A chance conversation with Srivatsan in February made me join Srivatsan and Deepak on a cycling trip from Srinagar to Leh. After accommodating all family equations, the dates were decided for June 1 to 10. Our plan was to fly to Srinagar, cycle 440kms from Srinagar to Leh and then fly back from Leh to Bengaluru.
I had been running regularly, but not been cycling much. Did a Nandi Hill ride and a couple of 40k rides as practice on my 15yr old Trek cycle to check if the cycle and other gear was fine. (Deepak ensured we were preparing well!)
Consciously I tried not to buy any new gear and manage with my existing stuff, but eventually did end up buying a rain jacket and pants, a couple of dry fit t-shirts, pannier and pannier bags, a smaller tool bag and a small cycle pump. You have not gone on a trip if you have not spent at least 10K at Decathlon! (The other guys actually bought new cycles!)
A couple of days before the journey, we took our cycles to nearby cycle shops and got our cycles packed into boxes. Basically you can check-in your cycle in a flight, but will have to pay for the extra weight above allowance (Rs 450/kg after 15kgs) and also a flat fee for oversized baggage (Rs. 1200). We tried to keep our luggage weight as low as possible so that we did not exceed baggage allowances by much and also because we will have to cycle with that weight everyday. My luggage was all packed into the Decathlon pannier bags and was about 7 kgs without my jacket. My packed cycle along with some items which also were put into the box, came to about 20.6 kgs.
Day 0: Bengaluru to Srinagar – The Cycle Saga
1st June 2023
We had pre-booked for the extra baggage and overall the check-in went smoothly. Srivatsan found that his cycle box was torn on the way to the airport and he got it plastic wrapped at the airport. Only the front wheel axle was jutting out of my box so I just checked in the box – a big mistake. We reached Srinagar and took a van to our first night’s halt.
We had booked a houseboat, New Balmoral Castle, in the Dal lake (because, why not) before we started cycling. This turned out to be a not so great idea. We struggled to get our cycle boxes on the Shikara (boat) and reach our house boat. There we had a wooden platform to assemble our cycles back. But the wooden platform was above water and if any small cycle part slipped through any of the cracks, it would reach its watery grave. We nimbly assembled our cycles and our house boat owner Bilal, tried his best to help us with a sheet to spread and work on.
And that is when I realized that the axle nut/cap which had been jutting out of the box had fallen off somewhere in the flight and that another central handle bar stem screw was missing. So here I was, all enthu for 8 days of cycling, but with a useless cycle whose front wheel and handle bars couldn’t be fitted!
And there in began the hunt. The 11 year old son of the houseboat owner took me on his shikara to the main road, from where I got on an auto driven by a kind old Kashmiri man with a stammer. He understood what I wanted and off we went (rather slowly) to Lal Chowk. Weaving our way through the streets by auto and foot, through the Army convoys and guns, that old man and I hopped from shop to shop in search of the items in need. The old man was super helpful (overall, most Kashmiris we met were quite helpful). He spent almost an hour and half walking with me to various shops, asking them in Kashmiri where we could find the items and then taking me there. We eventually found a small cycle repair shop, where the guy had an old axle lying around and gave me the axle cap. A little more hunting and I eventually found the central handle bar stem screw in a hardware store in a nearby market. Got a couple of spare longer screws of the same bore just in case. We drove back. I tried the items. Both were a good fit. What a big relief! Could finally settle down and enjoy the Kahwa chai!
Cycle done, we spent the night on a tour of the Dal lake on a Shikara. Now the houseboat idea did not feel that bad! We had about half an hour of day light as we moved through the lake. Soon, twilight turned into night, and the houseboats were all lit up and the waters sparkled with their reflections. We weaved through the other boats, raced with a few (our boatsman, Mehrazuddin of Red Rose boat, claimed to be a local race winner) and enjoyed the narrow passage through the floating market. It was getting colder and we headed back to our houseboat for the night. Dinner done, we retired for the night. Srinagar was cold this summer and it felt very cold given that it was our first night from Bengaluru. Slept well though.
