Cycling the Himalayas – Part Two

Kashmir and Ladakh

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Here at CyclingTips we tend to focus almost exclusively on road cycling, but every now and again we come across a story that transcends the type of bike you choose to ride. Andrea Oschetti's journey through the Himalayas is one such story. Over the course of a year, Andrea is making several trips to the Himalayas to tackle specific sections of the mountain range by mountain bike. In this second instalment Andrea heads to the regions of Kashmir and Ladakh near the north-western end of the mountain chain. This leg of his journey takes him some 440km from Srinigar to Padam and as Andrea writes, the cycling is actually only part of the experience.

To read about Andrea’s first journey through the Himalayas — in Upper Mustang and the Annapurna Circuit — click here.

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This is a journey to see places I have set my heart on. This is a journey to give substance to my dreams.

I dreamt of Ladakh, the land of high passes. The land of medieval monasteries, landscapes and skies of immensity and emptiness, oasis-like vernacular villages, high-altitude deserts, the Great Himalayas and the Karakoram, Islam and Buddhism, Tibetans and Purkis and Baltis and Dards and Changpa nomads.

The route to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, from Manali — a hill station in Himachal Pradesh — is a classic cycling holiday. It has a number of astounding aspects — it is 500 kilometers long, with 8,000 meters of elevation gain, and a highest pass at 5,328 metres, all in stunning, high mountain scenery. But it is the route that all tour operators offer. It is a highway of trucks and buses and traffic jams.

There is one other road that crosses the Himalayas leading to Leh. It comes from the West, from another place of dreams: Kashmir, paradise on Earth. The road has the history of epics: it was the ancient trade route connecting Srinagar to Leh to Yarkand, at the gates of China. It is less obvious; it is my road.

Alone, with a mountain bike, a rack and two panniers, my plan is to leave Srinagar and follow lush green valleys to cross the Great Himalayas and descend into the Tibetan Plateau next to the Line of Control, which divides the unsettled aspirations of India and Pakistan.

At Kargil, 200 kilometres into my journey, I will leave the main road. Turning south, I will then take a 250-kilometre detour to Padum, following the Suru and Zanskar valleys. In cycle touring, the fastest road from A to B is seldom the more interesting. The excitement is in the small roads, off the map, not described in guidebooks.

Cycling is an adventure; things should not go according to plan. You need to shift away from your preconceived model of how the world works and adapt to new situations; you need to take risks. Author Paul Arden, in trying to explain how the best people are able to get the most out of themselves, said, “risks are a measure of people. People who won’t take them are trying to preserve what they have. People who do take them often end up by having more.” Cyclists are risk-takers.

 

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“You first and foremost talk about what you can do, rather than what you cannot do.”

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One month before my departure to Kashmir, I received an e-mail from my mother, all in capital letters, subject “URGENT: “CALL ME WHEN YOU WAKE UP” (I live in Hong Kong and she in Italy). “I AM READING EVERYWHERE THAT KASHMIR IS DANGEROUS; ALL TRAVEL SHOULD BE AVOIDED.”

There is no glory in dying for adventure. But, when you share your travel plans at home about destinations that are just a bit out of the ordinary, people are often much too willing to share stories they heard from friends of friends, adding their own insights.

To some, Muslims would angrily not allow me to cycle during Ramadan because my need for food and water would make me break fasting. A common view was that I would be kidnapped along the Line of Control or savaged by bandits on the back roads. A doctor in a well-known clinic in Hong Kong suggested no less than 10 vaccinations, including yellow fever, which is not in Asia. Travel advisories often apply to a whole country, instead of just where it exists in a specific location.

To make a decision on whether or not to listen to all that good-natured advice, I have a magic four-word formula that I always ask them: “Have you been there?” This simple question has repeatedly saved me from suggestions that are, most of the time, overly pessimistic and seldom accurate. If the answer is “no,” I stop listening. Thank you for your concern, but I need to do more research to find the truth about the place I want to visit.

The only way for a fair and up-to-date assessment of the challenges and opportunities of visiting either the center of Milan or the uninhabited valleys of Ladakh is the first-hand experience of someone who has recently been there. I called the Italian Embassy in India, and I was indeed discouraged from my plans, but not for the reason my mother was worried about: “you will be soon out of breath, the climbs are endless and at a high altitude. Take a jeep instead.”

Good intelligence comes from other cyclists who just did what I am embarking on (see, for example, the treasure of journals at crazyguyonabike). A rewarding experience is to meet fellow cyclists on the road going in the other direction. The conversation usually develops in the opposite fashion than those with people who have never been there. You first and foremost talk about what you can do, rather than what you cannot do.

