The Mountain Lake – Tso Moriri

I know that it’s been a long time since the trip. But, this part of the Cycling tour I undertook with the Bangalore Ascenders in the Himalayas was one of the most memorable ones. After cycling to Pangong Tso the rest of the gang returned from Tangtse to Karu with all the cycles. I had forgotten my bag containing some essential spares, tools and sandals in a shop in Lukung where we had stopped for tea the previous day while returning from Spangamik to Tangtse. So, I got up early in the morning and went and stood near the check-post behind the village hoping to hitch a ride on some vehicle passing by. After a while a truck carrying a JCB came trundling along. They stopped for me and I hopped on for a free ride to Lukung. It was the first time I was travelling in a lorry. It was fun and I was quite impressed by the skill of the driver.

After getting to Lukung I got my bag back, had breakfast and tea and spent some more time staring at the beautiful lake. Then I got onto another truck which took me to Tangtse. There I got off to check whether the others had left already. After finding out that they had gone I went back to the bridge which marked the start of the village and started waiting again. After a long time a Scorpio carrying a photographer came along and after a bit of pleading with him he agreed to take me to Karu. After a long time spent on the hard and unforgiving saddle of my cycle and on trucks it was quite a change to travel in a modern car.

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The second time I crossed the Chang-La it was snowing. It was the first time in my life I was experiencing snow-fall and it simply was magical. I was so excited, I almost didn’t feel the cold.

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Spent some time there and then we started on our way to Karu. After getting there in the afternoon, I soon found everyone at the tea stall there. Neelima was coincidentally visiting a nearby monastery and she dropped in to meet us and have a quick chat.

In the evening, we all got our cycles ready and started on our way to Likche. This was an easy ride and there were no crisis moments at all. But, it was pitch dark by the time I reached the turn-off point towards Likche. I turned my cycle around and waited with my strobe lights on for the rest of the gang. I don’t think I have stood anywhere like that in absolute darkness… just waiting. It felt really weird. After a while I saw a line of three blinking lights in the distance and soon enough the rest of the gang was with me. We rode up to the village and found that there weren’t any commercial places that could offer us a room for the night. We roamed around the village asking where we could get a room for the night. One family, upon seeing us said that it would be hard to find a place at that time of the day and offered us a room in their own house for the night and food. We were quite relieved and in fact pleasantly surprised at this.

We went in and they prepared us dinner and Rajesh told them all about our trip and how we got there. After a hearty dinner we were shown to our room which was a cozy one with lots of blankets, mattresses and cushions. In Ladakh, no matter how rickety a home looks, their bedrooms always look rich and warm. We nestled into the warm blankets and in no time fell into a deep and fitful sleep.

In the morning I  woke up to the glorious sight of a field of flowers in full blossom against a backdrop of towering mountains and a lush green valley with pretty little homes, mills and a stream gurgling through it all.

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It was simply mind-blowing. I walked around the village rubbing my eyes to make sure it wasn’t all a dream.

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The previous night the lady of the house who was a govt. health worker had told us that the sight from the bedroom was a beautiful one. But, that didn’t prepare me for this.

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After breakfast, we said bye to our hosts. When we offered them money they refused to take it. Somehow we managed to force them to take it and left the village with a full tummy and an even fuller heart.

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Rajesh and Jay with them.

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That day our target was a little ambitious. We had to reach Chumathang which is known for its hot-water springs. It was a hard day of cycling.

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The occasional little village nestled in the mountains was quite a sight to see.

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On the way, there was an army base where we had hoped to get lunch from. I was terribly hungry and tired by the time I reached the base. But, I found out that the canteen was closed that day because it was some holiday( or was it a Sunday? I don’t remember…). One soldier seeing my state gave me some biscuits and stuff. After going a little further I realized that it would be impossible for anyone to go any further without a proper meal. My stomach was growling like an angry dog.

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Some soldiers at an army post then took me to their quarters and after letting me sit and rest for a while got permission from their commander to take us to their mess and give us a meal there. I waited there in the mess after asking the guy at the post on the road to watch out for the others and bring them in when they come. They kept insisting that I eat right away. But, I waited and after a while they all came and we had what seemed like the tastiest lunch of my life with the guys there.

