The HimalayasLessons from a Year Spent on a Bicycle
The summer had long vanished.
Streets, once packed with tourists seemed desolate and empty. People were counting their days, waiting to escape to warmer weather. Those who could afford the airfare to Delhi or Kathmandu would stay on, leaving the rest only a few weeks to vacate before the inevitable thick snow cast a heavy blanket over Ladakh. With exactly two ways in or out, both via treacherous, high-altitude terrain, no vehicle may enter or leave the Ladakhi landscape between late October and early May. The roads freeze over with layers of snow that choke the region, cutting it off from the greater peninsula.
If I didn’t want to be part of the handful of audacious folk burrowing themselves under blankets for the next several months, I’d fast have to join the ones who were making their way out. Besides, I had just bought a bicycle.
As a consequence of more whim than deliberation, just a week prior to my departure, I had spent half of my savings on a beautiful piece of aluminium. It was a bright green, solidly crafted machine, and it looking dashing - with all the boldness required to immediately get my attention as soon as I had stepped into the shop. I attached a steady pannier over its rear mudguard. I bought a saddle bag, a puncture kit and pump, a set of inner-tubes, a helmet, and a windcheater.
I was ready.
Local musicians perform in a parade in Leh during the Ladakh Festival. This is one of the last festivals of the year in the town.
A week later, on a cold morning at the end of September, almost oblivious to the sound of my alarm, I stumbled out of bed, two hours later than I had planned. It was time to leave. Daylight would not last forever and if I didn’t get this show on the road soon, fearing the distance, I’d have no option but to postpone my departure, an option that had already been spent well beyond its worth.
I left Leh on the 29th of September, 2016. It was at 8:30 in the morning. I breathed in the crisp September air and exhaled a sense of dread. This was, after all, not the easiest of activities I had dreamt of pursuing. It was one of my many personal, self-medicating Herculean tasks, and to this day, I’m astounded at how casual it felt to be undertaking such an endeavour.
Sure, I had a plan, somewhat. I had asked a few questions here and there to gauge road conditions, physically and mentally trained over the last month to face high altitude climate, cold weather, and long distances — but nothing could have prepared me for everything not on that list.
I had an inkling of an idea for a destination in mind: Srinagar, hundreds of kilometres away. That would be my first goal, for now. But it was smeared with vague notions that had been carelessly put together in my head, more through the stray comments of strangers rather than by careful study. These sentiments, for the most part, were not very appealing. They spoke of many bitter outcomes, assumed the worst, and painted with fear the very idea of Kashmir. Not that they had any reason to portray the opposite: fear was being sprayed everywhere and in full force by the media. It was a time of political instability, public outrage, and communal tensions, exceptional even for the region.
Burhan Wani, commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri militant group, was killed by Indian security personnel on the 8th of July that year — an event that would trigger almost two years of political and social unrest in the valley. Rioting erupted all over the state the following day, forcing the Mehbooba Mufti government to impose a curfew over all 10 districts for the next two months. In the process, almost a hundred civilians and several security personnel would lose their lives with another thousand left severely injured.
Unsurprisingly, even a month after the violence had concluded, the impression the valley left on its Ladakhi neighbours was nothing short of a war zone: enemy snipers making quick work of passing targets, stone-pelters lining the streets, flash mobs erupting into violence - these were the ideas festering the minds of the people in neighbouring Ladakh. I took the word of a distant acquaintance — a resident of Srinagar who offered some consolation: “Tourists are fine. No one is after tourists. We need them here.”
That was the signal I had waited for.
It wasn’t like I craved danger. This was just something I had to do. Kashmir was a place I had to see regardless of risk because there would be no better opportunity. Here I was, only 450 kilometres away and nudged forward through my own vanity. Maybe I did crave danger. Perhaps all I wanted was a good story to tell.
A September Leh in all its glory.
1. Finding Purpose
The day I left was special. Soon after, while steadily pedalling my way down the banks of the Indus, within the first dozen kilometres, I had sweat dripping past my brows, legs that ached in misery, lungs that felt ready to pop. My thirty kilos of luggage rattled not only the pannier, but also my entire confidence in this escapade. If it wasn’t fear, it was frustration. Being off the grid, not even having a working sim card, you repeatedly notice your mind playing tricks on you. You spend too long regurgitating the same thoughts and they escalate into a narrative that inches closer and closer to assuming reality. The most mundane experiences can drive you to the limits of your sanity.
Your top priority turns to mending a tiny squeak originating from somewhere near your rear axle. You spend a good amount of time on the side of the road making sure every single nut, bolt, and accessory is fit nice and tight, and nothing is able to move more than it should. You spend an afternoon in exasperation, using freshly cooked techniques to test and determine the exact origin of this nonsense that keeps up a relentless and steady drain on your hearing and mental health.
