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.