Ladakh & Zanskar, India (2015)

In August and September, Rudi and I cycle three-and-a-half weeks in Northern India. The route is from Leh through the wide Indus River valley to Kargil, next through the rough Zanskar valley to the famous Manali-Leh road, and then back again to the Indus valley via Lake Tso Moriri. It is a very diverse journey passing arid plateaus, deep canyons and high roads. We ride more than 1.200 kilometers and climb almost 19.000 meters.

Day 1 & 2: Leh (acclimatize)

We fly from Brussels to Delhi, and after a night without rest we take a domestic flight to Leh. At our arrival we take the almost undamaged bicycle transport boxes in a van and head for Hotel Ladakh Greens. We get a warm welcome by the hotel owner and sleep for a few hours. In the afternoon we wander around in Leh, grab coffee and cake at the German Bakery, and prepare the bikes. We are staying at an altitude of 3.500 m, but don’t experience any problems.

Also during the second acclimatization day we take it easy. We buy groceries in the town center, where we see a lot of tourists. The biggest shopping street, the market, is being renovated by migrant workers form Nepal. This project is called “Leh Beautification”, and will probably take years to complete. The atmosphere is very relaxed. People of several religions visit each other’s shops and seem to mix up quite well. It is hard to imagine that intolerant Muslims ruin the lives of religious dissidents only a few hundred kilometers further.

The only other hotel guests appear to be Dutch people who live just two kilometers from my home address in 's-Hertogenbosch. They have just returned from a difficult hike with horses, in an area that has been suffering from heavy rainfall, which is a rather unique situation in the very arid Ladakh. While we are having this conversation in the restaurant, suddenly the lights go out. Although the government states that there is sufficient electricity for all, electricity breakdowns occur on a daily basis after sunset. We are glad that our hotel has an emergency power unit. And until that is operating, we have dinner by candlelight… uh no… by LED headlight.

Day 3: Leh > Nurla (83 km; 1.110 alt.m)

Today we finally go on our cycling trip! From Leh the first ten kilometers are annoying, because of the numerous lorries and jeeps with their disgusting exhaust fumes. After that the road to Kargil lies in front of us. First we cycle through a mountain desert along the Indus River. Hereafter the landscape becomes more diverse, with canyons, sharp ridges and snow-covered peaks in the distance. We ride over two small passes. Halfway the stage we observe how the Indus and the rough Zanskar rivers unite.

The Indian army is present everywhere: there are many barracks at the entrances of which we see the names of the units, canons, statues and decorations. Along the road we read signs with pedantic messages, such as ‘Don't be silly in the hilly’, ‘After whisky, driving risky’ and ‘Don't rally in the valley’. Driving behavior is better than expected. Drivers keep distance to us, and the bearded Muslim drivers of the beautifully decorated lorries wave and blow their horn. This contrary to the mustached Hindu drivers of the many army trucks, who look grumpy. We spend the night in Nurla, in a bamboo hut along the Indus River.

Day 4: Nurla > Lamayuru (48 km; 1.040 alt.m)

We continue our journey along the Indus River. After Khalsi Rudi notices a dozen of wild goats. Then we say goodbye to the Indus and catch the old road to Lamayuru. Via many hairpins we manage to climb some six hundred meters. At the highest point, at 3.700 m, we enjoy a fantastic view of the spectacular surroundings. Beneath us is a bizarre landscape, with light-brown, eroded rock formations.

It is very arid here. And hot: 27 °C in the shade, but well above 40 °C in the sun. I start to feel sick and have to vomit. We try to climb the Fotu La, but I have run out of energy. So we head back for Lamayuru, having climbed almost two hundred meters to no avail. After an afternoon-nap in a hotel I feel better. In the restaurant a group of noisy Russians asks for vodka, after which they start singing – these people are so predictable…

Day 5: Lamayuru > Kargil (104 km; 1.310 alt.m)

The Fotu La is on our breakfast menu. An easy climb: not steep and well-surfaced. Road workers, who are very willing to pose for a photo shoot, are even adding another layer of tarmac. They use rather primitive methods, as is also the case with many of construction and farming activities around here. On the summit of the 4.094 m high pass road we pose with a group of enthusiastic Indian cyclists. The long descent takes us through Muslim area for the first time. This means: more little shops, men with beards, girls and women covered with veils, and screaming boys.

The ascent of today’s second pass road, the Namika La, takes us though an arid and dull landscape. The road is steeper than the Fotu La. On the summit I pose on a photo together with the kids of a liberal Muslim family. The descent is really spectacular. The afternoon’s sun beams illuminate the round-curved hills in a perfect way. The snow-covered peaks of the Zanskar region are visible from here. We pass through Mulbekh, where we see Buddhist statues and stupas in front of colossal, Grand Canyon-like mountains, before we re-enter Muslim area again.

