Our main goal in coming to Ladakh was not to bicycle over Khardung La, but to experience the evolving culture of the western Tibetan Plateau in India.
Kardung La was just sort of in the way, or better put, in our path.
But when I learned of the geo/political import of Khardung La, I was enthused for us to ride an important crossroads of history and geography, and for us it proved serendipitous: Over the Khardung La summit is the Tibetan Plateau, which extends to far eastern China in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces where we cycled in 2009. It is also the line between South Asia, and Central Asia where we traveled the Silk Road in 2005, and it was, until the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the main Silk Road trading route into South Asia.
Our immediate goal was to explore the valley of the Shyok River to the disputed political boundary with Pakistan just past the mainly Sufi Muslim village of Turtuk. This requires an Inner Line Permit which we got in Leh; the limit of seven days was an issue for a somewhat remote valley with questionable roads, on a bicycle.
If you read the last post, you know we slept on the floor of a restaurant at the check station at North Pullu after arriving in the dark. The next morning we had breakfast (always scrambled eggs, with some vegetables if you are lucky, and chapati, which is called an omelette), checked through with a copy of our permit and passports and cycled down the small stream leading to the Shyok River.
We stopped and sat on a concrete guardrail to write in our journals; we tend to attract gawkers and talkers while we eat, so we needed some quiet. While we wrote, a herder passed below us with his goats, up to share the streamside green with the yaks at North Pullu. To the north and east, the high Karakorum in China stood out sharply in the morning sun against the deepest blue high altitude sky. Yes. That, “we’re really here,” feeling that only comes with a bit of effort.
It was a steep drop on lumpy bitumen, twisty, Indian Army truck infested road to the village of Khalshar with a brief stop for a warm soda at Khardung to settle the grease from breakfast. The views of the Shyok River were riveting: ever higher desert mountains hemming the string of slate gray silted maelstrom, with pearls of green agricultural alluvial fans and attendant Tibetan villages every few kilometers. This would continue until nearly Turtuk.
Khalshar is a sad-looking little place, donkeys wandering aimlessly looking for fresh food wrappers to eat, restaurants serving the same limited menu side by side, and dust. Tibetan’s summer tents dot the alluvial of the raucous glacial-flour aquamarine side stream, their yaks wandering, looking for scant grass. The bring-your-own-door-lock “hotel” had quilt-on-board beds, flickering electricity from 7 to 11, squatty potty, cold river water from a barrel bathing, and a sleepy old man as guard.
But the view! Such are the rewards of travel.
We had dinner and breakfast at two side by side restaurants where we had to poke the dogs from under the table lest we catch fleas, and the server jostled a very cute baby for us to admire. We “talked” to the old guard as he prepared his blanket on concrete bed. Our neighbor in the hotel brought us two of the ubiquitous Chinese plastic chairs for comfortable street watching from the balcony. We watched a large group of motorcyclists work on one of their Royal Enfields for two hours before loading it into a truck for the embarrassing ride back to Leh.
Everybody of course knew about us, and gave us a going over as we walked; on a loaded tandem you do not arrive unnoticed. More than one English speaker told us they had only seen such a bicycle on television. By morning the sad little village felt a little like home as they watched us pedal off to what they knew was the end of the road; they would see us again.
We coasted downstream, closer to the river, passed the turnoff to the main tourist attraction in the area, a hot springs at Panamik. We had a few climbs along the way, where the river cut into a cliff; all cyclists know downriver does not mean down or flat. We passed on the largest village in the valley, Diskit, for the small tourist based village of Hundar, where comfortable western style accommodations are reasonable, and you can ride a Central Asian camel for a few hundred rupees. Our guesthouse was surrounded by huge flowers and colorful birds and the food was passable.
The back way out of Hundar, to avoid the Army trucks, was rocky and flooding in places, but cool, shaded, and went close to the local’s homes. As we turned to the main road, we encountered the local Indian Army garrison (every village has one) bagpipe corps trudging up a 15% hill after morning muster. We got an enthusiastic reception, but no bagpipe music, they were worn out, and we were gasping at the hill, which proved just short enough for us to top it with dignity.
The day was a total of 85 kilometers to Turtuk, with as it turned out some significant climbing above the river. One such climb took us to a view of K2, second highest mountain in the world. It looked very close. We would see it again at Turtuk, if a more distant view.
We’d heard there was no accommodation at Bukdang, and were about to find out why. As we rode through the village we noticed a change of dress from Buddhist Tibetan to Muslim, and from the ever present friendly greetings to being ignored, even frowned at, something we have seldom encountered in our Central Asian travels. We had crossed a line, and though we both were dressed in long pants and shirts, were not really welcome. Women walked with women, men walked with men; we were just too different. Another issue might be that the few tourists this far out were being driven to Turtuk, and not stopping and spending money in their village.
