When Hannes and I first developed the actual route we want to cycle in Zanskar and Ladakh (North India) we were constantly reassuring ourselves that we have to take it easy, especially at the beginning.
Because we decided to follow a suggestion of friends with passes higher than 5000 m and multiple days permanently above 4000 m – altitudes we really should not underestimate. However, only after two nights above 3000 metres and a pass of 3900 m we somehow ended up sleeping already at 4600 m. Indeed, slightly to fast for a proper acclimatization and at least Hannes had to pay the bill. How did that happen?
After the happy reunification at Delhi’s airport and a night next to it, we cycled(!) into Dehli’s city centre in order to take a bus to Manali, a 14 h overnight bus ride into India’s North. Everything went well and we enthusiastically tackled the first pass of 3900 m and allowed ourselves 1,5 days to do so – according to our promise to take it easy. Thus, the altitude wasn’t problematic but the weather: worst-case 5°C and considerable rain. Parts of the road turned into a mudbath. On the descend, I was freezing violently, even audible for Hannes. No wonder after months with temperatures not lower than ~25°C. However, the pass marks a weather divide and, to our relief, it was getting considerably dryer afterwards. Apart from that little struggle at the pass, the very nice people, impressive scenery, delicious Indian food, and restful nights in cheap hotels let the first days pass quickly and smoothly.
Now, 1.5 days behind the pass our first real adventure began. In a little village, Darca, we intended to hire some horses and a horseman because a 7 to 9 days trek lay ahead – the only way that would enable us to do a nice loop through Zanskar and Ladakh. We needed horses that carry our baggage, if not the bicycles – well, we quickly learned that horses don’t like bicycles that much and we would have to push and carry them all the way. Never mind! Worse, we realised that horses are not available in Darca and got told that the only chance to get some is 400 m below a pass, a place that is now reachable by car. That’s why the horsemen usually return on the spot instead of trekking down into the valley to Darca.
Well, what to do? Cycling there would have cost us more than two days on a rough dirt track without a guarantee to get the required horses. Since we didn’t want to risk the waste of two or more days, we consequently took advantage of the available taxi driver we just spoke to and he gave us and our bike a lift up to the place below the pass. The only catch was that the mentioned place is situated in an altitude of ~4600 m. The ride took about 2 hours, enough time for us to constantly worry about the consequences of that decision. That’s how we suddenly ended up at 4600 m … and surprisingly we felt quite well. Apart from a short breath, we didn’t experienced problems so far. We were even more fortunate because the next day a horseman arrived, indeed, and he happily agreed to accompany us for 6 days until the beginning of another road (in Reru). Since he didn’t want to return at once, we fortunately had one full day of acclimatisation, i.e. two nights at 4600 m. Although it was a quite boring place to spent a whole day, there was at least a teahouse with a slightly weird hermit ‘running’ it (he also collected the small camping fee). Actually, the humble dwelling made of stacked stone walls and covered by a tarpaulin hardly deserves the name ‘teahouse’, yet, tea, alcohol and basic food were obtainable. With bright clear sky we finally set off the next morning, mainly pushing our bikes up to the near pass, 5050 m, initially on a passable track. Slowly, slowly. At the pass everything seemed quite fine. However, shortly afterwards Hannes finally began to develop headache and nausea. Thus, we tried to get down as fast as possible on the other side – the track was now a mere hiking trail. Obviously not fast enough and Hannes couldn’t help relieving himself puking. Nevertheless, we eventually reached the ‘teahouse’ on the other side of the pass, happy to be as low as 4500 metres ;). With tea and simple food in company of two other solo trekker and the teahouse-man we quickly recovered from the strains while we were waiting for our horses to arrive. The remaining days we now hoped to be less demanding since this is the only pass on this trek.
The next two days let through a wide valley skirted by colourful cracky rocks. The lag of trees (we have left them behind already since multiple days) added to the impression of utter vastness and the occasional yaks and few very small, basic and remote villages seem forlorn. Despite the flat valley, we had to push the bikes more than not, yet the sections that permitted us to pedal were quite fun.
On the third day, we left our bikes behind for a day and did a little detour to the monastery Phuktal, a highlight of this trek. After a 2-3 hours walk into another narrow side valley, we crossed the intense blue river on a shaky bridge and the monastery appeared: the bunch of white dwellings clinging to a rock face with a dominant cave in its centre is indeed a unique and memorable sight. High up in this little ‘hanging’ village school-classes were being hold with a wide view into the dessert-like valley.
Finally, the last two days were a bit harder than expected since the way now winded in many ups and downs through a deeply carved valley with rather steep slopes now and then. Sometimes we were even surprised what narrow and slightly exposed sections the loaded horses can master. Quite an adventurous path – the only one to get into this valley. Although attempts to build a road have been made, they were thwarted by a recent flood that destroyed almost all bridges and parts of the few kilometres of road that has been build already.
Apart from the impressive scenery and exceptionally good weather there was another factor that made this trek so enjoyable and interesting: our horseman Stobphail! He spoke good English, was always in a good mood and gave us an interesting insight in his harsh way of life. One night, for instance, we camped in his home village, Shi. We got to know his children, wife, sisters and parents and where invited for tea, dinner and breakfast in their simple but cozy houses. Stobphail build his house with his bare hands with quite a lot of effort. For instance, in order to get the main bearing trunk of his house he pulled it all the way up from the lower valley over the frozen river in winter. It took him two weeks. In general, every provision of food supplies, the way to school (one son goes to school in Manali) etc. takes multiple days.
Also the other camping nights together with Stobphail were a great joy: we mostly sat together underneath his simple tarp and he prepared simple but tasty food, cooked tea, or provided self-made alcohol and chiang (the Zanskar ‘beer’).
Although Stobphail hadn’t too much trouble with us, the job as a horseman involves still some work, of course. Apart from the loading and unloading of the luggage every morning and afternoon, he spent quite some time to catch his horses. Because after we set up our camp, he usually let the horses free and sent them into the slopes to graze overnight. To collect them again the next day might sometimes take an hour or two.
After more than 90 km of ‘trekking’, we finally were able to cycle the last 20 km from Reru into Padum, the capital of Zanskar. We greatly enjoyed to pedal again instead of pushing and lifting our steel horses over ragged paths. Padum is a rural town without much charm and surrounded by high but dry and almost dreary mountains. Consequently, tourists usually don’t stay here more than a night. We, however, ended up staying here for three nights: the food in the restaurant of the simple hotel we chose to stay – intended as a reward of the finished trek – caused Hannes considerable diarrhea and nausea. However, after two days of nursing and bed rest, we were able to carry on.