After twenty kilometers of roads under construction we finally reach Kargil in the evening twilight. Kargil is an old trading post on the silk-road from North-India to West-China. Currently it is a chaotic, filthy town where you do not would want to stay for long. It looks like Pakistan – unsurprisingly, since the border is only a few miles away. We spend the night in a modest hotel along a busy road. The service level is low. They promised a hot shower but it is cold. The owner is reluctant to bring towels. They promised Wi-Fi, but we have to tap it from a router in a luxurious hotel nearby, which doesn’t work. But okay, at least the promised bed is there.

Day 6: Kargil > Panikhar (70 km; 1.060 alt.m)

Buying groceries in Kargil is not so easy. There are dozens of tiny shops along the busy main road, but none of these seem to have what we are looking for. The petrol station is on top of the hill – not so handy for us… And try to find an ATM that is in operation. But in the end we succeed fairly well. We push and steer our bicycles back to the hotel, through the crowd of bearded men, veiled girls, interested boys and along portraits of late Ayatollah Khomeini. We continue our cycling journey at 10:45 am.

The roads takes us along the Sura River into the 150 km long valley. We pass through several Muslim villages and receive a warm welcome everywhere, even though we are probably wearing inappropriate bicycle clothes. The kids practice their English skills: ‘How are you?’, ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Bye’. Halfway the trip we can see the snow-covered Nun (7.135 m) and Kun (7.087 m). After nearly sixty kilometers, the good tarmac changes into a gravel road. By now the boys, that continue to run to us from the villages and the fields, have become annoying. In the end we find a quiet and nice camp spot with streaming water.

Day 7: Pannikhar > Zoldok (51 km; 1.020 alt.m)

At 6 a.m. we get up and have coffee and noodles. We take the very bad road to Parkachik, where we can see Nun and Kun again. For the first time this vacation –and certainly not for the last time– we eat chapatti with omelet, this time cooked by a one-armed man in a filthy hut. Next we go through a gorge, while the sun is burning on our heads. In these hot conditions it is a relief to wade in our cycling sandals through the cold little streams. The big stupa at Gulmatango reminds us that we are re-entering Buddhist territory.

We have to struggle on the bad road for many kilometers before we arrive in a small settlement near Rangdum. Thanks to the evening sun the view of the landscape is amazing; less so is our guest house. It is really basic here: we have rice with dhal (beans) in a multifunctional room (shop, living room, kitchen and restaurant) with people dressed in Tibetan style. We sleep in our sleeping bags on a filthy carpet, with noisy Indians in the room next to ours. If we want to use the “night toilet” (i.e., outside behind a little brick wall), then we have to make sure not to fall off the half-constructed stairs. Somehow we survive.

Day 8: Zoldok > Kushol (74 km; 810 alt.m)

We leave at 6:30 a.m. Behind us the sun is already shining on Nun and Kun, but we have to ride for an hour in the shade and the freezing cold. At the Rangdum Monastery a policeman fills out a form: our names, passport and visa numbers, where we came from and are heading to etc. We notice that at every checkpoint or hotel different forms are used; we wonder who will ever use this information at all. I guess the answer is obvious.

We continue our way through a gorgeous valley. The beautiful mountains on our right almost make us forget the terrible road conditions. We see many families looking for cowpats, which are carried on the back in cane bags and dried on big rocks. What a harsh life! Until now we have not experienced any problems with the altitude. On top of the 4.492 m high Pensi La we enjoy a spectacular view of the Drang-Drung glacier that stretches out for many miles, behind of which we see summits over 6.500 m. The many hairpin-pass descent is truly exciting.

After some ten kilometers of flat road we have to climb, while the river next to us, the Stod, squeezes itself into a deep gorge. At the end of this gorge a fairytale landscape unfolds. Next we gradually descent on the bad road, which is still bad. By accident we miss a police checkpoint. But no one comes after us. We can spend the night in the garden of a friendly farmer. He brings us a can of tea and cookies, and refuses any compensation. While he is weeding grass –used for isolating houses– with a sickle, we pitch our tent.

Day 9: Kushol > Padum (38 km; 310 alt.m)

We have coffee and cookies for breakfast and head for Padum. The landscape is not very interesting. We need to stay focused, because the road is still in bad condition. After twenty-six kilometers of hard labor there is tarmac – at last. The remaining part to Padum –the main town of Zanskar– is relatively easy. Some seventy-four per cent of its inhabitants are Muslims, although Padum lies in the middle of a Buddhist valley. We find a room in the quite “luxurious” Marq hotel that has clean sheets and hot water twenty-four hours a day. Under the fine hot shower we wash off the sweat, sand and soot of the last few days.

