14 days – 656km – 7 x 4900m+ passes – endless river crossings – snow – sleet – ice – heat exhaustion – diarrhea – solo – on a bicycle…
The big orange sticker on the cover of Mountain Biking UK staring down at me from newsagents shelf at Heathrow coach station read ‘Welsh Special’. I read it on the way home and shelved it for when the opportunity arose.
Well that opportunity arose in May this year and I spent a week cycling mostly off-road from Coast-2-Coast (Conwy – Port Talbot) in what proved to be a successful first attempt at carrying all my kit ‘bikepacking’ style. I was ready for the Himalaya…
With no motorcycle tours schedule for August I decided it was an ideal time to explore a part of the Himalaya not accessible by motorcycle. Having spent the six weeks prior at altitudes above 2500m and having an acceptable level of bicycle fitness after my Welsh ride it was the obvious time to go.
Having pored over several maps and spent some time on Google I spoke to our agent in Leh and told him I wanted to ride to Manali – but not along the main highway.
After consulting with his head guide it was suggested I ride to Chilling on tarmac then follow the trekking route east-southeast along the Markha Valley until a few kilometres past Hangkar before turning south on a pony trail to cross Zalung Karpo La South (5197m), continuing on through Dad and over Yar La (4975m) to ‘find’ the direct track to Pang (unmarked on most maps), approximately halfway along the Manali to Leh highway.
The last tour prior to our august break finished in Manali and once our guests had headed home I returned to Leh with our support jeep driver Jigmet.
Now, I couldn’t visit Leh with my bicycle and NOT climb Khardung La now could I?
It was Sunday when I arrived and so I wasn’t able to apply for my Inner-line permit (required by all foreigners) until the following day, which meant a Tuesday departure.
[NOTE: The following account is basically my diary entries with some additional (hopefully) descriptive input to help me tell the story.]
5th August: Leh to Khardung La and return – Day Trip: 77.49km
It’s especially hot in Leh and so I was up at 0545 for an early breakfast and pedaling by 0700.
Having not turned a pedal in two months the initial climb out of town came as quite a shock to the system. My front brake is dragging thanks to a bent disc (damaged during airline transit) and I stopped twice to adjust it.
Eventually I find my rhythm and feel good until about halfway and so I stop for a rest and a snack of bread and cheese before checking-in at the police checkpoint.
The final 10km were tough. My legs ached where they’ve never ached before – inside my upper thighs – like a kind of groin strain. I gave myself short targets like the next switchback but they soon got reduced to 300m stints. My legs became uncomfortably painful causing me to stop regularly but the longer I stopped the more they hurt when I continued. I wanted to get off my bike and lay down but I knew my legs would seize-up and I wouldn’t get going again.
Surprisingly though, over the next few kilometres, the pain in my legs subsides.
With 6km to go, and stopping every 300m, I shake Tom Simpson from my mind though there was nobody around to “Put me back on my bike”. I can barely stand-up when I stop and resorted to sitting on the rack during my two-minute breaks.
With 3km to go I needed calories as well as a break and sat down to finish my bread and cheese. The next kilometre came a little easier and passing the 2km to go sign had a surprising mental effect – I knew I was going to make it.
Warm-Up ride over, I had a days rest and collected a few supplies prior to setting off on my ride ‘proper’…
7th August: Leh to Nr. Chilling – Daytrip: 74.48km Odo: 151.97km
Alarm at 0545. Breakfast shortly after 0600. By the time I’d finished eating, loading my bike and ablutions it was almost 0715 when I pedaled out of the gate.
It soon became apparent that my bike is a very different beast when loaded and any incline or headwind soon dropped my speed to 7km/h.
It was a long drag into the wind up to Nanak Hill and I often dropped the brim of my hat and just stared at the road in front of me; thinking of anything but the climb. Occasionally I’d lift my head just to check the distance to the top. I reckoned the headwind to be 8-10km/h.
An army transport plane passed overhead. Throttles to the stop to escape the valleys thin air; four dark vapor trails hung in the sky as the nose pointed high, still climbing. What a cool job I thought – only trumped by ‘Astronaut’.
All that extra weight on the bike sure went well downhill though. 81km/h passed Magnetic Hill (no pedaling!)
I rode on past the turning for Chilling and into Nimmu to visit a chai stop where I knew I could snack on samosas whilst sitting at a table in the shade before setting off along the Zanskar valley. It was a little further than I thought though (isn’t everything on a bicycle!).
Beautifully smooth tarmac ran alongside the Zanskar River but it wasn’t long before I came to a standstill. The spoil of the mornings dynamiting was being cleared and I had to wait for the JCB and bulldozer to finish before continuing.
With the road re-opened the few jeeps full of trekkers that had been waiting quickly passed me and I once again had the valley to myself.
Narrow in places and lined with purple coloured rock it reminded me very much of the eastern approach to Lamayuru on the main Leh – Srinagar highway.
I ate lunch of bread & cheese (the last of the 0.5kg from Manali) and bananas sat in the shade of a huge rock balanced on the waters edge 15km from Chilling.
I nearly missed Chilling. There were just two shops roadside with what little I could see of the rest of the village dotted about the hillside above. I bought two bottles of water and a bottle of mango juice, which I drank on the spot. A few kilometre’s on, around a few bends I came to where a new bridge was being built to replace the old box pulley. The bridge was nowhere near ready for use but a 45cm wide walkway had been laid across it and I was allowed to pass. A plank led up onto the bridge but there was nothing at the far end. Lying down and lowering my bike over the side there was still a drop of a metre or so and I had no choice but to just drop my bike onto the sand. Only when I jumped down to pick it up did I realize I’d broken my helmet (snapped the internal adjustment strap. Bollocks.
It was approaching 1600 as I left the bridge and so I set about finding a place to camp, promptly settling upon a three-sided walled enclosure of about a metre in height.
