2015 India

Ladakh & Zanskar

In August and September Rudi and I cycle in North India for three and a half weeks. The road leads from Leh along the Indus River to Kargil, via the rugged Zanskar Valley to the famous Manali-Leh road, and along Lake Tso Moriri back to the Indus Valley. It is a very varied tour over dry plateaus, through deep gorges and over high mountain passes. We cover more than 1,200 kilometers and climb almost 19,000 metres.

Before: Flight > Acclimatize in Leh

We fly from Brussels to Delhi, wait all night at the airport, and take an early morning domestic flight to Leh. Once there, we take a van (with the bicycle boxes on the roof) to Hotel Ladakh Greens. After a warm welcome by the owner, we first sleep for a few hours. In the afternoon we stroll through Leh (3,500 m), score coffee and cake at the German Bakery, and prepare the bikes. We don’t experience problems from the altitude, but we do suffer from sleep deprivation.

Also the second acclimatization day we take it easy. We get groceries in the city center, where we see quite a lot of tourists. People of different religions are not separated, and visit each other’s shops. It is almost inconceivable that a few hundred kilometers from here intolerant fundamental Muslims ruin the lives of people with other religions. The biggest shopping street in the center is being renovated by Nepalese guest workers. The project, which because of all the manual labor will undoubtedly take years to complete, is called ‘Leh Beautification’.

The only other guests in the hotel turn out to be Dutch people living only two kilometers away in my hometown. In the hotel restaurant they tell about their recent holiday here close to Leh: a difficult trek with horses, through an area where it had recently rained a lot – unique for the barren Ladakh. During their story suddenly the light go out. This turns out to be quite normal here, which is why our hotel has an emergency generator. And until this is operating, we dine by candlelight … uh no… by headlight.

Day 1: Leh > Nurla (83 km)

Today we are finally going to cycle! During the first ten kilometers from Leh the many trucks and jeeps with nasty exhaust fumes are quite annoying. After that the road to Kargil is ours. First we ride through a mountain desert along the Indus River. After that the landscape becomes much more varied, with gorges, sharp ridges and snowy peaks in the distance. We cycle over two small passes. Halfway through the stage we see how the wild Zanskar River flows into the Indus.

During our vacation we see on a regular basis signs, next to the road, with educational slogans such as “Don’t be silly in the hilly”, “After whisky, driving risky” and “Don’t rally in the valley”. By the way, the traffic is not so bad. People keep distance to us, and the bearded Muslim drivers of the nicely decorated trucks wave and honk their horns. In contrast, the mustachioed Hindu drivers of the numerous army trucks look stare in a grumpy way. The Indian army is omnipresent here: everywhere there are army camps with at the entrance the names of the army units, cannons, statues and beautiful decorations. We spend the night in Nurla, in a bamboo hut along the Indus riverside.

Day 2: Nurla > Lamayuru (48 km)

We continue our journey along the Indus River. After Khalsi Rudi sees about fifteen ibexes on the other side of the river. Then we say goodbye to the Indus and take the old road to Lamayuru. This road goes via dozens of hairpin bends six hundred meters up. At the highest point (3,700 m) we enjoy a view of the spectacular surroundings. Below us lies a bizarre landscape, with light-brown colored, eroded rock formations.

It is very dry 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 pass road for a while, but I have run out of energy. So we return to Lamayuru. After an afternoon nap in a hotel I feel refreshed. In the evening in the restaurant the group of noisy Russians ask for vodka, after which they start to sing – their behavior is so cliché….

Day 3: Lamayuru > Kargil (104 km)

Today we start with the Fotu La pass road. An easy climb: nowhere steep and mostly well asphalted. Road workers, who are willing to pose for a photo shoot, even add an extra layer of asphalt. By the way, their method is very primitive, as is the case with many of construction and farming activities around here. On top of the pass (4,094 m) we take a picture with a group of enthusiastic Indian cyclists. The long descent takes us through Muslim country for the first time, and we see more shops, men with beards, girls and women wearing headscarves and screaming boys.