At a travel agency we try to arrange horses for the hike over the 5.050 m high Shingo La. This is not easily arranged though; they tell us to come back tomorrow… The hotel owner in Leh gave us coffee bags for his son, who has recently been installed as judge in Zanskar. We knock on his door, and he immediately buys us tea in a cafe. During the last two years he was stationed in Kargil, and has to serve here now – a remote place if you realize that the valley is closed from November to April. However he has the privilege to go to Leh by helicopter a few times a year, a trip of only forty-five minutes.

We are invited for dinner at the judge's house. While his cook is preparing dinner, two more guests join us: Zanskar’s police commissioner and his assistant. What follows is a pleasant evening with good food, strong Godfather beer, and watching kickboxing. And learning to put things in perspective. Amongst other things they explain the concept of Indian propaganda. The government sometimes declares that it has built new bridges and roads that do actually not exist. And citizens take that for granted. Wow. The police commissioner says he wants to help us out with the horses if we cannot arrange this ourselves. We have a little bit of hope now. And go to bed very late.

Day 10: Padum (rest day)

Today's main priority is arranging horses. This appears to be quite a challenge. The travel agency Spirit of Himalaya has not taken any action, despite yesterday's promise. Of course we don’t want to return to Leh over the same bad road, and we feel pessimistic. But exactly at this moment we run into the two German guys Martin and Hannes. They came from the Shingo La with the help of two horses and an English-speaking horseman (Stanzin Stophail) and arrived here yesterday. And they saw this horseman wandering around in Padum this morning.

So we and the Germans start looking for this horseman, and actually find the guy. He has already been booked by another group, but suggests that we cycle in the direction of the Shingo La up to his home village Raru. From there the jeep track stops due to a dam burst. We might join the other group there. It is a gamble, but we’ll give it a try. Fingers crossed... We buy groceries for even days and have dinner with the Germans and a goofy Czech.

Day 11: Padum > Raru (23 km; 460 alt.m)

We buy some more groceries, shave and post messages and photos on Facebook (internet via satellite is working – at last!). Around noon we head for Raru. The road has some tarmac and is hilly, but is not long. This part of the valley is quite dull. Once in a while we see a house or a monastery. A friendly monk gives us dried apricots. Near Raru the valley opens up and becomes much more beautiful.

The campsite is situated at one side of a big plain. At our side there is Raru village and a school, and at the other side we can see a stupa on a hill. After school some camping guests play soccer with the kids. A few teenagers come to our tent and hng around until we are fed up. They want us to pay them for the camping, but we are not that easily fooled. They also want to ride our bikes, but we refuse, because if we allow them, half the village will probably want to as well.

At night horseman Stanzin Stophail and a fellow-horseman come into our tent. They have already been booked (and paid) by a group of two French couples that pitched their tents next to us. The horsemen are willing to “secretly” carry our bags as well, as long as we will not interfere with the French. We agree on the price: Rp 7000 – this is € 50 per person for five days. We have a deal!

Day 12: Raru > Kyalbok (24 km; 870 alt.m)

Exited we start our trip to the Shingo La. We stay on the right side of the river for the whole day. The first few kilometers are easy. But then there is a landslide. Meaning: we have to carry our bicycles 80 meters up the mountain on a steep and narrow temporary trail, and back down again on the other side. Some four kilometers after Raru the jeep track stops and we continue over a 50 cm wide horse trail. Immediately we have to go very far up again. And just before Tsetang twice more. And there are plenty of small climbs as well. The elevation profile that we will see when we are home again in the Netherlands shows an extreme “up and down” pattern.

Not only pushing and carrying the bike as such is a challenge; you really have to care where you put your feet, specifically on those parts where a stone avalanche wiped out the path. We do not want to tumble into the river deep down there. Halfway the hike the loaded horses overhaul us at great speed. These have no difficulties in this terrain at all. We can feel the nearly nine hundred climbed meters in our legs, arms and back when we arrive at the beautifully located terrace camp site of Kyalbok.

Day 13: Kyalbok > Purne (5 km; 220 alt.m)

Last night we slept very well. When we get up we are fully recovered of yesterday’s strenuous trip; we do not even feel our backs hurt. We have noodles and omelet for breakfast. This place is amazing, especially in the morning sun. We notice that until now the weather has been excellent – and this will remain so for the remainder of our vacation. Today we have a very short trip on the menu. We try to keep up with the horses for twenty minutes, but as soon as the path gets stony and steep, we have to give up. From now on we are able to enjoy the terrific landscape. Just before Purne we have a remarkable view of the spot where the bright blue Zanskar River and the brown Kargyak River merge.