Day 1: Srinagar to Gagangir (67kms)
2nd June 2023
Our original plan was to cycle from Srinagar to Sonamarg, a distance of 80 kms. We wanted to start early, but by the time we came out of the lake and onto the road, it was 8AM. We adjusted our luggage, made sure the wheels were moving freely etc. and started off. After an initial few kms through Srinagar, we hit NH1.
Srinagar to Sonamarg is a slow steady uphill climb and it being our first day, we were figuring out and adjusting to the cycle, our muscles, the luggage, our clothes etc. Much of the highway is along the Sind river. We had a lunch stop at less than 40kms. Rajma rice, salad. And we started cycling again. We were cycling at different speeds and I would go ahead, stop after a climb at some scenic place for some photos and wait for the others to catch up.
Around 60kms in, we realized it was getting late and we were getting tired and Sonamarg was still a good 15-20kms away. We stopped at Gagangir at a lovely hotel called Badar Resort and Spa. It had excellent views of snow clad mountains and was on the banks of a stream. We relaxed a bit and I had a good night’s sleep.
This hotel stay spoilt us a bit. While we would slog it out in the day, we were happy to settle in into nice hotels for the night wherever we could find them.
Day 2: Gagangir to Sonamarg (20kms)
3rd June 2023
Gagangir to Sonamarg was steeper. We reached Sonamarg for breakfast around 10AM. But due to one of the guys having an upset stomach, we decided to take it easy that day. We just went a few kms ahead and stopped for the day at “Sheen Woods Riverside Resort & Spa”. Enroute we saw a lot of army and airforce activity which was quite awesome. Even saw a double rotor helicopter carrying a hanging bull dozer like thing to clear the route for Amarnath yatra.
All through the trip army folk were very friendly and would chat with us. Mostly they had four questions. Where are you from? Where are you cycling from? Where are you going? And, how did you transport your cyce!
Our hotel was a beautiful tented accommodation on the banks of the Sind river. There was frozen ice a few metres away and the water was ice cold. It being a sunny day, we periodically dipped our feet into the water and got out to dry in the sun. I even had an upper body bath in the ice cold water. Nicely refreshing. Of course to be tried only when the sun is out! We waded the water a bit to get to the icy patch and generally walked around to get a feel of the cold water and ice. Was fun. We slept a bit in the afternoon and then I roamed around the hill behind the camp. Saw a blue whistling thrush nesting under a bridge. Some yellow coloured wagtails and a dipper. There were horses grazing and saw a lone Dzo (yak and cow cross).
Sonamarg is slightly higher and much colder. The guys had worsened stomach issues. Night was very cold, but we were comfortable enough in our razai.
Day 3: Sonamarg to Drass via Zoji La (60kms)
4th June 2023
Our plan to start at 6AM, got moved to 8AM again, thanks to upset stomachs! We were already a day behind, but since we had kept a buffer day, this wasn’t a big issue. But we no longer had that buffer. In our heads, Zoji La was the big day and once crossed, it was going to be very easy. (Oh, we were so wrong!).
The initial shortcut from Sheenwood to the NH1 was itself one steep climb! It was not really motor-able, so we just pushed the cycles up. Once on the highway, we started our climb. We were climbing about 750m in height over 17kms. This time I chose to steadily climb because stopping and starting was breaking my rhythm. The road was fairly exposed on the sides and I rode on the right side (rock wall side) in some places to not fall off by accident.
I kept climbing till I reached a Shiva temple. Took a break there. Got water to drink and refill. Met some army folks there. One of them wanted to ride my cycle and quite enjoyed going up and down the road. Deepak and Srivatsan also reached the temple. The army folks offered us chai and when I tried to open my biscuit packet, offered us prasad of Sheera instead. Given how hungry and tired I was, the Sheera really felt divine! It gave us a shot of energy to resume our journey. It was quite cold, and I had been wearing my inner gloves, and I think I dropped them somewhere here.