The ascent of the second pass of the day, the Namika La, goes through a dry and rather uninteresting landscape. The pass road is a lot steeper than the Fotu La. At the summit (3,700 m) I take a picture with the children of a liberal Muslim family. The descent is truly phenomenal: the afternoon sun perfectly illuminates the many curves of the hills, and in the distance the white peaks of Zanskar are already visible. We pass through Mulbekh, where we see Buddhist statues and stupas against the backdrop of colossal, grand canyon-like mountains, before we arrive back in Muslim country.

After twenty horrible kilometers of roads that are ‘under construction’ we finally reach Kargil in dusk. This somewhat messy city is an old trading post on the Silk Road from Northern India to Western China. The border with Pakistan is only a few kilometers away. We spend the night in a simple hotel. The service is below standard: the promised hot shower is cold, we have to ask for towels, and the promised Wi-Fi turns out to be from the chic hotel across the street. But okay, the promised bed is present.

Day 4: Kargil > Panikhar (70 km)

Buying groceries in Kargil is not so easy. And finding an ATM that actually works… In the end we still manage reasonably well. We make our way back to the hotel, through the crowds of bearded men, veiled girls, curious boys and along portraits of the late ayatollah Khomeini. Because of all the fuss we only leave for Zanskar at 10.45 am.

The road into the 150 kilometers’ long valley takes us along the river Sura and through several Muslim villages. We receive a warm welcome everywhere, even though we’re probably wearing inappropriate cycling clothes. The children practice their English: “How are you?”, “Where are you going?” and “Bye”. Halfway the stage we suddenly see the snowy Nun (7,135 m) and Kun (7,087 m) rise. After almost sixty kilometers the road becomes unpaved. The little boys walking towards us from the villages and the fields are becoming annoying by now. Eventually we reach a quiet and beautiful camping spot near a little water stream.

Day 5: Pannikhar > Zoldok (51 km)

We get up at 6 am and make coffee and noodles. We take a bad road to Parkachik, where we can see Nun and Kun again. For the first time this holiday we eat chapati with omelet, this time prepared by a one-armed man in a dirty hut. We continue through a hot gorge. It’s refreshing to step with the bike sandals through mountain streams once in a while. At Gulmatango an impressive stupa marks the border between Muslim and Buddhist area.

We keep on struggling on the bumpy road for some more kilometers until we find a place to stay the night in one of the houses of Zoldok. We eat rise with ‘dhal’ (beans) in a multifunctional space (shop, living room, kitchen, restaurant) together with Tibetan-style dressed people. We sleep in our sleeping bags on a dirty carpet with noisy Indians in the rooms next to us. Using the ‘night toilet’ (outside behind a wall) is a bit tricky, as the way to get there is via an unfinished stairway. Luckily we survive.

Day 6: Zoldok > Kushol (74 km)

We leave at 6.30 am. While behind us the sun is already shining on Nun and Kun, the first hour we cycle in the shade and through the freezing cold. At the Rangdum monastery a policeman fills in a form: our names, passport and visa numbers, where we’re from, where we’re going etcetera. In the entire region they use different forms at every police station and hotel – we wonder who’s ever going to do something with the information.

We continue on a bad road through a beautiful valley, with astonishing mountains on our right. We also see a lot of families looking for cow pats, putting them in baskets on their backs and laying them on big stones to dry. On top of the Pensi La (4,492 m) we enjoy the view of the dozens of kilometers long Drang-Drung-glacier and several peaks above 6,500 m rising alongside it. We descend via many hairpin bends to a gorge, through which the Stod River flows. After this a fairytale landscape unfolds.

We then gradually descend further down on the still bad road. By accident we pass a police station: we should have stopped, but fortunately they don’t come after us. A little further on we can pitch our tent in the front yard of a nice farmer, who is weeding grass (used as (roof) insulation) with a sickle. He brings us a jug of tea and cookies, and refuses to accept money.

Day 7: Kushol > Padum (38 km)

After having coffee and cookies for breakfast we continue in the direction of Padum. The landscape here is not very interesting. Yet we have to stay focused, because the road is still a disaster. After 26 kilometers of hard work we finally reach the first asphalt. After that it’s relatively easy to cycle to Padum: the capital of Zanskar, a town with 75% Muslims in the middle of a Buddhist valley.

