We arrive back in Yal at around eleven, unpack our bags and head off on our bikes, while Stophel finished attaching our panniers on the horses’ backs. The track between Yal and Ruru is smooth enough to ride, but after that a long stretch all the way to the bridge across to the village of Tetsa is just horrendous. Even pushing the bike is a struggle. Past Tetsa the path widens and so does the valley. The scenery in the late afternoon light is breathtaking. Stophel and his horses overtake us just before we arrive in Shi, the village where his family lives. We cross the Kurgiak river back to the west bank and follow him up the hill to his house. Peter the bikepacker is waiting for us outside. Stophel offers us a room inside, which Peter is more than happy to take. Brigitt, Ivo and I decide to camp outside.
The village is quaint and picturesque. Harvesting is in full swing, bales of hay are being transported from the surrounding fields back to the village on people’s backs. Stophel invites us inside his house for tea, where we meet his wife. I end up drinking more homemade Chhaang, an alcoholic beverage brewed from barley, than tea. When we go back outside a group of kids is inspecting our bicycles. They are cute but cheeky and I have to tell them off on more than one occasion to avoid them tipping one of the bikes over or running away with one of our helmets.
We are called back inside for dinner: rice and dal, this time served with yak yogurt. It’s just been cooked on the stove sitting in the middle of the living room, which also serves as the main heater for the house. It is warm and cozy and the food is delicious, especially the yogurt mixed with a bit of sugar. What else could a hungry bunch of cyclists like us ask for at this point? Nothing. Well, maybe a warm shower.
By the time we are finished it is dark outside, the moon and the stars are out. The air smells of burning yak pats. I love that smell, I have come to associate it with adventure. As I fall asleep inside my tent, the deep silence is only interrupted from times to times by a distant donkey bray. This is such a simple and peaceful place.
Shi – Lakang Sumdo
The next day we are packed and ready to go by seven, but before that we are invited back inside the house one last time for breakfast. We are served the usual “chiapatis and omelette”, but this time with an almost unlimited supply of chiapatis and more yak yogurt. I even get to try butter tea, or “gur gur” as it is called in the Ladakhi language, made from tea leaves, yak butter, water and salt all churned together in a long wooden tube.
We say goodbye to Stophel’s relatives and leave the village across a small bridge that takes us back to the east bank. We follow the Kurgiak river upstream, sometimes on smooth mud tracks, sometimes along rough stone paths, sometimes over massive rock slides. But always with the Gumburanjon mountain in sight. The lone and pointy peak, which first appeared in the distance yesterday, gets bigger and more impressive the further south we get. It is our target for today. The whole time we are being followed by a loud digger, unfortunately ruining our experience of this otherwise very quiet valley. It is also going towards Shingo La, I assume in order to work on the road that the Indian government is planning to build between Padum and Zanskar Sumdo. A new jeep track already leads to the top of Shingo La on the eastern side of the pass. Soon Zanskar will be accessible by car from the Manali-Leh highway and the valley will never be the same again.
A couple of kilometers before the foot of Gumburanjon we arrive at a yak farm, where women are milking the long-haired animals outside a small stone hut. Inside we are served tea and taste a cup of yak milk. The ground surrounding the small house is covered in yak crap.
After this short break we follow the river to the right of Gumburanjon and before we know it we reach Lakang Sumdo, where our horseman has already unloaded our bags. It’s only two in the afternoon so we ask Stophel if we can carry on further, we could probably still reach the Shingo La base camp and have less to climb tomorrow. But he is reluctant. I think he probably wants us to spend the night here so that he can sleep comfortably inside the dhaba, but mainly so that his friends running the place can benefit from some tourist money. Peter sums it up perfectly: “Stophel is a crafty man…”
We set up camp near the dhaba and then hide from the strong afternoon winds inside its walls. Stophel tells us that the small building used to be situated further up the valley, but a flash flood swept it away some years ago, so now it is here. That explains why it doesn’t match its location on my map. We are at an altitude of 4460 m and apart from this stone-walled tent there is nothing around us but high mountains and massive boulders. Once again it feels so remote and light years away from the civilized life I am accustomed to. I choose to eat the food cooked by the two men running the dhaba, a thick vegetable soup with thick bits of pasta. Arnaud keeps me company, but a dehydrated meal is on the menu for him tonight. My food takes good, I get a refill three times without even asking. The dim light barely allows us to see the content of our plates.
Lakang Sumdo – Jispa
We choose to wake up extra early in order to reach the top of mighty Shingo La around lunch time. After two chapathi-omelette servings we hit the trails by 7h30. The air is fresh, frozen water puddles prove that the temperature dropped below last night. We pretty much have to push our bikes from the get go. The trail is steep and forces me to take many breaks to catch my breath. Arnaud soon overtakes me. The lucky bastard doesn’t have a bicycle to push, just a massive backpack to carry. After a while we reach a wide digger track. It is still pretty rough but at least flat enough to let me push my bike beside Arnaud and have an interesting chat with him. After Shingo La base camp the going get tough again, but another wide digger trails leads me to the top without too much difficulty. The altimeter on my speedometer got stuck at 4999, but my GPS now indicates 5060 m above sea level. This is officially the highest point I have ever reached! My previous personal best beeing 4655 m on top of the Akbaikal pass on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. It is windy up there, but the view is fantastic. Ivo and Brigitt arrive half an hour after me. Arnaud was of course the fastest. We take a couple of photos with Stophel, then pay him the rest of the fee we had agreed upon. He is in a hurry, we assume he wants to make it back to Shi that afternoon. We take a couple more photos with Arnaud before he sets off on the other side. It is Peter’s turn to arrive. He looks tired and grumpy, but doesn’t accept my offer to help him push his bike for the last few meters to the top. What a legend! He doesn’t hang around very long and soon disappears behind the buddhist prayer flags on his way down towards Darcha.
Ivo, Brigitt and I have some Maggie noodles then I start the downhill on the brand new jeep track. At the first river crossing I meet a Swiss couple standing beside their bicycles. They are heading up towards the pass, but she is looking rather tired. I think they might have bit off more than they can chew, and I get the impression that she can’t wait for this particular day to come to an end. I tell them that there’s only three kilometers left to the top, but that they won’t be able to ride on the other side. As I plunge both my feet in the freezing cold water and push my bike across the river, I wonder how far they’ll make it by the time night falls (I needn’t have worried, as I’ll find out later that they made it to Lakang Sumdo that night and successfully finished their trip afterwards). Soon I join Arnaud and we say goodbye. He is going to try to catch a ride all the way down to Darcha this afternoon and tomorrow get on a taxi back to Leh. For him the adventure is almost over.
A third of the way down Ivo and Brigitt overtake me and I follow them from a distance as we continue the long downhill deeper and deeper in the valley. After Zanskar Sumdo the road becomes paved. It feels so smooth and fast after more than seven days of rough tracks. It is finally time to pump up our tires again. Further down the road we reach a junction and Ivo suddenly shouts to me “this is the Manali-Leh Highway!” After so many months of dreaming about it, I am finally on this legendary road…
To be continued…
More photos of this part of the journey can be found here!