24.9.12

Riding an Enfield through Spiti Valley & Ladakh


Sertx & I are now 3300m high in the Himalayas, after having driven 2372km & reaching 5373m in height on the Enfield motorbike. We rode over the 2 highest motorable passes in the world; Taglang-La at 5347m & Khardung-La at 5373m. We also recently trekked up the 6125m Stok Kangri mountain; it took 2 short days to walk to base camp, from where we were woken at 1am to spend, what was to be, 7 hours to reach the summit. Only 15 minutes into the hike and it already started snowing heavily. We crossed a large glacier & had to jump over small crevasses in the dark, all the time walking on rocky ground; it would have been impossible without a guide! We gave up after 4 hours, at 5769m, halfway up a steep, loose-rock cliff edge, as we both started hallucinating plus it was freezing & just too foggy to see ahead - we were exhausted out of our minds! Thankfully we were not the only ones who found it hard & had to turn back.
 
We have met many other Enfielders en-route, as well as a few short-route cyclists whom we cheered on, & also the famous touring cyclists Pikes on Bikes, who originally inspired us to cycle the Andes, which we will still do one day. Travelling by motorbike has allowed us to enjoy more time in the places we visit and luckily our bike hasn’t given up on us - after its first appalling week where we needed to visit a workshop 5 times; at one point the battery failed, leaving us stranded on a mountain-top only 20km from our destination, for which we had to load the bike on the back of a van and were driven down to the flat plains again just to find a workshop.
Here in the Ladakh region we have been living alongside Tibetan people, who have just finished celebrating their annual festival, where people from different areas of the region dress up, sing & dance. We also recently returned from the super spectacular, sandy Nubra Valley, where we visited Baltistan, a former Pakistani area until 1971, and closed to tourists until 2 years ago. We have been as north as is possible in India. Next we will spend one month riding back to Delhi, via Amritsar, where we will visit the Golden Temple, home to the Sikhs. In Delhi we will end our trip and catch a flight back to London again!

Rock n Roll
After leaving Chandigarh we headed up into the steep pedestrian village Shimla, known for its summer retreat of the Raj. We drove through Kinnaur valley, which was lush green, and then through Spiti valley, which was dry, brown desert land. We watched the mountains being pounded by machines and also blown-up – all to make way for a wider, smoother tarmac road. These new roads were in the process of being constructed along most of the way; and we occasionally saw large rocks rolling off the edges down to the roads below! We are however extremely grateful to all the Indian workers who toil in freezing conditions to construct the new roads.  

We drove through immensely astounding rocky & arid landscapes; sometimes also along hair-raising sandy roads; also down steep, spine-tingling roads with no visible barriers; along cliff edges which dropped 50m down into a narrow river; through a number of metre-deep rivers, which cut through the roads, and even through a couple of muddy landslides. Only a 15 minute thunderstorm rain shower can create a torturous, metre-thick muddy path to cross.


We were riding over mountain passes higher than 3800m, with the occasional snowy mountain peak revealing itself from behind the clouds and also observed the thick snowy glaciers, gradually melting between the peaks. We also crossed through an ‘inline’ area bordering Tibet – our closest at only 17km from the country, where the Indian army were based. 



 