We take up residence in the relatively luxurious Marq Hotel, with clean sheets and hot water twenty-four hours a day. We remove the sweat, sand and soot of the last couple of days under the excellent shower. Afterwards we try to arrange horses for a hike over the Shingo La (5,050 m), but that’s less easy than we’d hoped for; we have to come back tomorrow…

The hotel owner from Leh had given us bags of coffee for his son, who started as a judge in Zanskar last week. We knock on his door, and he immediately treats us to tea in a café. He tells us that he has been in Kargil for the past two years, and now has to serve in Padum – a remote place as the valley is closed off from the outside world from November until April. To compensate for this he is allowed to fly to Leh by helicopter a couple of times a year, which takes only 45 minutes.

Later that evening we have dinner with the judge. While his cook prepares dinner, the police chief of Zanskar and his right hand also join us. What follows is a nice evening with good food, strong Godfather beer and watching kickboxing. The police chief says he wants to help us arrange horses tomorrow if we don’t succeed ourselves. They also speak freely about the Indian government propaganda, for example that the government declares it has built new roads and bridges, while this is not true at all, and citizens apparently accept this….

Day 8: Padum (rest day)

Today’s #1 priority is arranging horses. And that remains a challenge. The Spirit of Himalayas Agency that we visited yesterday has taken no action at all. Of course we don’t feel like riding the same bad road back. And then –what a coincidence!– we bump into the two Germans Martin and Hannes. Yesterday they came down the Shingo La with the help of two horses and an English speaking horse man (Stanzin Stophail). And they saw walking that horseman around Padum this morning.

The four of us quickly go looking for Stanzin, walk back and forth through Padum a couple of times, and actually find him. It turns out he’s already booked, but suggests we cycle into the valley to the Shingo La to his hometown Raru. There we might be able to join the other group. It’s a gamble, but we like to take it. Fingers crossed… Excited again we go shopping for seven days and have dinner with the Germans and a goofy Czech.

Day 9: Padum > Raru (23 km)

We buy some more groceries, shave and send messages and pictures to the home front thanks to satellite internet. Around noon we leave on the partly asphalted road to Raru. This part of the valley is relatively boring. Once in a while we see a building. Just before the photogenic Muney Gonpa monastery a friendly monk gives us dried apricots.

The camp site is situated on the edge of a huge grassy plain, with on our side the village and a school and on the other side a stupa on a hill. After school some camping guests play soccer cheerfully with the children. Some adolescents come to us and stay in front of our tent until they get bored. They ask for money for the camping, but we are not that easily fooled. They also want to ride our bicycles, but we say no, because if we allow them soon half the village wants to try as well.

In the evening Stanzin comes to our tent with a fellow-horseman. They have already been booked (and paid for) by a group of four French people standing next to us on the campsite. They want to ‘secretly’ take our panniers with them, on the condition that we don’t get in the way of the French. We agree on the price: 7,000 rupees – about 50 euros per person for five days. It’s a deal!

Day 10: Raru > Kyalbok (24 km)

Today we stay on the right side of the river (the bridge to the road on the left side has been knocked away by a flood). After a few easy kilometers there is a landslide. That means: lift the bikes eighty meters up over a steep, makeshift path, and down again on the other side. Four kilometers after Raru the jeep track becomes a half meter wide horse trail. At the same time we have to go very far up again. And just before Tsetang two more times. And there are many more intermediate climbs.

Not only pushing and carrying the bike is a challenge; one has to be really careful where to one’s feet, especially on those parts where a stone avalanche has wiped out the path. Of course we don’t want to tumble down to that raging river deep below us… Somewhere half-way the day the packed horses pass by at great speed. They don’t have any trouble with the terrain. After having climbed some nine hundred meters in total we reach the beautifully situated terraced camping site of Kyalbok.

Day 11: Kyalbok > Purne (5 km)

Last night we slept very well and recovered from the strenuous day before. In the morning sun we eat noodles with omelet. We notice that so far we’ve only had nice weather – and that will continue for the rest of the holiday.

Today we have a very short stage on the program. We try to keep up with the horses for twenty minutes, but as soon as it gets steeper and stonier, we have to give up. Fortunately, we can enjoy the beautiful landscape at our own pace. Just before Purne we have a beautiful view of the place where the bright blue Tsarap River (also known as Zanskar River) and the brown Kargyak River merge. To get to the other side of the Kargyak we have to descent and carry the bicycles on a steep and very narrow path, and after the bridge go all the way up again.

