|Our Really Big Adventure|
Cycle to Stok - Ladakh
| The 737 circled above
the airstrip, not in the usual holding pattern but out of the necessity
to lose height without colliding with the surrounding mountains. The foothills
of the Himalayas had appeared 30 minutes before and rapidly grew to menacing
behemoths, like infinite rows of shark teeth barring the skyline for as
far as the eye could see. Humans could not survive in these conditions,
but the mountains momentarily relented, permitting a plateau where a sparse
population could subsist. Hidden by these seemingly impenetrable mountains
it is remarkable that man ever found, let alone settled, this Kingdom.
For our first three days in Ladakh we did little more than suck on the rarefied air. Flying into 3,600 meters in unadvisable but outside the 3 summer months there is no alternative. We were hoping that we would retain some of our hard won acclimatisation from our Everest trek, however the sight of Barbara curled on our sofa in her sleeping bag, bucket no further then arms length away, soon gave voice to the lie. My physical superiority lasted all of 24 hours and as Barbara returned to her natural pale colouration I was writhing, moaning in sympathy with myself.
As the most pronounced AMS symptoms faded we managed to slowly hobble around town. Old ladies, soldiers, shop keepers and children seemed universally delighted that we had made the journey to their country and greeting us with a friendly Jullay and a smile that revealed less than adequate dental hygiene. Our weakened condition, the uncommon hospitality and the Star Wars landscape combined to give this place an unreal sense of mystery; it was easy to imagine smugglers and raiders plotting in the hills
A jeep tour of the neighbouring towns and monasteries gave us a taste of the surrounding country, but looking through a windscreen felt too detached. Mountain biking seemed like the perfect way to get out and about, giving us enough mobility without isolation. We rented two bikes, which were pretty good by Indian standards; unfortunately this just meant that the gears and brakes worked. It seemed as if the manufacturers had substituted quantity for quality, bolting on everything from suspension to derailer guards, from double handlebars to luggage racks. These spurious additions did little more than add to the bicycles already enormous weight.
Going downhill seemed easy enough and soon we had put a considerable distance between Leh and us. We must have made for an unusual sight as children screamed excitedly at our passing and we waved cheerily back. This was everything that we hoped it would be the barren desert combined with the surrounding snow capped mountains providing a backdrop unlike anything in the world. The journey to the Kings Palace at Stok, was meant to be a twenty-kilometre roundtrip, not too much for two hardened explorers despite the altitude and bouts with AMS.
Stopping regularly to ask directions we got talking, or as close to talking as you can with no common language, with two local children. We delighted them, showing them pictures of themselves on our digital camera. Soon we had them on the backs of our bicycles wearing our sunglasses and shouting with glee at their envious friends. After they showed us the Dalai Lamas summer residence they directed us off the main road across the river Indus.
We werent going downhill anymore and within a hundred yards our thighs were burning. Our lungs simply werent able to take in enough oxygen to clear the lactic acid and soon we had to stop, looking miserably at the sign reading 7 kilometres to Stok; this was no 20-kilometre round-trip! We panted for a couple of minutes and resolved to keep going, but we were soon at a standstill again.
We were tired but not in a way we were used to: within two minutes of stopping our breathing would return to normal and we were ready to continue. However, after just ten meters our thighs would start to burn, quickly becoming unbearable and forcing us to stop. We looked back at the fifty-meter stretch of road that we had covered in dismay, realizing that if we were going to make it to Stock then we would have to push our bikes most of the way there.
Finally after an hour of half pushing half cycling we arrived exhausted at Stok. We were almost uninterested in the Palace, the journey having been its own reward. We stayed there briefly, reluctant to intrude on the Kings private residence, or to challenge the authority of a large, angry-looking guard dog. It wasnt long until we were back on the bikes soaring back down to the valley floor.
All too soon we reached the Indus River and
gravity ceased to be our friend. Pushing our bikes to Stok we had been
spared any embarrassment by our solitude, however the road back to Leh
seemed to be lined with school children shouting at us, telling us to
get up and cycle. Two hours later we arrived exhausted, able to do little
more than gently cough up the desert dust that had collected in our lungs.