To get on the other side of the river we have to carry our bikes down on a very narrow path, and after the bridge go up the hill again. In Purne there are two campings. We have lunch at the first one. The friendly warden tells about last spring’s tsunami in the Zanskar River. This not only wiped out all bridges and low-lying roads, but also many fields. She also tells us about two tourists from Europe –father and son– who hiked over the Shingo La a few years ago. The father developed altitude sickness and died on the way down. His son had to leave him here in Purne. We pitch our tent on the second camp site where the horsemen cook rice, black tea, salt tea and yak butter tea. This yak butter tea does not taste as foul as I had imagined, but to say it tastes well… not really. For the remainder of the afternoon we just hang around.

Day 14: Purne <> Phugtal (hike)

Today we leave our bikes at the tent and hike to the Phugtal Monastery. The trail goes up and down in a rough valley at both sides of which we can see brown and terra cotta colored mountains. Half way Nepalese road workers are cutting to widen the road. They use very basic tools, such as pickaxes, hammers and shovels; machines are hardly used. After all, labor is cheaper than capital goods. Moreover, bulldozers and excavators cannot reach this remote place.

Last January a natural dam up the Zanskar River was formed due to a landslide. And this dam created a lake. The locals in the valley saw the river shrink into a little stream and raised alarm. The army then tried to lower the pressure on the dam by digging an outlet channel. But it was not enough. On the 7th of May the dam could no longer withstand the pressure of 30 million m3 water. A tsunami destroyed bridges, roads, trails and acres, all up to the merger with the Indus River. Fortunately no lives were lost. This part of Zanskar has been harder to reach ever since; as a result the number of tourists dropped.

After two hours we reach the monastery. The bridge here has been demolishedcas well. We have to cross the river via a new, wobbly footbridge, with branches tied to the steel cables. The Phugtal Monastery is glued to the steep mountain. Below the big cave, which is on top of the monastery, is a yard where some older monks and juvenile monks enjoy their lunch. After lunch the boys run down the stairs and through dark corridors to their rooms. This place is a real labyrinth. We make a donation for the resurrection of the school – the one built in 2012 has also been destroyed by the tsunami.

Day 15: Purne > Shi (23 km; 710 alt.m)

During the next three days we follow the Kargyak Rivir up to its source. First we return to the south bank, and push and carry our bikes 170 meters up the hill on a very steep path. We pass through the lovely villages of Testa and Kuru, where we see many people harvest. There are a lot of stupas and so-called “mani” walls, which are covered with numerous prayer stones. Rudi neglects the Buddhist tradition to pass these walls on their left side. After the villages the trail continues just next to the river for many kilometers. And that means: lots of stones. It is very strenuous to push the bikes here.

Near Tanze we take the bridge to the other bank. Behind the village we see remarkable mountains: various hues (grass green, mint, brown, terra cotta), sharp contours and on the top funny little "towers". This landscape is very beautiful. We had been looking forward to order lunch here, but the tea stall owner is harvesting on his acre. We are lucky to be able to ride for a few kilometers… until we go bump again over the dry river-bed.

At Shi camp site a local is waiting for us, with a broken bicycle. He bought the bike from a tourist for his daily one kilometer trip from his village to the tea stall and back. But the derailleur cable is broken. Unfortunately we can’t help him. But he can help us: by preparing a late lunch, chapatti and omelet. While we eat, a lazy monk is sleeping on the bench. What a relaxed religion. Right after the late lunch, we start to prepare diner. Since at this altitude the temperature is so low, we dive in the tent as early as possible.

Day 16: Shi > Upper Lakhung (20 km; 740 alt.m)

From the campsite we can clearly see Gumburanjon: a steep “Matterhorn” half way the valley where we will be going through today. The horse track to the mountain is cyclable for a few kilometers, but for the remainder we have to push and carry the bikes. In the meadows next to the Gumburanjon many yaks are grazing. Last year an aggressive bear was spotted in Zanskar. Would it be hiding somewhere here? The bear would have a hard time fighting yaks, which have long and sharp horns. And they are with many. It would be far easier to attach a lonely, unsuspecting cyclist…

Just when we are done with the many stones on our route, and in the middle of nowhere, we bump into a tea stall (Lower Lakhung). The exterior is a basic shelter consisting of flat stones covered by canvas. The inside is cosy, with stone benches covered with carpets, and with a surprisingly rich variety of products. The friendly warden stays here in July, August and September to service hikers and horsemen. Profit from sales is used for local investments, e.g. in infrastructure.

After a late yet well-deserved lunch we begin our climb to the Upper Lakhung, also known as Basecamp. The path goes 220 meters up and is very, very steep. It costs a lot of effort. My back starts aching, and Rudi is complaining about his knees. We are glad to arrive in the Basecamp, actually even long before sunset. Despite the altitude (4.700 m) and the wind the Primus Omnifuel performs well. Prepparing food takes a little longer due to the lower cooking temperature, but still we use very little petrol.