There are two campsites in Purne. At the first campsite we have lunch. The friendly camping lady tells us about the flood in the Tsarap River last spring. In January further upstream a natural dam was created in the river as a result of a landslide. And that dam in turn created a lake. The people in the valley saw the river shrivel into a tiny brook and raised the alarm.

The army tried to reduce the pressure on the dam by creating a drainage channel. But to no avail. On May 7, the dam could no longer withstand the pressure of thirty million cubic meters of water. An enormous flood destroyed bridges, roads, paths and fields, all the way to the confluence with the Indus River. Fortunately, there were no casualties. This part of Zanskar has been a lot harder to reach since then. As a result, many tourists stay away.

She also tells about two tourists from Europe –father and son– who walked over the Shingo La a few years ago. The father got altitude sickness and died on the way down. His son said goodbye to him in Purne. At the second campsite the horsemen treat us to rice, black tea, salty tea and yak butter tea. That yak butter tea is not as rancid as I had expected, but to say it tastes delicious… not really. We spend the rest of the afternoon hanging around.

Day 12: Purne <> Phugtal (hike)

Today we leave the bikes at the tent and walk in a few hours to the Phugtal Monastery. The path goes up and down through a rugged valley, with alternating brown and terracotta-colored mountains on either side. Halfway the hike Nepalese road workers carve out a wider road. They do this in a very primitive way, with picks, hammers and shovels; machines are hardly used. Not only is labor cheaper than capital, bulldozers and excavators can’t come here at all.

The giant has demolished the bridge at the monastery. That’s why we cross the Tsarap River via a new, wobbly suspension bridge, with branches on steel wires. Phugtal Monastery is stuck against the mountain wall. At the top is a large cave, with underneath a gathering place where some elderly and young monks have their lunch. After lunch the boys run over the steep stairs and through a labyrinth of dark corridors to their rooms. We contribute to the fund raising for a new school – unfortunately the school built in 2012 was also destroyed by the flood.

Day 13: Purne > Shi (23 km)

The next three days we follow the Kargyak River to its source. First we return to the south bank and push and lift the bicycles over a very steep path one hundred and seventy meters up the hill. We pass through the cute villages of Testa and Kuru, where a lot of people are harvesting on their fields. There are many stupas and so-called mani walls here, covered with countless prayer stones. Rudi ignores the Buddhist custom to walk around them clockwise. After this the path continues for several kilometers over large stones along the river, which is very strenuous.

We cross the bridge at Tanze. Behind this village we see striking mountains, with various colors (grass green, mint green, brown, terracotta), sharp lines, and funny turrets on their top. It is very beautiful here. We were looking forward to some food, but the owner of the tea stall is working on the land. So we go on for a while. Luckily we can actually cycle a few kilometers now… until we reach a dry riverbed again and have to push the bikes over boulders.

At the camp site of Shi a local with a broken bike is waiting for us. He has bought a bicycle from a tourist to make the daily one kilometer ride to his tea stall, but the derailleur cable doesn’t work. Unfortunately we can’t help him. But he can help us: at the end of the afternoon he prepares chapati with omelet. While we’re eating, a lazy monk is sleeping next to us. Immediately after this late lunch we start cooking dinner ourselves. Because it is cold at this altitude (4,070 m), we dive into the tent early.

Day 14: Shi > Upper Lakhung (20 km)

From the camp site one can clearly see the Gumburanjon: a steep rising ‘Matterhorn’-shaped mountain and the end of the valley. The horse track to it contains some rideable kilometers, but the rest is mainly pushing and carrying the bike. Last year an aggressive bear was spotted in Zanskar. Would it be hiding around here somewhere? The bear will have a difficult time when attacking yaks with their long, sharp horns. And there’s an entire herd of yaks here at the foot of the Gumburanjon. So why not attack an unsuspecting, lonely bike tourist… Yet we survive again.

Just when we get tired of all the stones, we arrive in the middle of nowhere at a tea stall (Lower Lakhung). From the outside it looks like a basic shelter built with flat stones in square shape and with canvas, but inside it’s nicely decorated with stone benches and rugs, and with an unexpectedly large supply of food. In July, August and September the friendly warden is constantly at his post for the passing hikers and horsemen. The profit from the sale goes to local investments in, for example, infrastructure.

