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 Expeditition-Cycling to Pangong-Tso

Leh – South Pullu – Leh

I had returned to Leh after climbing the Khardung-La. But, I had dropped off the cycle at the South Pullu Police station. So, I needed to go and get it back. The next day after breakfast, I went to the start of the road to the pass.

I had gone there with the intention of hitch hiking to South Pullu on some goods-carrier. But, by the time I got there all the goods vehicles had already left and only tourist vehicles were still going up. I waited for a long time trying to wave down one of the vehicles passing by. Just when I was starting to lose heart a bunch of guys on Enfields came along. With some reservations in mind I tried to wave them down.

One guy stopped and I told him about my situation. He readily agreed to take me up. The guy was an IIT graduate and was working in Delhi. A great guy and we had a very interesting conversation all the way to South Pullu. Our trip plans greatly piqued his interest and we talked a lot about it. Once we got to South Pullu, I got back my cycle and checked the damage to it. Then I just sat on it and breezed down to Leh.

It was a nice experience. On the way I met a lot of people who were taken up to Khardung La on vehicles and were cycling down. After getting to Leh, I went and fixed the carrier on the cycle.

The next day I went to see the Leh palace and cycled around town to see the local sights.

Leh Palace

That day I met a Gujarati girl and hung out with her for a while and got her a cycle. She was thinking of coming with us to Pangong-Tso on cycle but the next day decided to not do it. Anyway, the next day was a big day.

Leh – Shey – Thiksey – Karu – Shakthi

No big mountains, no cratered roads awash with ice-melt, no hypoxic deliriums, no need for hypnotic soliloquies, just plain flat easy roads, beautiful scenery and perfect climate all the way.

We all really enjoyed the ride from Leh to Karu. There we took a break, got ourselves some tea and momos and then cycled on to Shakthi.

When I got there I saw a bunch of guys who were on a cycling trip managed by a tour company camping on a meadow.

I went there and spent some time chatting with them. Then I went to a shop there and asked for a room for the night. After going in and checking out the comfortable quarters I asked them to set aside a couple of rooms for us and then sat down for a tea. By then Girish had reached the hotel followed soon by the others.

That night we had a hearty meal made by them and slept soundly in the comfortable rooms provided to us. The next day was a big day for us. We were planning to cross the Chang-La pass on cycle and then go on to Tang-Tse which is a town en route to Pangong-Tso.

Shakthi – Zingral – Chang-La –  Tangtse

We had learned some lessons from our Khardung-La ride. Every attempt at crossing a pass should be so timed that we get there before noon. Else, the place will be inundated with ice-cold water. This together with the non-existent roads can make cycling really difficult, especially if one is in a fatigued state. So, we started really early. We were all on our cycles and pedaling by  6. The importance of covering a decent distance before breakfast should never be underestimated.

By 9 I and Rajesh had reached the Zingral army base which is situated nearly half-way up the road to Chang-La.

We arrived on our cycles to a warm and friendly welcome. I and Rajesh were taken to the living quarters of the soldiers where we were treated to biscuits and sweet-milky tea. Then we were taken to their kitchen where we had some nice Aloo-parathas and curd.

Inside the kitchen

More tea followed. By then the others had joined. After a lot of eating and resting we again set off by 10:30. This time I was feeling strong and was raring to pedal up the mighty slopes.

I went ahead and after a couple of hours of enthusiastic pedaling I came to the dreaded roads just below the pass. Roads rising at nearly 30-40 degree angles with loose rocks, boulders and under ankle-deep water.

But this time The Sabu was prepared. I took off my shoes and socks and tied them to my cycle and put on my plastic slippers and carefully navigated the tricky parts. Behind me one guy’s cycle somersaulted and he fell on his back because he tried to power his way through a particularly steep section. Slowly but surely I made my way up and eventually got to the pass. On the way the Gujarati girl we met 2 days back went screaming by in a taxi waving enthusiastically at us!

Once I reached the top I quickly took out my gloves and socks and put them on and got a hot tea. By then Jay had come up.

He went ahead while I hung back to chat with some soldiers and check out the pretty girls there. Nothing like some old fashioned bird-watching at high altitudes to warm oneself up.
Then I set off slowly downhill with one ear tweaked for any weird sounds from my troublesome carrier.

I crossed all the streams and eventually got to the good roads.

What followed was one of the best experiences of my life. Roads… beautiful, curvy, well-proportioned, silky smooth roads winding and weaving its way through the mountains.