I was all set for a tentless night when suddenly the wind picked up and changed direction forcing me to pitch my tent after all. I hadn’t any supplies specifically for tonight and for whatever reason I wasn’t really hungry. I filtered river water and washed down two of the ‘ginger cake thingies’ I’d picked up in Manali with two cups of tea before returning to the river to wash off the days dust, grime, sweat and suncream. Bed at 1930 – diary writing followed by ‘Wolf Hall’ on my Kindle.
8th August: Nr Chilling to Nr Markha – Daytrip: 27.40km Odo: 179.38km
I was awake at first light – 0510. Despite being warm and comfortable I didn’t sleep well. It was warm enough to sleep butt naked in my bag liner with my sleeping bag unzipped and thrown over quilt style. I got up and packed as much as I could inside my tent before getting out to make porridge and coffee. My stove isn’t working particularly well and is taking a long time to boil water. The river water was pretty dirty last night and so my gravity filter took a while to backflush (clean) this morning. It was 0740 when I rode away from camp this morning – I’ll have to do something about the time its taking me to break camp and pack.
Almost immediately I was pushing up steep singletrack to get to the main track. I was back to my Welsh technique: Standstill – push bike as far forwards as possible – hold both brakes on – step-up to handlebars – repeat…
Once on the main track the going was pretty good as I climbed and descended along the valley to the village of Skyu. There the track was fenced-off and a narrow, often muddy track followed an irrigation channel as it ran alongside the river. A dry, rocky riverbed followed and I managed to fall in the sand and jam my leg between the bike and a rock. Thoughts of a customer doing the same thing on the first tour I led for Blazing Trails came flooding back (he broke his leg). I must be more cautious in the rocks.
A little further on I rounded a rocky outcrop atop which sits Skiu Gompa, and below which are laid out several ‘parachute ‘ refreshment tents – made by hanging an ex-military parachute from a central pole -almost Wig-Wam style – but with the material stopping approx. 1.6m shy of the floor to give a canopy effect.
When I walked in, the Ladakhi gentlemen running my chosen chai stop was sitting on the floor outside his 3m² stone house repairing a cushion . After serving me he moved to his ‘Blacksmiths’ workplace – a mat on the floor in front of a 50mm² anvil set in a piece of 100mm² timber. In front of that was a 100mm high brick stand on which his coals were burning and what appeared to be an animal skin adjacent to him turned out to be the bellows. Unfortunately he was interrupted by friends before he could start work and I didn’t get to see him work anything.
I don’t know how long I stayed. I supped my Mountain Dew slowly and even rested my eyes. The lack of an evening meal last night was affecting my energy levels. I couldn’t seem to consume enough water and my sit bones were tender; I was struggling. Eventually, after two pony trains had passed through and I’d taken the old guy’s photo I rode on, stopping to buy water from the ‘campsite’ owner on the way out of the village.
The track ran a long a dry (but often rocky) riverbed but returned to the valley wall when the river returned to the north side of the valley. At one photo stop I realized I hadn’t closed all the zips on my camera bag after the last photo and both my spare batteries were missing. A slow, searching walk over some 1.5km back along the trail to where I’d last stopped revealed my batteries still lying, thankfully, right where they’d fallen.
I was hoping to find a tea tent for lunch but there wasn’t one – not on my section of trail anyway. Instead I bumped my bike off the trail into the shade of some trees and as I did so I heard the rear tyre burst. At first I thought it was the valve as it deflated so quickly but a rather longwinded diagnosis showed up a rim pinch (snake bite). Hanging the bike from a tree (Arno strap around the seat) made removing the wheel easy. The awkward part was fitting two patches so close together on a narrow tube (motorbikes are easier!).
By mid-afternoon I was once again struggling and so when a refreshment tent appeared I dived in for Maggi (noodles), coke (sugar) and crisps (salt). I stayed there for quite a while too, trying to regain the energy to push on for the village of Markha but when a group of 13 French trekkers arrived with a caravan of 28 ponies I moved on.
The next settlements were rather unusually all deserted. Not abandoned; just deserted. Often a sign of a wedding, a funeral or voting – I didn’t know which.
As the time approached 1800 I wasn’t far shy of Markha when I came to the huge expanse of the Markha River, flushed with meltwater. There was no obvious way across and so I followed hoof and footprints up and down the riverbank but to no avail. There was no obvious route. Time was ticking on and so I removed my shoes and socks, rolled-up my shorts, moved my cash into a top pocket and waded into what appeared to be the best crossing point. I was barely knee deep before the current grabbed my front wheel and all but had me off my feet. There’d be no crossing tonight I decided; I’d have to sleep it out.
I remembered seeing a sign for a homestay/campsite a few kilometre’s back along the trail. I figured a homestay would give me the earliest possible start in the morning and therefore allow me to tackle the river at its lowest level. There was nobody at the homestay though but as they clearly had the most suitable piece of land for camping I pitched my tent anyway. A well with a pump provided me with water for washing and cooking and I started on the rations I’d carried from England. Dinner was therefore a packet of cous-cous and trailmix washed down with tea.
A hard gained 27km – alarm set for 0500.
9th August: Nr Markha to Markha – Day Trip: 4km Odo: 183.38km
When my alarm went off at 0500 I had all the energy and strength of a beached jellyfish. I unzipped the flysheet to find it soaking wet, but why? It hadn’t rained and neither was it humid. I found the answer as soon as I went outside. The field – that had been dry last night was waterlogged – but why? I never did find out.
I couldn’t face any food, not even coffee and when a cough led me to soil my boxers I knew I was in for a rough day. It took me 2½ hrs to break camp. Bending down and standing up made me feel dizzy and sick whilst the slightest exertion – like tensioning a strap – had me running into the bushes to drop my shorts. Part of me just wanted to re-pitch my tent in the shade and go back to sleep but I had to cross the river – and soon.