After a late but well-deserved lunch we start the very steep climb of more than 200 meters to the Upper Lakhung, also known as Basecamp. My back hurts, and Rudi complains about his knee. We are therefore happy when we reach Basecamp (4,700 m). In spite of the altitude and the wind the Primus stove performs properly. Preparing food takes a bit longer because of the lower cooking temperature, but we’ll manage with little petrol. This night the temperature will drop to ‑10 °C.

Day 15: Upper Lakhung > Jispa (51 km)

When we wake up there’s ice on the inside of the outer tent. We cook couscous and make coffee. At 7.30 am the sun rises above the mountain ridge and it is time to put the luggage on the horses. We start on the final climb of the Shingo La. The first 200 meters’ climbing we have to take a very steep path, on which fortunately there is no snow. Here the horses easily overtake us. Then we reach the new dirt road that a rich Indian wants to build all the way from the other side to Purne in the Zanskar Valley. At the top (5,050 m) we put the pedals back on our bikes and start cycling.

Over the new dirt road, where all kinds of bulldozers and excavators are at work, we ride about ten kilometers through a rugged landscape, before we meet the horsemen and the French again. It’s time to pay and say goodbye. The horsemen go back to Zanskar with their horses, the French take a jeep to Manali, and we cycle onwards. About eight kilometers after Zanskar Mundo there is asphalt again. After this the road goes up and down to Darcha. We sleep and dine a few kilometers further down the road in hotel Padma Lodge in Jispa.

Day 16: Jispa > Sarchu (83 km)

After we have cleaned the bikes we leave for Darcha. From there we cycle via a series of long hairpin bends to the west. The road is nowhere steep and goes up to the pass height of the Baralacha La mostly on good asphalt. In Patseo we meet a Swede who tests the performance at high altitude of a new, cleaner type of truck. Between Zing Zingbar and the pass height of the Baralacha La we have lunch in a tent with all kinds of carpets and cushions on which you can lie down.

The first fifteen kilometers of the descent of the Baralacha La (4,910 m) we ride on a bad dirt road occasionally patched with asphalt. After that the road improves considerably. The surroundings are really beautiful, but because of the darkness we can’t enjoy it; our priority is to find a place to spend the night. Eventually we find one at 7.15 pm, just before the village of Sarchu. After so much climbing at high altitude, the meal of rice, beans and omelet is very welcome. We sleep in an already set up tent with a lot of carpets on the ground.

Day 17: Sarchu > Pang (77 km)

Last night it was cold in the tent. At 7.00 am it is still ‑4 °C. Again we eat omelet for breakfast. After this we go through a wide valley with in the middle a canyon with meandering streams of the upper part of the Tsarap River. After 30 kilometers the 21 hairpin bends (the Gata Loops) start. In the lower part of the Loops we enjoy the view of the remarkably bright blue river. Too bad that there are so many trucks with nasty exhaust fumes. After the Loops the sometimes venomously steep road goes further up to the Nakeela La (4,937 m).

We quickly descend to Whisky Nalah, where we have lunch in a parachute tent. Next we have to climb another 300 meters to the Lachulung La (5,077 m). The descent goes through a nice canyon, which is beautifully lit by the afternoon sun. Unfortunately the road surface is bad, so we hardly make any progress. And then the gorge ends abruptly; we continue in a completely different, desert-like landscape. We spend the night in a simple guesthouse in Pang. There we meet two British and a Swiss guy who travel on Royal Enfield motor bikes through India.

Day 18: Pang > Polokonka La (77 km)

From Pang we first ascend more than 200 meters from the canyon before we arrive at the Morei Plains. The road here is a lot better (asphalt) and wider, and even has a line in the middle. After having cycled almost forty kilometers on the Plains, we eat rice, beans and ‘veg’ in a parachute tent, and turn off to Tso Kar. Tso Kar is a salt lake in an otherwise arid area. We drink tea in the village of Thugle. After 22 kilometers from the junction the asphalt stops. We squeeze out another 20 kilometers of dirt road on our way to the Polokonka La. We pitch our tent at 4,810 m – exactly as high as the summit of Mont Blanc.