Resuming the ride, the road was cobbled and had good exposure and steep drops now. The road was also wet from snow melt. Proceeding cautiously, I kept moving. I had to move from my comfortable 3×3 / 3×1 gears to 2×1 here. There was a lot of water on the road and I was getting splashed by a few passing vehicles. Should have worn my waterproof pants with shoe cover. But people also cheered and gave thumbs ups which was quite encouraging.
The pass itself was long and I went through enjoying the snow and mountains and before I knew it, I was moving downhill to Zero Point! First and the mighty Zoji La – Crossed! Zoji La does have a reputation. When we later were asking about how tough the other passes were, people would say, “You have crossed Zoji La, this climb is nothing.” Don’t believe them though 😀
Zero point was a regular tourist spot. Due to snow and good weather today, it was teeming with tourists. While waiting for the others to join, did the touristy snow mobile ride. Soon both of them arrived. Celebrated with Maggi and then started our ride to Drass. Zoji La to Drass is one amazing downhill ride. Our first downhill on this trip. Zipped through the next 40 odd kms to reach Drass. Stayed at the “Hotel D’Meadows Ladakh”. Excellent hotel.
Day 4: Drass to Kargil (59kms)
5th June 2023
This was a relaxed day. Drass to Kargil was downhill mostly. Saw the Kargil War Memorial, Tiger Hill, Batra Top and Rhino Horn. We were mostly together today since it was downhill, except when Srivatsan decided to just bolt away and it took us half an hour to catch him. We were cycling alongside a river at one point and the water was noticeably more turbid and gray. Even though it was mostly downhill, there were still a few climbs and it started climbing quite a bit as we neared Kargil. The road took us through the market, which was like any other and fairly unimpressive.
We stopped for the night at “Hotel Zojila Residency Kargil”. I know, strange name! The hotel had a cafe and a nice sit out within its premises behind and we had a pastry and spent some time hanging around there. It overlooked a dammed river and the water would rise or ebb based on the gates opening and closing. A little above we could see brown rectangular mud houses built into the hill slopes. I had always thought they were relics of the past, but as it grew dark, electric lights started coming on inside them to indicate that they were still very much in use!
The night’s dinner buffet was excellent! Tomorrow Namika La!
Day 5: Kargil to Khangral via Namika La (61kms)
6th June 2023
Optimistic as we were, we had got breakfast packed so that we could leave early (eye roll)! When we came down, it was almost 7:30 AM. So we decided to just eat the packed stuff at the hotel itself. We entered the dining area, and boy, what a mistake! The breakfast spread was just mouth wateringly enticing. We just kept our packed breakfasts for later and dug in.
Stomachs full, with packed food to spare, we started off for Mulbekh. Mulbekh was around 30kms away and the real climb to Namika La was supposedly from there. But just climbing out of Kargil was so tough! It was quite steep and long! But this side of Kargil was beautiful. In the backdrop of snow clad mountains, mud houses dotted the hillsides with a lovely river flowing through.
After about 5kms it became less steep but still steadily climbing to Mulbekh. It started raining and we decided to stop and take shelter in a broken down house. I ate my packed sandwich here. Continued on once the rain let up. We stopped for lunch (thukpa and rajma rice) opposite a 2000 yr old buddhist Gompa – the Mulbekh Monastry. We met an older German gentleman who was cycling around and had some interesting stories to share. One nice advice he gave out was – if cycling in Europe, find old Roman routes in old maps and take that route. It is guaranteed to go through interesting towns and be wide and low gradient enough for cyclists to easily ride on. Anyway, after the lunch, we visited the gompa and the huge 30 foot Maitreya Buddha statue. Nice. Interesting to note that they also had the concept of theertham (holy water) and prasad (or so I believe – may be wrong).
