Jul 30, 2009

Goodbye Manali 19/06/09
We were ready to leave Manali.
We were packed and Rami was back from the German bakery with bread, pie and toilet paper (where else do people buy toilet paper?). Raj charged him only for the toilet paper; the bread & pie were a goodbye gift. He was in tears, seeing his best customer cycle away.
We had everything we needed, or at least enough to survive till Keylong, two & a half days away: instant noodle soup, sugar, tea, powder milk, toilet paper, a bad map of the area and Gals 2 printouts describing the route: Manali-Leh profile & D&T on the Manali-Leh route.
We roughly knew what was ahead of us - we road it 7 years ago, on our Royal Enfield: 475km of mountainous road, crossing 4 (4.5) high passes, long stretches of no-man’s land, with 1 small town after 100km (last petrol station) and a few summer hamlets on the way.

Preparing to leave.

Goodbye, Manali!

Gals shoulder was far from %100, but it was time to leave Manali…
The weather was good and the climb towards Rohtang pass was easy – slow, but persistent.
On the way we met Nikolaus & Markus, 2 Austrian cyclists (not the Austrian couple who left Manali on the previous morning, in the rain). They had plans on reaching Keylong in one day. We knew it’ll take us two & a half… we pressed on, knowing we are slow and they are big Austrians, they’ll catch up.
While climbing, we nostalgically recalled ‘our’ dog. Here he got fresh tanduri roti, there he cut his first serpentine…

"We're on a road to no-where..."
More 'trailer-trash' behind us...
A good day to climb.

Serpentines in the far distance.
They're still with us :-)

In the afternoon the weather changed. Just as we reached Mahri, up at 3,300m, a big cloud attacked the mountain and it became cold & wet. We have climbed 1,350m – it was much colder than the last 20 days and we knew there was no camp spot ahead, till Rohtang pass, at 3,950m. We went directly to the government rest-house, where we slept 3 weeks ago (and paid 300 rupee, instead of 1,000). The place was shutdown, probably due to the crooked caretaker, who took the money directly to his pocket. A group of about 12 Austrian cyclists camped in the rest-house garden. More German-speaking cyclists… they were on an organized trip, with a support bus, a kitchen tent, dining tent and even a toilet tent – the easy life!
A policeman arrived, demanding 200 rupees for pitching our tent. His demand was so pathetic, lacking charisma, we just ignored him and he left. Later, an English speaking policeman arrived and asked us if we paid anything. We said that we didn’t. He said “OK – you don’t need to”.

Nikolaus & Markus
We didn’t see the 2 Austrian cyclists, whom we met earlier, when they entered “town”. The road was less than 100m away, but due to the thick fog they couldn’t even notice the government rest-house, a perfect campground just on their left. Rami later found them building their camp at the other end of the village. We invited them to camp with us and all the other men in tights. They took a bold decision and half packed their stuff and came. We would never have the mental energy to move our camp…
We searched this tourist village for a restaurant with tanduri roti and later fell asleep. Again, we were amused by the number of German-speaking cyclists. There will be many more to come.

"Beautiful" Mahri.

Terrible Rohtang 20/06
We were still traumatic of descending Rohtang pass, 3 weeks ago, fighting the rain, mud and traffic jams of drunken Indian tourists.
Rami’s knee was tired from yesterday’s climb, and knowing what was ahead – he wanted to hitch. Gal persuaded him to cycle. 4km later we were pushing the bicycles in deep mud, in the middle of a traffic jam, with drunken Indian tourists honking around us. The last 8km we did sitting in the back of an ancient Tata truck. There we saw Nikolaus & Markus, who waited for us.

Unbelievable traffic jams.
We can barely push the bikes. Anyone wants BBQ corn?
Gal, suffering in the Tata.

We descended to Koksar and decided to stay there. The government guest-house charged 1,000 rupee for a private room – no discounts this time :-) But... they had a dormitory... 15 rupee a bed - that’s about $0.30!!! It was the cheapest room we ever paid for a room and probably we ever will. It even had toilets inside, but maybe it would have been better without!
Gal was grumpy. She preferred camping in her private, clean tent (there were 10 snoring men in the dorm). Even the rain couldn’t persuade her, but Rami insisted.

A view of Chadra river and the terrible road to Spiti.
And the descent.

The toilets in the government guesthouse at Koksar.

The next morning we started cycling on the best road we had since the autopista in Argentina, near Rosario. It’s amazing how the quality of the road affects a cyclist’s mood. We didn’t even care that it was raining.
10km later we were cycling on one of the worst roads we ever had – an endless stretch of deep, slimy mud, going up & down, up & down.

Another glacier.

An old watch tower and a village.

We reached Keylong, a small village/town; the last ‘civilized’ place with a warm shower and cellular coverage, till the Indus valley, 400km away. We decided to rest there a day. We were sure Klaus & Markus will continue, being on a short vacation (you call this ‘vacation’?) and in the fantastic shape they were in, but were glad to hear that they decided to rest as well. We enjoyed their company and cycled together the following 7 days.