I could hear the river long before I could see it but did it sound any different? I couldn’t tell. The approach was a lot more muddy than last night which gave me hope and when I finally reached the bank I could see a lot more stone banks protruding from the surface. Once again I removed my shoes, rolled up my shorts and waded into the freezing meltwater. This time though it was only knee deep and despite the current having a good tug at my bike I walked to the first stone bank easily. From there it was just a case of picking the shallowest route from one stone bank to the next – I even stopped for some photos in the middle.
Once across the river my next priority was 1) Drying my tent and 2) Sleep. The first two campgrounds didn’t offer all-day shade and so I rode into the village in search of a homestay. By village I mean a cluster of stone built dwellings on a hillside above the river and below the monastery. There are no shops. It took me a while to find a homestay and when I did the owners had to check that they could take me in as the village has a rotor system in place to help share the income from trekkers. By 0915 my tent was pitched on the roof, the flysheet was hanging on the washing line and I was in bed.
Upon my arrival I’d asked for drinking water but my need was somehow underestimated and the “Yes, yes…15mins” turned into 4hrs. I spent the rest of the day drifting between sleep and the toilet (outdoor dry longdrop). I ate a bowl of noodles at lunchtime but struggled with the first course bowl of soup come dinnertime. My stomach was bloated despite a lack of food and as a result I felt so full I was struggling just to drink water.
10th August: Markha Day 2
I ate two chapattis with jam for breakfast and a bowl of noodles at lunchtime. Come mid-afternoon my stomach was making noises akin to the interior of an active glacier. How can bacteria so small be responsible for so much wind? With it being so far to the long drop I had to get a feel for what was wind and what wasn’t and by the end of the day I had it nailed pretty good – and with no mishaps!
Thankfully I’ve brought my Kindle, without which I would have been bored out of my mind.
Dinner came late, too late really as food sends me running to the long-drop several times before my guts settle down. I wonder if I’ve been sold fake, or at least sub-standard anti-biotics (in Leh)? I should have noticed an improvement by now but if anything my stomach is worse. I’ve got two Cipro tablets left over from my recent bought of pleurisy and so I’ll take one tonight and one in the morning.
After dinner followed by the obligatory late visits to the long drop I was just getting my head down and thinking “Isn’t it peaceful here” – no dogs, when the only dog in the village started barking and wouldn’t shut-up. These Ladakhi dogs seem to be able to bark without respite for what feels like eternity. Why doesn’t it seem to bother the locals? Why does nobody do anything about it? I’m not into guns but come the middle of the night I’d have no problem blowing away every mother f****** last one of them!!!!
11th August: Markha Day 3
I awoke feeling considerably better than yesterday and made porridge fortified with nuts, raisins and dried apricots. My throat is still sore and swollen. The morning was spent with my nose firmly engrossed in my book
Noodles again for lunch and mid-afternoon I escaped my bed for reasons other than a visit to the long drop for the first time in two days. I packed my tent and wandered down to the river for a wash. I’m generally feeling a lot better although once again I’m struggling for breath. I’m concerned my pleurisy has returned. How will I cope tomorrow…over Zalung Karpo La and for the five high passes beyond?
I escaped from my thoughts by washing the sand and grit out of my chainset.
12th August: Markha to Langthang Chen (bivvy) – Day Trip: 13.72km Odo: 197.10km
After a breakfast of chapattis and jam washed down with coffee I paid by bill of INR800/day (£8/U$13) and rolled of of town. Not far from Markha there was another ‘shoes off’ river crossing. Luckily for me I arrived at the same time as an English trekking group and their guide pointed out the best route across.
Lots of stony singletrack along the (dry) riverbed this morning. I’m struggling with my breathing and only moving along at 7-9km/h. My throat is still sore and on the occasion I manage to cough up some phlegm it’s laced with blood. I wonder if it’s significant?
At 0900 I stopped at the first tented refreshment stop. A ‘not so’ cold coke made a change from plain water and seemed to help lubricate my throat. I wish I could find some cough or even just boiled sweets.
Whilst stopped I was passed by two pony trains going in my direction. They’re no problem when they’re oncoming as I just move off the trail and stop (my bike spooks the ponies). Approaching them from behind though they’re a real pain in the arse. They can’t pull over to let me overtake and I have to wait for them to take a planned break. They travel at 4km/h in a cloud of dust which I drop back from but find myself closing the gap soon after; as though on a length of elastic.
Hangkar village came and went rather quickly. It’s separated into two by a narrow trail where switchbacks wind their way up a steep, narrow gorge. I arrived at the gorge having just managed to pass both pony trains but as it was one of the few places where they’re much faster than me I waited and let them pass. Halfway up I stopped to take some photos and got caught by two Dutch trekkers. They asked where I was headed but when I tried to answer I had no voice.
Opposite me as I emerged from the gorge was a striking, pinnacle topped rock face. A closer look revealed fortifications built atop that seem to grow straight out of the rock in a continuation of the natural face. Incredible camouflage.
Approx 4km on from Hankar I found the bridge that crossed the Markha River and led south, away from the Markha Valley trekking/pony trail and into the Langthang Chen river valley that had its headwaters on the north face of Zalung Karpo La some 20km or so to the south.
I was looking forward to pitching camp early in some shade and filtering plenty of the crystal clear river water but there was no shade. Its too high now for anything of any size to grow and so I rode on in the hope of finding a cliff edge or a large rock; anything to provide some shade.
My map shows the trail running along the rivers right bank but the river has washed everything away up to the valley wall and so I followed pony shit, hoof and boot prints. The trail, like yesterday, crossed the river (shoes off) to a stony ‘island’ approx. 50m long. It then re-crossed the river at the head of the ‘island’. In the 5mins it took me to walk the length of the ‘island’ so the crystal clear, calm stream, (the bed of which I could clearly see) turned into a violent, raging brown torrent that I had no hope of crossing. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was as though someone upstream had opened the sluice gates (not unheard of in India sadly). With the water getting deeper by the minute I left the ‘island’ by the opposite bank and climbed onto the highest ground available. With no way of re-crossing the river I was trapped on a piece of land approximately 50m x 10m and 2m above the water. I watched the river for a while to see how high it would rise and once happy that I was out of harms way I set about my next priority – shade. There were 4hrs of sunshine to deal with and so I propped my bike up with rocks and strung up my flysheet to create a constantly moving triangle of shade – almost big enough to lie in.