Speed, pure, easy, spine tickling speed… It very nearly brought tears of happiness to my eyes. The roads seemed to go one forever and ever. I perched and swooped and posed to my heart’s content. On the road I saw an Enfield guy who had made a landing in a ditch. It reminded me to be more careful. The road went on and on and eventually we got to a small town at the base. Immediately afterwards we ran into some solders in bunkers who gave us lots of juice and nuts. After chatting for a while we went ahead and after 12km of easy cycling got to Tang-Tse. A town which witnessed a sudden flurry of activity after the movie 3 idiots in which Pangong Tso was shown became a hit. That night we halted there.

The next day was supposed to be the day we were going to see the blue-green waters of the Pangong Tso.

Tangtse – Lukung – Spangamik

The next day was an easy one. Only a short distance of some 40 kms with both uphill and down-hill sections needed to be covered.

Just before noon I reached Lukung on the banks of the lake.

The sights were mind-blowing. There was strange aura to the place.

Makes you feel like you are not on earth… The clear waters took on the color of the sky and changed color as the day progressed.

At Lukung, I took a break for tea and to let my mind calm down and stop screaming FAAACCCCKKKKK!!!!

After Lukung the road started thinning and eventually just disappeared. I cycled on along the sandy, pebbly bank of the lake following the jeep tracks.

Eventually we came to a sleepy little village called Spangamik where I halted at the Padma guest house.

There I unpacked my cycle, wolfed down some lunch and then sat by the lake with the book Into Thin Air and just relaxed till the others turned up.

Spangamik – Merak – Spangamik

The next day we cycled to Merak and had tea at a small house there and after some off-road fun went back to Spangamik.

In the evening we decided to cycle to Tangtse from where we planned to get a vehicle to Karu.

Spangamik – Tangtse (Night ride)

This was a decision taken in some hurry. We had barely enough time to make it to Tangtse before sundown. I cycled somewhat briskly and got to Lukung in the afternoon. There I met a Polish guy who was training to be a pro-cyclist for Poland Post. I talked to him about this and that and very soon the others too joined us. We then set off together for Tangtse. As we pedaled on it started getting darker. Now, Ladakh might be a beautiful place. But one must never forget that this is a desert and a very unforgiving place. As the sunlight started to vane in the valley, things started to take on an ominous air.

Very soon a chill wind started picking up. The road was deserted and the light was failing fast.

I cycled on as fast as I could. Suddenly it started raining… Ice cold pellets striking my face! I hurriedly stashed my camera inside my jacket and decided to leave on my woollen gloves in the hopes that they might buy me some time. Then darkness fell and everything fell terribly silent except for the buzz of the wheels whipping up the water from the road. Several times I plunged into deep depressions in the road in the dark. But, in that darkness my adrenaline was surging and I felt a great rush of energy. I pedaled like a maniac. With my feet working like pistons I plowed through the rain and the cold night. The frantic pedaling kept me warm from the inside. In time I reached Tangtse and after fumbling around in the dark for the way I eventually made it to the road where we stayed 2 days back. There was a fancier hotel there which was beyond our budget of 150 rupees. But seeing our state and since it was already very late, they decided to take us in for that much money. It took some 30 mins to stop shivering after taking off all the wet gear and sitting inside their cozy kitchen. We settled in for a mighty dinner and a sound sleep afterwards…

An Aside:

While we were in Spangamik we met several interesting people. I met a woman from Australia who had given up everything to become a buddhist and was living in India. A guy who resigned from a job at Microsoft to travel the world. An elderly gentleman from Sweden(I think) with a cycle older than me who had been cycling and hitchhiking around the world for the past 3 yrs. He had covered some 3000kms on cycle and been in several countries and continents.

All these made me think a bit. In our society and among our circle of friends there is a beaten track that everybody takes. Everyone who is “normal and intelligent”. We study, become engineers, get a job, study more, get married, have kids and work for them till we die. It is what we see all the time and it is what counts as normal for us. But, there is a world of experience waiting for us outside of this, where people do all sorts of crazy stuff, make tonnes of mistakes and collect wisdom and experience that no amount of money or comfort can buy. If we can see and experience all that for ourselves, I think we will realize that when it comes to humans, there can be no “normal”. For that same reason there can be no end of solutions to the problem of human happiness. The permutations and combinations of possible choices in life are so insanely vast that there can be no real reason for loneliness and boredom… Things could be so bloody exciting! One need only order some adventure to get it.

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