Long Reads: Prisoners of the Mountains
WE WERE READY TO FLY halfway around the world to northern India. Then, thanks to the live weather channel that is Instagram, we saw an unseasonable winter storm dump more than 2 feet of snow on our targeted destination. Our bikepacking trip between the farming towns of India's Ladakh region had been swiftly whited out.
A local I was in touch with confirmed my fears that it was a no-go so I organized a hasty three-way phone call with photographer Kari Medig and our friend Carl Moriarty. Either the snow would melt and we'd be able to sneak in and out before the door slammed shut until springtime, or we'd have to find a new spot. I desperately emailed a seasoned Ladakhi guide named Tsering Angchok to get his take on our predicament.
Is the weather windy and cold or just cold right now? Windy and cold up high, otherwise just cold. The days will be sunny.
Will there be too much snow on Gongmaru La pass next week? Not much snow. You will cross the pass.
The 10-day weather forecast looked surprisingly stable and we were ultimately swayed by Angchok's confident and optimistic take.
The first part of the trip took me to Delhi, India's congested capital, where in the first six hours I committed a sequence of errors that reminded me I was a traveler fresh from the first world. I tried to pay for a taxi with old rupee banknotes that had been recently demonetized by the Indian government. Then, after mistakenly leaving my ATM card in a bank machine, I hopped into a sketchy taxi with a clueless driver. Soon enough, the two of us were wedged into a three-hour traffic jam and I was sure I'd misplaced my passport.
There, frustrated in a jetlagged haze of diesel fumes in what felt like a frozen double knot of cars, trucks and three-wheelers, I watched a man with no legs cross a six-lane intersection in a most dignified way, carefully swinging wood blocks under his gloved hands. This man put my current predicament quickly into perspective.
The following morning, my plane pulled out of the smoky Delhi basin and in a half-hour, I was looking out the window at snowy mountains that ran to the northern horizon. I could clearly see 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat marking the western boundary of the awe-inspiring Himalaya range, which covers 230,000 square miles in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and China.
Left: Bikepushing, not to be confused with bikepacking. Right: Prayer flags mark passes, as shown here on Konzke La.
I was headed to Leh, the northern Indian city that is the hub of Ladakh, and though it's only an hour flight, Leh (pronounced lay) feels like a different world than flatland Delhi. Leh was once the royal seat of a Buddhist kingdom called Ladakh that flourished in large part because its mountainous geography repelled centuries of hostile invaders. Unlike neighboring Tibet, which has seen decades of religious intolerance from China, today Ladakh is an arid, high-elevation, mountainous desert dotted with poplar trees that remains home to a deeply spiritual culture.
I'd been to the area eight years before and had wanted to return for a longer visit when I could ride bikes from monastery to monastery and dig deeper. On my first visit I'd crossed paths with a few monks, enough to get the sense that their practice was akin to my own athletic pursuits, something that took time and focus and yielded rewards. Moriarty and Medig were also interested in experiencing 'Little Tibet' before it vanished.
The first thing you notice as the plane drops into Leh's airport in the Indus Valley is the staggering number of military buildings. Due to territorial conflicts with Pakistan and China over the Kashmir region, northwest India is a sensitive place. Because the Indian Army restricts foreign cellular phone reception and GPS devices don't function, you are forced into a welcomed analog reality.
SOON ENOUGH the three of us were drinking tea with local guide Angchok, poring over topographical maps. The mountain ranges directly west and north of Leh could be called the foothills of the Himalaya, but they are by no means insubstantial. With snowcapped peaks that climb 6,000 feet above dusty valley floors, these mountains could absorb less-imposing mountain ranges like California's Sierra Nevada.
Angchok painted an inviting picture of ancient and well-used trails that linked small villages, some populated by as few as two families, and others as many as 20. He encouraged us to combine two popular trekking routes into an eight-day ride that would traverse an area known as the Markha Valley, cautioning us that if we went to a more remote valley we would not find food and lodging at local homestays and would have to carry more.
The route would take us by bike, on mostly trails and dirt roads, between two of the most venerated gompas, or monasteries, in Ladakh, and pass by three other monasteries along a 100-mile tour in which we would climb 20,000 feet. We'd have a possible escape road in case snow came, homestays all but one night and significant passes on just the third and final days.
We got a lift to Lamayaru, three hours west, and paid a quick visit to the hushed 800-year-old monastery before setting out. To find the trailhead, we rode through terraced barley fields and ducked under barbed-wire fences until we spied a decaying crown-shaped clump of white painted earth that stood 20-feet tall. Monks and other holy men are often buried in chortens like these and because these structures hold consecrated remains locals pass by respectfully, always on the left.