The sun finally dipped behind the ridgeline at 1740 and I set-up my stove for a brew, a pasta ‘’MugMate and half a bar of chocolate. I cooked and ate where I could watch the river and found it comforting to see that the level had begun to drop, albeit slowly. I’m hopeful that by morning it will have returned to how I first found it.
I packed my flysheet and the rest of my tent away and set my bed up for a tentless night. Not only is it surprisingly mild, I want to be able to move quickly should the river level necessitate it.
Oh, and spiders…tiny spiders everywhere!
13th August: Langthang Chen bivvy to LC camp – Day Trip: 9.07km Odo: 206.18km
A beautiful night under the stars last night, until 2300 when an all but full moon lit up the sky.
I was up at 0530 and joy of joys the river had returned to as it was when I first encountered it. I filtered 4 litres of water and washed down nuts, raisins and the second half of last nights chocolate bar with fresh coffee.
Once across the river I was faced with a seemingly perpetual rock garden. OK for ponies but a slog with a pushbike. The opposite side of the valley had a far steeper incline over an alluvial fan but I wandered across without my bike to take a look at the surface and came across another trail that was far easier to negotiate.
By 1000 I’d made four ‘shoes off ’ river crossings and had lost count of the times I’d managed to cross on the rocks without removing my shoes.
What appeared in the distance to be flat grassy areas turned out to be a network of deep ruts running through gorse bushes. Those areas made for slow going, as they were often too deep and narrow to turn the pedals.
Another ‘shoes off’ crossing followed before the trail disappeared where the river had eroded the bank. A cairn marked the way down to the river and yet another ‘shoes off’ crossing. At first I thought it was un-crossable but after a few minutes I saw the route; it was in three parts punctuated by two stone bars/banks. The first crossed the subsidiary that flowed from the glaciers surrounding Mt Kang Yatse I (6400m) and its surrounding 14(?) peaks. The second crossed the confluence of the subsidiary and the Langthang Chen (river) and the third part was the Langthang Chen itself. All went well until the third part. I wasn’t happy with where I had to cross but it was the best of a bad lot. I could see a rock below the surface just 2m from opposite bank but I couldn’t judge how far below the surface it was. I stepped in; it was crutch deep. I moved my bike alongside me where the water was considerably deeper, the frambag went under and caught by the current forced the bike downstream. Desperate not to let go I lost my footing and suddenly found myself bouncing downstream waist deep in water. My left hand lost grip on the handlebar and for a moment I thought I was going to loose my grip with my right hand too. I held on with all that I had as we bounced over the rocks. All I could see of my bike was 20cm of handlebar and a bit of red drybag. Somehow I managed to steer us towards the bank and out of the strong current. I grabbed something – I don’t recall what – and dragged us to the bank. I was relieved to see my shoes still strung around the handlebars where I’d slung them – losing them would’ve been ‘problematic’ to say the least.
My heart was racing – this had taken place at 4500m – but I couldn’t rest until I was out of the water. It was a vertical bank with little in the way of footholds and plenty in the way of thorns but I scrambled up to a safe place before watching the safe haven I’d just left behind disappear under the rising water. Looking back upstream I found myself 8-10m downstream from my entry point.
Away from the river I quickly emptied my camera bag and removed the battery, memory card and lens from my camera and the lens caps from my 2nd lens but it was too late. My cameras position on my bike had meant that not only had it been fully submerged, it had taken the full force of the current whilst it was so. I dried it overnight and beyond before trying to turn it on but despite trying a new battery it won’t switch-on.
Nikons’ website says:
“…Water, especially salt water, is very corrosive to electronics and in most cases results in damage that is beyond economical repair to fix. Water tends to migrate within a device and damage may not always be apparent for some time after initial exposure. Corrosion will occur over time and leave its mark on internal circuitry and eventually damage or disable the product completely…”
As a result there will be no SWR photography for the foreseeable future. It was £2.3k (new prices) of equipment that went for a swim and I’m not in a position to replace it.
[NB: I’ve tried drying it in the sun. I’ve dried leaving it in a bag of rice]
My bumbag also took a dip and I narrowly avoided losing my diary. My Kindle also took a dunk but despite initially having various problems it now functioning albeit with a considerably reduced battery life. I left my gear spread out in the sun and went for a walk to scout a campsite and spotted just the place 0.5km further along the trail.
For the first time in several days I had something of an appetite and so started on the supplies I’d brought from England to see me through the several days of no villages as I cross the pass. Ainsley’s cous-cous (never did find a flavor I liked) – rather dry but ok when eaten in conjunction with a pasta MugMate. Brew in hand I sat on a rock reflecting on the river incident. It had been my 6th ‘shoes off’ crossing of the day. Had I become overconfident or was I just unlucky? I couldn’t help thinking luck had nothing to do with it and it was purely my own decision making that had let me down. What will I do differently if (when) I’m faced with the same situation tomorrow? Would unloading the bike have helped? Perhaps. Certainly carrying my camera gear across separately would have been a good idea. (Pointless doing that tomorrow though).
I went to sleep happy that I was in my tent and not walking out of the valley in a pair of shoes made from the contents of my bumbag.
14th August – Langthang Chen camp to Chang Chu camp – Daytrip: 11.60km Odo: 217.78km
Alarm at 0445 and up in the dark. I WILL cross the pass today. 3km from camp I pushed my bike up a steep rocky rise and onto a trail so narrow I had to keep my left pedal up, bend my leg 90° and use it to scoot me along. To my right was a 15m drop to the valley floor. A short downhill then returned me to the riverbed and led me into a narrow canyon, most of which was rideable. A kilometre or so later I turned west into a rocky valley where it was hard to believe there was a trail at all. And so the climb began. Mostly steady but steeper in places and never rideable – not at that altitude anyway. Eventually I turned a corner and could see the pass. The final 300m vertical gain felt like they were just that and I edged forward bike length at a time – Brakes off; push to arms length: Brakes on; step forward to handlebars. Repeat. With the pass insight I ejected two litres of water. It’s hard to believe what a difference 2kg makes.