Namika La (3700m) is slightly higher than Zoji La (3528m), but because the gradient is not as steep, it is not considered so daunting. Or so we heard. At Mulbekh, it was 3PM. We had to take a call on whether we will stay there or try to climb Namika La and descend. 2/3 votes we decided to cycle on. Again, I pressed on at my pace and kept climbing. At one point around 4kms before the top, an omni van guy told me it would take another hour and half to reach the top. Knowing my pace, I told him I will take about 45 mins. But in less than a km, the road started sloping downhill, and I easily finished off the last 4 kms in 25 minutes. The omni guy had stopped at the top and was surprised to see me! Nice ego boost!
Once everyone had reached, we rode downhill to Khangral. We had originally planned to stop at Bodhkharbu which was a bit further, but stopped at Khangral as we were tired. Stayed at Kumial Home Stay, which was nice and the caretaker Javed was quite a nice and helpful guy. Anwar runs a food shop nearby and delivered us tea, milk dinner etc. to the room. We took 2 rooms, dumped our luggage in one and slept in the other.
Day 6: Khangral to Lamayuru via Fotu La (39kms)
7th June 2023
Today the distance is less, but we have to cross the mighty Fotu La. At 4108m, this was the last and highest pass on this route. It was almost 10:30 AM when we started. When asked, Javed said, you have crossed Zojila, Fotu la should be fine. Anyway, we started cycling.
Fotu La was 25kms away and all uphill. Half way through, it started raining and became bitterly cold. We stopped at a small Ladakhi tea shop and had butter tea. We waited an hour for the weather to become better. The Ladkahi lady, Doma, taught me to say Chet Ache (see you later sister! Acho for brother. Juley is the Ladakhi namaste and if you say Juley, most folks responded with a double Juley, Juley and you could feel the good will of a mountain person wishing you well in those 2 words!)
Rain stopped but it was still very cold. The clouds on the mountain top looked dark and ominous. We continued cycling. After a decent climb, I saw some road repair folks from BRO (Border Roads Organization) stare up at a mountain top. Stopped and was thrilled to see a group of mountain goats on the ridge. I thought they were Himalayan Tahr, but based on their horns I think they are Bharal. Watched them for some time with the binoculars. The BRO guys also took turns at my binoculars.
It was getting colder, so had to move on. It started snowing and visibility soon reduced to 50m or so. Climbing the last 5 kms through the snow and cold was tough but also gratifying. So far in the trip, the weather gods had been very kind to us. This was the first time we were challenged by the weather. Even now, the wind was in our direction and the snow was coming in from the back.
It felt great to reach the top and stand at the sign board of Fotu La. The wind and snow howled around me in sub zero temperatures and nothing much else visible. But I was really pumped up and happy! All 3 passes done successfully! Soaked in the moment.
Cycling uphill had been keeping our body warm but when we stopped, we started feeling the cold. We remounted our cycles and started downhill, nicely zipping through the curves. I had learnt to wear another layer and gloves when going downhill. The lack of leg movement and the wind make it much colder downhill. My fingers were starting to turn blue by the time we reached Lamayuru.
Nicely celebrated our Fotu La climb at Amchi Guest House/Restaurant with a hot cup of chai. And relaxed. The night we stayed at this awesome suite in Namkila Hotel with a big balcony and great views. The caretaker Dhirendra was a Nepali with Shiva dread locks and a super chill attitude. Served us good dinner and breakfast and ensured we got our heater, extra bed etc. and were comfortable.
Day 7: Lamayuru to Nimmoo (80kms)
8th June 2023
Started at around 10AM and visited the Lamayuru monastry. Beautiful serene place. It was set in the midst of snow clad mountains and the air itself seemed peaceful there. Three monks were seated inside, chanting a throaty long aaaoooouu, punctuated periodically with a drum beat. Aaaaooooooaaaaa – dum – Aaaaaouuuaooo – Dum … It was mesmerizing and peaceful. Spent some time soaking it in. A little boy monk was taking care of the tickets etc. and was running around getting work done. There was another floor above where more monks were chanting. The walls had shelves which were full of old scriptures, idols and a small cave with an old statue. When we came out it took a few seconds to be transported back to our cycling selves.