Not yet acclimated, and breathing hard, we pushed our bikes and 35 pounds of gear up 12,500-foot Prinkti La. With its strands of fluttering prayer flags that carry blessings, the pass felt like it was the official start of our venture and provided a view south. It was hard to believe that any trails could penetrate the endless rows of tall mountain peaks crowding the sky.
We dropped to the town of Wanla inside a streambed that let us shed speed by effortlessly dragging our rear wheels through the ash-like dried mud. In the wide river valley below, we forded a creek and then passed a shepherd with his flock of sheep. As shadows lengthened, a passage in a Ladakh guidebook came to mind: "You are a prisoner now in the heart of the mountains."
Just before dark we checked into a homestay named Rongstak and were soon eating hearty bowls of rice and vegetables. As we rolled out our sleeping bags, we could hear the family's eldest son chanting and drumming lightly in the room next door. He was a Buddhist monk at the monastery that loomed over town like a medieval fortress and the next day we scrambled up to inspect the many-roomed monastery built into the mountainside.
That day was an easy uphill pedal on dirt roads that took us into Hanju, where we found a dozen flat-roofed, mud-brick houses stacked on top of one another. The hillside town uses a revolving homestay program so villagers take turns hosting guests like us. (Each night we paid a standard 1,200 rupees each (or $17), for a bed, vegetarian dinner, breakfast and box lunch to go.) After calling out "homestay" we were quickly directed to a man named Tashi Dorjee who, with his wife, were selected as our hosts. We made our way up uneven rock stairways to their home, perched at the top of the town.
Clockwise, from top left: Ancient architecture; Tashi Dorjee and his barley harvest; a land of Budha; the road from Hanju.
When we woke up on the third day in the shel-khang, or glass room, where we slept, we could look south at what seemed like an endlessly ascending canyon that would take us through grazing country to a high pass.
India is a country of between 80 and 800 languages, depending on whom you ask, and English is rarely spoken in rural Ladakh. Fortunately we knew one critical Ladakhi word: jullay. Pronounced joo-lay, this word acts like verbal duct tape in dissolving cultural barriers with its multiple meanings of "hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank you" and "welcome."
Still, much of our communication was reduced to crude cross-cultural pantomimes. I said the name of the next pass we aimed to ride, Konzke La, pointed southeast, at our bikes. Our host stuck out his large tongue, rolled his eyes and wiggled his head. His meaning was not totally clear, but important to understand: Did he mean it will be a lot of work, but we could make it into the next valley? That he wouldn't advise going? Or that there was too much snow to get through? There wasn't really any better information than this dude and his outstretched tongue. Clearly we just had to go.
Though there were few signs or trail markers, we knew we had arrived at the pass, and others, when a multitude of prayer flags flapping in the wind greeted us. The climb up Konzke La was a long bike-pushing slog that ended at 16,200 feet on an icy snowfield that went over the backside. We were able to sneak down a field of scree, side slipping and using our bikes as outriggers.
At dusk, we pulled into the seemingly deserted two-family town of Sumda Chenmo. Like the night before, our hosts were elderly and excited to have us stay. As we settled into our homestay, the cold, high elevation and days of movement caught up with me. It took everything I had to drink some water, put on dry clothes and crawl into my minus-30-degree sleeping bag. Two hours later, I had sweated my way back to health and we ate dinner in our host's kitchen next to a wood stove burning twigs and dung.
By the fourth day we were ready to ride some quality trails, to gain some flow on the bikes, and cash in some of our elevation gains for smooth descents. Sure enough, within minutes of pushing out of Sumda Chenmo, we were drifting down a perfectly graded 2-foot-wide trail that clung to the lip of the wide river valley. The trail snaked along the valley walls, in and out, along the eroded drainage, seeming as if it had been built for riding bikes rather than local villagers and donkeys hauling goods.
THE QUEST TO RIDE new trails has the surprising ability to get me on a plane to fly to remote areas around the world. I am a fan of smooth, dirt trails that are just the right angle, and those that give you enough—but not too much—visibility forward. I love singletrack that leads you to unexpected places. Beyond that, I like thinking about the people who built the trails I ride—the challenges they faced in finding the way from one place to another—and the hard work they put in cutting a ribbon from raw earth. Here in Ladakh, we'd stumbled on a high-quality treasure trove. As we flowed on and down, we found what felt like ancient ledges glued illogically to the sides of cliffs laid on local rocks stacked like loose bricks. The narrow thoroughfares hung above a rocky river and sometimes crossed high above it on thin and rickety planks. The treacherous tracks were an act of belief in movement over huge, decaying stratified mounds of dirt. To avoid disaster meant concentrating hard, focusing intently.