Day 17: Upper Lakhung > Jispa (51 km; 600 alt.m)

There is ice on the inside of our tent when we get up. Inside the tent it is still around 0 °C. We prepare couscous and make some coffee. At 7.30 a.m. the sun rises above the mountain ridge: time to put our bags on the horses. We begin the final stage of the Shingo La. The first 200 altitude meters are overcome via a very steep trail, fortunately not covered with snow. The horses soon pass us. After that we reach the new dirt road, which will be supposedly be constructed all the way to Purne.

On top of the pass we put the pedals on the bikes. On the other side of the pass they have completed a brand new dirt road. Various bulldozers and excavators are finishing the work. After another ten kilometers cycling through a very rough landscape, we meet the horsemen and the French. It is time to say goodbye. The horsemen will return to Zanskar, the French will go to Manali by jeep, while we will cycle on – fully-loaded again. About eight kilometers after Zanskar Mundo there is tarmac: so easy to ride! The road continuously goes up and down all the way to Darcha. We find a place to eat and sleep in hotel Padma Lodge in Jispa.

Day 18: Jispa > Sarchu (83 km; 1.930 alt.m)

After an extensive bicycle cleanup we move on to Darcha again. From there we go west via a series of long hairpins. The road never becomes steep and the tarmac stays excellent all the way up to the Baralacha La. In Patseo we meet a test engineer from Sweden. He oversees the testing at high altitude of a new truck with a cleaner engine. A few kilometers after Zing Zingbar we have lunch in a tent that is decorated with carpets and pillows on which we can rest. Soon after this break we reach the Baralacha La (4.910 m).

The initial fifteen kilometers of the descent are on a bad dirt road with few parts of tarmac. After this the road quality considerably improves. It is a pity that due to the twilight we can hardly enjoy the fantastic scenery. Our main priority is finding a place to stay. Finally, at 7:15 p.m. we find shelter just before the village of Sarchu. After today’s climbing efforts the rice, beans and omelet are easily consumed. We sleep in an already pitched tent of the owner, which has a lot of carpets on the floor.

Day 19: Sarchu > Pang (77 km; 1.390 alt.m)

Last night it was cold; at 7 a.m. the temperature is still -4 °C. Of course we eat omelet for breakfast. Next we cycle through a wide valley in the middle of which is a canyon with meandering streams. After thirty kilometers the road suddenly climbs up the mountain wall on our right: the twenty-one hairpins of the Gata Loops. In the lower part we have a magnificent view of the clear-blue river. Too bad though that there are so many filthy trucks. After the Loops the road continues to climb, occasionally very steep, to the Nakeela La (4.937 m).

We quickly descent to Whisky Nalah, where we have lunch in a parachute tent. Next we have to climb three hundred meters to the Lachulung La (5.077 m). It is not easy to climb steep parts on unpaved roads with so little oxygen in the air, but we manage to do it. The descent is situated in a beautiful canyon, wonderfully illuminated by the late afternoon sun. The road is bad though, delaying our progress. The gorge abruptly ends; we continue in a completely different, desert-like landscape. We stay the night in a basic guest house in Pang. There we meet two British and one Swiss guy, who travel through in India on Royal Enfield bikes.

Day 20: Pang > Polokonka La (77 km; 770 alt.m)

From Pang we climb more than two hundred meters before coming out of the canyon and arriving on the Morei Plains: a vast and dry plateau, which we do not find very attractive. The road quality improves a lot though, and it even becomes so wide that it has center line marking. After almost forty kilometers of riding on the Plains we eat rice, beans and “veg” in a parachute tent. Next we take the road to Tso Kar: a salt lake in a very arid area. The views here are a bit disappointing. We drink tea in the little village Thugle. After twenty-two kilometers the tarmac ends. We manage to cycle another twenty kilometers on a dirt road in the direction of the Polokonka La.

We pitch our tent at 4.810 m, exactly the same altitude as the summit of the Mont Blanc, and also the highest place to spend the night during this vacation. In the twilight we see a flock of recently sheared sheep passing by, on their way to the nomads that have pitched their tents just below the pass height. Just when we are crawling into our sleeping bags, we can hear the nomads’ dogs come closer through the valley. They bark and growl, and sniff at our tent. First we try to remain as silent as possible, but that is to no avail. Wrong strategy. Then Rudi steps out of the tent. The dogs get scared and run off. They will return a few times, but thanks to ear plugs we can sleep.