We met an Enfield couple from Bombay at a landslide near Kaza with whom we crossed over the 4557m high Kunzum-La pass. We rode together along the toughest muddiest stretch, so we could help each other out (unfortunately we weren’t much help, as they were the ones wearing rubber boots!) Together we rode passed the ‘Gaddi’ shepherds controlling their enormous herds of sheep & goats – the shepherds often carry the youngest lamb in their arms, or parcel up 8 of them in woven sacks which are slung around their horses!
We connected to the infamous ‘Manali – Leh’ highway, which is misleading as the road is barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. The climate here is so extreme that this highway is only open for 4 months each year. We rode north passing higher mountains; Baralacha-La at 4910m; Nakeela-La at 4937m & Lachulang-La at 5074m. We also spent a night in a tent with an attached bathroom which had a ceramic toilet & sink! Our last stop before Leh was at Tso Kar lake where we spotted 2 black-necked cranes and a pack of wild kiang horses. We have also seen massive buzzards & eagles, some blue sheep (which are actually goats,) a few Ladakh pikas, plus several friendly, furry & fat Himalayan marmots on our walks through the mountains. Unfortunately we haven’t spotted a snow leopard yet.
Just before entering Leh we entered what seemed like a Star Wars set – a purple coloured gorge with immense upended strata rock. As a pillion passenger I got the chance to observe all the various rock formation patterns, from flat and wavy, or smooth as sand, to jagged and sharp. This landscape is worth a billion – the mountains are like a compilation of all the finest jewels of the world – and passing through them is better than a visit to Mars!

Locals & Mud-Brick Architecture
The time and effort it takes to ride through this landscape makes you wonder how on earth anyone can come and settle down to live here in the middle of what seems like nowhere amongst this desert land. The people we met are not Indian-looking at all and we often forget we’re still in India; There are more Tibetan flags & prayer flags around than Indian flags. Everyone is friendly & welcoming, yet the food is unfortunately minimal – with only a choice of chowmain fried noodles or vegetable momos dumplings along with milky masala chai tea. Thankfully I can have locally grown porridge oats for breakfast. I woke up one morning to find a scorpion crawling out from under my bag; which was a stronger wake-up call than my beloved black coffee for once! At night, when we turn off the lights to sleep, all the dogs start barking non-stop.

We have visited several monasteries, including the most important, yet what seemed like the smallest one in Ladakh, the Khardong Monastery. At Hemis we watched artists carefully paint the colourful demons on the temple walls. For Thiksey we had to climb over 300 steps to reach the monastery, but were gratefully rewarded with amazing views, as well as seeing a massive golden Buddha in one of the temples. We also stopped in Tabo to see three of its nine small temples, one of which had paintings from the 16th century. We also visited a very old temple on top of a mountain in Sarahan, which was dedicated solely to the Hindu goddess Kali.


The houses in the Ladakh region are built from mud-brick, which is supposedly best for keeping in the warmth during the long -30°C winter months. The locals also collect cow pat & either pile it on top of their roofs or place stacks of it beside their cow-coartyards for use as insulation or fuel in winter. We visited a tiny town, Nako, at 3600m elevation which had beautiful houses made from mud-brick, wood & stone. Each house also has a small private courtyard for their cow. When walking through the town we also noticed the underneath of house-walkways were decorated with colourful Buddhist scenes and Mandalas, made from fabric suck to the wood structure.



Riding on a Royal Enfield through this astounding landscape is in our opinion, the ultimate experience of a lifetime. If you ever get the chance you have to ride around here.

15.8.12

Changing Bikes for Touring Northern India

Surprise!!
We decided to exchange our bikes for a 500cc Royal Enfield motorbike!
On our Royal Enfield at the India Gate in Delhi
There are a couple of reasons for changing our form of transport:
We want to stop sweating all day, relax a bit & start our holidays – being able to spend more time in the places we visit;
As it’s monsoon season we want to reach our destination faster, before the daily 4pm rain showers;
Our budget is running low so we won’t be going to South America as planned & instead will be spending longer touring India, thereby covering greater distances, which are too long to do safely by bicycle;
By travelling greater distances daily we then know where we’re sleeping before it gets dark, unlike when we were cycling;
We want to feel safer in the chaotic Indian traffic, so have moved to an upper caste now; from “touchables” to Enfielders;
We still have a few 5000m+ mountain passes to cross on our way to Leh, so adventures are guaranteed!
Hot dogs in Rishikesh
I get to navigate for once & take photos without stopping & frustrating Sertx, whilst he enjoys driving the bike, beeping our loud double-horn on the road (making somebody else’s ear drums burst for a change), & learning about how to fix all its different parts after it breaks down…every day. And now, rather than being covered in wet-dripping sweat, we get covered in a layer of black sandy dirt, as well as petrol and oil. We love riding the Royal Enfield so far, yet our knees, backs & bums already ache due to the different seat position, but it’s all part of the fun.
The joy of seeing the locals who gather around & watch us on our bicycle breaks
So we ended our cycling adventure in Varanasi, city of birth, life & death, just after visiting Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. After visiting these two symbolic places, we decided to give our bicycles a rest, and begin our motor biking adventure from New Delhi, heading north into the Indian Himalayas.

