Tso Kar – Rambirpor
I wake up in time to see the first rays of sunlight catch the top of the tallest mountains around the lake. I look around our camping spot and there isn’t a soul in sight. The wind has died down, the silence is blissful. I feel like there isn’t enough space in my head and in my heart to take it all in. I wish there had been more moments, more places like this during this trip. This is what cycling is all about for me, this is why I don’t mind not washing for a whole week or shitting behind a bush by the side of the road. For experiences like this one. They give me a feeling of accomplishment and inner peace. Suddenly I realise that my trip is soon coming to an end and I am filled with sadness. I don’t want to leave this place. Maybe I should prolong the pleasure and cycle in to Tso Moriri? But I don’t have enough supplies, and as much as I hate to admit it I am tired and in dear need of a shower. Back towards Leh it is then.
I leave before Ant and Nicolas but they overtake me within minutes. I will see them in a couple of days in Leh, once they are back from their ride to Tso Moriri. I throw a last glance back at Tso Kar before it disappears behind a hill.
Ten kilometres later I rejoin de Manali-Leh Highway and head north towards Taglang La. After a second breakfast in Debring the road curves to the right and suddenly the mighty pass appears high up in the distance ahead of me. I can see the black road carved in the side of the mountains to my right, climbing gently until it dips over the saddle to the other side of the mountain. It seems so far and so high, the trucks near the top look so tiny from where I am standing. No time I to winge though, I need to get on with it. I have more or less 800 m to climb, so I decide to take a short break every 200 m. The higher I get the more beautiful the valley behind me looks. I pass many road workers who look at me in astonishment. As usual the motorbike riders I come across give me the thumbs up, which gives me more energy and motivation to carry on.
After about three hours of relentless uphill I finally reach the top. A yellow BRO sign indicates an altitude of 5328 m, but my GPS shows 5353 m. Regardless, for the third time during this trip, after Shingo La and Lachulung La, I am improving my previous record. Even though it took quite an effort to get up here and even though the air at this altitude is very thin, I feel completely fine. I have just completed the crossing of one of the highest motorable roads in the world and and haven’t suffered from altitude sickness once. I can count myself lucky. Others have not been so fortunate and have had to change their routes or cancel their trips altogether. I spend at least half an hour at the top, taking photos and enjoying the remarkable scenery. From up there I can see to the north the mountain range separating the Indus valley from the Shyok and Nubra ones. This is region is simply beautiful and fascinating.
I am about to start rolling downhill when I notice a group of cyclists unloading a bunch of mountain bikes off a minibus. A young woman comes up to me and tells me that they are essentially the weakest links of a group that set off from Debring earlier that day. They had run out of energy somewhere during the climb and had been picked up by the sweep vehicle.
The first part of the downhill is exhilarating: good tarmac, fast pace, tight bends and great views. At the end of the switchbacks the road enters a narrow valley. My progress is hampered by more gentle slopes and a strong headwind. In some places I am struggling to pedal even though I am still going downhill.
In the morning I had told myself that I would ride as far as the Indus Valley at the end of the downhill and find a guesthouse somewhere near Upshi. But in my head I am secretly determined to reach a homestay run by nuns near Ticksey. Nico and Ant stayed there earlier in the week and told me it was wonderful place. However, getting there would mean an extra thirty kilometres to my original plan, and by the time I arrive in Upshi it is quite late in the afternoon and I my speedometer is now showing triple digits… Still, I decide to carry on.
Although I am now following the Indus river downstream, the road to Karu from Upshi starts with a series of steep climbs. My legs feel like jelly and the going is painfully slow. I start to worry that I will never get to the homestay before nightfall. But without realising it I suddenly find myself at the top of the last steep climb of the day and from there it is all flat or downhill. The traffic on this road is the busiest I have experienced since leaving Leh three weeks earlier. Drivers are generally good but some overtaking manoeuvres are way too close to my liking, scaring the hell out of me.
It is dusk when I finally arrive at the nunnery, after 7h30 and 128 km of riding. My longest and probably hardest day on the bike. I can’t believe I woke up on the peaceful shores of Tso Kar that same morning, it feels so far away now.
Tchamba, the only nun who speaks English, gives me a tour. Ant and Nico were right, the place is lovely, far away from the busy road, the rooms are spotless and most importantly there is hot water for showering, albeit in buckets.
I waste no time in washing five days’ worth of sweat and dust off of me. As soon as I am finished a friendly nun informs me that dinner is ready. Perfect timing. In the dining room I meet Maren and Christoph from Germany, who are on a guided buddhist tour of the Leh region. Tomorrow their lama guide is taking them to Hemis for the Napora Festival in Hemis, a significant buddhist celebration that takes place only every twelve years. They suggest I come with them, an opportunity I cannot refuse.
I meet Maren and Christoph and their lama (who, by the ways, is Lord Varys’ doppelganger) the next morning in the dining room. After a hearty breakfast their taxi takes us on the road back to Karu, where the turnoff to Hemis is. The last kilometre before the turnoff is a complete shambles. Considering the festival attracts half a million visitors over a month, it comes as no surprise to be stuck in traffic. But the Ladakhi people take traffic-jamming to another level altogether. Just imagine the scene: a couple of impatient drivers decide to start overtaking the newly formed queue in the lane for oncoming traffic. This quickly becomes a trend and soon a second traffic jam has formed next to the existing one. At this point, believe it or not, cars from the second lane decide in turn to jump to the front the queue, forming a THIRD traffic jam. By this point the whole road is blocked by cars all going in one direction, and oncoming vehicles are stuck in the ditch by the side of the road. It’s simply ridiculous, and you can’t help but smile at the whole situation.
