During our final goodbye with Sonam, our guest-house host, and now good friend in Leh, he asked where we were heading. ''Upshi'', Radka told him, ''Oh my brother lives there, you can sleep in his house tonight for free. I'll give him a call''. So off we set armed with his family name, ''Just ask for him when you arrive, people know who he is'', we were told.
50km later we arrived at Upshi and eventually found the house of Soman's brother. The day had been pretty easy and quiet apart from a group of cyclists who seemed a tad bit committed and just about managed a wave before dashing past us in the opposite direction.
Padma, the wife of Sonam's brother, gave us a very warm welcome which began with some 'salty tea'. A very kind offer, but you'll know how disgusting this is if you've ever been unfortunate enough to try it. Actually, it's quite easy to replicate. Make a nice cup of milky Tetleys then whack half a teaspoon of salt into it, job done.
I think most people have had an experience like this before. When you're drinking it like, ''Mmmm, mmmm, yes, nice'' but inside you're dreading the swallow. So we drank the tea and Padma snook over and refilled my cup, horror struck my face and Radka quite quickly put her hand over hers saying ''No thank you, i'm full'', before giving me a cheeky side grin that shouted out ''Sucker!!''. She sniggered through my second round of ''Mmmm, mmmm, yes nice''.
I soon got revenge when Padma brought out two small bowls of 'Curd' (Old fermenting milk, a little sloppy, just before yoghurt stage), just as Radka got up and went to the toilet. I quickly scooped half of mine into Radkas bowl as to make out i'd eaten it. Radka returned and, knowing we don't like it said, quite surprisingly, ''Oh! You ate it!'', ''Enjoy'' I replied.
Just to clear up, curd's actually really nice when added to Lassi!!
The family were really hospitable and several of the village kids came round to see the foreigners, although they were so nervous that they watched from the doorway. Radka spent the evening making 'Momo's' (DimSum) with Padma whilst I sat in the living-room with the kids watching Ladakhi music videos, playing with their new kitten and trying on traditional Ladakhi clothing. I had a little fright when one of the kids pointed at a musician and explained that he'd died a month earlier in a bus that had fallen over the edge of the road we were to take, followed by the power cutting out leaving us in complete darkness. I though it may be a sign but chose to ignore it. We left the next morning after Radka has been to the fields with Padma and harvested our vegetables for the day.
The next day was quite tough but we had a goal of reaching a little town around 25km before TangLangLa, the 2nd highest motor-able road in the world, topping out at a staggering 5300m! We arrived at the town to surprisingly find a German guy 'Stefan' who I'd met a few days earlier in Leh. He's a very big and strong looking man but he'd been very sick in Leh with altitude sickness but still chose to attempt the pass. He was pushed for time so he was putting his body through a lot. We stayed together that night and the three of us left for the pass early in the morning.
He shot off like a bullet and I thought ''gees, he's gone! We'll never keep up'', but 20 mins later we found him beetroot resting next to his bike. He explained he was feeling very sick and I was already concerned for him, we hadn't yet started the pass. We arrived at the pass which was outstanding and soon became my favourite pass of the trip! The total distance was 34km from top to bottom and the total accent must have been close to 1000m. The weather held well, although a bit cold, and we made slow but steady progress. Stefan had to push most of the way and several suggestions to go back down and hitch a truck went unnoticed. When we stopped for lunch we found that he didn't really have much food in his bags so we shared our noodles with him. When he'd finished he asked Radka if he could have some more... out of her bowl!!! Her jaw dropped and she quite politely told him 'no chance'.
This was the first and only time I felt sick from the altitude. My head was banging and I felt very nauseous around 10km from the top. I was trying to hurry up but Stefan was very ill at this point so we stayed with him in case anything bad happened.
Radka was great on the pass and played it very well indeed. She stuck to her pace (Radka speed) and avoided and unnecessary exertion, she made all the right decisions. I was even more impressed when just 4Km from the top she initiated a race with me, and I must say she won!
3km from the top and we had ridden a little further than Stefan but could see him , flagging down three trucks from the other side of the canyon. None of them stopped! I was livid! When they arrived to us I started throwing my arms in the air shouting why they decided not to help a man in need... then suddenly the 3rd one stopped. He was actually really nice and I think he just hadn't noticed. He waited 10 minutes until Stefan arrived then we put his bike in the back and that was the last we saw of him. I tried emailing him a few weeks later but he'd given me the wrong email address. When Stefan arrived at the truck he cheekily asked the guy if he could ''stop at the top for pictures'', the driver pointed at his watch and quite sternly said ''no''.
