and the sun played hide and seek, and the weather alternated between warm and chilly depending upon which side of the mountain we were on. No where had the landscape been so barren and stony as it was on the road to Khardung La. After 7 hours of cycling on a never ending route, I finally got to kiss the earth at the summit of the worlds highest motorable pass. After the celebration at the Pass, we warmed ourselves at the world’s highest cafeteria, maintained by the army and serving up the tastiest maggi in the world ! Thereon, it was a fantastic and yet risky downhill ride, back to Leh and its quaint bazaars lined with souvenir and handicraft shops peddling everything from pashmina shawls, Buddhist statues, Ladakhi jewellery to embroidered t shirts depicting the Ladakhi diaspora. Thus came to an end, a fascinating, gruelling and unforgettable 10 day encounter by mountain bike with the most harsh and yet beautiful high mountain ranges and landscapes in the world.