Then started our ride to Nimmoo. Initial plan was to stop somewhere near Alchi (60kms), but since we needed some time in Leh the next day to pack our cycle etc., we thought it would be better to cover a longer distance today. It was downhill for the first 15kms and then started climbing slowly. The scenery was mind-blowing but also barren and desolate at places.
We were following the Suru river for quite some time. At one point the river was wide and slow with lots of rocks. We went down and spent some time dipping our feet in the water and relaxing.
From Saspol (~53kms), for the next 12kms, it was as good a climb as the passes! Just as I was thinking that this is good because we will need to climb less tomorrow, we lost all the altitude gained, by going downhill, past Basgo, to Nimmoo.
This was the longest we had cycled in this trip. We had bought some dried apricots on the way and that had fuelled us when needed. Nimmoo was a small village and we almost climbed out of it looking for a place to stay. Had to go back. Stayed at “Nilza Guest House and Restaurant” there. Tried Ladakhi food – momos and Chutagi. I prefer the Thukpa to the Chutagi. The hotel room was quite colorful and it had a very interesting colorful dining hall. Sanjog, the hotel guy, made sure we were comfortable.
Day 8: Nimmoo to Leh (33kms)
9th June 2023
Last day of our trip and hopefully a short one. We had planned to go via Magnetic Hill because the climb was more gradual there and also it was an interesting place. There is a small section on that road where it looks like it is uphill from one direction, but it is not – hence the optical illusion of moving uphill. Met a lot of tourists and travelers and enjoyed the conversations and banter. A lot of people took photos with us!
A steady steep climb from there took us to Gurudwara Pathar Sahib. Nice Gurudwara with an interesting story. Skipped the langar because it was just 12 noon. Shouldn’t have, in hindsight.
It was downhill and sometimes flat from there, and we thought we would reach Leh, well in time for lunch. Of course we didn’t! The last 10 odd kms to Leh was again uphill and we were pedaling on, knowing we are very near our finish line! Nice scenery. The confluence of Zanskar and Indus at Sangam is a beautiful sight. Saw a plane take off right over my head! The airport is right near the road, but had signs which said “Trespassers will be shot dead”!
And at last, around 2:30PM, we finally reached Leh! After 8 days of cycling! Was a great feeling.
But some things still needed to be attended to. We had to reach Ladakh Cycle Shop in Leh market, to box our cycles for the flight tomorrow. Man, was that a steep climb! This one challenged us mentally more than most of the climbs! We knew we were there, but still not really there and we were hungry and tired!
We eventually reached the cycle shop, got our cycles packed and had a celebratory lunch of pizza, pasta and coffee at a hotel called Montagne. Did some shopping for family and then went to our hotel SIA Residency. Nice hotel. Dinner with music (by the owner Rinshen himself!) and then sleep.
Returned from Leh to Bengaluru on 10th June 2023. Uneventful flight back to Bengaluru. Cycle boxes were totally torn and we had some trouble getting the cycle back in a cab. 11th June, went normally. Slept a lot in the day on 12th. And then back to normal. Nose and my hands (upper part, between wrist and knuckles) was sun burnt a bit, but became normal soon. Hands felt swollen and smooth for a day. I had lost 2 kilos and my face looked leaner, due to fat loss and tan. It came back to normal in a week. My energy levels remain higher. My stomach got troubled momentarily with my return to coffee and curd once I came back, but settled back quickly. I had avoided coffee, curd, paneer etc. during the trip and had tea or butter tea while traveling. That routine seemed to work fine in the mountains for me. Unpacked and re-assembled the cycle, but haven’t ridden it yet. Another day …