We rode out of Leh, a long downhill we would pay for later, with growing excitement and more than a little trepidation. Facing us were four passes, one of them the second highest in the world, several days between 15,000 and 17,000 feet with potential for altitude sickness, bad weather, and little information about services. We also would be seeing a dramatic part of the highest mountains in the world; if we could handle the physical and mental challenges. We have gained confidence over the past 20 years of bicycle touring around the world. But much of it was when we were a lot younger. At 50 and 70, we couldn’t expect to perform at earlier levels to tackle arguably the highest most challenging road in the world. Or could we? We had ridden Khardung La, highest motorable road in the world at 18,380 ft. But that didn’t include remaining at high altitudes for well over a week.
Khardung La offered only 15 kilometers of rough road up (after 24 kilometers of pavement), and another 14 down. Much of the nearly 500 kilometers we would face could be (was) deep dust, mud, streams and sharp or slick rocks. Would the only food available be Maggi noodles? Would there be parachute camps at reasonable distances? (We only had a sleeping bag and a minimal bivy sack, because we prefer to stay with, interact with, and leave some money with Asians). We had some information, mostly from motorists, bus passengers and, best, motorcyclists. Much of this proved less than useful; nothing interacts with a bad road surface like a tandem bicycle.
Our first night out was no gain, down 1,000 feet from Leh and back to 11,000 feet, at an entertaining transit village, Upshi: dog infested, buses disgorging Ladakhi and tourists for noodles and a piss, sacks of potatoes and flour, young men hanging around, smoking, drinking tea, waiting for something to happen; usually a dog fight, and as always in the background doing the work, colorfully dressed Ladakhi women. Our room had thin mattresses on the floor, never washed quilts and pillows and best of all, windows on three sides, the better for observing the circus in the street below. 300 rupees, $5.
Day two was a fairly nice guest house in a beautiful location in the foothills of The Great Himalaya Range at a little over 13,000 feet. Day three we rode a steep, short nine kilometers to Rumtse at 14,000 feet. At both places we had long afternoons to walk higher into the mountains along streams and to Buddhist stupas. This was our successful acclimatization strategy: a bit of moderate exercise and sleeping as high as possible, before the 17,500 foot Taglang La (La = pass) on day four. Day four – Taglang La gave us a scare: a sleet storm, with thunder and lightning; had us pedaling furiously at something near 17,000 feet for a half hour; not pleasant to be afraid and exhausted concurrently. The world’s second highest road pass was anti-climactic, one young man in a car waiting for another car; no tea stand, just one stupa and a cold wind. I had been experiencing severe gut pains each time we stopped for a drink or food the whole climb; when the descent proved to be dust and loose rocks, it got much worse and by the middle of the 20 kilometer pounding, shoulder-straining descent, I made a hasty trip into the rocks; when ya gotta go ya gotta go. To add to the concern over my health, the chain and freewheel seemed to be clogged with the fine dust, and we had to pedal, downhill against brakes, just to keep the chain from wrapping up. I’ve never experienced such an issue with Zippy, and fortunately the pedaling eventually put enough stress on the system, and the problem resolved itself. It took a little longer for my gut to resolve, but it did, without antibiotics. Claire kept my spirits up through all this.
That night we experienced our first parachute camp at Debring, a collection of four “establishments.” Usually a parachute covers the cooking and eating area, and sometimes communal, large tents provide basic thin mats on rugs and masses of wonderful warm, if sometimes odoriferous, comforters. The food was basic dahl and rice and chapati (flatbread) and sweet milk tea; no expensive meal ever tasted so good. 80 rupees, $1.20 for two, a little more for the tea. The hard board and rags mattress with ripped comforters aided the finest sleep imaginable, even at over 15,000 feet.
The very very basic outside toilet, requiring but one more visit for my temporary illness, had a view to match Edward Abbey’s outhouse (now sadly, burned) in S. Arizona. It did face traffic along the dusty road, with no door, inspiring the shy to time their ablutions. A water bottle was left out overnight and contained a large ice cube the next morning, but we were snug in our tent and comforters.