As luck would have it, upon repeated inspection of each and every component accessible with your hex keys, you discover the fact that your mechanic had conveniently left a few troublesome screws loose (none of which were a cause for the squeaking). However, if it weren’t for the noise, I would’ve been picking up pieces of my luggage scattered all across the road when the screws hoisting my pannier, finally did give way.
I was going crazy. My paranoia had a sense of justification, and it only made my mind murkier. I had a steadily rising urge to turn back around, hitchhike to Leh, sell the bicycle and take a direct flight back to Mumbai. The desire for instant comfort — a feeling I came to be quite intimate with during the entire trip — made its first formal introduction. I’ve been taught by culture and upbringing to see security and comfort as the primary concerns that drive modern life. But this was the experience that taught me to think otherwise.
Parked on the bank of the Indus, I took my soon-to-be regular shot of the bicycle against the landscape.
Now with the chill of the wind biting against my face, the climbing exhaustion, the ebb and flow of hunger, the long distances and altitudes — they all just gang up on you and push you into a tight corner until you can’t see anything beyond. It’s an eclipse of doubt that casts a shadow over your day, extinguishing any hope of moving further. Your alertness begins to slip, you fumble in thought, drifting slowly towards dangerous recesses that hold memories of past comforts: good food, a warm shower, a soft bed with the tenderness of a loving companion.
But here I was trying to break free from the past.
I am not a smart man. In all the years I’ve spent living, I’ve sought rationality in meaning, faith in the intellect, and wisdom through words. The Himalayas offer nothing of the sort. They provide only cold, hard truth, often bitter but always pure, with no chance of looking the other way.
At 13,000 feet, clutching every bit of sparse mountain air, isolated from any trace of civilization, utterly alone, there is nothing but truth to be found. Surely enough, this was exactly what I was looking for: the elusive Yogic truth — the point when the knower, the knowledge, and the object to be known are one — when the spirit of man is identical to the spirit of god. God, in this case, being the harshness of the mountains, the texture of the road, the depth in all the colours of the sky; the representation of the truest form of trust in my bicycle — the machine that connected all of the dots, bridging the great divide between man and god.
To the person unsatisfied with intellectual answers to his questions, “What is the point of this?”, “What am I doing?”, “Where am I going?”, this journey was the perfect antidote. I had no purpose but to be here, and do this; to sail west on National Highway 1 till I could no more.
The village of Saboo on the outskirts of Leh.
2. Learning to Surrender
Trying things for the first time is hard. You have no frame of reference to gauge the situation; no basis for understanding anything that’s happening to you. It’s just you on your little bicycle, out in the middle of nowhere, hours away from any trace of civilisation, endlessly pedalling away, counting down the kilometres before the next village.
I had neither the physical nor mental capacity to comfortably take my own time, witness the world without forming any reaction or judgement towards the situation. The world was invigorating but it was polarising. The sharp heat radiating from an overhead sun contrasting with the cold wind sweeping over the ridge; the burn from the lactic acid building up in the muscles of the legs coupled with boundless euphoria from the thrill of summiting yet another climb, only to experience the climatic rush of effortless descent on the way down — if the depth of sensory experience and the width of its spectrum were a measure of existence, then I was more alive than ever before.
Ass sniffing in Alchi.
There was almost no other presence on the road through the 65 kilometer stretch to Alchi. My first stop took me 8 hours of riding. I was so tired when I reached, I decided to stay at the first guesthouse that caught my attention: a large, formidable structure with Choskor written in bold letters over the main entrance. It was run by an old Tibetan lady, a pleasant woman with a rotund face who spoke to me through bits of broken English, knowing just enough to articulate the odd joke about my bicycle. She thought my whole trip was hilarious. It was, in a way.
With time, things that once wore you down, may affect you no more. Soon you’re lost in the constant flow of ever-changing scenery unfolding all around, the blurry lines of paint flashing under your feet. Mentally, it’s a good place to be. But you won’t find this on your first day. No, first-days are all pain, as is natural for a body unconditioned to endure such distances and altitude. Most of the trip was slow, painful, and at certain points, I was so wildly out of breath that I had to get off and walk. For the first several weeks and throughout Ladakh, uphill sections that spanned more than a few kilometres were mostly crossed by pushing the bike like a handcart.
I stayed in Alchi for a couple of days to recover, gorging on thenthuk, exploring monasteries scattered around the village but mostly, I just lay in bed. There is nothing remotely more glorious than the comfort of a bed after your first long-distance bike ride. It’s nice to drown your mind in dopamine, letting it flood the dark wrinkles of your brain, flooding your mind with warm feelings, a motherly embrace, mmm comfort and security. My day had been as novel as they come. The guesthouse caretaker made a delicious meal for dinner and I made a half-hearted attempt at listening to her husband’s opinions on the situation in Kashmir.
