K&L 1: Srinagar to Zoji La

On the way from Ladhak to Srinagar (by taxi) on our previous cycle trip to Ladhak, Saahil casually suggested doing a cycle ride from Srinagar to Leh. Two years later, we finally got down to it - and it turned into quite an adventure. The story continues in part 2.

Checked in to “Lonely Guest House” in Srinagar, and quickly made friends with Aijas, the owner. Drank kawah[1] and unpacked our bikes. He gave us space to keep the bike boxes and showed us the way to the nearest Punjabi dhaba[2] (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 eight, bought water and pedals. Finally oriented ourselves and were heading out of Srinagar (1600 m / 5250 ft) by ten. Rode halfway around the Dal Lake to reach the highway. We celebrated the first 23 km with a second breakfast and the mixing of the electrolytes.

Saahil’s rear rack gave a bit of trouble (this was the first time we were testing fully loaded) and 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, a breakfast and tea-break 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 70 km 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 30 km ahead. As it gets dark, and the wind picks up and boy does it pick up (A headwind, of course. Tailwinds don’t get noticed). They say 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 15 km before Sonamarg. Sleeping soundly with the sweet knowledge that there’s just 20 km of climbing and 40 km 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 ascent to Sonamarg (2800 m / 9187 ft) , we reach there in time for an early lunch not sure when the next stop will be. As we go ahead, the ascent becomes steeper, the two-lane highway turns into one-lane, and as trucks stop to give their engines a break, not even 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 section 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 (3528 m / 11575 ft) . We’ve made it. The 20 km had turned into 40 km; 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, 40 km 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 a Phiran (long Kashmiri kurtas) and Kagri (cane baskets holding burning coal in clay pots) each and put the coal-burning 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 layers of blankets with a Kangri to warm us up and woke up warm and refreshed. Sarjar and Co. took us for a bit of sled-riding in the morning too.

We were extremely lucky—Sarjar had just come the previous day to set up shop. It had snowed quite heavily too—a couple of feet of snow—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.

Read the rest of the story—getting from Zoji La to Leh—in part 2.

  1. Kawah: Kashmiri green tea with honey and saffron.

  2. Dhaba: Roadside Indian restaurants.