Cycle a bike

Himalaya: Part 1: Srinagar to Leh

Jonny on 21 August 2011

So finally, the time was now, after weeks of planning and travelling we took to our saddles once more and head along the NH-1 (National Highway) out of Srinagar and into the Himalayas. Both feelings of content and anxiety were now settling in quite nicely. The Delhi belly joined us for the ride, just to add to our challenge.

The daily planning was on my shoulders and I messed it up in the first day. Lesson one – Even if the map looks pretty flat, it's not. Don't underestimate the mountains. I'd looked at the map and thought ''Yeah, these initial mountains don't look so big yet'', although my mistake was comparing them to the even bigger surrounding mountains, making them seem small in comparison.

Off we set...Day 1: Srinagar to Sonamarg, 75km into high-altitude with a total vertical ascent of 2000 metres! The scenery was beautiful with a piercing realisation to the nomadic lifestyle in with we would immerse our lives. Up up up, never relenting climbing was inspiring my imagination of what was to come as I stared across the astounding scenery unfolding throughout the day.

Long valleys, huge mountains and my blown-up packet of crisps were all proof of the height we were gaining.

Just 2Km before Sonamarg and Radka slumped to the roadside bursting into tears seconds before two guys pulled up in their car. To Radka's delight they worked at a hotel just out of sight around the corner. A final slog took us over the last incline and too the hotel doors which we fell through in an exhausted mess. It was a good job we chose the on-suite because we spent the night fighting over it... yep, Delhi belly rearing it's ugly face once more.

Morning rolled round and our massive sense of nausea put brekkie right out of the window. I can't describe exactly how sick I felt but it involved many trips to the toilet, dehydration and a sense that my body was abandoning me on the will to live.

We used our last drops of energy to cycle 2km to the hospital. What an experience to be greeted by the doctor on his wooden veranda engulfed in the mountains. He offered us seats and diagnosed Acute Gastroenteritis whilst staring across the Himalayan backdrop. ''I'm going to have to admit you both to our ward''. It took 4 hours in the ward with 3 intravenous drips and 3 shots, one in the bottom, before we were allowed back into the world. The ward was filthy but luckily we were the only guests, unless you count the sparrows circling our heads. A new friendship bloomed with Dr Nadeem as we chatted away for hours, mostly about his love life and the struggles of the Kashmiris. By nightfall the drips ended but no lighting meant they had to be taken out using the light from their mobile phones, you've just gotta laugh. Dr Nadeem offered us a lift home so our bikes slept outside the hospital for the night.

He left us with the promise that we'd feel better in the morning. He must have meant only Radka because I spent the night vomiting up food from the last three days, It came out as perfectly as it went in, just in reverse order. ''Oh! Look at that! There's the rice from three day ago'' I thought, as it projected at 2am.

Dr Nadeem was pretty upset with me for lying in bed until I plucked up the courage to venture away from the toilet and take a lift back to the hospital. Another day on drips accumulated 11 injections and around 9hours on the ward. I've never felt so rough and I just wanted to cry and vomit until I was better. Radka the little gem stayed with me the whole time. I called my mum from the hospital bed, probably a bad idea because it set my dad off on a journey across England in search of a passport and Indian visa so he could come rescue us. My first thought when I heard this was ''Shit, he'd have to cycle the 75kms up here from Srinagar. I wonder if he'd do it in one day?''. What a strange initial reaction.

The next day I was right-as-rain (by Indian standards) so we visited Dr Nadeem with many thanks for saving our bacon. We spent some time playing their Harmoniun and left good friends, he even invited us to his wedding.

Already we'd met several Kashmiris who'd each told us about their ever continuing political conflict. Kashmir has been the centre of an age-old territorial dispute between Pakistan and India sparked by the partition of the state during India’s independence from Britain (1947) and the creation of modern day Pakistan over fifty years ago.