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I pass the shimmering Dal Lake and its houseboats, the Mughal gardens, and the lush and busy plains of the Kashmir Valley. At Ganderbal, 20 kilometres out of Srinagar, the road turns east towards the Himalayas – from time immemorial the symbol of human aspiration to the divine.

The road climbs, the river beside it grows in intensity, cultivated fields disappear, and the deciduous trees give way to the conifers. The first of the majestic glaciers, the Thajiwas, appears. I stop at Baltal, a vast, tented camp below the road. Thousands of pilgrims are preparing for the great pilgrimage to the holy cave of the Hindu God Shiva, the Amarnath Yatra.

I leave my bicycle and follow the crowd of chanting pilgrims on the narrow path up the mountain to a valley at 4,000 meters where Shiva – the lone wanderer, the yogi, the Great God – did his cosmic dances with all the gods gathered around him.

The road climbs steeper after Baltal, up hairpin curves, negotiating a deep canyon lined with ice walls. The goal is to traverse the Zoji La Pass, at 3,500 meters, to get over the Great Himalayas. The tarmac gives way to a rough and unstable terrain full of stones, with sheer slopes on the side that fall into the void.

I stay on the mountain side of the road. When the road narrows, I cycle in the middle of the road, making it impossible for vehicles to overtake me. I raise my arm, acknowledging the truck presence behind me, asking for consideration. They patiently wait; there is always respect in the backwaters of the world towards cyclists in their epic voyages. When it is safe, I let them pass, and they inevitably slow down when they are next to me and show me their thumbs up.

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“There are no gels nor energy drinks here. There are no shops.”

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Once over the pass, the valley opens up; the lush green of Kashmir is gone, giving way to the barren aridity of Ladakh. There is no human settlement — absolutely nothing in either direction for many kilometres, save for an army checkpost. Instead of inspecting my panniers, they enthusiastically offer me the great Indian food that everywhere, even in this remote outpost, thanks to its magical combination of spices, tastes great. A group of entrepreneurial Kashmiri offer the unknown thrill of skidding on sledges, down a steep but short snowfield, to the few motorists passing by for the equivalent of 1 AUD.

Forty kilometres of descent in the wilderness with the wind in my hair. Engaging a desolate yet majestic landscape, taking in view after view, each depositing a layer of emotions in my spirit. At night, in my simple homestay in Draas (the small village that has the ubiquitous fame of being the second coldest place in winter across the world), the thick deposit of the world’s presence accumulated throughout a day results in a sense of fulfilment and happiness.

“The enemy is watching you,” warns a sign where the road is the closest to the Line of Control. The next sign has a painting of the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, for this place is Muslim Shiite. I leave the main road and turn into the tranquility of the Suru Valley, with poplars and willows fringing the road and cultivated fields along the river that runs slowly. Slowly is how time passes here, amongst the rugged barren hills. Slowly as my speed, which reflects the peacefulness and simplicity of this place and allows me to notice its small meaningful details.

The simple agrarian village is dominated by mosques with tin cupolas; a group of female students leisurely walks down the empty road with a white hijab veiling the head; an old man with a long beard and a sheepskin robe sits by the door of his house.

There are no gels nor energy drinks here. There are no shops. There is just a small café with a table outside where I can get a masala tea and a plumcake. Children surround my bicycle full of admiration. The sorrowful recitation of an elegiac poem comes from the loudspeakers on the minaret. I enter the mosque and sit amongst the row of believers who are crying, hitting their foreheads, commemorating the martyrdom and valour of Hussain Ali.

The humanity that is in the act of cycling lowers cultural barriers. Local people see the cyclist’s efforts and his vulnerability. He is offered support, hospitality and acceptance.

 

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“I do not meet cyclists or foreigners. The few jeeps with tourists pass by so fast that I don’t even notice them.”

The road turns into gravel, winding through a deep valley that narrows into a canyon and then widens again, opening the view onto snow clad peaks. Suddenly I am in front of the sharp inclines of the Nun and the jagged edges of the Kun, the two beautiful and highest peaks of Ladakh. The village ahead, Parkachik, is the last Muslim settlement, with the last mosque and the last minarets, and then it will be stupas, prayer flags and monasteries.

There are no borders, but the religious ethos changes abruptly, just as the flora, geology, vernacular settlements, ethnicity, and culture have done every day since I left Srinagar. The valley becomes austere. No more lush fields, just boulders strewn all around and a vista over high peaks and glaciers. I do not meet any cyclists or foreigners. The few jeeps with tourists pass by so fast that I don’t even notice them. Why is it that no-one comes to see this incredible beauty? Is it only appreciable to those who look at it slowly?

