Unfortunately, claims that the monsoon does not travel past Rohtang La proved to be somewhat unfounded and under grey skies we continued to be spat on from above as we slid down and along the blue Chandra River. We passed the last petrol station for 380kms, though it could have been 1000 for all we cared, and entered Keylong, the last sizeable town for the same distance. Stocking up on vegggies, soups and noodles we were sure to avoid all brands that Gerry considered to be ‘Babylon’ including Maggi, Cadbury and most Babylon of all, the Swiss giant, Nestle. We were now ready to begin our assault on the 4,883m Baralacha La.
As we climbed, the dense vegetation that had been so prominent in Manali gradually thinned out and eventually reduced the scenery to sharp, rocky mountain sides, huge walls of fine scree emanating striking tints of copper, bronze and silver, clear glacial fed streams that had carved paths through the rock through sheer persistence, defiant shrubs and distant snow-capped peaks that loomed slightly closer with every grueling hour in the saddle.
It took a grueling four or five to make it just 30kms to the nothing town of Darcha. It was from here, we learnt from the locals, that Hans, having recovered from a three-month war with an invading stomach bug and then completing an intensive 10-day vipassana meditation course, had gone through with his radical plan of renting two donkeys, loading his bicycle on one, his bags on the other and trekking over a 5,100m pass to Kargil at the northernmost tip of India. Neither Gerry, Marta, nor I were game enough to follow and we continued, ever upward, with our wheels on the ground.
As we pushed past the 4,000m mark, the silent, faceless adversary that I had encountered in Nepal several months earlier, crept up on me once more and firmly squeezed my chest, making it impossible to draw a complete breath. I gasped and spluttered before body and mind came together and I fell into a rhythm of short, sharp breaths and measured, uniform pedal strokes that allowed me to slowly, though consistently force the ground beneath my wheels.
We arrived in a healthy state of exhaustion at the colourfully named Zing Zing Bar in the late afternoon, 20kms and still several hours from Baralacha La. Zing Zing Bar was the first of the high altitude temporary settlements that we were to rely on for food and warmth during each night over the following week. Consisting of little more than a few small circus tents that serve both as dhaba and sleeping quarters, the Tibetan occupants pack up and seek refuge in more hospitable areas when the temperatures plummet, the snow begins to fall and most importantly, the customers cease to flow, no longer able to overcome to unforgiving elements.
The following day brought perhaps the most memorable I have ever had on a bicycle.
As expected, the final climb to just shy of 5,000m was tough going, but with patience, persistence and a shanti shanti mentality, we were greeted at the pass by the usual adornment of prayer flags and stone monuments as well as stunning views of a vast desert plain that disappeared over the horizon beside rocky, snow-covered hills. Such features of this surreal moonscape were soon to take on a revolving background feel as I pointed the King Brown down the other side of the pass and began the long roll to Sarchu. After negotiating a rough, steep section that forced bums out of saddles and hands onto brake levers, the land opened up to reveal an expansive, grassy area through the middle of which the well-surfaced road ran like a drag strip. Seemingly flat, once rolling, the King would simply coast……………..and coast and coast. Feeling as though I was in the centre of God’s coliseum, it was I who was applauding my audience of; mountains rising high in the tiered grandstands, blazing at me under the radiant sun; the deep canyon in pit lane displaying its army of beautifully formed scree sentinels; the blissful, fluffy white clouds lazily swimming in a perfect sea of blue overhead; and just to let me know that I was no longer on planet earth, the grassy plains, contrasting all other features with a surreal beauty.
Over 15 months ago, sitting at my desk in Milsons Point, when I should have been designing car parks to help people replace the empty weight in their wallets with empty products that provide empty satisfaction, but was actually looking at websites of bicycle adventurers in places worlds apart from the plastic computer atop the plastic desk I sat at in my plastic chair, I never dreamed of reaching such worlds myself on two wheels. Yet here I was, coasting on the other side of the monitor, effortlessly sucking it all into my very being, to be carried with me for the rest of my days.
On the back of such scenes, we rolled with our spirits as high as the highest mountain, into Sarchu; the ‘half-way’ point between Manali and Leh, where we looked forward to a day of rest and recuperation. In my energetic, inspired, adrenaline-fuelled state, I formed aspirations of climbing a mountain that hung poised over the truck-stop settlement. The morning brought a different reality however and the day was spent drinking chai, reading, writing and chatting with other travelers in the sun by the road, where I could watch the uninteresting, but engrossing scenes of jeeps and trucks screaming past and pulling up.
It was in Sarchu that I met a cheerful, dread-locked West Australian who was making his second attempt at cycling this epic route. Several weeks earlier, not quite realising where he was, he had pitched his tent near the top of Baralacha La. As he had tucked into his sleeping bag, a mild headache that is fairly normal at these altitudes had rapidly developing into an agonising throb, accompanied by a very worrying numbing of the upper left side of his body and face, rendering him mute. Following a sleepless night, he had weakly saddled up and rolled down to Sarchu where he had spent three days attempting to recover, but despite no longer feeling as though he was suffering from stroke, he improved little and was forced to hitch a ride to Leh and its relative abundance of oxygen.
Now, following some trekking and adequate acclimatisation, he was feeling confident and strong, but need never again be reminded of the dangers of altitude sickness.
Our departure from Sarchu saw us enter the remote desert region of Ladakh. Officially a part of Jammu & Kashmir, it is populated by peaceful Tibetan Buddhists and shares none of the troubles that have plagued large parts of the predominantly Muslim state.