A crowd of uniformed middle school boys were gathered at the bridge leading out of the village. As we approached they ran at us yelling and grabbing at Zippy. One boy grabbed my front break lever and almost took us down. We pedaled hard to get away, their manner was not friendly, the timing chain was thrown off by hard peddling and rough rocky road, and we coasted around a bend. I stopped to put the chain back on and they surrounded us. They harassed us, one using a little English to demand I let him ride Zippy, throwing his leg over the top tube. Several of the boys grabbing and touching everything on the bike they could reach despite my emphatic, “Don’t touch.” They were not physically threatening to us, but defiant and aggressive in speech and manner. I do wonder what they are being taught in school. It seemed to be that foreigners are fair game. We later heard that taxis had been detained by boys hanging on and not allowing passengers to close the door.
We rode away and were immediately confronted with a long caravan of trucks on what had become a single lane rocky road. To make any progress at all, and get away from Bukdang, we had to squeeze between the trucks and the roaring river. Not so much fun.
After a bridge (always photos forbidden) and a huge climb up to yet another Indian Army post, and a permit check station, back to the river we were stopped at a second bridge by the Indian Army. The caravan of trucks, 70 or so, were all hired by the military. “We’re moving out.” said the officer who came to talk to us. The trucks were allowed to cross, five kilometers per hour, one at a time; it was an old steel bridge with loose, sometimes broken, wooden flooring. We waited our turn and followed an Army truck going back for a new load I presume. I would like to know why they are abandoning their most forward large base as far as we could tell. When I asked he just smiled and shook his head. I hope it is because the Indians and Pakistanis are talking about resolving the disputed areas, and this was part of the negotiations.
Fifteen more kilometers and we came to Turtuk which immediately had a different feel to Bukdang. The clothes were similar, but the smiles returned. The village was built on a high bench above the river, and there were no roads up to or in the village. After a grunt of a climb we pushed Zippy across a footbridge, up steep steps and through narrow paths, shared with irrigation ditches.
On the way to our home stay, we passed through the center of Turtuk which was the swimming pool; not like any swimming pool you know though, but an irrigation fed concrete lined water storage pond. The children used it as a swimming pool, despite the leaves and sticks, and the adults used it as a meeting place.
Further along we encountered a fixed thrashing machine, filling the air with dust and noise from the engine. Women brought sheaves of hand cut grain, which was fed into the thrasher by a man, two older women gathered the grain as it came out, and more women made sheaves of straw to carry to the far reaches of the village. Several men sat and watched all this work.
People smiled as we pushed Zippy past, moved out of our way, or we out of theirs if they were loaded; the few tourists were folded into the life of the village. The sound of running water, glacial water, fills every field, every bedroom in the village with peace.
The favorite place at our homestay was the roof: expansive views of mountains (including K2) and river, a beautiful patchwork of yellow grain and green vegetable fields, apricot orchards bursting with orange, tall poplars, three busy thrashers, people walking, hauling loads. The sounds of birds, occasional bray of a donkey and ever present water.
We walked to a Buddhist shrine above the village for even better views, and to see the very unusual cemetery with rusted oil cans outlining the graves. There are few Buddhists here, all are Muslims, and I was told most are Sufi, though there are two competing calls to prayer. The Sufi influence could explain the compelling divide from Bukdang to Turtuk. If these are Sufi’s, they are very friendly people; perhaps being a shunned minority in your own religion has that effect.
On the walk home we sampled some ripe apricots from the tree, luscious. We had a long lazy late afternoon on the roof soaking in the views while listening to young backpackers talk about where it is safe to smoke ganja. It doesn’t take too long for dope talk to get boring. But they were pleasant, and very mellow, passing around their exotic pipe. I just can’t see going to the effort to get to a remote place, and miss it in a fog of marijuana. I want my full attention on the experience of the moment.
It is an interesting feeling to know you are seeing a scant seven kilometers into Pakistan, and if you raise your gaze a bit, there is the summit of K2 on the China/Pakistan border, not so far away.
To be hemmed in by high mountains and three countries distrustful of each other, is just a novel feeling for us, but having to live in the shadow of this uncertainty, as the Turtuk people have for 52 years, must be unsettling.
The people of Turtuk are under more threat from tourism than Pakistan or China. The village has been open for visits by outsiders, with Inner Line Permits, for only three years. So far the less than optimal dead-end road, and Kardung La, has kept tourism subdued. I hope it doesn’t change the idyllic life these hard working people have enjoyed for so long.