We reached the top late around 17.30pm leaving little time for pictures before dropping over the other side, into the shade, and smashing down the mountain in the cold darkness. I was freezing actually. This side had been in darkness for a while and the temperature had really dropped! A few hundred metres down, enough to stop and not risk altitude sickness, we saw some white tents in a side valley and hundreds of goats. We realised it was a settlement of shepards and headed over for more inspection. I stepped off my bike and couldn't feel my feet for the cold. A kid (around 17yrs old) ran over smiling and telling us to come with him and that he would help us, he's a man of his word. I trusted him mainly for the fact that he was wearing a red beany with the writing ''L.F.C. You'll never walk alone'' written on it. We pitched our tent next to there's before joining him and his father inside for some tea and to make our dinner. They had a hot stove burning inside to warm our little toes. How they survive here the whole year is beyond me!!
22:00pm rolled round and we'd retired to our tent and the shepards rounded up the goats, who started roaming around as soon as they left. I was pretty nervous by the grunting they were making. Suddenly one started attacking Radka's side of the tent whilst she was asleep. The moonlight gave me only the outline of the hoofs which it was now rolling into Radka's side. I instinctively, still in my sleeping bag, threw my feet over Radka and started wind-milling back! I claim I won because he soon legged it away. Radka was screaming the whole time but was back asleep in seconds! I wondered if she's actually woken up or not.
The next day we pressed on over the Morei Plains (high altitude sand plateau) where we met Francesco. A very warm guy who had made the same decision in 6minutes that had taken us 6 months. He bought a bike in India, had his pannier bags tailor-made and headed into the Himalayas, respect!
Whilst having lunch I made a joke that the wind had turned head-wind for him, but by the time we finished it had turned again in his favour, and left a direct head-wind for us, taking us down between 3-5 kph. The huge dirt-devils we saw whizzing around the plains were vicious proof of the wind. We ended the day in the back of a truck.
That night was spent in a tent in Pang before Radka woke us up at 6am needing the loo. I checked my thermometer which told me it was -5 degrees, in the tent. We headed outside.
We froze for the first few hours before ascending out of the valley and began another high-altitude pass, LachulungLa. I had a massive tantrum and ended throwing down my bike before sitting on the floor, head in hands.
The wind had been against us for around 1 week and now the road surface was again bad and the gradient was horrendous. We'd got up at 6am, frozen for hours to avoid the wind and it had been with us all day. We reached the top of the pass after 6 hours cycling at 5 kph to achieve only 30kms.
Sat at the top of the pass in the freezing cold we looked at each other and agreed that we'd finished with the Himalayas. I actually said I was finished with cycle touring, but I think that was a little far fetched.
Unfortunately our continuing illness had set us back so much that we reached the Leh-Manali road too late. The wind had picked-up and the temperature was dropping. We hitched a truck to the next town where we waited at a police road-block before hitching another truck out of the mountains. Whilst waiting I spoke to the officer who told me that the road-block would normally have been packed up by now and just 1 week earlier they'd been radio'd in with an extension. We sat there with the wind blasting in our faces and I was convinced we'd made the right decision. Many of the tents had been packed away and all the locals were evacuating for the winter. By now (Dec 12th) there will be not one tent left up there.
We hitched another truck and one bus before reaching Manali where we rested for around 10days and planned our next move.
I managed to take a 4day Paragliding course and made a website for the ''Eagle guest-house'' which we stayed at in Manali, highly recommended. I really loved Manali. There's lots to do and a very good base for hiking in the surrounding valleys. Buses are easy from here.
I especially enjoyed meeting 'Raj', the owner of the Red House Cafe (check it out here), named after the Jimi Hendrix lyrics ''There's a red house over yonder.''. This suits Raj perfectly due to his musical nature and I enjoyed many hours playing guitar in there garden. Many great spontaneous things happen around Raj and we once even agreed to teach each other a dish, but unfortunately we couldn't make it in the end. Sorry dude. Also highly recommended.
Both Red House and Eagle are situated in Old Manali which is a very calm and relaxing place to stay.
We headed back to Delhi by bus and were ripped off for the price of our bikes, this happens in every country, mostly you pay more for the bikes than your seat!
The bus dropped us 13km outside of Delhi at 6am even though our ticket clearly stated central Delhi, and Radka had a massive go at the driver. We cycled into the centre and stayed just one night before an early morning cycle to the airport.
My legs cycled like never before and the 'Leaving Delhi' grin came back.
We rocked up at the airport, tickets in hand... ''Where are you flying today sir?''... ''Malaysia'' I said, with a great big smile.
Paragliding: Fail + Win