– Leh Highway - Khardung Pass –
Himalaya Region, India
17582 feet closer to the stars
A bicycle expedition through the Indian Himalayas
While climbing up 38 kilometer to the Khardung La Pass, the highest motorable pass in the world with an elevation of 17582 feet made me think of a quote from one of my good friends “Wherever you go, that’s where you are”. We started our accent in Leh, 6 hours later and 7550 feet higher we arrived at the “bikers” roof of the world, exhausted but happy.
This 6 hours climbing was a mix of amazing views, incredible landscape, high snow capped mountains along the way, the encounter with locals, Shepherd, Nomads, Indian tourists who stop their cars to take a picture of me and my buddies or a small talk with the owner of a “wet eatery” (comparable to a Sari-Sari store in the Philippines), or just that moments, when you are lost in thoughts and breathing fresh air.
Actually it’s is not the elevation, nor setting records it is the journey itself which made me to become a tour biker. For me, the best way of travelling and exploring a new country and new cultures is definitely the bicycle. You travel with the right speed to enjoy the landscape you can stop whenever you want, to watch kids playing at the sides of the road, to try local food or to take pictures of people and amazing landscapes but most of all to be one with the country you travel through.
Why India ?
In 2006, Martin Langevoord, my dutch buddy and me, we biked the Kharakoram Highway, in 2008 I crossed Mongolia by bicycle, in 2010, again with Martin we did the Pamir Highway, an high altitude road in Tajikistan. On these rides, we met other bikers, sometimes on the road but mostly in the evenings in one of the guesthouses we spent the night. Chatting about each other’s tour and exchanging experiences this above mentioned areas will always be in the top list not to forget two others: the Lhasa to Kathmandu and of course the Manali to Leh - Highway. “Why do you bike that road ?” was the question of lots of my friends. Well, tour bikers and bike tourist know why. This road offers some of the most spectacular views of the Himalayas because it crosses some of the highest mountain passes in the world, including Rohtang La (13,051 ft), Baralacha La (16,050 ft), Lachulung La (16,598 ft), Taglang La 17,470 ft. and Khardung La (17582 feet).
How to prepare for high altitude rides ?
The challenge of this tour was not the mileage but the altitude. All in all, we would cycle around 600 km in 12-14 days but we have to cross 5 mountain passes with four of them with an altitude above 16000 feet. Above 10,000 many traveler experience - due to the high altitude and and the low-oxygen- the mountain sickness or in some cases even acute mountain sickness. On our expedition we have been for 13 days at an altitude not lower than 10,000 feet.
There is a rule of thumb, which I learned from some doctors during previous visits in the Himalayas. Best is to sleep the following night not more than 1000 feet higher than the last night but and that’s the important thing, go as high as possible during the day. The explanation for this is, if you go higher during the day you force your body to get used to the thinner air. Your body will produce more red blood cells, to transport the oxygen. Even if you go down, your body still produces more blood cells to carry more oxygen. With that little “trick” you can slowly climb higher and higher.
Don’t forget the rice
With this knowledge in mind we planned our trip as good as possible in advance. In February 2011, we stared planning Expedition. It so happened, that 3 of my pinoy friends from Cebu got infected by the pictures of my previous rides, or my stories or a mixture of it. They decided to join the ride. Manali, which lies 6,398 ft over sea level was our starting point for our excursion, in which we would have to climb on our bike a total of 32,000 feet to cross from Manali via Leh into the Nubrah Valley.
After arriving, we stayed 2 days in Manali, to get a bit acclimatized and to buy the necessary stuff for the road. Tour biking means you bring everything you might need on your trip on your bike. For the 5 of us we had 3 tents, a complete set of spare parts for the bikes (it’s advisable to use similar parts on all your bikes, then you have only to bring one set of spare parts), cooker, high altitude sleeping bags and for sure a lot of warm clothes, including down jackets and rain jackets. This all is packed in so called bike panniers, which are waterproofed bags, fixed on your bike racks.
The idea is to travel as “light” as possible, however we all had bicycles weighing around 45kg, except of Tristan, one of my pinoy friends> His bike weight was 55 kilos, coz he had to carry all the rice for the rest of the Filipinos, that added 10 kg.