Hari Singh, the ruler of Kashmir, was given the option to join either Pakistan, India or remain an independent state. Plans were made for independence but conflict from the Muslim majority (Kashmir is the only state in India with Muslim majority) led to Hari Singh appealing for aid from India who refused unless he acceded. Kashmir acceded to India resulting in three wars between the two states. Pakistan have always claimed that Kashmir should be part of Pakistan due to the majority of the population being of Muslim origin. Pakistan, and the Kashmiris, maintain that the future should be decided by the population. India reject this and always refer to the Instrument of Accession signed in October 1947.

It's considered one of the most dangerous conflicts due to the possession of nuclear weapons by both countries, although the furthest the conflict seems to spread is militant bombings in several of India's largest cities, including New Delhi during our last week in India.

Conflict flares up from time-to-time between the many Pakistani guerrilla and the Indian army who patrol the border and NH-1 on a daily basis, this conflict is quite evidential as you travel in this region. We monitored the news quite closely and heard of such conflict during our first week in Kashmir, luckily this time it remained at the border with very minor outbreaks in Srinagar between students and the army.

The fighting continuously disrupts the lives of the locals who mostly (suggested around 70%) want independence from both India and Pakistan, although both countries reject this option. There's currently a peace negotiation between the two countries but India claims that the many militant attacks are backed by the Pakistani government. There seems to be no end in sight. I wish for peace upon the kind people of Jammu, Kashir and Ladakh.

Ok, back to our trip...

Sonamarg's full of Indian tourists who come for the glacial pony trekking so we joined the action and spent a day hiking (and acclimatising) whilst dodging several offers to pony trek. Turns out the glacier was just a horrible tourist trap, but we still had an interesting time fending off the many nomad kids pestering us for ''biscuit biscuit biscuit'' and finding out that a 'snow car' (which I was pretty excited about) is actually just a clapped-out wooden sleigh.

The next day our Delhi bellies felt a bit better so we left Sonamarg pressing on until realising that Radka was still a victim. Half an hour on the road and we stormed an army base demanding a toilet or we'd have to go in the entrance. This set us back around an hour but we pressed on towards the infamous Zojila pass that we'd heard many fearful stories about. Another set back came from the Army just 5Km before the pass whilst they blasted the road ahead. They kindly made us tea, shared their lunch and explained to me all about their NSAS machine gun... so we weren't too bothered.

Most advice about Zojila came in words of the sort ''Make sure you do it in the morning or you're leaving yourself at risk from the weather, if it turns then you're in trouble''... we started the dreaded pass around midday! Millions of steep, stoney switchbacks forced us to push most of the way taking us to around 4pm, I was pretty stressed about the time but Radka kept pushing really hard to make it. At one point a shepard was guiding his lost sheep by throwing stones from the precipice above us. We were so angry with him and for all the shouting in the world he wouldn't stop. I swore vengeance but our paths never crossed.

The pass faded behind as we headed for Drass, although this was unachievable for Radka's developing altitude sickness (worsened by dehydration) stopped us in a small settlement about 20km before. The only English speaking boy led us to their ''campsite'', followed by all of the village kids helping us pitch our tent and watching in amazement as we climbed inside.

Radka spent the night vomiting and sleeping upright to help with her breathing, her first Diamox helped a little. It was probably a blessing because she could keep her eyes out for the horses as they enjoyed spending most of the night running wildly past our tent. Strategic placement of the bikes avoided any collisions.

The next day we cycled the 20km to Drass, after spending a quality lunch with the army who were training in rock climbing. I declined their offer to join because my body was too sick and weak for it, gutted! We arrived in Drass where we checked into the first guesthouse and Radka slept and slept and slept.

This fashion continued mostly the entire way through the Himalaya. A few days cycling followed by a few days resting and recovering from Delhi-belly induced dehydration. We always cooked our own food in some sort of attempt at surviving, it barely helped. I know it's horrible to say, but it was a special day if our bowl-movements were solid. Cornflakes are pretty easily available, as is powdered milk, so most meals became centred around this magical grain based cereal. Sometimes, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We pretty much survived on them. It became a cute joke between Radka and I that we always looked forward to our morning cornflakes.