As is usually the case when cycling through a region whose name literally means ‘the land of high passes,’ we began climbing once more, beginning in earnest with the ‘Gata Loops.’ This grueling series of 21 switchbacks aggressively cuts back and forth across the mountain face that would eventually carry us to over 5,000m for the first time, to the double pass of Lachlung La.
The loops proved to be too much for one package tourist who after being reduced to walking his bicycle was mercifully picked up by his support jeep and transported to the next dhaba. When I arrived, he was curled up in a sad, foetal heap, staring across the room with empty, red eyes. While I took no pleasure in seeing a man in distress, at that moment he personified that which I love about cycling mountains. Their absolute unconquerable might and power has the ability to break one down to their raw elements. To strip their ego back to a state of nakedness, removing the haze within and allowing a perfect view of reality, if one is only willing to look.
On the same day in another week, this man would probably be sitting comfortably in his air-conditioned office, confidently processing the same 1s and 0s he has been processing for 20 years, in his element, insulated. On this day however, on the mountain, he was a pathetic, undignified lump on public display as such, but inwardly he was on a path to discovery of self, life and truth that can never be made from the confines of either a cubicle or a luxurious, upper floor office smelling of leather and oak.
He did not know it yet, but for this man, this was a very good day.
After we had had the usual ‘high place’ photo shoot and rugged up for yet another long descent, there was the usual sense of achievement as well as one of a final determination. Over the last week and a half, we had thrice been thrust up and kissed the heavens, each time closer to the Gods than the time before. We now had but one more pass to cross and this time we may just reach them. At 5,328m Taglang La makes this the second highest motorable road in the world and since I was fairly certain that I would not feel compelled to tackle number one, just 30kms past Leh, it would be the highest that the King and I need ever travel together.
From Pang, the last tent city before the pass, the road rises sharply before settling on the amazing Moors Plains. Once again, this high-altitude plateau is a surreal sight, as it seems to have remained untouched while all around it the earth has violently collided and forced its way skywards. It is the calm in this astonishing geological storm.
Choosing one of many sandy trails, we traversed the wind-swept plateau passing gangs of Bihari tar boys sweating to keep the road in working order. Still just kids who in an ideal world would be going to school, playing sports with their mates and chasing skirt, these unfortunate souls are imported from the impoverished (and recently severely flooded) state of Bihar to carry out some of the most grueling work that I have ever seen, for a pittance. Their baby faces are dark and dry from the dirt and wind as they work over large vats of steaming tar, the heavy, black fumes of which would nearly make gag as I briefly rushed by. In freezing conditions, they load large, jagged rocks with their bare hands into the back of trucks only to have to climb on top of them and bounce to wherever they have to unload them. The wind rips through their tattered jackets and bites into their skin.
Project signs posted on the road showed that for this work, they are paid about US$80 per month. The lower altitude kids make half that.
That night was one that we had been quietly dreading for some time. We considered it to be too far to make it from Pang and over the pass in one day, meaning a night in the tents without the thick dhaba blankets that had been protecting us from the freezing night time temperatures. Fortunately though, we found an ideal campsite at the foot of the long slope that climbs from the plateau to the pass. Nestled amongst the concrete ruins of what was probably an old military installation that sat so lonesome and sad on the edge of the plains, it felt as though we were camped in a remote part of post-war Europe. The cold, bare walls of an old toilet block provided shelter against the wind, enabling us to cook a hearty meal and get a cosy nights sleep.
Despite this, none of us woke looking remotely ready to tackle the challenge before us. We had not dropped below 4,000m for a week now and our weary muscles yearned for rest and an oxygen-rich environment in which they could recover their strength. Marta looked the brightest of the three of us and in true Energizer Bunny fashion, she led from the front. Whenever I looked up to the road zigging above me, she would be powering forward with a strong, consistent determination. Zagging below me would be Gerry taking one of his frequent breaks or vainly attempting to grab on to the back of a slow moving truck.
I kept close watch on the sky overhead, which was forever reshaping itself. Already that morning, as we had packed up camp, we had been the targets of a few stray snowflakes and now with 5kms to go, I was seeing white everywhere. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the first time I would ride under snowfall would be in India during summer. As the wind drove the capsules of cold into my face, it became even harder to breath and every rock on the very rocky road became a little mountain unto itself, to be negotiated and overcome. The exertions over the last ten days seemed to become concentrated in my thighs, which refused to carry me more than a kilometre before burningly screaming at me to rest.
Eventually though, kilometre by kilometre, I rose to my highest of heights, rested the King Brown against the entrance to a small Buddhist shrine and gasped a sigh of relief and accomplishment. Marta and I beamed at one another – this was us at our best.
By this stage, the weather had cleared somewhat, but soon turned once more, this time more aggressively. The snow fell thick and began to cover the pass. Unable to stand the bone-penetrating cold any longer, I began to descend only to realise that I could not see. I took refuge in the cabin of a broken down truck and waited for the snow to fade to a thick fog before continuing the long roll to hot thalis and cheap, sugar-filled Indian biscuits.
There was something comforting about reaching permanent settlements once more as we cycled through small, picturesque Tibetan villages dotted with white-washed stupas and several enormous gompas that clung tightly to hillsides, proudly raising them up, allowing them to overlook the village homes.
The journey was finally completed with an hour long climb into Leh that just did not seem fair considering the last eleven days, but there are at least two things that I have learnt over the last 15 months. One is that on the road, there is no fair and unfair. There is only the terrain that Mother Nature has carved into this beautiful planet and the way in which roadbuilders have decided to negotiate its rises, falls, curves and bends.
The second is that there is always one more climb.