We get to the venue in time for the morning procession, during which the main lama of the Hemis Monastery marches down to the praying grounds, accompanied by other lamas praying, singing and playing music. The array of colorful traditional costumes worn, instruments being played and incense burning is quite a feast for the pilgrims’ and visitors’ senses. The procession is followed by two hours of praying. We sit down in the midst of it all and observe the crowd for some time, before grabbing something to eat in one of the numerous food tents.
In the afternoon we hike up behind the Hemis Monastery to a cave where our lama guide teaches us some meditation basics. On the way back down we are given a tour of the Hemis Monastery and finish the day with a visit of the Matho Gompa west of Hemis.
Thiksey Monastery – Leh
We wake up at 4h30 the next day and leave the nunnery by 5h00, as we want to walk to the Thiksey Monastery and arrive in time for the traditional morning horn blowing and prayer session. Our guide tries to take a shortcut but cannot find the way in the dark, so we end up following the main road. The bright moon illuminates our path and disappears behind the mountains just as we reach the road.
The gompa is still fast asleep as we arrive, not a soul in sight, not a sound to be heard. Suddenly out of nowhere two young monks appear on the roof of the monastery and start blowing two small horns, indicating the beginning of the morning prayer. Somehow the scene had looked different in my head, I had always pictured two tubby monks blowing hard into long and curved copper horns resting on the floor, the sound of which could be heard in the deepest and remotest valleys of Ladakh…
We then make our way to assembly hall and sit down on rugged carpets by the entrance just as the praying starts. The mantra meditation is punctuated now and then by series of drum rolls, horn blows and young monks hurrying around to serve tea and tsampa to older monks and visitors. After about an hour spent listening to the enthralling chant we leave the praying room and are given a short tour of the rest of the monastery, and I am rather impressed by the huge two storeys tall statue of Maitreya Buddha.
At the end of the visit I decide to buy Maren, Christoph and their guide lunch, as a thank you for letting me randomly join them on their tour.
As I leave them I decide to take the shortcut back to the nunnery that we couldn’t locate in the morning. En route I bump into a frail-looking old lady praying between two big boulders, facing the monastery. Her coughing fits do not sound very healthy, so I give her my bottle of water.
Back at the homestay I grab one last glass of mint tea, topped up with chapathis and apricot jam, before saying goodbye to Tchamba and getting back on the bike for the last bit of cycling of this trip. The first twenty kilometres are flat, but the last five kilometres upon arriving in Leh are uphill, slow and hot. Ladakh will have me suffer until the very end it seems.
I spend the afternoon walking around Leh trying to find different souvenirs to take back home. I bump into Jorge, Santi and Josep on the main street. They arrived the day before and are trying to rent motorbikes to do some more exploring around Leh during their last three days in Ladakh. While checking my emails a Spanish traveler starts talking to me. Alvaro is thinking of doing a multiple-day hike and asks me if I have any tips. We have a friendly chat for half an hour before I have to leave him.
I spend a lovely evening at a good restaurant with Jordi, a fellow cyclist from Spain. He and his girlfriend left from Georgia in April and cycled overland to Kyrgyzstan before flying to Leh. Unfortunately Jordi then got pretty ill and has since been recovering in Leh while his girlfriend Aina and some of her friends cycle around the Nubra Valley. Back at the guesthouse I have just enough time to shower before the electricity goes out. I brush my teeth and get ready for bed by candlelight.
I wake up really early again the following day, even though I had really been looking forward to sleeping in… After a delicious banana porridge breakfast I spend the rest of the morning packing my bike and my belongings for the flight. At lunch time I meander through the backstreets of Leh in the search of Bon Appetit, a restaurant that had been recommended to me by Eric and Olivia when I met them after Darcha. The mutton burger I order is fantastic, the chocolate momos delicious and the apricot lassi to die for.
My afternoon is spent buying more souvenirs and exploring the local markets and their fascinating items. On the main street I recognise Alois, a German motorbiker that I had met in Jispa. He tells me he had an accident when a truck hit him on the inside of a bend. Luckily he was not injured, but his bike wasn’t so lucky. He is now waiting to see if it can be fixed before deciding what to do next.
By the time I get back Ant and Nico have returned from their last motorbike trip. From my guesthouse I can see Nicolas sunbathing topless on the balcony of his bedroom. They join me for a quick cup of milk tea in the garden of my guesthouse, we then head out back to the city center together in the hope of finding some nice shawls to take back home. I find a nice smart black one for Angela made of yak’s wool. I should hope that no-one else in Munich will have the same one… In the evening the three of us manage to visit three different restaurants for dinner, then dessert and then beer. We even make it to Bon Appetit before closing time, just in time for one last serving of chocolate momos. Just one though, as our attempt to order a second serving is fruitless… Nevertheless, a wonderful final evening in Ladakh in great company. Shame we couldn’t find any chang!
This month spent exploring Ladakh will certainly remain one of my favourite adventures, and a benchmark for the ones to come. Despite initially struggling with stomach problems, this trip fulfilled all my expectations. The scenery was simply epic, the numerous gompas didn’t disappoint, the locals were friendly and as usual in those parts of the world I met some very interesting fellow travellers. Although I cycled more than a thousand kilometres in total, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. There are many more valleys to explore, many more high altitude passes to tackle and many more lakes to visit. Julley Ladakh, you will see me again soon!
More photos of this part of the journey can be found here!