Land of Passes

India Part 4 | Leh to Manali highway | day 73

Three passes over 17,000ft and seven long days of riding stand between us and Keylong; the next city. For days we will ride and sleep above 16,000 ft as we wander though the “Land of Passes.” The road ahead is dusty, long, and filled with bitter-cold nights. This will be our most desolate stretch yet, riding amongst giants.

6:30am, the blankets reek of dust and sweat, a thin suggestion of a mat separates us from the ground, I wake more sore than when I laid down and now my body is full of little red itchy bumps; bed bugs have been feasting on my filthy skin while I dreamt of the passes to come. We are in a dormitory room above one of the many dhabas at the busy highway intersection in Upshi. This is the dirtiest place I have slept, yet… until tomorrow, and the next night after that. Each night brings a new perspective and I realized what I had taken for granted the previous night; bed bugs, mice, no running water, no electricity, no bathroom. 

This road is as much of a trade route now as it was in ancient times. Temporary villages and tent towns speckled along the Himalayan hills serve as places of rest for the truckers coming and going, bringing goods from Manali to Leh. It is shocking how the drivers can maneuver on these poor road conditions even in complete darkness. They have been driving these hairpin turns and unguarded cliff edges every day for the last 4 months, there is only a few more weeks to go before the season is over and the road becomes impassable due to snow. 

Every stop brings us to an interesting hodge podge of rubble piled into a semblance of a shelter; sometimes a tin shack with tarp roof that whips all night in the wind, sometimes a roadside tent that provides no warmth from the freezing cold air, and tonight we are sleeping in a little stone room in the back of the dhaba, listening to the people coming and going, chatting in Hindi drinking tea and whiskey all night as we fall in and out of sleep. The road from Leh to Manali does not sleep, it is only open for 5 months out of the year so travel time is precious. People from all over India come for the summer to man these tiny temporary villages to serve tea and dal to passing truckers, motorcyclist, and the occasional cyclist at all hours in the middle of nowhere. 

The stairs of the Thikse Monastery lead in every direction carrying us up the collection of whitewashed buildings stacked on a hill over looking the fields and valley surrounding the village. The room to our right has an elaborate, gold two story, 50 foot statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, sitting cross legged with a half smile. The room to our left has at least a hundred small statues in glass boxes stacked floor to ceiling, each representing the many different Buddhist gods. Below us horns are blowing, monks are chanting, a dung stacked fire is burning, and a decadently dressed monk is throwing seeds and different vegetation into the flames to bring good luck for the harvest. The ceremony progresses for hours, ending with the destruction of the beautifully intricate sand mandala. In one gust the work of four monks over four days will be swept away to the winds. 


Peter is the make it yourself, minimalist, bikepacker. Since we arrived in India we have been asking all the guides what their favorite trek was. Hands down, the winner is the Lamauru to Padum trek, which takes 7-9 days, traverses 9 passes, the trail is steep, difficult, and most have a guide and a horse. Peter did it on his bike. Peter = badass.



300 ft from the top and my legs quit. I dismount and push after climbing for more than a day since Thikse Monastery. Once you get over 16,000ft every movement has a new and heavier weight, the sun is brighter, I am a little more relaxed, but my body is just not working the way it should; a noticeable lack of oxygen, that would explain the dream-like quality everything seems to have as I struggle to the top. I have been able to see the glorious pile of prayer flags symbolizing the summit for the last hour, taunting me to hurry up and join them, but I know it is further than I think, it is still ten miles until we reach the top. 

Tangling La claims to be the second highest motor-able road in the world, sitting at 17,542ft. It took us two days of climbing to finally reach the prayer flags and views forever. This is the highest either of us has ever been in our lives. Oddly, it doesn’t seem that high up here, as we are amongst much higher peaks. On one side the winding 40 mile two day climb, on the other, a brilliant 20 mile descent leading into the sunset.

One pedal after another I push my feet against the cranks propelling my body and this weighty steel frame into the void. A sea of barren landscape swallows me and my efforts seem futile. The More Plains, which lies just after Tangling La, is a plateau at 16,000 ft surrounded by dusty golden peaks, with a ridiculous head wind that just. won’t. quit. We see no one during this 35 km stretch, they could’ve filmed Mad Max here.  

Red brown, purple brown, green brown, yellow brown. I didn’t even know this many shades of brown existed; Each hour of the day brings a different shade. Swirling dust-nados form on the horizon and I half expect to see one of those wiggly desert stacked ball monsters from Mario to appear as I pull up my bandana to keep from choking on the dust. 

A side trip takes us down a sandy road to Tso Kar, a nearly dried up salt lake in an immaculate valley. The man who runs the food tent, playfully wrestles with “Petar” the goat, ramming his palm against Peter’s four inch thick skull, trying to get it to charge at him. He is successful, and I imagine this is how goats show affection as Peter rams the old mans legs. The man then goes back to his ball of yak wool he is spinning into yarn using an ancient drop spindle, while his friend translates and tells us about the nomadic people of this area, “they live over there, just beyond that hill, later in the winter they will migrate to this side of the lake.”  


In 2011 Stephan and his wife cycled for a year from Europe to Southeast Asia. He is currently cycling for a couple months in Ladakh and trying to convince his wife to do another long tour in South America. 



I can’t believe my eyes! A tree! A bush! A waterfall! Diving deeper into the valley, its’ walls become verdant and lined with life. We have finally dipped below 14,000 ft and the first signs of permanent inhabitants. Looking into the valley every altitude is having its’ own season, winter at the peak, blending into turning vibrant leaves of fall in the middle, and bursting green vegetation with water spewing everywhere at its’ base. We finally made it to Keylong, an oasis of green, after 6 days of cycling on the roof of the world. 



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