Incredible India
In India the traffic is the scariest. Whilst cycling, some guys on motorbikes have pulled up right beside us to try to engage in conversation – stopping all traffic behind them and creating a narrower & more dangerous cycling situation for us. Some guys have tried, & some have even succeeded, in stroking me as they ride on by. Another guy wanted Sertx’s autograph for some unknown reason, and chased after us for a while. In Nepal we were continuously asked ‘where from?’ whereas in India we are asked ‘Where are you going to?’ We receive attention & help wherever we go; when we stop to catch a bite for lunch, the locals slowly stop what they’re doing & start crowding around us to stare at what we’re doing. When lost or when the motorbike has broken down in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, people still manage to appear and offer all their time and endless efforts in helping us. 

So far we have visited Varanasi, known for the rituals & ceremonies taking place at & in the Ganges river;
bathing water buffalos
New Delhi, the bustling capital;
Lotus Temple in Delhi
Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world made famous by the Beatles; 
Kali goddess statue in Rishikesh
Mussoorie, a crowded yet beautiful 2000m high mountain resort & 
arriving in busy Mussoorie
Chandigarh, master planned by the one & only Le Corbusier.
Sertx in the Rock Garden in Chandigarh
India has the most delectably flavoured food & sweets, and the flies that share our meals think the same too! We pass monkeys, elephants, goats, buffalos & holy cows on the roads every day. Every corner is full of surprises. India is an incredible country!
 

A Short Cycle through the Nepal Terai

Nepal Experience
Our first day in Kathmandu involved running to the Indian Embassy to apply for a visa, as this was going to take 5 days. Already here Sertx managed to make friends with the security guard who helped us jump the 2 hour queue; we therefore wasted little time and went straight into touring the city centre. We visited Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Durbar Square in Patan and Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, where we saw countless statues of gods, goddesses, deities and Buddhas, carved out of wood, metal and brick into the many different kinds of houses & temples which make up the squares. We saw the palace where the virgin goddess, Kumari Devi, lives – this tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as a manifestation of the divine female energy, has been practiced by Hindus since the 17th century. We also visited the small temples Changu Narayan & Gokarna Mahadev known for their numerous Hindu goddess statues, and spent many evenings walking around the world’s largest stupa at Bodhnath, alongside the locals who carry their rosaries, whispering their prayers.

The Nepalese women are Chinese-looking, dressed in brightly coloured Indian-like saris and the Tibetan woman wear multi-coloured striped silk aprons over their plain dresses. As well as buying Tibetan flags to dress our bicycles, we also bought some Tibetan herbal medicine – which resembles goat droppings, tastes fowl yet apparently works wonders for one’s health. We drank many milky masala chai’s and ate the spiciest & most delicious foods. In Nepal they use cardamom, cumin, turmeric and chilli together with potato, pumpkin, squash, green leaves, lentils and meats. The food is so tasty and we can’t get enough of it.