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There was a Malayalee there and he gave me loads of nuts, juices and biscuits and let me lie down on his bunk. There was a Kannada guy who simply couldn’t stop talking to Rajesh. After eating and resting, it was time to leave. It was quite an experience seeing their quarters, eating their food, hearing their stories and being part of their Sunday fun for a while. Life in the army, especially  in the forward posts serving in hostile conditions with minimum equipment while dealing with the terrible isolation is a challenge.

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After a comfortable bout of cycling we arrived in Chumathang and stayed there for the night. I was hoping to take a bath after a long time. But, the water coming directly from the springs proved to be too hot for a bath and there was no cold water available for mixing. This was one of the places I liked the least in Ladakh. Nothing remarkable about it and very dirty and shabby.

But the route is very picturesque.

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I was glad to get away from the place in the morning. We started very early, even before breakfast.

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That day, we were to do something really crazy. Cycle all the way to Tso Moriri in one day. We had to cross the Namshang-La pass on the way. It was really scary. But, before breakfast we had covered some 30kms and our strategy of starting early looked like it might work.

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After eating we started off again. We reached Sumdoh after that and after waiting for a while there we started our climb up to Namshang-La pass. It was a relatively lower pass.But, I hadn’t eaten much and my hope was that it would be all downhill after the pass. As it turned out, it was a bit of a stupid assumption.

The climb was easy as by then I had adapted somewhat to the low-oxygen conditions. This is a pretty boring looking pass…, that is until you turn a bend and your eyes fall on the stunning Kyagar-Tso.

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One of the highest lakes in the world!

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It looks so unreal, especially at that altitude surrounded by the mountains and the pure white sand. One has to see it to believe it.

I was preparing myself for some downhill fun and had mentally let myself go. Boy! Was I ever so wrong in my life!

As I crossed the pass and approached the lake on up-and-down roads I came across a french gang of bikers. We talked a lot. They were setting themselves up along the lake for lunch. Just as I got to the lake my cycle plunged into the fine soft sand and very soon it became impossible to cycle through it.

A road-gang working on building the new road asked me to take a break and offered me some tea and refreshments.

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Unfortunately the tea was their traditional Ladakhi butter tea. I drank it with great difficulty as I didn’t want to seem rude. Plus, I thought, it might give me some energy to cycle on.

I then started pushing my cycle through the soft sand for what seemed like forever. After the lake, the gradient did not improve at all. In fact there were even more climbs, no roads, lots of sand and lorries roaring through the dust raking up a respiratory-hell in their wake. By then I was also completely fatigued. I looked ahead and all I could see was a vast level stretch of sand and pebbles with a few lorry tracks on it.

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I steeled myself, bowed down and kept pushing the cycle. After several kms of this, I finally came to a relatively stable road surface. I got on and pushed off. The road had a slight negative gradient. But it was full of big, sharp stones and the ride was difficult.

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After some cycling I could see the Tso-Moriri in the distance. A small triangle of blue in the midst of mountains. It looked deceptively close.

I cycled on and on and finally, I came to the lake. By then, I noticed a shocking thing. The rear tire had somehow gotten torn and the rubber tube was sticking out through it like a scary hernia. I was feeling very dull and couldn’t think clearly. I then did something very stupid. Rajesh had clearly told me that once I reach the lake I had to stay to the right. But the road to the right was not very obvious while there was a clean, solid looking road to the left. I missed the turn and cycled on. Turns out it was the road to China!!

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After what seemed like forever, I realized that this road was not leading me anywhere.

But, there was no one to ask for directions. I looked into the lake bed and saw a few tents. I then did the next stupid thing. Instead of cycling back the way I came, I descended into the bed. After roaming through the marshy, rocky bed for a long time I finally came to the tents and found out that they were nomads who don’t understand Hindi and were unaware of even the nearest town. I decided to cross the lake and try to get to the other side. But the bed was full of small streams and some of them were pretty deep. With great difficulty I got through all of them and I finally came upon some North Indian laborers. They pointed me in the right direction and I was on my way.

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I then found out that the bed was surrounded by wire fencing and there were no openings in it. I struggled on and on and finally I came to a hole in the fence and got through to the other side and onto the right road. Just then the others had reached that point.