Keylong bank - "Fully computerised"

There was nothing too interesting on the next day. We passed the turn-off to the trek to Padum and the Zanskar valley. Gal was already planning our return route to Manali. The gloomy weather was still with us, ruining the scenery. Towards the evening, just on the outskirts of Patseo, we had to cross two snow-meltdown rivers - freezing!
We slept in a cheap, run-down government guest-house and ate at a roadside dhaba, what made life easier that night; another day without instant noodles is always a luxury :-)

Bihari road-workers. What a job...

The Darcha junction. The trek to Padum.

We finally reached our second pass - Baralacha La, at 4,880m. The 32km climb started terribly, but later changed to a newly paved road. It was dripping all day, even in the pass, so we couldn’t enjoy the beautiful scenery which we remembered from the motorcycle trip.
It was 1 hour to sunset when we caught up with Klaus & Markus (they waited at a dhaba, drinking chai). We decided to continue to Sarchu, a famous truck stop summer hamlet, 25km away. It was a brave decision to continue, knowing that we might easily arrive after sunset; cycling in the dark and even worse – searching for a good camp-spot in the dark... It was gallant of Klaus & Markus to wait.
We made it just on time, thanks to the perfect, gentle descend, not wasting any bit of altitude, and to the constant wind, pushing us down the valley. K & M have already found a fine cam-spot, away from the dhabas and their Tata & Ashok-Leyland. We were even invited to use the clean toilets of the nearby army base. Again, we enjoyed a warm dinner – a Nepali Thali (lots of Nepali labor and businesses in North India – the big money...).
There was no moon, so it took us a while to find the tent of K & M, when we returned to camp, after a fine dinner - a moment of panic. We quickly opened our tent in the darkness. We could do it blindfolded already...
After all the horror stories about Sarchu, being the biggest ‘open toilet’ in India, we were relieved to see it wasn’t too bad, we even found it calm and relaxing, in a beautiful valley. But, the Nepali restaurant owner told us we were lucky to fall on a quiet night.

Good asphalt!
A lake, just before Baralacha La.

Always Tata trucks...

Looking back.

And back again.
3 more passes to go.
Going down

The long descent to Sarchu.


Our campground.

Gata Loops 25/07
We were on the way to the famous Gata Loops, a long stretch of serpentines, climbing towards Nakee La (4750m).
We noticed a truck, carrying live chicken, stopping at a road-workers camp. We felt sorry for the miserable chickens, doing this journey, freezing in their open cages. Well, at least they saw the world…anyway, it was interesting to watch the road-workers, who bought the chickens, holding the exhausted animals, as if they were their babies, and feeding them.
The Gata Loops were easy. Non-cyclists are always intimidated of serpentines on a mountain. They don’t know that cyclists don’t mind the ‘hairpin’ bends; we only care about the incline. Usually hairpin turns have a low incline, while roads climbing along a river, which locals refer to as ‘flat’, may be steep.

Leaving Sarchu.

Looking back at Sarchu. A shit-hole in a beautiful valley.

The Gata Loops.

Dudu to the rescue 26/07
We had a lazy morning – finally a short day: a short climb to Lachlung La (5,065m) followed by a descend to Pang.
While packing camp we noticed a van stopped nearby. A man approached, waving his hand – I come in peace!
He was carrying Maggi Instant noodle soups! It was Dudu, a friend we met in Manali. A few days before we left, Gal mentioned that if he leaves for Leh during our journey, it might help if he brings us some food - Maggi Instant noodle soups!
Thanks. It was a nice surprise in the middle of nowhere and just in time – we finished our stock during breakfast.

Good ,morning.
Dudu, Thanks!
Push! Push!

Except for a small storm just before the pass, we had fantastic weather (two days in a row - with our luck?), so we finally had a chance to take some photos. Descending to Pang the road was terrible, increasing Gal’s headache, which was building up, but the scenery was so beautiful, what made it worth everything.

An army convoy.

And the convoy slowly climb.
Lachlung La.
The beautiful descent to Pang.

Gal and a Tata.
Feeling small.
Gal running into 2 American cyclists.

During the rough descend Gal’s headache grew and she was worried of getting altitude sickness. It happened in the past and we knew it might jeopardize the journey. We decided to stop early and sleep in one of the many dhabas. Markus, with his hurting ribs, and Klaus, with his typical “welcome to India” diarrhea, were glad to stay and join out geriatric tent. With Jean Paul, an Australian on an Enfield motorcycle, we rented a whole tent (each dhaba has a sleeping tent behind) – the only tent in Pang that had windows!
2 German cyclists arrived, chit-chatted and continued. They ate the standard Chowmain, took water and started the short climb to More plains, where they planned to camp. A bit later it rained heavily for about an hour – a very rare phenomenon... our dhaba manager, a Ladakhi lady in her 30’s, showed leadership and covered the tent with a huge, new, waterproof, blue tarp. We were happy with our decision not to camp, especially with Gal’s strong headache. Another reason not to camp in Pang was that it was literally a shit-hole. We were surrounded everywhere by human shit!

Jean Paul, Markus and our stuff, inside the tent.

