Every adventure and every cycling trip are pure excitement for me. But since I pedalled through the Old Zanskar route through the Lingshed valley, I am on cloud nine. Two crazy fellows, Sudhanshu Verma and Chetan Rathore, and I embarked on this self-supported bike-packing through the Zanskar region of Ladakh in August.
Experienced in bike-packing having traversed through various high-altitude regions, we are no strangers to difficult terrains and harsh climate. Two things were worrying – Covid restrictions and second, we did not have any topographic idea of almost 250-km stretch which was the most difficult route as no Indian has cycled through that zone.
In addition, we were in disarray about how to get food supplies in that zone. Nevertheless, we started from Jagatsukh on August 9. A dreaded mountain pass, Shingo La (16700 ft), separates Zanskar from Lahaul Valley in the southern side.
One has to cross the pass while going to Zanskar from Lahaul side. I knew the route till the base of the pass as I have cycled and trekked there. The climb to Shingo La way covering 30km was extremely strenuous. Bracing ferocious winds, hailstorm and crossing knee-deep wild river streams hauling a 30kg cycle, we climbed the pass at a snail’s pace.
The freezing cold water numbed my legs every time we crossed a mountain stream. I lost count of the numerous streams we crossed. A mechanical issue stopped me before the pass, as I had to bivouac there alone. It had been a long day with a never-ending chain of adventures – I had to go out at 1.30 am to rescue a motorcyclist.
Crossing the Shingo La, one descends to the river plains of Kurgiakh Chu (Chu is sub river in local language) through a boulder-strewn dangerous downhill slope of 10km. The holy mountain of Zanskar, the Gombo Ranjan, looms ahead. A majestic solo granite peak dominating the landscape, the sacred mountain is located along the route to Darcha. From Kurgiakh, roads lead to Purne village, which is the confluence of Kurkiakh Chu and Tsarap River.
A daylong hike to Phugtar monastery enriched my experience. From here Padum, the capital of Zanskar is just 60 kms. The road has some steep difficult climbs and dust storms blow all day. You go along Zanskar river throughout the route. From Padum, the unknown route started for us. We load up as much as possible on supplies. Our next stop is Zangla.
When we reached the village and spoke to the BRO, we were shocked to know that there are no villages between Zangla and Photoksar, which is almost 150 kms away. Even in Zangla, we can hardly find anything to bolster our supplies. We camped beside Zanskar river in a quaint grass patch, soaking in the calmness of the beautiful surroundings. As it is summer, all the fresh water streams have dried up. We had to struggle to get water for drinking. We were lucky to find an advanced BRO-Army outpost and filled up water.
Before Lingshed, a small pass Murgum La (14500ft), nearly broke my back. It had average slope angle of 50 degrees and I had to push the cycle for 8.5km, which took me four and a half hours.
From the top of pass road again climbs to the highest pass of the route called Singe La (16590 ft). We climbed the pass as hailstorm battered us in sub-zero temperature. On top of the pass, I was shivering from cold and my hands were completely numb. Without delay, we descended.
The road was so bad that I crashed a few times. By the time we reached Photoksar village at the base of Sirsir La pass (15700 ft), we were tired and hungry. The BRO has an establishment here and imagine my relief when the Base Commander invited us stay with them. A proper shelter and delicious food were a luxurious comfort for us. We were recharged.
Next morning, we started out ascent to SirSir La, 15km from the base, in an inclement weather. It was long but not that strenuous like earlier passes. When we reached the top, it had started pouring.
Even as the rain blinded us, we were astounded by the view from top. Battered by rain and starving after the long hours of pedalling, we started looking for food. We crossed Hanupatta, Phonjilla, Wanla and other small villages but could not get anything to eat.
Eventually, we reached the road to Srinagar-Leh highway and we were stopped at Khalsi. A mandatory COVID check before we proceeded stalled our journey. We had pedalled almost 90 kms that day. When the Ladakh police and authorities heard that we cycled and crossed those dreaded passes, they were in complete awe. We were treated as celebrities.
As we moved on and reached Khalsi town and heard the cacophony of urban life, we knew our adventure had ended. Leh is 90 kms from here. Sitting in a dhaba and eating to my heart’s content, I reflected on the journey – the distance we had covered, the arduous climbs, the unforgettable and breath-taking scenery, and much more.
What an expedition it had been!
The challenges we endured. But, it was worth every aching bone. One thing was certain, it made me feel truly alive again.
(Abhirup Bose first started cycling as a sport in 2016 and went on with XC races across India, before shifting his focus to bike packing. Apart from cycling, he has mounted many exploratory trekking expeditions in the Indian Himalayas over the last decade. Find him on Instagram @adventurewith_abhi)
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