Day 21: Polonkonka La > Puga Sumdo (28 km; 300 alt.m)

It was freezing last night, but the early morning sun at this high grounds quickly warms us up, so we can enjoy our noodles and coffee outside the tent. It does not take long before we reach the Polokonka La (4.966 m), situated some hundred-and-fifty meters higher than the camp ground. We take a summit picture –at the background there is a wide Tibetan flag construction– and go down again on a very bad dirt road. After ten kilometers we are surprised to see excellent tarmac. During the descent we pass through a valley with hot-water springs. We can smell sulfur and the surface next to the little streams is white-washed. There is not much of a panoramic scenery here: just brown hills with bits of green and snow.

From Sumdo, where each of us eats four chapattis and a four eggs omelet, the mountains become rougher again. Too bad that I have been in bad shape in the last couple of days. Even when I sleep and eat well, I still have a lack of energy when riding. Perhaps the altitude –we have been above 4.000 meters during several days and nights now– negatively affects digestion. We call it a day and stay in a guesthouse in Puga Sumdo. In the basic room I sleep for a few hours while Rudi reads a book outside in the sun. Tomorrow we will take it easy.

Day 22: Puga Sumdo <> Karzok (79 km; 910 alt.m)

Today we will leave the bags at the guesthouse and head for Tso Moriri, the extensive lake close to the Tibetan border. The road, which has excellent tarmac and a mild gradient road, leads us to the summit of the Namashang La (4.835 m). We descent to a small lake and encounter two retired Indian army guys who are on a four-week cycling trip in Ladakh. After twenty-seven kilometers the tarmac ends; the remaining thirteen kilometers are unpaved. Cycling here is a struggle.

The azure blue Tso Moriri is wonderfully located, with snow-covered summits at both sides of the lake. I decide to stop here – again due to persisting lack of energy. Rudi goes on to the village of Karzok, the start/finish of a horse track from and to Tso Kar; hence all the tourists transported by car. After one-and-a-half hour Rudi returns, and he brings cookies, juice and take-away cho mein. We did not bring utensils with us, so instead we use the caps of our drinking bottles to eat. During the way back the afternoon sun shines brilliantly on Kiagar Tso, a brightly-blue colored salt lake with white borders.

Day 23: Puga Sumdo > Hymia (94 km; 720 alt.m)

After cooking noodles in our room, we move to lower ground. The road from Puga Sumdo to the Indus goes through a rough valley. We need to pay attention to the many holes in the road surface. After fifteen kilometers we reach the bridge over the Indus. Despite the presence of soldiers we are not being checked. We have not used the permit for the Tso Moriri area that we had arranged back in Leh. The Indus valley is impressive. After each river bend a differently shaped and colored mountain ridge appears. After more than twenty kilometers on perfect tarmac we eat chow mein with omelet in Chumatang, a place with hot water springs.

We continue our trip through the Indus valley. Once in a while the road is steep, but this also puts us in nice positions to take pictures. Dark-brown, light-brown, purple, red-brown, green: we see all kinds of landscape variations. Later, when I am home, I can hardly believe the colors I see on the photos. Kiari hosts a huge army base: apparently a strategic spot this close to Tibet. We see many thousands of diesel drums, brought here by petrol trucks all the way from Manali, which is almost one thousand kilometers from here. We also see many memorial plaques for soldiers who passed away. A closer look at these plaques reveils that they have not been killed in combat, but died due to a plane crash, heart attack of something else without an enemy; I call this tragic, and not heroic.

After Kiari the Indus and the road go through a narrower gorge. This means: more climbs. It is arid and deserted here: there are neither guesthouses nor places to pitch the tent. And the further we go, the sandier the road becomes. The last ten kilometers the road surface is completely sandy, which makes riding very demanding. And there has also been headwind, from the moment this morning that we started to cycle along the Indus. Therefore we feel very relieved to arrive in Hymia. There are several guesthouses and restaurants here. We spend the night in a sort of homestay, in a nice room with low bed couches and carpets; a room probably used for festivities. An old lady cooks the well-known "rice, dhal and veg" menu for us.

Day 24: Hymia > Thiksey (62 km; 400 alt.m)

In the morning we pay Rp 1.200 for the room, dinner and breakfast – some € 16. Prices in Ladakh are very reasonable. A plate full of lunch or dinner often costs about Rp 100, some € 1,50. In the Netherlands you cannot even buy one snack for that money. Once the roads improve and more tourists start coming, this will be over. But, first these roads… During the first few hours we keep on struggling on the sandy road. They are widening the road from Upsi to Chumatang, which is quite ambitious given the powerful river that squeezes itself between the steep mountain ridges. Finally, after eighteen kilometers there is perfect tarmac, so we can easily double our cycling speed. The valley opens up. We see many army people along the road – just hanging around and doing nothing.

