22nd – 25th September
Days 20 – 23
Distance cycled – 197km
Total distance cycled – 824km
After returning from the GHE expedition, I had just a day to turn around and set off for the final stanza of my Ladakh expedition. On the logistics side, this meant getting permits to travel through the Tso Moriri, Pangong and Nubra regions. India apparently spends 10% of its GDP on the military (vs 2% on education!), and I think the bulk of the military are in and around Ladakh and India’s borders with China and Pakistan. There are so many requirements and different interpretations of them for different regions.
The talented Jigmet, who was the cameraman for the first part of my journey, and then for the GHE expedition, is again accompanying me, but I have a new driver from Leh, Dorjay. Other than to explore parts of Ladakh I hadn’t yet seen, the aims of this section of my expedition are to get some great content to help promote a new cycle route that I will escort for World Expeditions, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery Ladakh has to offer, and build on my altitude training and preparations for Breaking the Cycle South Pole.
I set off under overcast skies, taking a slightly longer, but quieter route around the back of Spituk Monastery, then tracking along the south side of the Indus River, heading east towards Hemis Gonpa and Upshi. The plan was to head south along the Leh to Manali Highway over Tagalong La pass (5330m) before turning towards Tso Moriri, but Ragland La was (and still is) closed due to heavy snow. I made the quick decision to do the route I had planned in the opposite direction, therefore continuing straight along the Indus valley through Hemya, Chumathang and Mahe before turning off to Tso Moriri.
From Upshi, the narrow tarmac road hugged the cliffs and gradually ascended at a similar rate to the river (with a few more ups and downs). The grey clouds that had hung around for the first half of the day, turned into rain. I was pretty wet through by the time I made my destination, the small village of Hemya, with it’s buildings and impressive terraced fields nestled in between the cliffs and fast-flowing river. There we stayed in a Homestay, 87km from Leh.
Unfortunately the rain continued the next morning. Making matters worse, there were 25km of rough unsealed road to negotiate. The wet conditions loosened stones from the cliffs above and occasionally I heard the odd missile tumble from above. Still, the chances of a rock landing on me were fairly slim. After 30km, I was very cold and all my clothes were wet through. I took time out at a military base cafe to warm up. Jigmet loaned me his gloves (as mine were so wet I could wring out the water), I dug out a pair of chemical hand warmers and we fashioned a couple of plastic bags over my hands to try to keep out the rain and wind chill. It looked pretty weird, but it did help.
I decided there was no need to push too far in these relentless conditions. Chumathang was just 30km away and from there, Tso Moriri would be a very accessible distance the next day. Setting off from the army base in the heavy rain, the deep red dirt and mud from the mountain above that flowed down the road i though resembled flowing, oozing venous blood.
Chumathang is known for it’s natural healing hot springs that must rise from weaknesses in the earth. Even the floor of the ground level room where I stayed was warm from the geothermal activity. Steam pushes out of the ground, some of the thermal springs are hot enough to boil an egg. The geothermal energy ensures locals don’t have to worry about energy bills.
I left Chumathang feeling much warmer than when I arrived, and with dry clothes and shoes. The rain had finally cleared, though it was still overcast, and I really enjoyed my 22km ride along the Indus River to Mahe, another militarily sensitive region. My day began to go wrong at the check point. The guard would not accept my permit because, though I had bought two permits, as required. For some unknown reason, a non-Indian needs to be accompanied by another non-Indian for the permit – the fact that I was travelling with two local people did not count. I was told to say that my friend for whom I’d bought the second permit, was sick and unable to travel, and that was supposed to get me through. However, the guard would not allow me to take my bike through. I refused to leave it at the check point. The whole point was to cycle.
We were sent back to Chumathang where there was mobile phone reception to then speak to the big boss. We also spoke to Tenzin Sonam, a counsellor for the region, to see if he could push things along. The positive news was that we were to return to the check point in Mahe and the big boss was going to drive out to meet us there. We waited for four hours, but he did not arrive. The guard made a compromise and said we could take the bike strapped to the roof of the vehicle but I was only permitted to ride it around the lake or to take a few photos. I, of course, was very frustrated, but realised this was my best option. At least we could get some content to promote the World Expeditions trip.
The track to Tso Moriri was fantastic – rough and potholed initially, then mostly a reasonable narrow tarmac strip, high mountains all around, fast-flowing stream, autumnal colours and the pass to Namshang La (4812m), not too steep. The weather again closed in until it began to snow above 4600m.
The snow continued as light flurries all the way down to the lakeside (4535m). The bitumen ran out maybe 12km before Korzok. In freezing conditions, we found a reasonably priced Homestay, a safe haven for the night.
This morning I was pleasantly surprised to awake to clearing skies. I cycled out to visit a nomad camp, about 5km from Korzok, which was interesting. Then back to the lakeside and up a very steep rise to a lookout/vantage point. The views were exceptional. As the sky turns blue, so does the lake’s waters. It was a calm, quiet place with no tourists, just us.
I snuck in a quick 30km on the way back to Mahe, the ride down from Namshang La was a lot of fun on what turned out to be a gorgeous day. We drove all the way back to Karu (40km from Leh), which is at the foot of the next big pass, Chang La (5359m) which is the gateway to Pangong Tso. The fear is that all of the high passes that I wanted to cycle are closed due to heavy snow, but arriving in Karu, Dorjay found that Chang La is open. Every day I seem to have to change or adapt my plans. At the moment, cars are getting across with chains and it is likely that they won’t let me cycle. In the end, I can only do what the weather and the authorities allow. It is very frustrating, and I have learned lessons for next time. You’ll have to wait for the next blog to find out what happens!!!