I’d been in Leh almost a month now and having returned from Kang Yatse more than a week ago, I had an acute case of nothing-to-do. Lala’s (a former monk’s home turned into an art cafe as part of the old town conservation project - it also serves as a showcase for the same) americanos and coffee-chocolate cakes were blending into each other. I’d given up on pretending to understand The Tibetan Book of the Dead that I’d bought from the small bookstore the last evening. Last evening, I had also performed a circumambulation of Leh, going around Old Town, Karzoo, Sanker, Tukcha and the Shanti Stupa - though in the inauspicious direction (anti-clockwise) - so I don’t know what it meant for my plans. In the process, I had also discovered Leh’s Museum of Minerals and Rocks, which I thought was funny considering all of Ladakh is essentially a museum of rocks.
Rohit was due to come back from Stok Kangri the next day, after which we were going to cycle to Tso Moriri. Tso Moriri is a high altitude lake on the eastern extension of the Changthang plateau, a little over 200 km from Leh. At 4,500 m and 26 km lengthwise, it is the largest of the Ladakh lakes entirely within India. On the western side, the lake is surrounded by the 6600 m Lungser Kangri and Chamser Kangri and on the eastern side is the 6100 m Mentok Kangri massif, at the base of which is the village and army station at Karzok - a truly massive setting.
Most of the next day, we lazed around the guesthouse, having bargained with ourselves that even if we took the next morning to organise and rent gear, we could easily make the relatively short ride to Upshi in the evening. Rohit had been on three back-to-back trips to Stok that month and was understandably knackered, and I am naturally agreeable to procrastination. Midway through next morning’s tasks to gather gear, buy spares and hire panniers, we realised the front hydraulic disc on Rohit’s bike had leaked all its fluid. It took 5 hours, a broken drill, a lemon (very essential in a bike maintenance kit) and lots of mineral oil squirting all over our clothes to fix the dysfunctional brake. By the time we got everything together and were ready to leave from Leh, it was 6 pm. We should have been in Upshi 3 hours ago.
In spite (or because of) our poor planning and professional procrastination skills, the ride up the Indus Valley was more pleasant than I remembered it from the Manali to Leh tour last year, since we avoided the midday Ladakh sun I had grown to dislike. We passed through Shey and Thiksey and as the sun began to set over the Indus, it took a sparkling blue hue. Still halfway to Upshi, night fell and as we retrieved our headlamps, we decided to ride till Karu, and make up the rest of the distance to Upshi the next morning.
From Karu, the road diverges - one going over the Chang La to Pangong Tso, and the other up the Indus Valley, where it diverges again at Upshi, to Tso Moriri and the Manali highway. The next day, with 15 kms left to Upshi, and Chumathang our objective, we were looking at an ambitious 100K. The first great decision we took was leaving at the very early hour of 10 am from Karu. A few kilometres short of Upshi, we ran (cycled) into Manjeet, who was leading a Manali - Leh cycle tour. The second great decision was an hour long conversation with Manjeet that followed. This meant it was already noon by the time we left Upshi with 85 km to go for the day.
The Indus river flowing dark and murky
Soon after Upshi, the Indus valley narrows into a steep, narrow gorge - corroded red and orange cliffs towering hundreds of feet above the gentle Indus river, a cement-like dark grey colour from the silt it carries down thousands of miles from its source near Mansarover Lake in Tibet, across Ladakh, Zanskar and Kashmir into Pakistan. Despite the motorable road, it feels fairly remote. Barely any vehicles pass by us. The villages are spread wide apart in the valley, and sometimes at a distance from the highway. At Hymia, one of the larger villages on the highway, we see the first homestays in the valley. We stop here for lunch and gain information that the 35 km of stretch that follows to Kiari is broken. It’s almost 4 pm so we debate staying at Hymia but decide against it under the fear of boredom.
The fresh tarmac slowly changes to broken tarmac to gravel and finally, after about 10 km from Hymia, to a thick carpet of broken rocks over what must once have been a road. We progress at sloth-pace for the next few hours and have only covered another 15 km in the next three hours. The sun will set soon, and the next place with a homestay is Kesar, another 20 km on terrible roads, and 15 km short of Chumathang. We start waving down army trucks without luck.
The stretch of gravel and dirt road - the worst section of the ride
“This is the worst road to cycle on. I have no motivation”, Rohit complains. I agree, “I’m gonna tell people not to cycle here, the Indus looks so ugly too”. It seems like another night ride is on the cards. Just as we’ve resigned ourselves to another late evening, a pickup truck stops for us. The back is full of wood ply slabs and doors. We climb on top, holding on with one hand to the truck to stop ourselves from toppling over, and to our bikes with the other, to stop them from toppling over. We get unceremoniously dropped off at Chumathang around 9 pm and are directed to the only guest house in the village that boasts of a hot water shower from the sulphur springs nearby, a relief for our sore backsides.