After a few hours, the trail turned into a brand-new dirt road, creating an abrupt change. Onward we travelled. As we effortlessly dropped, it felt as though the road had bluntly erased history. And to what end, it was hard to know. Roads are a new and questionable development in the area. Some told us new roads were about progress and bringing healthcare to distant villages. But roads to keep modern invaders out in the form of Pakistan's army seemed more likely. Riding the road was a meditation on change.
That night we got to know Yogkma Tsewang, a 27-year-old with impeccable English who returned to his hometown of Chilling to study metalwork with his grandfather. The Yogkmas have been handcrafting metal since their arrival from Nepal 400 years ago, and Tsewang sees himself as maybe the last in a long line of metalworkers. Though most young people have left Ladakh's rural villages, some becoming monks, most seeking city jobs, Tsewang smiths metal vessels with fire, a steel anvil and ancient tools, sitting patiently in his parents' large marigold-studded courtyard, practicing tirelessly. As we pushed out of his family's homestay into the Markha Valley, he advised us to find lodging that night in the tiny two-building town of Sara.
We rode through the valley paralleling the gentle river while occasionally passing locals leading loaded donkeys, returning from a valley-wide wedding. In Sara, we met Dolma, our sole proprietor for the evening who had just a few remaining teeth but a wide, inviting smile that made us feel like family members. We feasted on vegetable kofta, a pot of black lentils and spinach, baked chapatti bread and she kindly cranked up the stove to keep us warm until bedtime. (Aside from a kitchen stove, none of the homestays had any other heating and inside temperatures dipped well below zero at night.) The next morning, after feeding us breakfast, Dolma quietly whispered a mantra and spun her cylindrical hand prayer wheel, which, it is believed, emanates positive energy. As a surprise blessing, she swung a censer of smoldering juniper coals around the house and then over our bikes, sending us off in a smoky farewell.
From left: Hemis Monastery houses more than just happy monks; Moriarty contemplates Hemis Monastery; the ever-hospitable homestay host, Dolma, spins her hand prayer wheel.
ON THE SECOND TO LAST MORNING, I felt the stress of what we had in front of us. I woke up staring at the ceiling of poplar beams watching my cold breath. Our last day would be the hardest yet and it was not clear whether we would make it over Gongmaru La, cresting 17,200 feet, or have to backtrack, likely in the face of a coming snowstorm. We would climb from 13,000 pushing our bikes all the way. From what we could glean from cryptic weather info, we figured we'd eventually gain the pass, but the ability to get down the far side through snowfields bolstered by recent storms remained an unknown. A local donkey train had just turned back.
We made our way up to a wide plateau called Nimaling, the local village's high country for grazing, passing hundreds of sheep headed to lower elevations for winter. As air thinned, the grade steepened, and hours clicked past. I had plenty of time to think. I waged a small war in my brain, urging myself onward and upward. I thought about the notion that to ride a bike is to suffer, and Eddy Merckx's adage that races are "won by the rider who can suffer the most."
It transfixed me: We are not racing, not even riding bikes, but we are suffering. We are suffering, that is, if suffering is walking 100 steps before begging yourself to stop, drool and gaze into space. But it's elective, nothing like the real suffering that frames Buddhism—that philosophic approach holds that life is filled with suffering. This suffering is caused by craving worldly things, which, thankfully will stop when one learns to suppress desire—achieved by following the eightfold path of right practice.
Moriarty and the author topped out at 17,200-foot Gongmaru La, uncertain how they would descend the far side.
We made it over the pass, gingerly descending at dusk through 2,000 feet of knee-deep snow—a misstep could have easily sent us tumbling. After a night tenting in a rock-strewn river valley, we were out of the mountains' clutches, prisoners no more. We made it across seemingly impassable terrain and rode straight to Hemis Monastery, one of the oldest and most vibrant Buddhist centers in Ladakh. We found a trail, followed it, and it led us to our eightfold path.
In a vast courtyard, crimson-robed teenagers wearing Nikes and Crocs followed an older monk's animated dance steps. Inside the main temple chamber, a hundred monks chanted. While the meaning of their chants was lost to me, I wanted to be nowhere else. I found a seat next to a dozen kids all under the age of 10 who, if they wanted to, could stay and practice within the monastery's walls for their entire lives, existing in the world and undifferentiated from it. After a many-day push, it's an enviously certain existence that we came close to, and for far too fleeting a moment.