Ever since Angela and I cycled across Central Asia five years ago, I have longed to explore this rugged, remote and beautiful part of the world again. Mountain peaks covered in perpetual snow, high altitude plateaus and deep green valleys all left a deep mark on me. Spotting places like Kashgar, Leh or Kathmandu on a map would always make my feet itch for another adventure.
Sometimes last year after doing some research my attention turned to the India regions of Ladakh and Kashmir, particularly the Manali-Leh and Leh-Srinagar Highways. It looked stunning, easily accessible and just the right distance for a holiday-restricted adventure. Angela wasn’t too impressed though when I asked her if she’d be up for it. Cycling over high altitude passes in a remote region and showering only once a week isn’t her idea of a relaxing holiday. She also wasn’t keen on letting me go there on my own for a whole month. So I put the project on ice.
Until I met Nicolas last winter, the brother of a good Munich friend. Like me he is an ex-rower and like me he has previously been on a long bicycle touring adventure (from Istanbul to Shanghai). Even though he is 10 years younger than me he seemed like the perfect cycling companion. I asked him on the spot if he fancied joining me in India and he immediately agreed, as long as he could bring his friend Ant along (in case my old legs don’t keep up, you see). Knowing that I wasn’t going to be alone after all, Angela reluctantly gave me a free “long holiday without the wife” pass. You know, the kind that you only get once (or hopefully twice) in your life.
In the end things didn’t really go according to plan. But they rarely do. We had originally decided to start the trip in Srinagar, but due to the current civil unrest in Kashmir we changed our flights to Leh at the last minute. I got the runs for a whole week (but didn’t suffer from altitude sickness). But worst of all, both Nico and Ant picked up knee injuries before the trip which prevented them from doing any cycling. So instead they decided to explore the region on rented motorbikes, which means that I ended up on my own after all… Still, my journey in Ladakh turned out to be epic, just what I was looking for.
Here are some of the photos taken on the leg between Leh and Padum, and some of the notes I wrote during the trip.
I arrive at the guesthouse mid-morning, feeling excited to finally be here, even though I am pretty exhausted. The views of the Himalayas from the plane from Delhi to Leh were sensational, snowy mountains as far as the eye can see and long curved glaciers around every corner. At the guesthouse I meet an older German couple, also on bicycles, and a group of Polish hikers, who I spend the whole day with.
Nico and Ant arrive early the next day, carrying rather large backpacks. We walk up to the Tsemo Gompa together and then walk around Leh’s old town. Leh isn’t paradise on earth, but I love it. The smell of burning cow dung hangs in the air, but the occasional whiff of incense reminds me that I am in India, not somewhere in Central Asia. The bustling main streets are lined with shops, restaurants or travel agencies offering organised hiking tours or tourist permits. But a web of narrow back alleys lead me away from the noise and into hidden gardens where piles of cow dung are stacked up for the winter or bricks for house-building are being moulded.
Walking up any flight of stairs gets my heart beating hard and literally takes my breath away. But otherwise after two days I feel perfectly fine. The German cyclists aren’t so lucky though. They both feel nauseous and suffer from strong headaches. They’ll have to stay in Leh a bit longer and finish acclimatising before hitting the road. I decide to leave the next day.
I leave Leh following a quiet road west of the city, avoiding in the process the crazy traffic of the city center. Soon I join the Srinagar-Leh Highway, which I follow until Sarchu. The landscape is barren and rugged. Some small bushes grow by the side the road, but otherwise it is just the black tarmac cutting through a various shades of brown mountains. Before Nimmu I pass the confluence of the Zanskar and Hindus rivers. Following the Zanskar river up the valley would lead me all the way to Padum, but unfortunately the road ends after 40km. In winter the crossing in possible on the frozen river.
I notice on my map a monastery near Sarchu and decide to finish the day there. Upon arriving in Alchi and a man offers me a surprisingly clean and comfortable room for 500 rupees.
After visiting the Alchi Lady I have dinner in a restaurant near my guesthouse. The ladakhi women running the restaurant tells me the story of her family’s house further up the road. It was believed to be haunted and was therefore abandoned decades ago. For a while only celebrations took place there. She had a project to renovate it, through a shared investment with a German architect, but the man died of a heart attack back in Germany and the project fell through. I spend the rest of the evening chatting with a friendly and joyful German couple on a backpacking sabbatical, Vera and Thomas.
The next day I decide to leave the main road and take a detour north through the Sham Valley. The road is quiet and the scenery beautiful, but the loop takes me much longer that expected and I arrive rather late at the bottom of the Jalebi Bends. Those famous switchbacks have been on my to-do list ever since I started planning the trip, so even though I have only just over two hours of daylight left I choose the old road to Lamayuru. After half an hour of climbing the many hairpin curves the sun disappears behind dark clouds. The colourful scenery becomes bland and soon it starts raining. I arrive in Lamayuru just before nightfall, rather disappointed at this turn of events. The homestay that Vera and Thomas recommended is full, but the young girl in charge lets me sleep on the floor in the common room for 100 rupees. Just before dinner there is a power cut. Starving, I eat three helpings of rice and dal by candlelight while chatting to Boris, a bearded German traveller with long hair.
The sky has almost cleared and the sun is shining when I wake up the next morning. I have time to visit the Lamayuru Monastery before breakfast. It is early and quiet, young monks in their red robes start arriving for the morning prayers by the time I leave. The scenery on the way to the Fotu La is stunning. The mountains surrounding me are yellow, red, brown and the deep blue sky is dotted with fluffy white clouds. I stop around every bend to take photos. I reach the 4.108 m pass by lunch time, feeling fresher than expected. A group of Indian tourists burst out of a taxi and take a group selfie with me. Two ladies at the top ask me if I can spare some water. I happily oblige and in exchange they agree to have their picture taken.