Phenomenal Himalaya Mountain Views
On cycling out of Kathmandu we were continuously surrounded by heavy honking traffic, and at the end of the day, covered in a layer of brown dust from head to toe. Thankfully the truck drivers in the mountains had softer sounding horns and also beeped much less, sometimes just flashing their lights at us to indicate a friendly hello. Yet the drivers still drive like crazy & we already saw an accident where a tourist bus had flown off a cliff edge some 30 metres down into a river. The following day we read ‘17 killed and 26 injured’ in the local paper. 
Not a comforting thought, however, we were cycling in a beautiful subtropical country again, passing lush green land, rice fields, tiny thatched-house villages & friendly water buffalos, so our minds were distracted from the danger for most of our ride through the country. We spent 6 days cycling through the Terai, the flat plain land, which makes up 17% of Nepal, with 50% of its population & 70% of its agriculture. This land rises from 90m in the south to 8850m at Mount Everest in the north.
We already spotted Mount Everest from the plane – its pyramidal summit, peeking its way through two cloud layers. We stopped in a couple of towns to see the best views of the mountain ranges; Bandipur, a pretty little town on top of a mountain, to which we hitched a ride with the presidential armed forces, (due to the last 5km being extremely steep) is a great place to spot the Mahabharat mountain range from. Pokhara was another town from which to see the Annapurna range. We spent a few days in both towns waiting for the thick fog & rain to clear, before we could see the amazing mountain peaks. It is said that the design of the local Newari pagoda temples were inspired by the triangular-like mountain peaks. 
Nepal is stunning, and neither the constant power cuts nor the cockroaches who visited us in every hotel we stayed in stopped us from adoring the country. One massive cockroach even crawled through my hair and halfway across my face in the middle of one night; but thankfully they don’t sting or do anything disgusting & it only took 1 hour for Sertx to get rid of the rest of them hiding behind the bed.
 

13.8.12

434km Cycling Up & Down Sichuan Mountains

On leaving Shangri-La mid-June we spent 10 days touring the mountainous region of Sichuan, in West China. We had initially planned & paid for a cycling trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, yet only one month before our flight to Tibet we discovered that the Chinese created a new rule - stating that all foreign visitors to TAR have to be in groups of 5 or more & all must be from the same nation. This destroyed our plans making us deeply upset, so we therefore decided to spend the next month cycling around the Sichuan province in China; planning to visit the North & South Tibetan Highways, which we were hoping would give us some insight to what Tibet is like.


Majestic Mountains
We spent the last couple of weeks in June cycling up & down the foothills of the Himalaya mountains in the Sichuan province in China, along the border of Tibet. Our highest mountain pass was at 4652m. Some of these rides through the bare mountains at 4000m+ altitude have been our best rides yet, although none of them were easy. Breathing became trickier as the air got thinner (I troubled Sertx by taking breaks every couple of kilometres just to have a semi-asthma attack and get enough air into my lungs,) and the days became shorter as it started to rain every afternoon, with dense fog covering our views. 
 
The temperature also decreased dramatically; I was pulling my windproof jacket, arm-warmers, gloves and ear-covers on & off about 5 times per hour whilst cycling (annoying Sertx who would just deal with sweating profoundly in his jacket); riding uphill became uncomfortable. Luckily the Chinese make good fakes; I bought a North Face winter jacket in Shangri-La, which works better than my non-waterproof Gore-Tex jacket. Some days we cycled just 20 or 30km up a mountain to get over another mountain pass at over 4000m altitude, then descend 20km and 1000m into a warmer valley, where we would rest the night before starting another 1000m mountain climb the following day.

The landscape was stunning. There were whitewashed stupas dotted everywhere and the locals had hung strings of colourful Tibetan flags between shallow mountain peaks in villages and also across rivers. Every beautiful Tibetan-style house we saw also had a big red Chinese flag on display, which made us question whether these were really Tibetan or just recently built for Chinese tourists. We finally used our tent and camped a couple of times, taking care to wait until it was dark so no one could see us; although we were always found in the morning by the farmers who walked their cattle across the fields. 


We also spent nights in rooms with no running water; no sink, no toilet, no shower; having to use the ‘street-tap’ and wash in front of the whole village, often in the rainy weather. There was one occasion when Sertx asked where the toilet was, and the man of the place we were staying in replied ‘go off the balcony’. We saw many pigs, dogs, goats and yaks in the mountains; and we awkwardly also met the dogs & pigs in the village toilets. 