“Insurgents”, he ventured, “lay traps for lone travellers with expensive bicycles.” I stared at him blankly, my mind occupied with something else.
“We need to destroy their warmongering civilisation,” referring to the country on the other side of the border.
“There’s really no other solution. We must crush them like flies.”
I nodded politely, thinking only of what might be causing my bike to squeak.
Off-roading trucks were a rarity but much needed distraction from the ride.
3. Movement is Essential
The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that when opposing forces are in balance, an object remains stationary. Was this how a balanced mind brought forth stillness? But when my desire for adventure was met with an equal and opposite force: the desire to lie in bed, it certainly did not feel like stillness.
National Highway 1 is a road that is kept in near-perfect condition by the Indian army, a necessity for quickly moving supplies especially in a turbulent political climate. It’s great for bicycles as well. The faster one can move, the more momentum, and naturally, the more motivation one may carry. It’s a critical tool for climbing.
The ascent continues on till Fotu La, the highest point on the highway. Prefaced by the usual Ladakhi flora: sparse vegetation, scanty patches of grass and shrubs with almost no animals in sight, the climb set a path through an inhospitable and alien environment. Out in the distance, there is little to witness beyond the dense, imposing presence of mountains. Where there is civilization, one may sight fruit trees: apples, apricots, and walnuts, all cultivated, organised in neat grids; Where there is none, Himalayan Blue Pines, Fir and Deodars, dotted the landscape, offering the rare opportunity for shade and comfort.
I dropped my helmet down a cliff while taking a small break on a concrete bench near the pass. Spent the next hour hiking down the face of the mountain to look for it. Thankfully, it suffered only a scratch scarring its surface, but I managed to tear off the sole of one shoe in the process.
These were tiny problems. You learn to deal with them, fix them on the road. Shoes can be mended with industrial adhesive, which I happened to carry. The helmet, I ignored.
The road to Lamayuru is a long and tiring ride. Flanked on either side by weathered cliffs that jut out into the sky, the landscape feels brutal and alien. The village sits smack in the middle of a steadily increasing climb that finishes at Fotu La at a dizzying 13,478 feet. These parts are almost completely arid and seem barren of any life. Tiny hamlets make brief appearances, offering the only glimpse of life. Two days’ respite would give me enough time to recover and prepare myself for what lay ahead.
The village is surrounded by rocky cliffs. Situated in the center is the Yungdrung Tharpaling monastery, the most ancient in Ladakh, cradling a shrine to the Buddhist scholar Naropa. According to legend, a Naga lake filled the area until Arahant Madhyantika, disciple of Ananda, arrived at the spot and cracked open the ground to let the water out, purifying the region and turning the Naga into the first followers of Buddhism. Years later, Naropa would visit a cave at the site of the old lake to spend a long, silent retreat, transforming the place into holy ground.
I took my time to explore the village, spending time meditating inside the monastery. I also went to the local post office and sent back some of my luggage — clothes, electronics, books — everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. One less item to attach to myself would only lighten the load.
On one of my walks through the village, I met a backpacker from Italy who told me all about his treks in Zanskar, a region not too far away, and advised me to take the bike there. I’d have to take a short detour after reaching Kargil, one of the stops on way to Srinagar. He had been hiking in the region through summer and though the weather had grown worse since, I still had some time left before my exit from Ladakh would be snowed in.
I bid him farewell as he boarded his bus, being among the last of the tourists in the regions to leave for warmer climates. The population of Ladakh was thinning by the day. Many locals migrate to different states and different occupations. Agriculturalists turn part-time waiters in Rajasthan, hoteliers turn to their rental businesses in Goa, merchants move their shops to wherever tourists flock.
There’s no point in slowing down. No remedy for shifting seasons. Movement is essential to keep one’s balance, especially on a bicycle.
Pausing on an uphill climb towards Lamayuru.
4. There is No End
Two mountain passes awaited me on my way to Mulbek. Took me all morning to surpass the first, Fotu La, highest on the Srinagar-Leh highway. I spent more than two hours traversing a mere 15 kilometres of harrowingly steep incline, having to resort to my usual cart-pushing. Then, it was on to the next, the second even more difficult. I worn out and spent and it wasn’t even lunch time. Namika La would take a while.
The Pillar of the Sky is an apt name for anything even mildly imposing situated at that altitude. Namika La marks the second-highest point on this route and the entry into the Zanskar range of the Himalayas. It took most of my afternoon to beat and made for quite an emotional journey as I attempted to grace the top. I battled exhaustion, heat, and the perpetual, piquing desire to drop everything and just take a bus.