Feeling a great sense of relief I cycled along with them. I had a ligament strain in my left knee, I was completely out of fuel and my cycle tire was on the verge of bursting. After 7 more dull, terrible and painful kms we finally reached the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Post. We showed them our permissions and then cycled on to Karzog which is the most remote and climate-wise hostile place I have ever been to in my life. It was situated at 4600 mtrs and more than one person there told me that life there was hell.

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But, it looks awesome, all the same!

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Tso Moriri is mind-numbingly beautiful. I become touchy and sentimental when I am hypoxic and in that state the lake’s beauty and the barrenness of the landscape seemed to evoke a sense of emotional tension in me.

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That night we all slept deeply and I could hear our deep and heavy breathing through the night.

The next day and the journey back was another adventure altogether. But, for now, I think this much is enough. It was one of the most intense trips I had ever undertaken and to this day I still try to remember what I felt when I looked up and saw the vast dusty plains through which I pushed my cycle. My disappointment at finding myself fenced-in inside the lake bed. My anxiety at seeing my torn tire and the bulging tube. My happiness at having finally made it safely to Karzog. It was a complex set of emotions and irrespective of whether I felt good or bad at the time, they are now, all of them,  valuable memories.

Here is a full set of photos.

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Himalayan Cycling Expedition-Part1

On the 4th of July, this year, I had gone on a cycling trip to the Himalayas. It’s been quite a while since I decided to put down my experiences here. Finally, I have started.

First 3 days

It was after a lot of confusion and frenzied running around that I finally got myself and my cycle on to the plane to Leh.

Finally got the cycle box and luggage to the airport by bus!!

At the delhi airport

Those 2 hrs were the only moments of peace I had in the run-up to the trip. As I looked out of the window as the plane navigated the stunning and surreal-looking mountains, I, for the first time felt relaxed and finally could feel the thrill and excitement building up inside me. As I stepped out of the plane after a bumpy landing, I caught my first glimpse of the surrounding mountains from ground level. I got my cycle from the luggage check-out and caught a taxi to the hotel where my team-mates who had reached a day earlier than me were staying. I was scared of becoming sick because of the thin air. But, luckily, I did not get even a head ache. I just ate a lot, read and walked about Changspa Road taking in the sights and sounds.

In the afternoon I with the help of Vinod put my cycle back together. I then noticed that the rear wheel was a little bent. So, I cycled to a shop where I got the rim trued.

The next day we got all the permissions required for our tour plan from the police station. After lunch we decided to go to the Shey and Thiksey monasteries on cycle to see how well we were acclimatized. It was a 20 km ride(one-way). I thought the monasteries themselves were pretty  boring. But the sights and sounds along the way and the experience of cycling in the thin air was something truly new to me.

After the ride I was thoroughly tired.

We all then piled into a hotel on Changspa road and had a hearty dinner.

It was after several days that I was finally sleeping peacefully. I could feel that my breathing had become very deep and fast. But otherwise I was more or less fine.

Khardung-La(5650 m)

This was the day that most worried me before the trip. This was supposed to be one of the highest road passes in the world and climbing up to it on cycle with our luggage was a tough proposition. The thought of doing it on the third day of flying into Leh gave me many sleepless nights before the trip.

On our way to Khardung La

I want to digress now and mention a little thing that struck me. When I was talking about my trip to a friend of mine after coming back, he told me that I should write it all down as fast as possible or I risked forgetting the details. But, I knew that unless a part of my brain was carved out there was no way of that happening. Every single moment of that trip was written in breathless strokes on a canvas of surreal surroundings and strange experiences and were etched so deeply in my mind that they will stay there for quite a while.

I have never experienced fatigue, pain, cold or breathlessness to the extent I experienced that day… ever! Only the sights around me and the company of people travelling on the road who stopped to talk to and encourage us kept me going.

There were land-slides at several places and it provided me with excuses for much needed breaks.

Roads frequently get blocked by landslides

When I reached South Pullu and somehow stumbled into the little Dhaba there for some  much needed food and tea, I thought there was simply no way I could cycle another 14 km up.

We had ascended some 1000 m and another 1000 m was remaining.

Little by little taking breaks we went up. All the time my eyes were set on the highest point.