We tried ‘butter tea’ which tasted like oily tea straight from a yak’s udder, and we ate momos, small Tibetan semi-fried dumplings filled with either vegetable or buffalo meat. We did not try some of the stranger foods on display, such as pig snout or ears, chicken crests or feet or duck tongue. We also saw the locals selling golden root-worms for 10 dollars a worm, which are apparently good for you, after you’ve scrapped all the earth off them with a steel brush.





Tibetan Monasteries 
We visited a couple of monasteries, one in Xiangcheng & another in Litang, and the monks have been the nicest people we’ve met in China so far! In Xiangcheng we watched 4 monks creating a Mandela – using special hand-crafted metal tools which they would bang with the end of a knife to let out a certain amount of different coloured salt. On entering the monastery in Litang we had a group of young monks cycle away with our bikes for 30 minutes. They were so excited until one of them got their red dress caught in the chain. 

Both monasteries were spectacular, with large detailed, colourful paintings of Buddhas & demons covering all walls inside & out. The monks even congratulated Sertx on his big beard and several of them asked to be photographed together with him, little did they know it was his birthday, so he was happy to get the compliments. In Litang we were also invited to watch the monks pray, with their big yellow Mohican-like hats on.


Otherwise, the local men continue to play board games at their local restaurants, whilst the women continue to work in markets or restaurants or even on construction sites. At least they have a daily exercise get-together after a day’s work, in the main square or park, where you can see groups of 30 or more woman dancing in sync together to music blaring from a stereo speaker. The locals also spend lots of time turning prayer wheels at their town stupa.



Under Construction
There is construction going on in every city and town we’ve gone through & stayed in. A new highway is also being built right across the province – which results in many heavyweight trucks passing by us on the roads. These trucks, and also motor bikers, would beep their horns so loud it felt as though our ear drums had burst. They weren’t honking at us – they were just doing what felt absolutely normal to them- honking for about 1 minute before & continuing after turning a bend in the mountain. We cycled by several earth & rocky landslides, thinking ourselves lucky not to have experienced one, yet we’re both hard-headed Cancerians so it would have been fine anyhow!

We didn’t expect Litang to be a town under construction, yet on arriving the town was loud, dusty and all the roads were being rebuilt. It wasn’t exactly the Tibetan experience we were hoping for. There was also no bank for foreign credit cards in Litang so we had to head to a city, rather than continue our planned route to Garze on the North Tibetan Highway. 



The South Tibetan Highway was not all we assumed it would be. We were fortunate that we decided to take a 15 hour minivan ride to the next city instead of cycle the whole way; which involved another three 3000m+ mountain passes. It had rained the last week and as the road was under construction it became a massive thick mud-bath that even the buses & 4WD’s had trouble crossing. This was the bumpiest and slipperiest ride we’ve ever had, let alone being the longest in a minivan. The ride also destroyed the soft parts of our bicycles, which were strapped upside-down on the roof for the journey. The day after this we chose to endure another 8 hour bus ride into Chengdu, from where we would take a plane out of China.

Chengdu chaos
Strangely, we found the city cleaner and quieter than the towns in the mountains, yet the mosquitos were back & biting again. The mountains were disappointingly littered with green, glass beer bottles and red ‘Panda’ cigarette packets in every corner, yet we found the people there more welcoming to tourists than in the busy city. We also got a bit tired of hearing the locals’ constant throat-clearing-spitting and seeing them with their fingers all the way up their nostrils before inviting us to their restaurants, so we felt it was our time to leave. On our last day we decided to take a cab to visit the Panda Breeding Centre, yet the driver drove us in the opposite direction; after we complained because we knew what he was up to, he only said sorry before speedily driving - like in a computer game - through traffic making us sick as parrots and wanting to get out so he got his money & we didn’t get to where we want to go. However, we got to see the famous pandas in the end, by taking a minivan tour and otherwise we quite enjoyed cycling through Sichuan!