Kardung La and Beyond: Over the Top and into the Night

Claire:
Up early, before the alarm, I was already fretting about the day ahead. I’d ridden up 7,000 feet fully loaded in one day before, but never by starting at 11,000 something and going to well over 18,000. Would I be able to breathe in air that thin? Would Bob? He was eager to get going and we were on the road by 8:00, a little later than planned.

The first 25 kilometers went well on smooth road and we had a delightful visit with day bikers at the tea stall just past the permit check station. We should have kept moving as the clock would somehow speed up at higher elevation. I briefly considered asking Bob if we could camp at a grimy road workers’ shelter that smelled of fuel. It was already around 3:00 and we still had seven kilometers to go.

Higher up, I remember visiting with a downhill biker/motorcycle guide who confirmed that the rest of the way up was rough but no steeper, though when you’re tired, some pitches feel steeper. By four kilometers from the top, we were stopping every half kilometer, just enough to catch our breath. I didn’t notice the decrease in traffic, I was focused on breathing and probably wasn’t eating as much as I should have. Bob was still peppy and encouraging all the way to the top.

By 6:00, the sun was getting low and we’d made it to the pass, 5602 meters, 18,380 feet. In our ten hours on the road, we’d been pedaling 5 hours and 44 minutes. Except for us and a few motorcyclists, the pass was deserted, cold, and a weird kind of lonely. We posed for pictures, donned our jackets and started down the back side.

We’d mistakenly thought the backside was paved, but it was actually in worse condition, partly because of the snow-melt from enduring fields draining onto the road. The wind from the snowfields chilled us through and it was getting dark.

Bob:
You would think I would be glad to see downhill after such a climb, but you are probably not a tandem captain. Sometimes down is worse:

Loose dirt, hard to see rocks, round, sharp, slick? Embedded boulders, roller baby’s heads, water how deep? Brakes maxed, scan, scan ahead, how far? quick dodge close rock, scan and miss medicine ball buried bolder, scan. Getting darker. Cold, two pairs of gloves. Neck and shoulder clenched for an hour now. Please hold front wheel, please. Don’t go down. Don’t go down, Whatever, don’t go down.

DSCF7755RWe stop for a break. Claire is shivering. She can’t work her upper body like I am, just her fear muscles. We have to get off this mountain.

Every moment, over and over, don’t go down, focus, focus. Nearly two hours now. Dark. Out of the gloom; like dark furry rolling boulders, darting heavy, across the road, rolling to a stop, unpredictable: ghost donkeys. Dodge. They roll down to the next switchback, waiting, then flee at the strange specter Zippy presents: no motor, long, two heads.

We round a steep switchback and are blinded by an oncoming truck, and car wanting to pass; the lights dance with each other, spectral highlights in Himalayan black. Night blinded, we stop to rest, then roll slowly into North Pullu, the first Inner Line (disputed territory) check station. We hope there is shelter, food, though we have a minimum of both. No lights. Can’t read the signs, or see anything, donkeys. We stop and push Zippy, feeling the road. Looking. Looking.

Finally figures emerge, human figures. One wears the red robe of a monk, one camouflage of the Indian Army. No English this far out. Pantomime. floor

They talk, then direct us into a closed restaurant, move tables aside and point to a two person space on the floor: home. They show us the squatty potty. We have water and food. A straw mattress appears which we lay over our own sleeping pads and crawl into our old familiar sleeping bag: home. At well over 16,000 feet we snuggle and sleep like babies: home.

Sometimes home depends on the kindness of strangers, strangers without a common language, without a common culture (who are these strange people on this strange contraption), but with a common humanity. The core of my life’s passion has been to share one thought:

Humans: we are so much more alike than we are different.

We have had it proven to us so many times, in so many small and important ways. It is one major reason we put ourselves into uncertainty, to discover again this truth. I hope one person reads this and understands. Pass it on.