Cycling in Ladakh: ludicrous or lovely?
My friends were on the other side stuck in the snow for four days, while I returned to Kaza to drink coffee, explore the valleys and wait.
“You must be totally bonkers!” Every now and then some locals or tourists could not stop themselves from saying this or something similar. More often, motor bikers and people along the road gave me the thumbs-up sign. This did not mean that they thought I was sane, but at least they seemed to appreciate people that don’t do the same thing as everybody else. When I asked them why they didn’t do it themselves, they invariably had some weak excuse, such as not having the time, muscles or energy, or only owning a car. Many jeep drivers showed their approval by blowing their unnecessarily loud horns. I hate honking. Luckily, in Ladakh there are few cars on the road, and only a small number are the honking and definitely dangerous non-stop Manali to Leh minivan drivers. Granted, cycling for a couple of months in the mountains of Ladakh is not for everyone. But if you are in good shape and determined, you can manage.
I took trains and buses to Shimla as traffic in the plains is just too chaotic, dangerous, noisy and annoying to be an enjoyable experience for me. Besides, in May the plains are too hot for pleasant and healthy cycling. From Shimla I headed to Kinnaur, and met up with a small group of more lazy cyclists. I was carrying some 20 kg of luggage including a tent, a laptop and spare tubes that did not fit my wheels. They had their luggage carried by a vehicle with support staff to pitch tents and prepare dinner. Although more expensive this is a perfect solution to the luggage problem, especially if you are not young, fit or masochistic. Moreover, your chances of getting lost are considerably less as your guide will tell you where to go. But in Ladakh there are only a limited number of junctions where you can make a wrong turn. Alternatively with a bit of planning you can cycle the minimalist way: carry as little as possible and stay in guesthouses or hotels.
My plan was vague: Shimla – Spiti – Leh – Srinagar (if safe enough) – Dharamsala – Amritsar. I did not check roads, road conditions and passes nor guesthouses or hotels. I could change the plan as and when required. Kinnaur was plesasant and so were my Kiwi friends. But in early June, after a rest day in Spiti, I found the 4,500m Kunzum pass between me and my friends closed due to heavy snowfall. My friends were on the other side stuck in the snow for four days, while I returned to Kaza to drink coffee, explore the valleys and wait. It took 10 days to clear the road and I did not see my friends again. The snowy landscape of Kunzum pass was breathtaking and the altitude posed no problem.
In Keylong, I enjoyed a day of Buddhist dancing in Sarchu monastery, before climbing between high snow walls to the 4,800m Baralacha pass with an American couple. Since they slept until sunrise, I was well on my way before they rose the next morning. The dry plains in the rain shadow of the Himalayan mountains were grazed by yaks and blue sheep. I made a 50 kilometer detour to Tshokar Tsho, a salt lake where I watched black-necked cranes and a fox jumping across small creeks on the salty lake bed. While returning to the main road in the early morning I saw woolly hares and a group of kiangs, chestnut wild asses in the plains. After crossing a 5,100m pass, there was a long descent past several mountain-top monasteries to the laid-back town of Leh, where tourists hang out before or after their treks to far-out places such as Zanskar.
While relaxing and enjoying the good food of Leh I planned a trip to Nubra valley. The tourist office told me there was no place to stay between Leh and Diskit in Nubra valley, so I left most of my luggage in Leh and started early to climb to the reportedly 5,602m high Khardungla pass. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) division of the Indian Army used to regularly break their records of exaggerated elevation estimates. Here they exaggerated by 250m. Still, it is a tough climb to the snow covered pass but you are rewarded with great views when reaching it. On the way down I passed a nice guest house where I stayed on my return trip so I did not have to cycle 140 kilometers and get over Khardungla in one day again. In Nubra valley I roamed around the monasteries and sand dunes, visited the camels reputedly left behind by Silk Route traders and spotted a wolf in a riverbed on my return trip. Then one week later, I camped near the shore of the bright blue Pangong salt lake across another high pass, where I fixed my flat tyres and gazed at the Indian tourists that drive to a sandbar to have their picture taken and then drive on to the next picture opportunity.
Eventually I left for the troubled city of Srinagar, and had more flat tyres because the valve stems kept breaking. I had to file out the hole in my rim to fit my spare tubes, which lasted less than 10 km. So I was glad to hitch a ride to Kargil with a helpful truck driver. All the new tubes I bought exploded after less than a couple of kilometers, even the extra heavy duty ones. Eventually I replaced my 2.2 inch tyre with a half rotted 1.95 inch tyre and the problem was solved. It still it remains a mystery to me why even 2.125 inch tubes would self-destruct when placed inside my reportedly 2.2 inch tyre.
I never made it to Dharamsala as the road on my map became a trail and was blocked by landslides, rockfalls and fallen trees. However, the peace, quiet and fresh air of the high Himalayan mountains, the friendly Ladakhi people, the wildlife and the magnificent views made it an unforgettable and lovely experience. But don’t try it if you hate cycling up steep slopes to high passes
Author – Piet Van Der Poel