Throughout my trip, I halted frequently on uphill sections, usually only to catch my breath, but sometimes just to take a long, hard look at the scenery that surrounded me. I often sat by the roadside and gawked at the muted colours thinned by mist, the gentle morning fog that desaturated the autumn landscape, the sharpness of gray cordilleran spines juxtaposed against a deep blue sky, the eerie silence filling the spaces between villages. There was always novelty and sensation to be found, even in the uniform lifelessness of high-altitude desert.
Perhaps there is an end but it’s quite high up.
I often caught myself drifting into a mild state of absurd tranquility, indifferent to what I was seeing and feeling. In those moments, everything felt absolutely right. The world was perfect. There was no need to worry, no concept of time, no want of struggle, no desire for the future, no notion of a past. The moment was all that existed. There was nothing that needed to be done but to pedal onward. Life was pretty simple.
Things would drift by, often unnoticed. I would be transfixed under the hypnotic sorcery of the mountains until the climb was done and I had only joyous decline ahead. Nothing would come close to that feeling — When you scale a pass, giving it every ounce of muscle, every last bit of energy, every shred of hope you had left in you, then there is no greater reward than looking forward to a comfortable ride down a majestic mountain.
I would pass crystalline lakes that sparkled under the sun, the rare oasis of brown and green meadows, the splendor of tall evergreens spread across the bleak expanse and into the soft embrace of the horizon, but nothing came close to that rush of excitement of sailing down steep slopes, maneuvering around hairpins, potholes, and the rare vehicle, until the decline gradually dissipated, the road slowly plateauing out and opening into an empty valley.
The eyes rove and wander, witnessing only the abundance of the mountains rising shoulder to shoulder beyond the meagre reach of vision. The flush of the land would ebb and flow until it was time for yet another climb.
Serpentine roads arc around dusty mountainsides. The dryness cuts through your skin and turns your hands sore from handling hairpin turns.
The climb to Namika La turned out to be so utterly demanding that, in my stupor, as came across a giant statue of the Buddha right in the middle of a grassy knoll, I paused in my tracks, transfixed, suspicious of being victim to fatigue and hallucination. But this was real. Even crazier was the surreal shape of four walls and a ceiling and a sign that read Hotel Paradise sitting right opposite the statue. I was done for now.
I left the bicycle at the hotel, a dingy hole-in-the-wall establishment right opposite the statue. Luckily, they served excellent food so I ate, showered and splayed myself out in a miserable fashion across the budget mattress and closed my eyes to a glorious rest. It was divine comfort. I was really in paradise.
I napped for two hours and decided to pay a visit to the statue. A small monastery was built into its monolithic base and I tried to enter but it closed off to the public at that time of year. I ventured down a flight of stairs that took me from the side of the monastery and into an open field, ending onto a dirt road where I met children in jeans, colorful sweaters, and leather shoes, carrying colourful backpacks and plastic bottles, making their way home from school.
Ladakh has very happy children. :’)
I kept my pace with the kids and their curiosity in this stranger was rewarded by playful conversation and photos of my trip that filled up my phone. We did not speak the same language but understood ourselves perfectly through a complicated sequence of wild arm-flailing. They knew perfectly well what was up. “Cycleeng?” they prodded with a squint in their eyes. “Kashmeeer?” They looked at each and scratched their heads.
These kids were more practical than most about their approach to life. They left their village early in the morning, walked through sprawling meadows painted golden-yellow, radiating tranquility. They spent all day at school, leaving in the late afternoon while there was time to reach safely back home before sunset. Their way back would be long and tiring. They knew of a place to sit down, take a break along the way and refill their water bottles from the handful of sources spread across the land.
The kids brought me to a narrow, steady stream that flowed through a rock aqueduct that carved its way across the meadow. I was skeptical at first but had heard enough from my last Vipassana teacher who, through his own rustic adventures, knew all about water filtration techniques involving nothing more than charcoal, pebbles, and sand. I trusted the kids, but I was more thirsty than cynical at this point. I pulled out my bottle, filled it up and had a drink.
And it was sublime.
That bit of water has been the best, most delicous water I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. It was surprisingly good, enough to make me wonder what I was actually drinking. It made every subsequent instance of hydrating myself seem banal and lifeless. I could now understand the perpetual smiles on those kids’ faces. They were among the luckiest beings on Earth. It’s been one of the deepest regrets of my life, that I could not fill up a large plastic jar with that water and carry it along with me. And what a terrible shame that in my haste to pack up and leave the next morning, I forgot to fill up my bottle on my way to Kargil.