Me, my bike and an empty mountain road. I was seduced by the idea of cycling across the Indian Himalaya back in 1992 when I took a two-day bus trip from Leh to Manali. Eight years later my dream came true. As the locals say, "shanti, shanti" - slowly, slowly.
Picture yourself pedalling through the highest mountains in the world. Roads dotted with lonely nomad camps. Tibetan refugees tending their yaks and crafting cheese by hand. Crashing at tent hotels. Fuelled by simple meals of rice and dal served up at the local teahouse. Climbing switchback after switchback for hours on end into the thin air at 5,000 metres. And then proffering thanks to the gods at the summit shrine before hurtling downhill for endless kilometres, past wildflowers, waterfalls and loopy road signs.
Leh is the only town in Ladakh, a region of India near the Tibetan border. The region is high and dry - lying north of the Himalaya which protects it from the monsoon rains. It is sparsely populated as the barren land supports little agriculture. Ladakh is sometimes known as Little Tibet. It is probably more purely Tibetan with its Buddhist culture and architecture than Tibet itself, as it was never occupied by the Chinese. Ladakhi people wear traditional clothing, grow barley, drink yak butter tea and practise Buddhism freely.
Manali lies south of the mountains, nestled at the head of a lush valley. In contrast to Ladakh, it is a bustling place full of backpackers who flock there for its trekking and laid-back lifestyle. The Leh-Manali road literally crosses the Himalaya. Accumulated altitude gain exceeds a breath-taking 9,000 metres. Taglang La is the highest point at 5328 metres. The road was built by the Indian army to supply their bases in this politically sensitive border region and has been open to foreigners for only the past ten years. The road was designed for trucks, so the gradients are not steep. About 90 percent of the road is paved and gangs of tar-smeared labourers are gradually completing the rest.
Leaving Leh, the road follows the Indus River, passing Buddhist monasteries, army bases, whitewashed houses and irrigated barley fields. The dry mountains are subtle shades of pale amber, ochre and sandstone set against a cloudless blue sky. Climbing the first pass I settle in to a steady rhythm. I am acclimatised to the thin air after three weeks trekking in Ladakh but I can still feel my heart pounding against my chest. I pause to let a convoy of green army trucks pass. Soldiers, wrapped up against the cold, wave and call. A truck stops and the turbaned Sikh driver leans down and wordlessly presents me with a fresh tomato. I choose to ignore all advice on eating uncooked food and take a bite. Sometimes you have to go with the moment. Delicious!
Across the More Plains I struggle into a headwind all afternoon. It gets so bad that I have to seek shelter behind a concrete milestone - the only structure on the road. I'm low on water so have to push on. Finally I reach the sanctuary of the tent hotels at Pang - a scruffy ring of cotton tents offering meals and accommodation. Four cups of sweet tea restore my vigour so I head out to socialise. I pass the evening with an Indian container ship captain who has sailed as far as Tauranga, and a busload of Israeli backpackers bound for the green fields of Manali.
The next few days deliver empty, windswept roads stretching past nomad camps and climbing over a couple of passes. A few lonely soldiers stand guard at bridges. They're happy to chat about Richard Hadlee, and share their cha with a passing stranger. On day four I roll down a long descent from Baralacha La into the greener Spiti region. It is strange to see trees again. I'm conscious of my grubbiness once I hit town so I check into a proper hotel and take my first shower in days. It's good to be clean but I miss the solitude of the road.
On my fifth long day in the saddle I top the last pass before dropping into Manali. I'm feeling pretty good about my dream ride as I start the 1,900-metre descent... until I meet another cyclist pushing his bike up the hill. The bike is a heavy steel beast with just five gears. His name is Deepak and he too shared my dream of riding the Himalaya, only he started 800km away in Delhi. He carries a sports bag and has a floor pump tied to his bike. Deepak is wearing jeans and said he had sore knees. He had 450km of mountains still to ride. I feel humbled.