We sleep in late the next day, making another late start at 11 am. I’m pretty sure we’ll end up riding into the night again. 3/3. However, road conditions have improved dramatically and it takes us a little over an hour to make the 25 km ride to Mahe. Here, we leave the Indus Valley over a bridge on the river and into a subsidiary valley on the true left of the Indus. The landscape makes a substantial improvement as well, the murky Indus replaced by a small, clear blue stream flowing next to grazing pastures and the first trees we’ve seen since after leaving Leh. A subsequent deterioration in road conditions counteracts this improvement. We reach Sumdo, the last village before Karzok for a late lunch. Opting against heading into the main settlement where the dhabas are, a diversion from the main highway, we wolf down omelettes before beginning the climb to 4850 m Namshang La, 15 km away and 500 m above us, ignoring well-intentioned advice from the cafe owner to stay the night at Sumdo.
En route to Sumdo
Cursing the strong headwind, we make it to the pass around 6 pm, probably the last people to cross that day. Just beginning the descent from Namshang La, Kiagar Tso fills up the valley floor, its bright indigo a stark contrast from the barren hills that surround it. Compared to Tso Moriri, Kiagar Tso is a small blip on the map. “If this is the little lake, how big is the big lake?”, Rohit calls out. I have no idea what he’s saying, “Can’t hear you. How is there headwind in every direction?”
The road follows the western shore of Kiagar Tso before wading through a stream and climbing up slightly to a vast plateau, criss-crossed with tracks of vehicles having off-roaded through the Martian terrain. As the headwind finally gives way, we coast down a butter smooth road, with the sun setting. We have a tiny piece of hope that we’ll make it before dark today. We cross a bridge, and our hopes shatter like the broken road that lies ahead. Headlamps on, we start riding through the night again. 3/3. “It’s only another 5 km though, I guess”, I console myself.
5 km later, we have descended to the lake basin, although we can’t see the actual lake on account of the fact that it’s night. What we can see is a sign that screams ‘Karzok 9’, mocking us in the reflection of our headlamps. “Oh, I didn’t know Karzok is another 9 km from Tso Moriri”, I try to help. “I can see the village lights, they look kind of close”, Rohit contributes. The road here is the most broken road that can possibly exist. Any more broken, and it’s not a road anymore. We get manhandled by the loose rock that litters the trail, our headlamps bobbing up and down, illuminating a small circle of broken rock and road in front of us. Occasionally, we get off and walk the bikes a few hundred meters to give our hands, eyes and backsides some relief. As we round into a re-entrant that blocks view of the village, Rohit gets suspicious. “Where did the lights all go?”. “Maybe the villagers all went to sleep.” “I guess we’ll have to wake them up.” “Yeah.”
It’s 9 30 pm when the lights come into view again, this time much bigger and closer. The village dogs whip up a symphony and a sharp flashlight shines from the ITBP Checkpost at the head of the village. “You shouldn’t have come so late,” we’re advised. “Yeah, we know.” We register ourselves in the thick entry register - though the guard doesn’t know what to write under the ‘vehicle number’ column, he takes note of my driving license number anyway. Fortunately, there is a room available at the closest guest house and we don’t have to head further up the village. We've cycled 220 km over 2 very long days (and 2 hours), but still haven't seen what we came here to see so we're determined to watch the sunrise over the lake the next morning. After a quick dinner, we crash onto the first spring mattresses we’ve seen on this trip.
Tso Moriri and Karzok village
True to form, we sleep in past the sunrise. Once we're finally up and about, we head out to finally see the lake - encircled by high plateaus and glaciated summits, it looks a lot better in daylight. It stretches far south towards the horizon, and it is impossible to actually see the other end. The water is bright blue, surrounded by a turquoise ring near the shore. We meet Manjeet, who’s come to pick us up from Karzok, and drive a little further up to the surface of the lake. Level with the lake, it's hard to comprehend its size. The shore is littered with pebbles and driftweed, and as the waves do their back and forth dance, it feels like being next to a sea among mountains. The rigours of the last two days fade away effortlessly. The crystal clear water makes for excellent stone skimming and I set and break multiple personal bests. As far as lakes go, this one is a solid 10/10. In the afternoon, we drive back to Leh. As much as we complained about the road, cycling up to the lake was definitely more rewarding than driving back to Leh.