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24/08/2011 – 5/09/2011 – Srinagar to Leh – I cycled the line

January 14, 2012
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We leave Srinagar cycling around the lake, passing the early morning swimmers and boats with huge rotators clearing away the weeds from the surface.  Traffic is ok but still quite heavy as we weave through small outlying villages, in one I get a bump from behind, the driver almost completely oblivious to the situation, apparently I shouldn’t be on the road, I’ve got two words for you my friend.

The rain pours down after a fantastic Wazwan (traditional Kashmiri cuisine) lunch for the remainder of the afternoons gradual climb.  Hoping to find a roof to camp under our hint dropping to sleep in an abandoned barn doesn’t yield any results, but further down the road Mohammed offers a room in the front of his house and leaves us to cook on the windowsill.  He routinely pops in with his two sons to sit watching us use the stoves, always a great source of interest to people.

Pine trees filled the valley as we climbed up towards the first pass, Zoija La.  Nomads passed us followed by donkeys stacked high with hay and all their possessions, their hands out stretched, years of tourism have cemented the role of foreigners as a source of money and pens.  On the rocky pass, the traffic and stress of the road to Srinagar slipped away, it felt so good to be alone amongst the mountains and nature with the cool mountain air replacing the heat of the lowlands.  Up towards the top of the pass, we met Colin an Australian touring the Manali – Srinagar highway on a Molton, a vintage English folding bike with tyres unsuitable for the rocky deluged path leading down off the pass.  He’d cycled from England to India as a young lad and had passed through Afghanistan in the 1980’s, im sure he’d have some great pictures.

Zoija La marks the entrance to the Ladakh valley, the dense pine of Kashmir left behind for a stark, tree-less valley of red and sand coloured rock.  The light is phenomenal up here, nights are accompanied by a dense blanket of bright stars and mountains sit against a light blue sky populated by huge white plumes during the day.  After passing through the Drass, apparently the 2nd coldest village in the world registering -60 celcius one winter, and Kargil we’d left the Muslim world behind for a new and unfamiliar landscape of  white Tibetan houses, colourful prayer flags, Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) perched ontop of hills and smiling Ladakhi’s shouting “Joolay” (Hello) as you’d pedal past.

After almost 9 months and 10 countries dominated by Muslim culture it was a breath of fresh air to enter into a predominantly Buddhist area.  Many Tibetan refugees live here amongst a population of Buddhist settlers who’d spread from Tibet when the border was open.  The Chinese closed the border and prevent the descendants from returning to their homeland,  its common to see huge panoramic posters of Lhasa (Tibetan capital) in shops and houses.  Ladakhi’s have a calm and friendly aura, Buddhism focuses on meditation as the route to enlightenment and its obvious to see it’s effect.  It’s easy to feel happy here, people are smiling and always welcoming, the bewildered stares of the Indian lowlands left behind in the smog.  Mulbekh attached to the valley side, offered a great place to soak up some of the new environment.  We visited a huge stone carving of the Buddha and wandered in the Gompa (Tibetan monastery) colourfully decorated with paintings of demons and their associated evils alongside enlightened beings.  Bells chime out sporadically from around the villages, knocked at every rotation of the prayer wheel.  Some people walk past and push the wooden wheels in an almost idle manner, others seem to be in a deeper and more reflective mindset as the walk around the wheel fiddling with prayer beads.

 

Another day another pass, Namika La the final mountain pass before getting to Leh the regions capital.  Resting would come later however, at 6am the next morning we began ascending the Khardung La pass.  45km of uphill riding into high altitude.  At first Leh was spread out beneath, a green blanket hugging the river valley but soon became a distant speck on the ground below flnaked by huge 6000m snowy peaks.  After 5 hours of climbing we summated the “Worlds Highest Motorable Pass,” as the Indians like to claim but its actually 3rd or 4th as there are higher passes in Bolivia and Tibet, but a feat nonetheless and with little altitude sickness, the ride back down to Leh finished off a more active than usual rest day.

The rest of the time in Leh was spent eating pizza, drinking beer and all the other couch potato activities which provide a welcome balance to the stresses of bike travel.  Ialso managed to get an infection in my ankle, the altitude prevents any wounds from healing properly and had to visit the hospital, which was surprisingly clean and efficient considering how the rest of the country is kept.  After doctors orders of rest and antibiotics a trip on the bus to the sand dunes in Nubra Valley just north of Leh seemed like a happy compromise.  Surrounded by high mountains the dunes cover a sizable area, camels slinking across the sand waves with excited Indian tourists whooping and cheering as they disappeared into the alien landscape.

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