We met an Indian cyclist at this camp who was undertaking the adventure of his young life. We often meet these men and women in our travels, they seem attracted to us, to tell us their stories, why they felt the need to take on an, adventure, usually solo. They always say it is changing their lives, that just the decision to pursue the unknown was a life changing event. We understand. Perhaps they see it in our eyes. Perhaps it is Zippy, maker of magic.
Day five was a long climb, on mostly decent bitumen, across the most beautiful More Plateau to a pass-high–not technically a pass–summit and a switchbacking plunge into a gorge containing a dozen or more, not so nice, tent camps at Pang. The food was mediocre, the prices higher and at least a few of the proprietors indifferent; so much for competition improving quality.
Day six was all very bad road, no pavement except broken, and steep. Lachalung La was a bit lower, at 16,714, but didn’t feel lower after so many mountainous days. But, the rough descent into Whiskey Nalla brought both the center of the journey, in days and distance, and an unexpected emotional high. It was also the highest we slept, at nearly 16,000 feet. This was a bad thing for the French couple, the only other tandem we heard about, who were both experiencing fairly severe altitude sickness. Fortunately an Indian group of cyclists, traveling with a sag vehicle, included a physician who had medication. Another cyclist who was an NGO health director had mate de coca, a South American tea that helps with altitude sickness. We don’t know if they made it, but suspect they did after a day’s rest; there was no down to go to without going up first. I think it would take a very high performance military helicopter to hover and land at that elevation, and road evacuation would be hell for someone with a severe headache. We still did not feel any altitude effects, except for hard breathing nearing the passes.
Most of these camps are run by Ladakhi families, and we got attached to this one during our afternoon/one night stay. Claire and I had reason to develop a particular emotional attachment to the grandmother; stay tuned for the story in a future post. We’re still processing it. This brought us close to the grandfather, parents and grandson also. It’s amazing of how little importance language can be when universal emotions erupt.
Day seven started with pictures all around, and a very late start. Oh well. Worth it. After the relatively short bad road up Nakee La, and long twisty, bad-road descent (I should just say they are all bad and be done with it! I’ll mention the memorable paved sections), we came to the supposedly famous Gata Loops, 21 switchbacks in a few kilometers. We were not too impressed with more steep, rocky, sometimes wet, truck-infested road. After that a few kilometers upriver on a paved road, part of it very steep, to a hard rain welcome at Sarchu. We’d decided to go on a few kilometers to tent camps closer to the next pass, but first we had to negotiate a couple of washed out areas, ankle deep on Zippy, with rounded slick rocks under tire. The Nepali road workers gave us a cheer for managing to ride the worst of them.
At an Army road block we were run off the road by a truck. It could be that Captain Bob should have learned by then that all trucks have right of way over smaller vehicles. Stoker Claire was not happy, and the Army officer offered the curt, “Prepare to get off the road.” This is India. I was somewhat chastened, but not enough apparently. I got in trouble again on Rohtang La. Deserved.
At our tent camp, it rained all night, and day eight dawned with snow on the mountains around us, and rain. It looked really bad toward Baralacha La, so we decided on a rest day, our only one. After the rain showers eased, we took a walk on the mountain behind camp, enjoying the marmots, wildflowers and multi-colored scree rocks. We tried to find the reason for the camp’s lack of water, and did find one small leak, but it took another all night rain to get the pipe flowing again.
Day nine looked hopeful, if cold, and we set off for Baralacha La at 16,434 feet. After the pass, we began to see green on the slopes below us and passed some glaciers; we were coming into the wet side of The Great Himalaya Range. Since it is still monsoon season, we’re hoping for not too much wet, we’re desert rats.
Day ten was a long descent through a glacial valley with remaining hanging glaciers in side valleys, a beautiful glacial flour green stream with rock walled paddocks and small villages. It was very green and there were streams across the road at intervals, some of them rocky and blown out. The views were more Alpine green and white than the desert high country we’d been in for the previous week plus. I would say I liked the wet side, but for what awaited us on day 12. Our stay in a government hotel in Keylong is forgettable.