On my way down I stop at a small tea shop and order a couple of chapatis and an omelette. The dabha is empty but for the friendly Kashmiri man running the place and a Ladakhi woman and her two young children having lunch. Further on I notice the first mosques in the villages, a sign that I am approaching the Pakistan border. The second big climb of the day to Namika La (3.827 m) starts after Khangral. On the way up a man crosses the road in front of me holding chickens. I watch him as he slaughters and bleeds them on the side of the road. Shortly after I hold on to the back of a slow lorry for a couple of minutes. The driver swerves, accelerates, slows down but I don’t let go. Eventually he stops and I have no choice but to carry on. When he overtakes me again he gives me a wide berth. I suspect he really didn’t like me holding on! At the top of the pass I hear shouts inside a parked lorry. I’m quite far away and can’t understand anything, so I ignore it, until I realise that the driver is calling me. He wants his photo taken and spends five minutes prepping his turban for the shot. On the way down I notice a shepherd and his flock of goats walking in the bottom of the valley. I wave to him and he waves back. In the evening light the golden mountains surrounding him look so desolate and dry. There is nothing there but him and his sheep. I wonder if he gets lonely.
Upon arriving in Mulbekh I pass a couple of guesthouses but decide to continue until I bump into Boris at the gate of another guesthouse. He is accompanied by Chris and Anna Lisa, who I had seen at the homestay the previous night but not spoken to. I decide to spend the night there. I am starving again and have three servings of rice and dal for dinner and even finish the plates of my fellow travelling companions. The dining room is full of flies, I try not to swallow any while I eat. Chris is American and Anna Lisa Italian. They met on the road. Chris is also a keen photographer, but unlike me he enjoys portraits and street photography. I’m always too shy to ask people if I can photograph them. Spending the evening talking to Chris makes me realise that I need to grow a pair and be more forthcoming when it comes to taking photos. Landscapes are nice and all, but I need a bit of variety!
Mulbekh to Padum
We all have breakfast early in the morning and then say our goodbyes. Chris and Anna Lisa are heading back to Leh, while Boris will carry on west. The first 40 km of the day are an easy downhill almost all the way to Kargil. Boris overtakes me in a truck on the outskirts of the city. In the south the snowcapped Nun Kun mountains (7.135 m and 7.077 m respectively) suddenly appear behind trees. I should be there in two days.
During my research for this trip I hadn’t read many positive things about Kargil. If it wasn’t for the fact that I needed to buy food supplies and find an ATM I would have probably avoided it altogether. On my way in I spent some time watching a game of cricket being played on a ground near the river. On my way out I spot a small restaurant selling different kinds of fried and sweet pastries. I sit down among the local men and fill my belly up with delicious potato samosas and milk tea. In the end even though I dreaded going there I actually enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in Kargil. The difference with Leh is blatant: it is noisy, hot and overcrowded. There are no travel agencies and restaurants hotels are sparse. You would be hard pressed to find any western tourists. All this gives the place a genuine feeling. People looked at me and my bike with astonished eyes, but no-one harassed me. While I was sitting outside an internet café, checking my emails, friendly locals came up to me to ask where I was going and wished me a happy stay in India.
At 2.700 m, Kargil is the lowest point of my entire trip. I leave the city and head south into the Lower Suru Valley. The road will gradually climb until it reaches Pensi La at 4.200 m, the pass marking the beginning of the Zanskar Valley. In the distance the mighty Nun Kun Massif appears once again.
The majority of the muslim population of the Suru Valley lives between Kargil and Parkachik. As I cycle through one of the many villages a lady appears out of nowhere and offers me a plate of omelette to eat. I politely accept and scoop a bit of food with my fingers. She then asks me to take photos of her children. It seems that school has just finished for the day because all of the sudden all of the valley’s children burst onto the road. Most of them are walking home, but those living further away wait for a bus to take them home. If it is full they hold on to a protruding ladder or simply climb on the roof. The further I get into the valley the more aggressive the kids get. They spot me from far away and as I pass them many run after me, shooting “One pen! One pen! Give one pen!” Or “Give one chocolate!” One little bugger even tries to steal the hat strapped on the back of my bike. Another one whips my hand with a stick as I pass him, expecting another high-five. His little friends burst out in laughs.
Around mid-afternoon I start noticing that there is something wrong with my stomach. More rumble than usual. I had planned to camp that night, but now it appears that having a toilet nearby might be a good idea. My GPS indicates a guesthouse in the village of Panikkar, it’s still quite far away but I have been making good progress today so I decide to keep going. The building which, according to my GPS, is supposed to be the guesthouse, is abandoned. Naturally. I ask some locals and they tell me to keep going south for 2 km. There I will find a guesthouse. I cycle 2 km but still nothing. I ask again and am told “2 km further, 2 km further!” I cycle further until I see two men coming out of a building. Again I ask if they know where I can find a guesthouse, and they point to the building they just left. The man in charge tells me all the rooms are taken, but if I want to I can sleep in the big dining room which is in a separate building. I take it for 100 rupees.
As I set up my sleeping quarters in one corner of the massive empty room, the glue between two chambers of my mattress breaks as I sit on it, creating one big hump on one side. Great news, I can now look forward to three weeks of uncomfortable nights on this uneven mattress. To top it all up, later in the evening my suspicions concerning the state of my stomach are confirmed. I have the shits.
I feel rather lonely tonight, and as I lay there on my broken mattress, listening to the distant call to prayer and waiting for the next bout of diarrhoea, I tell myself that I could really do with some cycling companions right about now.