Our illness in Drass meant that we couldn't catch up with another cyclist, Julian, who was only a few days ahead, nevermind.

Hippy love marked the end of Ramadan with a huge Opium based street party. Even the guesthouse manager came up and offered us some. All the boys were walking the streets holding hands, very bizarre to see. There was no party for us, but we did hold hands as we spent the day lying sick on our bed.

It took us around 2 weeks to reach Leh doing about 30-50km per day, not such a bad average for the mountains.

The vast landscapes were ever changing but remained mostly barren. We passed lots of road workers and walkers (mostly carrying something and looking like they'd been walking for days on end), we also met lots of very cute kids. I think the kids in the Himalaya were my favourite part, always so happy to see you and always so cute.

Mountain folk all over the world have a very self-content feeling and with this bring a great warmth of which they are very happy to share. Many shouts of 'Jullay!!!' (hello!) and most of the time you just shout back even-though you can't see them. There are lots of army soldiers hiding along the road but they always shout hello... it cracks me up to shout back at the rocks.

Radka was awfully sick when we reached Mulbek (about half way to Leh) so we hit the hospital again with much concern that we'd never be healthy again.

The language changed as much as the scenery and it seemed like every town had it's own language. Another beautiful change was from Islam to Buddhism. What a fantastic feeling to swing around a corner and be greeted by Buddhist monks. It was a clear cut change from one village to the next. You don't really know what to expect with each religion, but Buddists proved as kind as the Muslims and our first night in Buddhist territory was spent camping in the monastery with the monks. Our good friend Jimmy was toying with the idea of sticking with monkhood or following his dream of becoming the next Justin Bieber.

Many exciting things happen on the road here. Evidential landslides, turning corners to huge Yaks, Marmots, huge 'Blowhorn' transport trucks kicking up dust, meeting cute kids, Shepards, Buddists, Muslims, Sikhs, soldiers. In Kashmir you're always aware of the army presence and the possibility that the political situation could erupt at any moment. At one point we passed a sign saying ''Caution. You are under enemy observation''.

We took several high-altitude passes around 4100m (13500ft) which were all very exciting and the good thing about the passes meant that the roads were mostly paved. On a flat you get stoney roads but they mostly always make sure the passes are well-paved, with Zojila being an exception.

Strangely we never sweated in the mountains. I don't know if it's the dryness or the intensity of the sun or something else... but we both agreed we weren't sweating. Its most likely because we were so dehydrated thinking about it, although we were drinking a lot!

One night we arrived in a small village and met three very friendly and laid-back motorbikers from Germany - Christoph, Andrea and Tobias, who we enjoyed much time with and learning about each of their unique qualities.

So maybe two weeks and about 450km from Srinagar and we arrived in Leh. Our final day was very tough over two mountain passes that we didn't know existed. The nice thing was that the Germans were staying at the same guest-house in Leh, the bad thing was that it was full... but the kind manager, Sonam, squeezed us into his living room.

Leh was great and we found a really nice restaurant, the Tibetan kitchen, and we spent some amazing days with the Germans and Soman and his wife.

Poor Radka was sick again in Leh and spent a few days in bed, joined by the cat, we think she was sick too.

Christoph offer me pillion on his motorbike for the highest-motorable pass in the world, Khardung La, how could I refuse!? So the 4 of us hit the road until his bike broke down half way. We hitched a lift to the top, made some noodles and hitched back. Christoph coasted his bike all the way back to the garage in Leh, legendary. Andrea and I hitched a lift in the front of an army truck, it was horrendously bumpy and i'd rather have put my head in the washing machine!

We bought some warm cloths then replenished our stocks before hitting the Leh to Manail road, around another 400km of high altitude mountain passes through the Himalaya.

Taking the high road


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