Day 11 was more of day ten’s views, but with little chance to look since the roads were so bad. We think they are letting some sections of the Manali-Leh Highway go because a new tunnel is under construction that will negate the need for these roads, except for locals, cyclists and motorcycles. Koksar provided lots of end-of-day entertainment: A truck had broken through one of the main cross beams on the only bridge over the Chandra River, and emergency repairs were underway. Every male in town was standing around the hole in the deck, offering advice to the lift operator, while women in need of crossing took amazing risks to do so, toeing a narrow beam wet with water leaking from an overhead line. Traffic was snarled in two directions, waiting. By the time we got around to looking for accommodation, all the motorcyclists had booked every room. An Aussie and two Russians with rooms, let us know they were leaving their room, and we grabbed it. We made friends with a happy kid (goat), and had an interesting conversation with an English-speaking drunk who, at 63 was bemoaning that he had too many bad habits to do what I was doing. No kidding, he smoked too, though we talked him out of it while we ate our dinner; smoking is common at meals here.
Day 12 began well with an exciting crossing of the “repaired” bridge, including a 4 x 8 tacoed sheet of loose steel flooring stopping all truck traffic, and riding with a herd of goats until they found grass. It began to cloud up about a third of the way up Rohtang La and was raining lightly half way up. Construction and truck traffic made going tough, and it seemed steeper than other passes. I got way too close to one of the trucks coming downhill; impatience at the increasing rain and cold, and Claire and I had a tiff, then silence for a few kilometers. By one and a half kilometers to go we were soaked and the rain and wind was increasing at an alarming rate. We saw three yellow tents–one of them unoccupied–tea stalls. We huddled and shivered wondering what to do next. We were too cold to go on into the increasing rain and fog. We ran to the most enclosed tea stall where we talked with two Indian cyclists headed to Leh. We had tea and some chips and finally decided it wasn’t going to get better, and we’d best give it a go, knowing we had 14 kilometers of downhill facing us after the summit. Our tiff was forgotten for the time being, as we needed all our combined resources just to survive.
We both had all our clothes on and were still cold; the short uphill to the pass helped, but the cold and wet soaked in quickly as we began as fast a descent as Zippy could manage with reasonable safety. The first couple of kilometers was paved, but soon gave way to broken pavement, then rocks and streams running in muddy ruts with invisible bottoms. The front end bounced back and forth between walls of ruts, slithered over rocks and the rear bounced uncontrollably. I’m not sure how Claire stayed on. We had to share the ruts with a goatherd, a cow herd and several pack horses; they kept shortcutting the switchbacks and we’d be back in with them again! It was almost funny. Almost.
The downpour continued and we slogged on, stopping a couple of times for me to rest my shoulders. There was so much grit that the brakes were bottomed out with the drum brake full on; good thing the slope wasn’t any steeper or we would have been in deep doo-doo, and I don’t mean cow shit.
We rolled into the village of Mahri looking more bedraggled than the goats who were just arriving too. I wish we could go down as steeply as they can, we would have cut our time in half. We had the name of a restaurant and guesthouse and it mercifully appeared just as we stopped. They invited Zippy under cover and us in for tea. A couple of sweet black teas helped a little, but we were still shivering since Himalayan restaurants don’t bother with doors until November and the cold wind blew all the way to the back. Some kind soul invited us into the kitchen where we huddled around the open-topped tandoori oven. It helped, and would prove essential to getting us going the next day.
We took a room and stripped in the cold, jumped under the comforters. It took forever to warm just a bit. Claire had a spare dry upper and I gave her my nylon bottom layer long pants (one of three, all wet) and she took the rest of our clothes to hang in the kitchen by the oven. They smelled of smoke the next day, but they were a little bit dry, and at least not cold.
Day 13 we descended deeper into the green forest of the Himalayan foothills; lots of switchbacks and tourist traffic since the weather had cleared. The road narrowed as we approached Manali, and I got a taste of what Indian drivers consider safe, and learned to find a way out of the way when necessary, which was often. At 7,000 some feet it felt like we were swimming in oxygen. We felt like we could fly up steep hills without breathing. I sure wished I could have a shot at Mt. Lemmon now!
We were not impressed with Manali at first, but have come to enjoy wandering the back alleyways where the interesting shops hide between the makeshift squatter tents of the poor.
We have train tickets from Chandigarh, 300 kilometers from here, to Kollam in far south India, where we will again take to Zippy, this time in the tropics.
We have several single subject posts coming soon. There was more depth to this trip than most of our other short ones. Stay tuned, please.