I made it to the pass only to find it wasn’t. It was a fake and so I continued pushing. A second fake pass came and went and still I pushed on resting every 10m or so to regain my breath. In the high, dry mountain desert there is no shade. Ladakh is having a particularly hot summer and I found myself drinking every other time I stopped.
A kilometre on I spotted the prayer flags and adjacent to them – spelled out in white stones against the parched brown earth – were the words ‘FREE TIBET’. You’ve got no hope I thought – sadly – and with that I crested Zalung Karpo La South (5197m) to the most extraordinary view I’ve ever seen in the Himalaya. Due south looked directly down the valley along which I would travel; a green snake basking in in an arid valley – or so it appeared. As I turned to face west so sheer pinnacles rose out of snow filled bowls and to the northwest range after range of mountains led all the way to the horizon like giant egg boxes. The north was beginning too cloud over but from the northeast through to the southeast I could count five glaciers.
I put on my waterproof jacket to keep out the chill wind and sat down to soak it all in. It was the kind of view that mountaineers climb mountains for: Indescribable. Foreboding. Humbling. It was magnificent.
“Where the hell’s the trail down,” I thought when it occurred to me. Moving south from the top of the pass was just like dropping in on a snowboard from a blind ridge where the vanishing point keeps vanishing. It was a helmet-cam moment for sure!
I rode the first few hundred metres or so but then the surface became soft sand churned up by the horses. No big deal in itself but it was only 30cm wide, I could neither steer nor brake on it controllably and a fall to the left would result in death by multiple-trauma – no question. It was the best part of a kilometre to fall.
Instead of getting better it got worse. The trail led into a series of steep switchbacks and not wanting my bike above me on the slope I had to climb over it every time the trail changed direction.
With the sketchy part over I thought the trail would become more rideable – it didn’t. The sand and rocks continued and the consequences of falling were reduced to simply multiple-trauma.
Finally the gnarly part came to and end and just as I got riding again so I go another rear puncture. Initially I thought one or both of my previous patches had failed but it turned out to be a fresh rim pinch. I hadn’t seen any shade since mid-morning and was desperate for it so when I came to a narrowing in the valley where the sun would vanish from early I pitched camp.
It’s an almost flat gravel area close to two streams with a larger river 50m or so away, the noise subdued by thick shrubbery.
I calculated it’s approximately 19km to the next village of Dad (where I can restock) and so ate the rest of my supplies for dinner.
15th August: Chang Chu camp to Yar La camp – Daytrip: 32.98km Odo: 250.77km
After a pretty good nights sleep I awoke before 0600, made porridge and brewed coffee.
My chainset was in dire need of cleaning and a hole whittled in the top of a 600ml coke bottle made the perfect ‘squeegy’ for washing the sand off.
I was pleased to cross the river close to my camp without removing my shoes but by mid-morning I’d had them off four times. Despite that the going was often good and by 1100 I’d covered 8.8km. I passed a small holding with smoke billowing from it but nobody insight and continued into a narrow river canyon. Amongst the trees I spotted a family of Ibex and watched for a while before I was spotted, at which point they ran up an all but vertical rockface. I rode on a little way before turning back to see if I could still see them. At first I thought they’d gone but then I spotted all of them way up high and climbing higher still. It was like watching a World Class circus act as they pulled off seemingly impossible moves. Oh to be born with the nerves of an Ibex!
I’m writing this entry in the shade of an abandoned stone building, the only building in a place marked on the map as Tantse. From here I turn south along a trail through the trees that grow alongside the river. The trail often departs the trees to run along the edge of the valley where it’s often wiped away by landslides. Another divide in the valley and the trail takes me into a narrow gorge guarded by two giant rock towers. The one to my right reminds me of Devils Tower, Wyoming (of Close Encounters fame). As the gorge gives way to meadow I spotted a huge yak in beautiful condition. Yaks are stupid creatures at the best of time and this one was no different. It ran away in my direction of travel, stopped 50m ahead and looked back to see if I was still coming. Then repeated the same drill over and over again until it reached the herd and caused them all to stampede along the valley.
Beyond the gorge lies a wide, flat-bottomed valley of grass overlooked by sheer vertical walls of rock a good 700m high. The trail was often difficult to follow along the valley. At first it didn’t seem to matter but I soon found myself surrounded by bogs and looking for the trail.
I climbed a high point in the valley created by an alluvial fan atop which were several stupas, Mani walls and prayer flags. A few more kilometres of meadow passed by before I pushed my bike up a steep incline, the top of which marked another stark change in the landscape. Gone was the lush meadow, replaced by an arid desert like landscape. A valley swept in from the west (which I had to cross) beyond which were more stupas and beyond them some of the longest Mani walls I’ve seen anywhere. The trail continued due south in a gentle climb until another valley appeared from the west. At the junction of the two valleys was a hamlet of stone buildings in a scene that looked like the European middle ages. Doors and gates alike stood open to empty animal pens and I presumed it must be the winter homes of the Changpa nomads. I saw two guys (the first people I’d seen in three days) painting a new building on the edge of town and gesticulated that I wanted to eat. They waved me on along the road in a fashion that suggested I had a way to go. A gravel road (the first I’ve seen since crossing the bridge at Chilling 8-days ago) starts – or should I say finishes – here.
1.5km further on at the foot of the roadside embankment, I passed another collection of stone buildings in the same empty state as the previous ones. In the adjacent field a few men were erecting modern tents from the back of a truck. The accommodation/mess crew for a forthcoming tour group, no doubt.