As we neared the pass the sun had warmed and melted the ice shelves lining the road. The road was awash with ice melt and in my fatigued state I lost  my balance at several places and had to step in the water. My left shoe became wet and very soon I started feeling very cold. Jayakanth had gone on ahead. I and the others were going together. Finally, when I started thinking that the sign boards were tricking us and after not seeing one for quite a while, I saw a board which read

The world’s highest restaurant-500 m ahead.

The sun was starting to go down and it was starting to get dark. Finally mustering the last of my energy I pedaled on and came to the army station at the peak. I rode in and collapsed by the side of a building there. Behind me Rajesh, Girish and finally Vinod came up.

I spent some time talking to some Malayalee soldiers there.

By then the others had moved on. I was starting to become very cold because I was in my cycling shorts and my one foot was exposed. The soldiers advised me to go down on the Leh side as it was easier to get help if I needed it on that side than on the road to Nubra Valley. So, I took their advice and descended on that side. Turned out it was good advice. My cycle carrier broke as I was nearing South Pullu. So, I dropped it off at the police station there and hitched a ride on a sumo. I came down to Leh booked myself a lavish room at The Ladakh Residency and dunked myself in hot water until feeling returned to my hands and legs.

People always ask me why I decided to tour by cycle and not simply travel by vehicle. Why go through the pain and uncertainty? Can’t you see the same things while sitting comfortably inside a car or on a bike? These are good questions.

As you will see over the next several posts as I put down details of the time I spent in the Himalayas on my cycle the answer to those questions will become apparent…

The only time in my life I was able to smile at a camera!

A few extra pics…

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Taking the first step

I had gone to Ladakh as part of a cycling expedition from the 4th of July to the 23rd. After getting back there were a lot of things that needed attending to and I haven’t been able to sit down and collect my thoughts about the tour. It was the biggest, most expensive, ambitious and physically demanding trip I have ever undertaken. As a result it is also the one that has had the biggest impact on me.

I wish I could write it all down immediately, but I haven’t been able to even look at the photos properly till now. I thought hat I should first put down all the stuff that happened in the run up to the trip.

It was in May that the mail announcing the the trip was sent out on the Bangalore Ascender’s mailing list by Rajesh PN, who along with Girish Motwani did most of of the planning for the trip. The mail caught my attention as I had been thinking of going to the Himalayas for some time. But, I didn’t have any company and I wasn’t interested in an ordinary sight seeing trip around Ladakh by vehicle.

The mail seemed interesting. But, when I read the plan and saw the distance that they were planning to cover I felt a sudden pang of doubt. Can they be serious? Is it really possible to cover a 1000 kms on cycle at such high altitudes on difficult terrain? How many people are going to sign up for this crazy trip? Even if I did decide to go how was I going to get my cycle to Leh? What are the risks involved in undertaking such a trip? What sort of preparation would be required for it? What if after arranging everything all the other guys pulled out? Is it really not crazy to do something like this without a support vehicle? Questions kept on popping up in my head. The more I thought about it the more the arguments against the idea piled up. I called up Rajesh to ask a couple of doubts. Before that Renjith had sent me a mail, asking me teasingly, why I hadn’t signed up for it.

After thinking for a while, I decided that thinking was not much use. This was not a trip for a level-headed person. There was no brand of logic or reason which would counsel me to do it. For this trip, for once, I would have to really listen to my heart. See if I wanted to do this. Once I went ahead and booked the airline tickets what would follow was difficult training and preparation culminating in a risky and testing adventure.

I was starting to feel that my travels had become a bit monotonous. I needed to push the envelope. To try something that would test my determination and limits. So, I decided, it was time I did something like this and guess what? “I am doing it!”

It was an impulsive decision. I did not think about how I would do it. Just that I would do it! On the same day, I booked the tickets and called up my dad to tell him about it. Suddenly, things seemed different. Everything I did had one more purpose, one more aim. The trip loomed ahead of me like a mountain before a climber.

Both foreboding and exciting. Both terrifying and tantalizing in its possibilities. Before a trip one always feels some inertia and doubt… It is like a sky-diver hesitating before making the jump. There is fear and anxiety. But, there is also the knowledge that beyond the crucial one step lies the unknown, beckoning to him… To listen to that call and step out of your comfort zone, that is what adventure is all about.