In Upsi we eat curry with lamb meat and also chow mein with omelet. We move on, to the west. On our left we can see a series of triangular mountain ridges with sharp diagonal stripes at the right angle to them. We had also seen these from the plane when we flew to Leh. It is disappointing that this remarkable scenery is totally spoilt by a ten kilometers long ribbon of army residencies at Karu. Each army unit has its own place. Since the soldiers here –all of them mustached– obvisously have trouble filling the hours, they spend their time decorating everything. To me this does not seem adequate training for going to war with China or Pakistan. And the damned thing is that it is not permitted to take pictures of these decorations…

We continue on the somewhat boring road to the west. To our left we can see the famous Hemis Monastery, and we also pass Stakna Monastery, which is nicely located on a hill next to the Indus. But we go on to Thiksey, where we find a nice room in the big hotel. Our room is very spacious, and even has electricity, hot water, towels and Wi-Fi, as well as a balcony from which we can see the monastery on the top of the hill. At night we order more much then we can humanly digest.

Day 25: Thiksey > Leh (19 km; 310 alt.m)

Via numerous stairs we reach the top of the hill at 6:30 a.m. Two young monks on a roof blow their trumpets for several minutes: the call for the morning mess. Some tourists, amongst whom two uncongenial Dutch cyclists, press their cameras almost in the faces of the monks. For them it goes without saying that getting hold of a close-up photo prevails over showing respect for the local people.

Below I try to give a report of the mess that we attend.

– At 7 a.m. the first monk starts chanting a prayer, after which fellow monks enter the prayer hall one by one. The hall is clean and nicely decorated, with paintings on the walls, ornaments on the wooden beams, tapestries and gold-painted Buddha figures in cabinets. The seats have already been checked by a monk dressed in a ochre-colored robe and wearing a spear-like attribute.

– The mumbling gets louder and louder. After twenty minutes the monks have porridge, while the "microphone monk" keeps on chanting a song with three different notes. Five minutes later the monks start to sing a song with as many as five different notes. Tea is being served.

– At 7:30 a.m. new tourists are still droppping in. This time three Americans, who take a seat right in front of the pots and pans, and keep on talking during the mess. The interim-score is: 31 monks vs. 28 tourists.

– At 7:35 a.m. a monk hands out Rupees to his fellow monks. Is this a kind of pocket-money? The monk who is seated in front of the microphone then starts mumbling from the back of his throat. Many monks pull out, and some of the younger ones start chuckling… until all but a few adolescents rejoin. The sound is swelling.

– At 7:50 a.m. the first tourists pull out. Now the monks take their prayer books. Apparently they have been singing the same song all the time, and now something different – I was not aware of it. Now also the adolescents become fanatical. Two cheerful boys serve tea; it is convenient to rinse the throat after producing these deep guttural sounds.

– At 8 a.m. only eleven tourists have remained. The first monk falls asleep – or is it some kind of trance? The cheerful duo is laughing too obvious; an adult monk points at their prayer books. Next it is time for a trio to serve tea. I realize that the serving of tea could be intended to add a little variation in the monotonous ambiance. And monotonous it is; we have been listening to the same “melody” for more than ninety minutes now. A never-ending prayer?

– At 8:20 a.m. the prayer suddenly stops, like a fade-out, as if someone turns down the volume in two seconds. The monks are served tsampa from large pots. They knead the flour for a while and then eat it. This kind of resembles the catholic ritual. It is very quiet in the hall. Outside the Americans are still talking loudly.

– Another round of tea. At 8:25 a.m. the monk with the microphone starts a prayer and the others fanatically join. A monk swipes the excess flour off the narrow, low tables.

– Then there is a kind of intermezzo during the mess: the monks start to clap. Is that to say 'thank you' for cleaning the dust? Or to thank the monk who cleans the floor by “skating” with patches of fabric under his feet? Or to address the monk with the ochre cape who whispers something in the ears of the adult monks?

– At 8:30 a.m. we can hear the welling sound of bells outside. Then suddenly the books are closed and all the monks disappear within a minute.

After visiting the monastery we head for Leh. Thiksey looked pretty wealthy, but the ribbon development to Leh looks very poor. People are living and working here right next to the busy and filthy road in deplorable conditions, probably hoping for a better future. The last stretch to Leh is not very pleasant: we climb on a busy motor way on which some drive like maniac, just to gain a few seconds. In Leh the hotel owner and the cook welcome us with a personal touch; it really feels like coming home. Finally a room with a good shower. Later in the afternoon we buy a permit for the Kardung La road that we want to do tomorrow.

Day 26: Leh <> Khardung La (79 km; 1.930 alt.m)

It is already running a bit late when we start our climb of the 5.367 m high Khardung La. Some say that this is the world’s highest motorable pass road. Meaning that you can get up by car and descent to the other side as well. We easily reach the pass road thanks to our GPS, that directs us through the suburbs of Leh, where many hotels are being constructed. The pass road is nicely constructed; high up the mountains we enjoy splendid views of the green Leh valley all the time. After some twenty-five kilometers there is a checkpoint where we present our permit to an official. The Khardung La is an entrance to the Nubra Valley, close to the Pakistani border, and the army wants to be in full control of the area.