Hours on the bicycle alone are a treasure of available time. I wanted to put them to good use by meditating, leveraging on the spirituality of these lands. Sitting still and focusing on the breath is a classical form of meditating, but other, more active forms of meditation are possible.

I concentrate totally on every pedal stroke I make, mindful of which muscle I activate, the progress between pushing and pulling, the balance in my body. I am aiming to clear the mind from clutter. I wonder at what is within and around me, without adding preconceptions.

I try to understand the nature of my perception and discern between beneficial and harmful states of mind. To paraphrase Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, I am cycling just for the pleasure of cycling, freely and firmly, without hurrying. I am present at every step. I look around and I see how wonderful life is. Let us cycle as free people and feel our steps growing lighter as we walk. Let us appreciate every pedal stroke.

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Cyclists understand their environment exceptionally well. We take notice of every slight inclination of the terrain, we feel how the winds blow, we look for obstacles. The speed we travel allows us time to observe nature and people. Cyclists understand their body exceptionally well. We pay attention to our efforts, listen to what the different muscles tell us, and understand the different senses of fatigue.

In the middle of the bleak, wide basin of Rangdum, a 250-year-old fortified monastery stands on a small hill with the majestic encircling mountains, guarding the passage of the five valleys that converge here. From the monastery, the road ascends towards the Pensi La Pass, a climb that I engage with the trepidation of an epic adventure. The valley narrows, streams flow fast into the river down the valley, draining the grand glaciers, creating geometric deltas whose waters glare in the sun. Those are good pastures for the hundreds of yaks that graze undisturbed, for no one but the seasonal nomads lives here.

My earphones are playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The road inclines steeply and turns to reveal a new landscape as the orchestra engages the fourth movement. I surge on my pedals following the surge in the tempo, increasing the pace, living — not thinking — what the neuroscientist António R. Damásio taught: that the brain treats great music as if it comes from the heart, not the ear. Today the music is complemented with the view, which my brain perceives to come not from the eyes but from the heart.

I reach the pass at 4,400 meters, seeing the thousands of prayer flags that inspire the traveler to spiritual practice. The road descends through a series of steep hairpins, with a breathtaking vista over the spectacular Drang-Drung Glacier that twists as it gently glides down the valley from the snowy plateau in the distance.

I reach Padum, the heart of the Zangskar Valley. I can only continue towards Leh on foot. I find a jeep driver who will drive to Kargil tomorrow morning. He is willing to put my bicycle on his rooftop. At Kargil, he will give my bicycle to a bus driver, who will deliver it to a contact person in Leh. As improbable as it may sound, I am totally confident that I will find my bicycle when I arrive in Leh a week from now. Padum is far, very far from the disaffection of the cities we live in.

Click through for a detailed map of the 440km route Andrea took from Srinigar to Padam.

 



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  • MK

    Totally awesome. I have done a heap of hiking over there and it is epic. These stories have insppired that we have a crack on our bikes next March/April or October.

  • jules

    brilliant – loving it. Ladakh is absolutely on my bucket list. so beautiful and I love how there are areas still untouched by rampant tourism.

    Kashmir/Srinagar – there are risks. i thought about visiting it when I went to India about 8 yrs ago, but was warned off by my mate’s dad who is a retired army officer. it’s mostly safe and you’re unlikely to be attacked, except for every now and then when separatists use AK47s to mow down a bus full of tourists. another risk is of stumbling on drug crops – numerous westerners go missing in Indian Himalayan areas for this reason (not necessarily in Kashmit).

    but then again, YOLO (did I just say YOLO?)

  • Tony Abbott

    Just sensational images, beautifully written. Inspiring.

  • a different ben

    He better not have tagged any photos with #wymtm!

  • Mark

    wonderful, don’t stop.

  • engr gul

    i need a friend for cycling in the karakrum range iam the only cyclist from pakistan north huna

  • CC

    Best thing about this – he’s just an ordinary guy, taking the leap (blocking out judgment) and doing something extraordinary – awesome

  • “I have a magic four-word formula that I always ask them: “Have you been
    there?” This simple question has repeatedly saved me from suggestions
    that are, most of the time, overly pessimistic and seldom accurate. If
    the answer is “no,” I stop listening.”

    Classic.

  • This is my favourite part of CT; not the pros, the tech or tips, but the beauty of cycling. Nice to see more of this here. Why did you drop the tagline?