We had another easy day. The weather was shifting between sunny & rainy. Luckily, the famous ‘More plains headwind’ was wrong and the strong wind was with us till Debring – a ‘place’ with 2 tiny dhabas, the last flat place before the climb to Tanglang La. Once again we ‘closed’ a tent of one of the dhabas, to avoid the noisy, drunk Indian truck drivers.
Later, another German speaking (Swiss) cycle-touring couple arrived, coming from Leh. We spent dinner together, exchanging info about the road, camping possibilities – the interesting stuff!

Klaus vs the Tatas.
Goodbye, stinky Pang.

Markus, climbing to More plains.

The end of the world is flat!

Road workers?

Another convoy, down from the pass.

More German speaking cyclists.
Downtown Debring

One more to go 28/07
We attacked the last pass, Tanglang La (5,326m), on the way to Leh.
The cyclists we met last night told us that the last side of the climb, on both sides, is rough. We were surprised to find out that the climb till the pass was well paved and relaxed, with a fantastic 5% incline - the easiest we had. Gal didn’t feel the altitude at all (Rami never does).
One big landslide stalled us. The heavy-duty bulldozers were working on it. After a few minutes of waiting we disconnected Gal’s trailer and walked passed it, asking the army guys to wait up a second, so Gal could continue. Rami’s luggage was a bit more complex to separate & reassemble, so he waited, enjoying seeing the monsters throw boulders down the cliff. He caught up with gal half an hour later.
Typically, a bit before reaching the pass the weather changed. We could see nothing but clouds at the pass. We waited there almost 2 hours and finally gave up.
We started the 2,000m descend to the Indus valley. The Swiss couple got this side right: 16km of a swampy, muddy road with many trucks… and it was raining again!
But after exactly 16km everything changed – the nightmare swamp gave place to a newly paved road, wide & smooth, the working trucks were left behind, even the rain stopped and we could enjoy the sun, peeking between the clouds.
We rode quickly, reaching the river of the valley and started seeing signs of civilization! We passed tiny typical Ladakhi villages, with their traditional houses spread among green barley fields.
We met Markus just before Lato, another tiny village, just before the entrance to a gorge. They kept a room for us in a lovely, welcoming ‘home-stay’ (a ‘guest-house’, even though, now, a ‘guest-house’ in India is just a hotel with a more welcoming name). They marked the house with their yellow bob-trailer flag.

Tanglang La, in the distance.

A quick chai stop - thanks.
Looking back.

Gal vs. the Tatas.

Windy towards the top.


The last turn to the pass.

Looking down, bad visibility
Prayer flags.

Shitty weather.

The river we'll descend with.
Back to civilization.
Big stupid... eh - Stupa!
Finally - green!

Tibetan monastery.
More stupids.

Looking back towards the pass.

The Indus valley 29/07
The next morning we departed from Markus & Klaus; they headed directly to Leh, to treat Markus’s ribs. We planned on stopping in Hamis and spending the night there.
We continued yesterday’s endless descend. Today the road went through the beautiful gorge – it was amazing!
We were excited to reach the wide Indus valley. It symbolized the end of this tough journey, crossing the Greater Himalaya range, one of the highest roads in the world.
We could now leisurely cruse down the Indus valley towards Leh, with a short detour, spending the night at the monastery in Hemis.

Entering the gorge.

Downhill to Upshi.

Gal is happy!
Passing a village - an old house.
Barley fields.

Wait for me...

After so many days of wintry weather, at higher altitudes, we found ourselves in the low-lands (3,300m), not a cloud in the sky, under the burning sun, fighting the terribly steep climb to the tiny village of Hemis, 500m above us.
We were at the end of this long, stinking journey; Gal longed for a warm shower and Rami for his apple-crumble. We lacked the mental strength for this detour…
We planned on camping near the monastery and catching the morning prayers. We found a cheap room in the quiet monastery guest-house… well, from the afternoon, till the tourists arrive the next morning, the whole valley is quiet. We took a FREEZING shower, after 7 stinking days. We cooked instant noodle soup inside the room as a protest against the extremely high prices at the adjacent restaurant.

Resting - the climb to Hemis.
Hemis monastery.
The Indus valley, from Hemis.
Barley terasses.

The night at the monastery was very peaceful. At 07:00 we were invited (we were not asked for entrance fee) to the morning prayer.

Morning prayer.
Young monks making chai (cool stove).

We left Hemis, starved. Our MSR WhisperLite stove failed us. We quickly reached the main road down near the Indus river, where we had good Indian food. We cycled easily with the river, quickly climbing the last 5km to Changspa, a suburb of Leh, where most of the travelers chill out.
The first thing we did was gobble a big slice of apple-crumble. It was our first disappointment… but we needed the energy – it took us over 2 hours to find a room; a relaxed corner with attached warm shower, a relaxed balcony with views to the beautiful Stok range, a good place to rest and hide from the masses of tourists, but still, near a German (Nepali) bakery!

Hemis village.

Down to the Indus valley.
The Indus river.
Another monestery in the distance.

We had many doubts before leaving Manali, with Gal’s aching shoulder and after 20 days of being couch-potatoes.
Famous at it is, we’ll be arrogant and say it was surprisingly easy, especially with the new bridges.