Kashmir & Ladhak

Checked in to ‘Lonely Guest House’ in Shrinagar, and made friends with Aijas, the owner quickly. Drank Kawah and upacked our bikes. He gave us space to keep the bike boxes, and showed us the way to the nearest punjabi dhaba (chicken so fresh there was blood on the walls.)

At the restaurant, people encouraged us: “You’ll never reach - on the way to Zoji La, there are potholes I can swim in” “Whoever suggested that you go on this trip were trying to kill you” “Sure, go ahead, just take a truck from Sonamarg to Zoji La”.

Left the guest house that morning at 8, bought water and pedals. Finally oriented ourselves and were heading out of Srinagar by 10. Rode halfway around the Dal Lake to reach the highway. We celebrated the first 23km with a second breakfast and the mixing of the electrolytes.

Saahil’s bicycle rack gave a bit of trouble (this was the first time we were testing fully loaded) so we had to flip around the bolt so it wouldn’t get into the gears - and have our first tea break. Yes, tea and food feature a lot in this adventure. Forty kilometers in 3 hours - this is too easy. All you nay-sayers - we laugh at you.

By late afternoon, we’ve started climbing quite a bit, we eat lunch at a kebab place - the first of many oily omelettes. And again an hour and a half later for salty Bajiyas and Kawah. We’ve finished about 70km now - not counting the first hour in Srinagar and are quite tired. Locals claim the distance to Sonamarg are anything between ‘over the next hill’ and 30km ahead. As it gets dark, and the wind picks up (and boy does it pick up; headwind of course, tailwinds don’t get noticed). They claim we’ll never make it. We decide to call it a day at the next hotel we find and settle in for dinner at a place 15km before Sonamarg. Sleeping soundly with the sweet knowledge that there’s just 20km of climbing and 40km of downhill scheduled for the next day.

We leave around 10:30 the next day after a staple oily omelette breakfast and head out towards Zojila. Cycling the gradual accent to Sonamarg, we reach there in time for an early lunch not sure when the next stop will be. As we go ahead, the accent becomes steeper, the two-lane highway turns into one-lane, and as trucks stop to give their engines a break, less than that. The road is completely destroyed by the glaciers that covered the road in winter. Walls of ice on either side, some 2-3 stories high. There’s not a Chai wala in sight. Looking at the road ahead - you can see it winding it’s way clinging to the side of the mountains far far ahead - we wonder where the pass is. Finally we’re told we’re nearing the top, the road is a narrow gully between the ice - more of a stream than a road really. We reach smooth paver block-ed road and a god sent chai-shop. The chai shop is a tent sitting on top of 2 feet of ice. We’re told we’re at zero-point - we’ve made it. The 20km had turned into 40km; it took us 7 hours to do what we thought we’d take 3-4 hours to do.

It was 6 in the evening and the Kashmir chai walas told us we wouldn’t make it to Drass, 40km ahead. This time we believed them. They said we could either put our cycles in a truck and go down to Drass, or sleep over in the tents with them. We decided to stay up at the pass.

Sarjar and his companions fed us and gave us Kawah. They gave us Phirans (long Kashmiri kurtas) and Kagri (cane baskets holding burning coal in clay pots) and put the pots inside the Phiran! So warm! An hour later we were quite warm, and truck drivers wire telling us nonsensical ghost stories. We slept under five laters of blankets and woke up warm and refreshed.

We were extremely lucky - Sarjar had just come the previous day to set up shop. It had snowed quite heavily too, but was bright and sunny when we got there. Sarjar and his friends came from a village not far from Srinagar and have been setting up this tea stall at the top of the pass for the last 4-5 years. They stay at the zero-point taking turns to return for supplies every 2 weeks.

We left the warm comfort of the tents at 10 the next morning, wearing slippers since our shoes had frozen solid! The roads were downhill, but quite damaged by the winter ice. We patched 5-6 punctures that day, reaching Dras around 5pm. In Dras, we had our first taste of Wazwan with the Rogan Josh from the place across the hotel. We ate, showered and fell asleep by 9:30.

Leaving at a late 10:30 again the next day, we met another pair of cyclists - Amit and Binoy, who had started the day after we left Srinagar. They’d made it from Sonamarg to Dras over the Zoji La in a day! The road from Dras started of quite bad and had us afraid of punctures but quickly got better and quite fun. We’d even set up the Garmin camera, though it ran out of space in a few hours.

Reached Kargil at 2:30 and after a bit of confusion about gadi walas and watch repair men, got brake pads replaced and tubes fixed (our patches weren’t staying on for too long for some reason - and we were a bit fed up of doing it ourselves) and ate lunch with Amit and Binoy. We decided to stay the evening in Kargil and rest for a bit. Ate ‘tagger’/’tiger’ kebabs and some more Wazwan.

At Kargil, we’d decided to start being more careful about timings and food - the last 3 days we’d cycled until we’d had almost no energy. We left the hotel by 830 and were on our way a little past 9. We started off with a puncture and bad roads but made good time to Mulbhek, reaching there by 2:30. Quickly losing interest in the Buddha statue carved into the rock, we found a restaurant. Lunch and 3 cups of chai later, we enquired about guest houses. Nobody was too sure, but there was a vague idea of a place 10km past the Namik La pass 20km ahead. It was quite a steep climb up to Namik La but the lunch done its job and we reached the top by 5:30, Saahil seeing snowfall for the first time. The snow and wind had gotten quite serious at the top so we pushed of quickly down the sweet sweet downhill, stopping for chai and directions at Khangral. After unfreezing our fingers we head down 5km ahead to a guest house at Bod-Kharbu. Find the Guest house but turns out that there’s no one there. Eat maggi and omelette for dinner again, and are taken to a homestay. And of course, we clean our bikes have baths and a shave ummm…

Left Kharbu by 9 and had eaten two breakfasts by 10: coffee and omelettes at the Marathi Army Cafe - they serve wada pav, but we went too early; and fresh heavenly carb-filled aloo parathas. We climbed Fotula top around 2, and reached Lamayuru soon after. On the last trip we’d Fotula was the farthest point, so this was all known ground. We ate at one of the guest houses we’d stayed at 2 years ago. Passing Khaltse, our planned stop for the night, we pushed on to Nurla. At Nurla, the (extremely pretty) resort we’d stayed at the last time was booked full, and the only other place in town was Rs 6000 a night, but we managed to find a very comfortable homestay.

From Nurla to Leh was quite uneventful, eating at Basgo, ignoring magnetic hill, tea at Pathar Sahib Gurudvara. The road of evil, christened 2 years ago was an extremely long uphill with a bad headwind and dwindling supply of water. It was now sweet sweet downhill, possibly the fastest road on the whole trip, until the hall of fame museum. We stopped for a second tea here, and finally made it to Leh at 7, found a hotel and celebrated by complaining about the WiFi.

The next day we didn’t see our cycles - and we didn’t miss them. Arranged a car and walked around Leh a bit. Our driver was quite interesting - he showed up at 3 AM an hour and a half before we were supposed to leave, because he hadn’t read the time right (though that turned out to be a good thing). We reached Dras half an hour after the road to Zojila closed, but he sweet talked the guard to let us through. We took some vegetables for Sarjar, and reached Srinagar around 5 - watching 7 days of cycling unwind in 12 hours.

Spent the next day around Srinagar sampling the Wazwan and shopping, and headed home on the big jet plane.