In the dusk a herd of freshly shaved sheep passes by, on their way to the nomads who live in the tents just below the pass height. Just when we’re lying in our sleeping bags we hear several sheep dogs approaching us through the valley. They bark, growl and sniff at the tent. I find it intimidating and am actually pretty scared. Keeping ourselves as quiet as possible doesn’t help; after a while Rudi goes outside and chases them away. Later they come back a few more times. With earplugs in we can sleep peacefully.

Day 19: Polonkonka La > Puga Sumdo (28 km)

After an ice-cold night the sun rises early, and we can eat noodles and drink coffee outside the tent. We quickly climb the remaining 150 meters to the Polokonka La (4,966 m). After a summit selfie against the background of numerous Tibetan prayer flags we descend over a very bad dirt road. After ten kilometers there is suddenly beautiful asphalt. During the descent we arrive in a valley with hot springs. It smells like sulfur and the ground around the streams is white. The landscape is a bit boring here: brown hills with bits of green and snow.

From Sumdo, where we eat four chapati’s and an omelet with four eggs per person, the mountains get a bit rougher again. Unfortunately I have been suffering from a lack of energy for a couple of days now, even when I get enough sleep and food. Maybe the altitude –we have been well above 4,000 m for several days and nights– affects my metabolism. Anyway, we call it a day and move into a guest house in Puga Sumdo. In the primitive bed room I can sleep a few hours, while Rudi reads outside in the sun.

Day 20: Puga Sumdo <> Karzok (79 km)

Today we are going on a side trip (without panniers) to Tso Moriri: the vast lake close to Tibetan border. Over a slippery and not too steep asphalt road we soon reach Namashang La (4,835 m). We descend to a small salt lake with white edges (Kiagar Tso), where we meet two retired Indian soldiers who cycle through Ladakh for a month. After 27 kilometers the tarmac stops; the remaining thirteen kilometers are unpaved and difficult to ride.

The azure blue Tso Moriri is beautifully situated with snowy peaks on both sides. Here I stop – again due to lack of energy. Rudi continues to the village of Karzok, the start & finish of a horse track to and from Tso Kar; that’s where all the tourists arrive and depart in cars. Rudi returns after an hour and a half with new biscuits, drinks, soft drinks and a takeaway cho mein. We didn’t pack cutlery so we eat the food by using the caps of our water bottles. On our way back the afternoon light falls beautifully on Kiagar Tso, a bright-blue colored salt lake with white borders.

Day 21: Puga Sumdo > Hymia (94 km)

After cooking noodles in our room we head to a lower altitude. The road (with many potholes) from Puga Sumdo to the Indus Valley runs through a wild valley. After fifteen kilometers we reach the bridge over the Indus. The soldiers here do not check our permits for Tso Moriri that we arranged in Leh (and in fact, no one checked these…).

The Indus valley is amazing. Behind every bend in the still calm river a differently shaped and differently colored mountain wall appears. Dark brown, light brown, purple, reddish brown, green: we see all the variations. (When I get home I can’t believe my eyes when I see the pictures.) After more than 20 kilometers on perfect asphalt we eat chow mein with omelet in Chumatang, a hot spring area. After this we continue through the Indus valley. Every now and then there is a vicious climb, allowing us to take nice pictures.

In Kiari is a large army base: apparently a strategically important place so close to Tibet. There are literally thousands of barrels of diesel, brought in by tank-cars from Manali, which is almost 1,000 kilometers driving from here. There are also numerous commemorative plaques dedicated to deceased soldiers. Reading some of the texts, these soldiers don’t appear to have died in combat, but as a result of a plane crash, heart attack or something else without engaging an enemy; tragic rather than heroic, I would say.

After Kiari, the Indus River and our road go through a much narrower gorge for thirty kilometers. That results in several climbs. It’s arid and deserted here: accommodations and (wild) camping facilities are lacking. The beautiful tarmac road is disappearing more and more under the sand. The last ten kilometers a sand track remains, cycling on which is very difficult. Because of the difficult road and the persistent headwind in the Indus Valley, we are relieved when we arrive in Hymia. In this village are several guest houses and restaurants. We sleep in a homestay in a nice room with low couches and rugs, which is probably used for festive occasions. An old lady cooks for us the well-known ‘rice, dhal and veg’ menu.