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6/09/2011 – 17/09/2011 Leh to Kaza – One of the highest mountain roads in the world

January 14, 2012
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The Indus valley, the bedrock of many civilizations and a river we had followed in Pakistan and now closer to the source in Ladakh, India was left behind for the last time.  The rocky valley feeding into the Indus was tighter and more challenging to ride, but the area began to feel more remote and more as I had expected of this road.  Dhabas (Indian restaurants) became more sparse, the only buildings tight sets of Tibetan houses with  huge stacks of cut and dried grass sitting outside, animal feed for winter carefully collected in bundles for storage.

Huge slabs of dark rock erupted from the floor at sharp angles, further along Gompas sat up high on the rock outcrops.  We camped next to a group of sheep herders who became the proud owners of my broken sleeping mat, having picked up a cheap Chinese imitation in Leh, in the morning they are busy vaccinating the animals against BSE as we pack up.

Tanglang La pass sat towering above us at 5300m, fully loaded this was going to be more tough than Khardung La (5358m) we’d completed without baggage a few days back.  The first section wasn’t too tough, slight breathlessness above 4500m as the huge switchbacks winded up the mountain always obscuring the final summit marked by colourful prayer flags.  Thoughts of relieving myself of the considerable library I’ve amassed and letting them fall to the valley floor did pass my mind, every kilo at this attitude is like lead weight, your body struggles to provide the muscles with the sufficient oxygen you need filling your body with lactic acid.

A huge sigh of relieve at the top, the climb was tougher than expected, most the day had been spent edging up, resting at the side of the road and taking in the scenery, it was a short windswept descent into a sparse high altitude plain, Morei Plains.  A huge expanse of dusty red and lime green mountains, road building forcing drivers to forge their own paths across the mass, creating a dense tapestry of intertwined tracks.  A remote area with no settlements except small encampments made from discarded tarp and old oil cans, occupied by Southern Indians and Nepalese road workers these groups live a hard life away from their families in challenging conditions working hard to turn the highway into one continuous strip of smooth tarmac.

After a short descent into Pang, a roadside village consisting of a  double row of tent structures acting as restaurants and hotels all run by excited Ladakhi’s eager to secure your business, we begin to ascend through a rock theme park of spewing landforms, turrets and tunnels.  This place has to be one of the strangest I’ve ever visited – a psychedelic wonderland, rock formations straight from Albert Hoffmann himself.  As the sun set, the weather got colder and rain fell making the river crossings that much colder, on the way we met a couple of Indian cycle tourists who’d come from the south to spread their cycling for peace message, one told us excitedly that We must go to Malana! as you can roll your own hash.  We made the summit in the dark and settled for a small patch to camp right at the top – 5000m, the highest I’ve ever camped, it was surprisingly comfortable considering how exposed you are this high, the only problem that the stove sometimes cut out.

At the top of Baralacha La pass the following day, a passing driver confirms that the track heading away from the road towards the horizon is a trekking trail to Chandra Tal, a high altitude lake and somewhere I was very interested in visiting.  Having seen this route on the map, temptation for adventure –  7 days of wilderness without any proper villages obscured any issue we had of not having enough food and we begun the track full of adrenaline.  The first obstacle, a huge expanse of boulders roughly 500m wide, an un-rideable river bed started the pragmatic wheels turning in the brain and we begun to question A).  The feasibility of completing this route in a decent amount of time and B).  Whether any of it was actually cyclable.  We sat on the open plain flanked by rows of huge snow capped mountains on either side and decided that the route was only suitable if you had a horse, an unloaded bicycle or just a backpack and walking shoes.  Slightly dejected we made the return journey back to the safety of the tarmac road, a route for another time.

After a week of hard riding, the desire to sit around and be lazy grew stronger but we were still a few days away from the first stop in Kaza.  Feeling a little weary of mountain roads – despite how beautiful they are, it can be easy to slip into a non-plussed attitude about the surroundings especially when the beauty is there 24/7.  The ideal solution would be to transport yourself into the heart of hectic Dehli for an afternoon I’m sure the desire to be in the mountains would quickly recharge.  Unfortunately this isn’t  possible, the next best thing however is a pannier full of cold crisp beers clinking away as you descend down the road to find camp in the cool heat of the setting sun.

Descending from Baralacha La the valley had shifted from stark rock to lush alpine, a thick aroma of pine emanating from everywhere.  Tired and a little weary, the road difficult to cycle due to a high concentration of boulders leading up to Kunzum La, the entrance to the Spiti Valley.  These stretches really test your patience, it requires a lot of concentration and physical exertion to ride the bike in such difficult circumstances especially when all you want to do is rest.  Luckily we reached the base of the pass filled up on plates of Thali (Mixed curry plate) and started up the 20 switchbacks of decent track.

Spiti valley brought a fresh palate of colours, yellow from the numerous tree-planting initiatives there and newly built houses in Tibetan style with blue window frames.  The valley felt more wealthy than previous places, the new construction, the lack of rubbish, people appeared to be well-nourished and the friendly mentality of the Ladakhi’s was firmly back.  The ride past gompas and rock formations but all I could think about was having a day off in Kaza and how painfully slow to arrive it was.  Finally we made it and got our permit to ride further in the valley out of the way. It was time to start munching mo-mos (Tibetan dumplings) and Chow mein to recoup some energy, the bike safely out of sight on the balcony.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2012 10:18 pm

    Hey Mate!

    Nice blogg, I really miss the altitude bicycle touring. Im probably going to South America in september with the bike.

    • Julian permalink*
      January 15, 2012 9:10 am

      Tim your a busy man, where you gonna go is SA?

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