Some of the passes on the cycle tour were formidable, with altitude sickness adding to the struggle to reach the top. (Hugh Fraser)
You know that feeling when you get a bit restless and start to wonder where life is headed? That’s the perfect time to follow up on a chance recommendation from a fellow adventurer – and to commit to a 600km cycle tour across the Indian part of the Himalayan plateau.
It sounded remote, weird and a sufficiently fitting challenge – a ride from the lovely hippie hang-out of Manali to remote Buddhist Leh. It would traverse some of the steepest and highest passes in the world, three of them above 5000m in altitude, close to the level of Everest base camp. The idea jolted me into action, and I cajoled a group of friends to join me.
We contacted Carlos Gonzales, who runs an adventure cycling outfit called Spanafrican Adventures, and joined his tour with five other South Africans to make up a team of 10 cyclists. Gonzales is a top athlete. He has competed in triathlons for his home country Spain, and is supremely fit and capable. He is also unflappable – essential ingredients for managing large groups under extreme conditions.
Packing for an overseas holiday is one thing. We had to think about packing a bike, cycling kit plus equipment for a three-week trip. All set, we rendezvoused in Delhi. In that chaotic and wildly hot city we had the first opportunity to get to know the rest of the group, and spent some time sizing each other up and wondering how each of us would cope over the next few weeks.
Our kick-off point was Manali, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in northeast India, and the historical base for trading routes into Ladakh and Tibet. The overnight trip to Manali by bus from Delhi was hell, especially as half of our group had already picked up gastro in Delhi. The reward was a laid-back town surrounded by the swirling peaks and mists of the mountains we were going to ride up. Lush with cannabis plants, the old town is hippie central, replete with stoned-looking long-haired youths, cool hang-outs and would-be yogis. We had little time to get familiar with any of them though as we prepared our bikes for our first training ride.
We met up with our well-organised and lovely Manali-based support team, who would set up camp each night for us, cook all our meals and provide the technical (and at times emotional) support to get us through the challenge. And then we were off, tackling the perilous Rohtang pass, which is notorious for accidents and trucks tumbling down its steep ravines – the first of many such climbs. Long stretches of the pass had been turned into thick mud, made doubly treacherous when shared with laden Tata trucks trying to pass each other on narrow roads.
Luckily the mud cleared as we ventured deeper into the rain shadow cast by these massive mountains. By the second day we were cycling across a high-altitude desert, with sparse vegetation and only the odd mountain goat or yak. We never saw the elusive snow leopard, but had some sightings of bearded vultures and Himalayan marmots (a slightly larger version of our own dassies). The colour of the sky became the deepest blue I have ever seen, offset by the rich reds and purples of the vast mountain edifices around us. The seemingly endless, lonely road was punctuated by just the occasional Hindu or Buddhist shrine, with prayer flags fluttering softly at the top of each new pass.
High altitude does some really weird things to you, and struck each of us in a different way. Some shrugged it off and skipped over the hills like mountain goats. I found the headaches, nausea and constant tiredness hard to deal with, even after I had taken Diamox, which is meant to hold the worst of the symptoms at bay.
As we ascended higher and higher the ascents up the passes became one long struggle to draw enough breath, and I felt as though I was slowly dying from emphysema. On those mountain passes you confront your own demons and there were more than a few dramatic meltdowns. By the time I reached the top of the second-last pass I was ready to bail, and announced that I would give my bike away when I got home and never cycle again.
There were also ecstatic moments, like flying down the giddying switchbacks on the other side of each pass or passing starkly etched shapes in the vastness of the mountains around us, looking like ancient lines of soldiers or ramparts half-buried by the passage of time. There were the gentle people of Ladakh, infused with Buddhist calm, who would embrace our feelings of exhaustion with a cup of hot chai (spiced tea) in a roadside daba and advise one just to let it go.
The province of Ladakh is so remote that it has remained a practising Tantric Buddhist community for centuries, despite various Mughal and Kashmiri invasions. The hilltop monasteries, perched on remote rocky outcrops, mark the slow passage of time in this harsh landscape with daily Buddhist chants and prayers that have remained unchanged for centuries.
You get a real sense of how this land and its people are uniquely balanced with nature and the very limited carrying capacity of the land. Scarce glacial-melt water is carefully channelled to support the ubiquitous barley crops, and the short summer months are used to maximum advantage to harvest and store both barley and the alfalfa grass used for fodder.
On day 10 we crossed the ancient Indus River, which has been the lifeblood of early Aryan and Indus Valley civilisations and supported the first cities (contemporary with Mesopotamia and Egyptian civilisations). From there we dropped down to the town of Leh, one of the summer retreats of the Dalai Lama. The charming old town is a bit swamped by the vast Indian army encampments around it, and the dust and truck fumes can be overwhelming. Still, it gave us a welcome respite as we contemplated our last great challenge. We would have to ride one long slog to the top of the highest motorised pass in the world, the Khardungla, with spectacular views over to the Karakoram mountain range and the borders with China and Pakistan.
The climb to the top of the Kardungla was gruelling, but as our team dropped back down to Leh, with the Shanti stupa (a colourful Buddhist shrine built by Japanese monks to promote world peace that overlooks Leh) as a beacon, the tension and anxiety just fell away. After 12 days of riding, we felt uniquely at peace with ourselves and the world.
Would I do it again? Despite the intense camaraderie that built up between us, I think from now on I am going to be exploring below 3 500m on my bike.
But depending on how you like your challenges, you can easily fall in love with this otherworldly landscape populated by the most gentle people on the planet.
The trip worked some profound changes on me. The mighty Himalayas, like so many things in life, can’t simply be conquered or subdued, only marvelled at and experienced. I am certainly more humble about what I can do. And home in Johannesburg just suddenly seems so much more special and comfortable. For a while at least.
The cost of the trip, excluding air fares, bike and equipment, was R16000, although we got stung repeatedly for excess baggage charges. You need a solid mountain bike in good working order, and a reasonable level of cycling fitness.