Plan wisely and expect the unexpected
Almost all of the passes have 30 – 40 kilometer uphill to go before you reach them. To avoid getting stuck somewhere close to the top and risking getting altitude sickness it is advisable to plan your trip wisely in advance. We tried always to be at the “foot” of the pass at the end of the day, to be fresh and with new power the next day, starting the climb.
Climbing up Baralacha La, this pass has an altitude of 16,000 feet, we got stuck because one of us experienced headache, one of the symptoms for altitude sickness. We decided to stay overnight. We rested early that day and when we woke up we couldn’t believe what we saw. SNOW !!! 1 foot of snow and it was still snowing. It was impossible to bike and we had to stay another day. Even the locals couldn’t believe that it was snowing. According to them there was never such an amount of snow in End of August..
Besides the snow peaked mountains along the road, we also passed some places with extraordinary scenery. The so-called Gata Loops, is a climb over an elevation of 1500 feet over a distance of 7km zigzag across 21 hairpin loops. Imaging the view down on this road, while your buddies are still suffering on their uphill. Another impressive ride is the crossing of the More plains. These plain has an average elevation of 13,000 feet and is flanked by mountain ranges on both sides. The whole area is flat. At some places the road runs along the Lungpa river featuring some stunning sand and natural rock formations. It is home of some wild horses and we enjoyed our ride seeing them playing along the “road”.
After this amazing scenery the road climbs up to Tanglang La (17,000 feet). This was one of the nicest climbs I ever did. This has two reasons: First, this climb has no hidden agenda, meaning when you start climbing you immediately see the stone marker of the pass, so you exactly know where you will end up hours later and second, because of the weather conditions. We had a great sunny day with stunning views. As closer as we got to Leh as better the weather got. One has to imagine, that Leh has an average rainfall of 3.5 inches per year. This is the same or even less than the average rainfall in a desert (Manila has 196.9 inches per year). So expect a lot of sunny days around Leh.
After crossing the pass, we started the downhill. This is definitely one of the longest and impressive downhill’s I ever did in my life. Around 60 kilometer (!!!) the road “cuts” it’s way through mountain gorges and one can imagine, what a great job the road builders did. The roads throughout Ladakh and other Himalayan regions are built and maintained by the military-funded Border Roads Organization, which is famous for its concrete signposts every few hundred meters. These English messages vary from pride ("God created Ladakh, we connect it to the world") to road safety ("After whiskey driving risky") to bizarre ("Peep peep don't sleep"). Our favorite is “Be gentle with my curves”. There is even a book existing covering all the different signs.
Approaching “Little Tibet”
As closer we came to Leh, as easier the biking went. One reason for sure was the fact that we knew we will reach “civilization” soon. That means, cold beer, nice food and a comfortable bed to sleep, but the other, more important reason was the mind blowing scenery, which lets you forget thinking that you are cycling. The entire valley of Ladakh is dotted with monasteries of all kinds, belonging to various orders or schools of Buddhism. Almost all these monasteries are sited on the top or at edges of the mountains which enhances their magnificence further. That’s why this region is also called “Little Tibet”. After a few days rest in Leh, filling our stomachs with beer and food, we went of to our final destination: the Nubrah Valley. The challenge between Leh and the Nubrah Valley is nothing less then crossing the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardung La, with an altitude of 17582 feet. The downhill into the valley was spectacular. Like the rest of Ladakh, Nubra is a high altitude desert with rare precipitation and scant vegetation except along river beds, where irrigated, and on high slopes. The villages are irrigated and fertile, producing wheat, barley, peas, mustard for oil, and a variety of fruits and nuts, including apple, walnut, apricot and even a few almond trees. Since the valley is at lower elevation, it has a mild climate. This climatic condition has created lush vegetation in the valley and the valley is, therefore, called the “Orchard of Ladakh".It took us two days from Leh, to reach our final destination Diskit. Diskit has a monastery, which is spectacularly placed on the hill, just above the flood plains of the Shayok River. On our last day, we went up to the monastery and while sitting on it’s grounds, listening to the praying monks and enjoying the view of the valley I could not avoid to recall all the impressions I got during that expedition. This once again reaffirmed me, the best way of getting into a country, its people and its culture is on a bicycle.
Sponsors: Blood Red (www.teambloodred.com), Rudy Project (www.rudyproject.com.ph), Habagat www.habagat.com), Schwalbe (www.schwalbe.com)