After the checkpoint the nice tarmac road changes into a mediocre and sometimes even bad dirt road. They are making the complete road wider from here to the summit before putting tarmac on it, and that will take some time. Until the road construction will be finished, cycling here remains quite a struggle. Just like earlier during our vacation, the high altitude is not really bothering us. Well, it is only a problem when you want to nap some water from the bottle while cycling; such actions are literally breath-taking. What is annoying though are the numerous rental cars passing. Finally at 3:15 p.m. we have made it. We take a summit picture, take a quick look at the Nubra Valley (no, we cannot see the K2 from here), and dive into the Maggi Noodle cafe. The descent to Leh is spectacular. The late afternoon sun beautifully illuminates the mountains. The Khardung La is a worthy conclusion of our cycle vacation in Ladakh!

Day 27: Leh > Delhi

At 6:30 a.m. we arrive at the tiny Leh airport. In normal circumstances this would give us enough time to catch the 8:10 a.m. flight. But… they apply complex procedures here, which supposedly is related to the threat of terrorist attacks this close to the Pakistani border. There are lots of checks, unclear instructions, messing with our luggage… It is quite a stressful morning, but in the end we make it just in time.

We arrive in Delhi at 10 a.m. Since our flight to Brussels is scheduled at 2:40 a.m., we decide to stay in New Delhi during the day. The subway takes to the city center in just half an hour. Outside the subway station a “very trustworthy” man his pass showing that he is “an official” warns us not to take pictures in public, and also says that it is too dangerous to walk here. “By chance” a tuk tuk is waiting for us to take us to an information point for just Rp 10 (€ 0,15). There I get hold of a city map, something we actually needed!

The staff member tries to sell us a taxi drive for three times the normal price. We are no fools. So we spend another Rp 10 in the tuk tuk to go to ‘a neighborhood with hundreds of authentic shops’. This of course appears to be the well-known trap: the Persian carper shop. We enter the shop, just for fun. Ten salesmen try to sell us a carpet. After two minutes we leave the shop without carpet. The tuk tuk driver looks very disappointed at us: he has just lost his commission. He does not even want to transport us anymore.

So we go back to the subway, and travel twelve kilometers to the south. It is too hot and humid to walk, so we grab a tuk tuk, and race and honk our way to Qutub Minar, the famous, more than seventy meters high minaret built in the twelfth century. This tower and all the buildings around it mark the start of six hundred years of Muslim rule in India. Today this is the only place besides the airport where we see groups of tourists. The tower is well-maintained, the other buildings are not.

We take the tuk tuk to the subway, even if the driver tries to convince us of going to a tax-free shop instead. Sigh… The subway takes us to Ghandi Smirti. This is the villa where Mahatma Ghandi stayed during the late ‘40s, when he was killed by a Hindu extremist. The story of Ghandi’s life is explained and displayed in detail. Just before closing-time a friendly staff member guides us through the rooms where Ghandi stayed, showing a basic matrass and writing-table, and from which he made his final walk to the garden. Ghandi’s final footsteps are marked on the tiles.

Next we have dinner in Connaught Place, which is located in the center of New Delhi. The buildings are designed in a British architecture, and the area map has the shape of perfect circles and radials. Certainly not the “real India”, but cozy nevertheless. Our table is on a roof terrace with nice food, cold beer, water atomizers that cool us, and presenting us with a view of the busy streets down below. We have some spare time before our plane leaves, so we go to the movie Everest, about the tragic climb of this mountain in 1996, based on the book Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. The movie comes with wisdom, also for people who want to cycle into thin air: Do not start the final leg too late, stick to the predefined time and do not neglect signs of altitude sickness. At least WE survived Ladakh!

Route practicalities

- All pictures with detailed location on map and the GPS track. Contact me if you need GPS tracks of single days.

- Thank you Bernice for sharing the opportunity to do the Zanskar bike traverse and for offering so much practical information and support! You're great!

- Next to the information by Bernice we also used the book "Himalaya by Bike" by Laura Stone. On her website she shares updates on various cycling routes in the (Indian) Himalaya.

- In her travel guide "Ladakh & Zanskar" (publisher: Reise Know-How, ISBN 9783831723058) Jutta Mattausch gives a detailed description of the regional history, culture, economy and points of interests. Very practical, specifically if you wish to visit monasteries. The book is available in hard-copy and pdf-format.

- The map we used was "Indian Himalaya" (publisher: TerraQuest, ISBN 9788361155201), which I cut in half (Ladakh section). The map is weatherproof and gives an excellent overview of the region, but has its flaws in accuracy (in particular names of towns).