I rode on expecting to find the village of Dad over the next rise. I didn’t. The gravel road just continued to climb and along with it my expectation of the village being over the next rise. The first vehicle I saw approaching was a Contract Hire jeep (no doubt heading for the aforementioned camp). I flagged it down and spoke to the driver who said that the second collection of stone houses I’d seen was in fact Dad. I was shocked. Back in Leh I’d been led to believe that Dad was a destination where I could restock my supplies. The reality was so far from my expectations that I’d dismissed it from being where I was looking for.
It was 6km downhill back to Dad and I had no confidence in finding supplies once I got there. It would also therefore be 6km UPHILL tomorrow morning.
My real concern was water. I was running short and the valley was dry but the driver confirmed there was a water supply further along the valley. I was expecting to find a river but instead came to a hand-pump well a few hundred metres from yet another deserted stone building. It was dry.
I rode on in hope of finding a stream but everything was dry. I was approaching the Yar La 4975m, which I couldn’t cross today and my options were diminishing. With the wind whipping up I also needed to find a place to camp and the only shelter of any kind came behind a huge pile of stones left by the road builders.
I have one litre of water and that has to see me over Yar La tomorrow so I will ration it: 250ml tonight (to wash down my dinner of nuts and rasins), the same again in the morning and 500ml for the pass.
Oh yeah… and it’s my birthday.
16th August:Yar La camp to Debring – Day Trip: 42.39km Odometer: 293.17km
I awoke to a strange noise atop my tent in the early hours and it took me a while to focus my eyes through the mesh of my inner tent and realise I was looking at snow on the flysheet. I returned to sleep thinking about scraping it off to make coffee. At first light I poked my head outside to wonder at the blanket of fresh snow. It was a magnificent sight under a moody grey/black sky that threatened more inclement weather. Unfortunately a few degrees rise in temperature had melted the snow on my tent so the coffee idea was a non-starter.
In the short time it took me to dig out some warmer clothing and pack away my bedding the wind picked up and turned my wet flysheet to ice. It didn’t help that it sleeted on and off all the time I was breaking camp. I pedaled away at 0630, my legs all but refusing to spin meaning I began the day in 1st gear. 1.5km along the track I was overjoyed to find a stream and immediately broke out my water filter. Whilst the gravity fed filter worked its magic I stared down the valley from whence I’d come. It was Scotland.
The climb over Ya La was made up of a series of swithchbacks with the legs in between facing north/south. With the weather coming from the south those legs were head down into the sleet, 1st gear and numerous stops. Northbound I enjoyed the nudge of the wind and changed up to 3rd gear as I enjoyed a better view of the valley. When I stopped I watched with interest the progress of a yak herd being driven up the valley towards the saddle where I was heading. With the herders on horseback they were being driven ‘cross-country’, straight up the valley and made mincemeat of me time wise.
As I approached the saddle so the cloud blew in obscuring the distant stupa that marked the pass over the saddle. The road though took a slightly different route and continued to climb to a peak of 4975m 0.5km further on from where I could just make out parts of the descent through the swirling cloud. Down and down I rode towards the village of Lungmoche and as the buildings came into sight I could almost taste the food being washed down with creamy chai to soothe my throat. It wasn’t to be though and like a desert oasis playing tricks on the mind, Lungmoche turned out to be nothing more than a collection of seasonal yak herding pens. I rode on.
As the road finally leveled out and turned east so a track led across the Zara Chu River and headed west. Is that the track to Pang I wondered? With nobody around to ask I cursed myself for not splashing out the INR1500 (£15/U$25) for the southern sheet of the Editions Olizone Ladakh and Zanskar map series. Having bought the central region, which covered the majority of my route , I reasoned that I’d ask locally about the direct route to Pang. With several villages marked on the map the idea that there would be nobody to ask had never occurred to me. [Note: The 1:150,000 EO map is the only map of the region that shows this road].
Had I had sufficient supplies with me I could have taken a chance on it being the right route but having not eaten for 28hrs I couldn’t take the risk. And so feeling a) Defeated and b) Frustrated with myself for not buying the extra map, I rode 20km east-northeast – harried by either the baking sun or hailstones – to Debring at the foot of Taglang La on the Manali – Leh highway.
Debring appears to be divided in two with the northern part that I find myself in being made up of three mud brick buildings and three summer only ‘parachute marquees’. Slightly more developed than their cousins in the Markha Valley the marquees along the main road have vertical sides to a height of approximately 1.5m. Made of a tarpaulin type material and lined with colourful material they do a good job sealing out the weather. Inside a 50cm high stone plinth topped with carpets runs 270° around the circumference with the remaining 90° providing space for the door and kitchen.
I chose the ‘Angchuk Hotel’ and as I walked in so a French family were just finishing their packed lunch and about to handover their (un-opened) leftovers to the ‘hotelier’. I jumped in and asked if I could have the bananas (knowing it will still be several days before I see fruit) at which point I was given a few cereal bars and cartons of drink as well. When – having being asked – I explained my route and how long it had taken me, the father said “You are English correct? Only zuh English would be so crazy.” He and his wife departed only to reappear moments later brandishing a big bag of goodies including more cereal bars, Snickers and cartons of juice. “Here, take some of zis. My wife thinks you are going to die!”
I sat down and suddenly felt exhausted, dizzy and couldn’t keep my head off the pillow long enough for my first chai to be made.
I ate a very poor (dry) thali, two bananas, a Snickers and drank three chai’s, a carton of juice and 0.5l of coke before falling asleep.
When I awoke I ordered more chai and wrote todays diary entry.
17th August: Debring to Whiskey Na La – Day Trip: 75.44km/Odo: 368.61km
An omelet/chapatti sandwich for breakfast and pedaling by 0715. 6km of gravel saw me on tarmac for the first time since leaving Chilling. Not finding the direct route to Pang yesterday meant I had to cross the Moray Plains today.
[Imagine if you will an irregular right-angle triangle. The shortest edge represents the direct route to Pang and the hypotenuse the Moray Plains.]
I stopped to pump my tyres up as hard as was feasible and washed off the chain with my coke bottle squeegee. A little further on – once the chain had dried – I stopped again to oil it. Ahhhh…..a silent running chainset for the first time in days!
The headwind kicked in at 0830 and made progress slow at times. Its funny, but in my mind the Moray Plains are flat (I’ve crossed them many times on a motorcycle) but the reality is the road itself is surprisingly undulating.
14km from Pang I met Japanese cyclist Hiromy Jimbo who left home in 2008. He was heading for Leh and Srinigar en-route to Pakistan, China, Central Asia and Iran but his timings had him arriving in Kyrgzystan at the beginning of winter and so he was gutted when I told him it is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited.
I arrived in Pang at 1130 with 45km on the trip, ate a passable vegetable chow mein and had an hours rest.
The afternoon wind kept trying to rip my sunhat from my head and made progress very slow. I tried wearing my merino skull cap but it was far too hot and I settled on my Buff. Body temperature was another issue and I found the best combination to be a short-sleeved merino base layer, windproof gilet and safari shirt. When the wind gusted I was cold but as soon as it abated I was sweating. The best compromise I found was to ride with all but two buttons open on my shirt so I could access my gilet zip. That might all sound trivial but to put it into perspective, the 20km climb to Lachlung La at 5075m took me almost 4hrs. The last few hundred (vertical) metres were bloody cold in the wind and I was glad to make the pass and put on my waterproof top for the descent to Whiskey Na La.
A Dutch couple cycling to Leh were camped a few hundred metres from the parachute tents and I pitched camp a few hundred metres further on before joining them for a brew. I ate dinner in one of the parachute tents.
When I left the tent it was pitch black and I suddenly realized I didn’t have my headtorch with me and spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around in horseshit and puddles before the lights of a passing truck just glanced off my tent sufficiently to give me a fix on its location.
18th August: Whiskey Na La to Kilang Sarai – Day Trip: 71.23km Odo: 439.85km
I awoke to ice on my tent, a sure sign of the increase in humidity as I move south. The Dutch couple said it was -5°C but despite ice in my water bottle I’m not convinced it was quite that cold. That said we were camped at 4785m (15994ft), my highest ever by 250m.
I had a lazy breakfast of omelet/chapatti sandwich and several cups of chai sitting in the sun outside one of the parachute tents whilst catching up with this diary.
The climb to Nakee La at 4940m wasn’t too bad. All that made it tough (in the beginning) was the lack of warm-up – it was straight into the climb. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the ride down the 21-switchback Gata Loops was great; the view north along the Tsarap Chu (river) was particularly beautiful thanks to the snowmelt induced irrigation and subsequent greenery.
Once down at river level it was an undulating 25km to Sarchu for lunch and 40 winks. Sarchu is home to the Police checkpoint between the states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir (which contains the region of Ladakh). Whilst registering my passport details I asked if they could spare me a pen as mine had run out at breakfast. They wanted to see my old one before they would entertain the idea and even then they either couldn’t or wouldn’t run to a new one and instead went through a pile of their old ones, testing each on a piece of paper, until finally one worked. “That should last you a day. Then you can find a refill in Darcha”.
From the checkpoint I made 7-9km/h into the headwind along the Sarchu plains, past all the summer camps to the switchbacks that mark the beginning of a particularly badly damaged section of road (this year anyway) and two sets of switchbacks separated by a long loop that crosses the Yunam Chu (river). As the road leveled out at 4700m at Kilang Sarai so I found a relatively wind-free place to camp amongst the rocks.
19th August: Kilang Sarai to Sissu – Day Trip: 117.57km Odo: 557.43km
My idea that the sun would rise on my tent didn’t quite work out thanks to a mountain peak being in the way! Without it, breaking camp was a chilly affair; the condensation inside my flysheet frozen.
Once packed up I rode the few kilometre’s to the collection of semi-permanent restaurant/hotels that mark the beginning of the final climb to Baralacha La. I say semi-permanent as unlike their parachute tent cousins these are built with dry stone walls (permanent) and roofed with tarpaulins laid on wooden poles (semi).
The young girl in the place I always stop on tour looked at me with that ‘I’m sure I know you but I don’t know why’ look until I removed my hat and sunglasses at which point the penny dropped and she recognized me.
After a breakfast of ‘Omelet Toast’ (an Indian take on ‘eggy bread’ in which a slice of toast is all but hidden within the omelet) washed down with chai, I sat outside in the sun sipping ginger/lemon/honey – nectar for my still sore throat.
Although much of the road was in poor condition and a few short sections were steep, it wasn’t too bad a climb. I did the worst of it yesterday and so it was just a 9km long, 240m vertical climb to the pass at 4940m.
On the long descent I spotted a foreign motorcycle traveller heading towards me and promptly met Belgian couple Max and Marianne who’d been on the road on their KTM990 for 3 years. They are the third travelers I’ve spoken to who have come through Myanmar since it opened for through travel in July last year. Food for thought…
The long downhill through Zing Zing Bar put a lot of kilometres on the trip early in the day but as I turned south through Patseo so I found myself having to pedal downhill – such was the headwind. The valley is incredibly green at this time of year and ripe with vegetable produce. A stark contrast to my first, northbound trip of the year back in June.
I rolled into Darcha at lunchtime with 57km on the trip and so instead of having my usual after dinner snooze I decided to push on and see if I could make it to Sissu in the Lahaul Valley.
There’s quite a bit of climbing between Darcha and Keylong but my mental ‘hour markers’ looked good for Sissu and so I pushed on. After the petrol station at Tandi the road turns southeast into the fertile Lahual Valley with its spectacular hanging glaciers. The wind sucked – really sucked, and blew the bulldust from the road widening project along the valley like a sandstorm. Pedaling through it was even worse. I don’t know what grated the most: the chainset or my teeth!
It was an afternoon full of climbing where once again my previous experience of riding through the valley on a motorcycle had ‘tricked’ me into remembering it as ‘undulating’. Hah! Undulating my arse! My pace slowed such that I wondered if I would make it to Sissu by dark. Just as those thoughts entered my head so I met German cyclist Johan coming the other way and stopped for a chat. My first words to him were “You lucky bastard!” he laughed and replied “Ya, ze tail vind”
Not long after I arrived in Sissu and spotted the lake just below. Finding a sheltered spot to make camp took a while and so it was a pleasant surprise for the temperature not to plummet as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The last of my wetwipes cleaned me up sufficiently for bed and I settled in to write this.
20th August: Sissu to Mansari – Day Trip: 99.3km Odo: 656.73km
It’s easy to see why the Lahaul Valley produces such an abundance of crops. My flysheet was soaked despite the lack of rain: testament to the humidity. I hate packing away a wet tent but I had no choice. I just wanted to get going asap and get over the final pass – Rohtang La – before the wind picked-up too much. By 0700 I was pedaling but my bike felt like it was stuck to the ground and once again I found myself pedaling downhill as well as up.
In Khoksar I ordered breakfast before wandering into the police checkpoint to register my passport details. The young officer asked me all the usual questions about traveling alone, which as always, was followed by the exclamation “WHAT…NO WIFE!!!” Interrogation over I doused my omelet in ketchup, rolled it up in a chapatti and washed it down with chai. It was 0845 and time to head for the pass 21km away with a vertical gain of 800m. Rohtang La has a reputation for being rough and tough – and not without reason…
When warm, moist air from the plains moves north into the Himalaya and collides with the first obstacle it encounters – in this case the Pir Panjal Range which the Rohtang crosses – it dumps huge amounts of rain and snow. Sufficient snow in fact to not only close the pass for 6-7 months every year but destroy its road surface through the freeze/thaw effect. Lets not forget too that the roadbuilders don’t have a stable base to work from – the Himalaya are said to be growing at the rate of 6cm/year.
Not that understanding why it is the way it is made it any easier to pedal up. It is still a pot-holed, often dirt and gravel road that on occasion looked steeper than I had a gear for!
My mind was set on lunch at Johnson’s Café & Bar in Manali and that was my incentive to climb. I know they close the kitchen for a period during the afternoon but couldn’t remember at exactly what time. I was pretty sure that a 4hr ascent would blow my chances.
With 5km to go to the summit so a cold wind whipped up that made my knees ache so I stopped to put on my tights and gilet. Comfortable, I pushed on to the summit at 3950m with a climb time of 3½ hrs. Johnson’s was in sight – mentally. It was still 50km to Manali and with fine weather ahead in the Kullu Valley I got my head down, dusted off a few taxis, and hurtled downhill to Manali, rolling into Johnson’s at 1400.
I could barely stay awake after my first beer but ordered a second to wash down a huge, wood-oven pizza after which I promptly fell asleep. I awoke late-afternoon to the reality of riding a further 14km ‘home’ to Mansari – it was arguably the toughest part of the day!
1. A permanent sore throat has been a real issue throughout this journey and has often prevented me from drinking sufficient water. With neither throat pastels nor boiled sweets available I found the next best thing was to carry a bottle of mango juice. A few sips seemed to lubricate my throat after which I could drink as much water as I needed.
2. I carried two pairs of padded cycling shorts but managed to go without wearing them and so will go without them in the future.
3. My water carrying capacity was 5 litres.
4. Whilst you can trim your kit of excessive weight and volume, food weighs what food weighs and carrying sufficient for several days becomes not only heavy but voluminous very quickly.
5. Best Maps: Editions Olizone Ladakh and Zanskar Series
An ‘off-the-shelf, 2013 16″ Surly Troll purchased on ebay in February. It came fitted with Salsa Woodchipper bars and Dura-ace shifters. A set-up which I replaced with Easton EA70 flat bars, Ergon GP-1 grips, Cane Creek Ergo bar ends and a Thomson stem. A pair of Thumbie Shifter Mounts allowed me to convert the Dura-ace bar end shifters into proper ‘old skool’ thumb shifters.
A Brooks B17 and a pair of Schwable Marathon Extrem 2.0 tyres finished off the conversion.
Worn on the bike
– Five Ten Freerider shoes (Danny MacAskill)
– Merino ankle socks
– Merino boxers
– Baggy shorts
– Merino s/s baselayer
– Safari shirt
– Sun hat
– Map & Compass
– Notepad & pen
– Reading glasses & earplugs
– Water filter
– Waterproof over trousers
– Overshoes (unused)
– Merino glove liners
– Merino skull cap
13l Alpkit Drybag (mounted on Alpkit Kanga bar harness)
– Down jacket
– Merino boxers x 2
– Merino ankle socks
– Merino l/s baselayer
– Sealskinz socks (unused)
– Unlined bib tights
– Sealskinz gloves (unused)
– Endura padded short liners x 2 (unused)
– Gore Bikewear l/s full zip jersey
– Pace 3×3 eVent jacket (strapped on outside)
20l Alpkit Drybag (rack mounted)
– 1-man tent (in additional lightweight drybag)
– Sleeping bag
– Sleeping mat
– Silk sleeping bag liner
– Ti Cookpot, petrol stove, lighters & matches
– First Aid Kit & Toiletries
– Bike spares – tube, patch kit, cables, chain links, brake pads
– Coffee, sugar, teabags
– Nikon D300s w/Nikkor 18-200 VR + CPL
– Nikkor 35mm f1.8
– Spare batteries x 2 + charger
– Lenspen & cloth
Fuel Pod (Alpkit)
– Multitool – Topeak
– Tyre lever
– Brooks saddle spanner
– Ti Spork
Stem Cell (Alpkit)
– 750ml Ti Mug w/lid
– Coffee Press
– 1ltr Nalgene bottle
– Fuel bottles x 2
– BBB Cages x2 (2x 2l soft drinks bottles)