Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I have been reminded that it’s been awhile since I’ve updated this blog. Under normal circumstances I would associate this gap in correspondence to my own laziness and procrastinative nature; fortunately for me and my dislike of thinking up new excuses for my deference of responsibility, circumstances are fairly normal and I remain the lazy and procrastinating writer and use such as a valid excuse.

However if I was looking for more excuses (for you especially rascally readers that demand more frequent updates), and often I do (despite what I might say otherwise), I would suggested that my lack of updates are due, not to circumstance within my control, but because of my being out and about in the mountains and therefore far far away from internet & computers; and now I can put an end to deferring my blog, write this current entry which will be lengthy and full of whimsical stories and vibrant pictures of me messing around with a bunch of Indians, and ultimately put an end to this run-on sentence. With any luck to you, the reader, I will do what I can to save you from my long rambling prose wherever a picture may take its place.

For example here’s me on my balcony taking a picture as I pretend to write this entry:

I’d been away from Mumbai for about 3 ½ weeks with the excuse of further investigating this obscure ski resort idea I’ve mentioned in the past. However, what dominated my time was a 485 kilometer bicycle ride across the Himalayan and Zanskar mountain Ranges; the beginning climbed out of the Kullu Valley, up the southern Himalayan foothills, north and further up and across both ranges, into the Indus Valley (where India’s first civilizations flourished in 2500 B.C. (ironically in much of what is now under Pakistani control)) where the mighty Indus River chooses to flow, and ultimately ends in the high-desert town of Leh.

I first spent about five days in Delhi investigating ski resort possibilities and preparing to cycle. The ski resort business took an unexpected twist when I met up with a fellow I’ve since tagged as my evil twin. We’ll call him John (that’s his name) and I spent the day with him at the office and at his home chatting about life, the universe, and the ski resort. I soon discovered that we had ideas eerily similar to each other and that he has contacts and business partners with people I already know and hoped to assimilate. Well, it’s a small country and good ideas are seldom held by only one! The question began to twinkle in my mind; do I work with this fellow, against him, or simply make him disappear…? So then I considered the fact that he has a few minor advantages on me regarding the project including: a solid one-year’s head start planning with lawyers and government official; he’s connected to money – lots of it – through a friend at an American firm called Ford Motor Company (his friend being the last remaining relative to ol’ Henry to hold power at the upper echelons of the company); and he has lived and worked in India doing this sort of tourist development for the past fifteen years. We’ll see what happens, I think I might still have to kill him. Oh yeah, and while in Delhi I also bought a bicycle (an immediate importance to the success of this trip), grabbed some maps, and met up with a bicycle dude who showed me pictures and offered me his advice for the trip (his wife was throwing a casual party at their home where I smoozed, ate great food, and sipped their wine (a budding drink in the lifestyle of the sophisticated Indian)).

Despite all suggestions made by people who understand the Indian highway system, I bought an Indian road bike rather than the preferred (preferably imported) mountain bike. I chose this option for one simple reason: I planned to ride on a road. Anther reason, less profound though no less simple, I planned on riding up big hills and would enjoy riding back down the other side on a zippy road bike built for being zippy on big downhills. So, I was off…

Fortunately (for I didn’t really know where I was off to or how to get there by cycle (until what I’m about to write about happened)), before boarding the bus I found a wonderful website that sympathetically laid out the ride including a route profile, distances between important points, place to camp, and where to get food/water! I pushed print and used this six-rupee copy from then on as if my life depended on it. Peculiarly, after boarding this bus from Delhi to Manali, I found myself assigned to sit next to the only other foreigner on the bus; he also happened to be the only other person with a bicycle; he also happened to be a long-distance cyclist; even more unlikely he happened to be the author of that wonderful website that would prove so useful!

Anyway, I promised fewer words and more pictures, so let’s get to it. Riding out of the Kullu Valley was beautiful, not only because it would be the last time I would travel through a lush, green, cannabis rich landscapes but also because for the last time the surrounding hills would offer views flush with vivid plant life, greenery, and natures own narcotics.

(note, to view these panoramas, a recent version of Apple's QuickTime may need to be installed or updated)

The ride out of the valley and over the first mountain pass was longer than expected; the first evening I camped perched on a beautiful hill amongst trees, cows, and a fantastic view…the next morning I woke fearing for my life as rain showers turned to an electrical storm! I felt sure the tremendous lightening crashing all around me would soon take an interest in my tent perched atop this beautiful hill amongst, trees, cows and a fantastic view. Like an earthquake, the ground rolled with each flashing crash of lightening but, as you may have guessed, I survived.

On the way up (and for the remaining 450 kilometers) the road was ripe with surprises:

And then, from time to time, there is the general absence of road.

Looking back:

One thing I didn’t expect to stumble across at 11,000 ft was a film crew shooting an action sequence with one of India’s biggest movie stars, Sunny Deol. Next time I’m cycling around the Himalayas I won’t be so careless because at about 11,000 feet I did stumble across a film crew – they were shooting an action sequence (somehow involving a guy, a horse, and a motorcycle) for the Bollywood film “Kaafiela” staring the Sunny Deol. Leave it to Bollywood, the world’s greatest (that’s measured by quantity not necessarily quality) film industry in the world to shoot a dance/action sequence which, in only a space of three-minutes time, takes the viewer (and the actors) all over the world - and apparently pretty high, too. Here they are, and if you were a savvy Indian you would probably be zooming in trying to get a glimpse of the notorious celebrities roaming about the crowd. However, if your knowledge of the Indian film scene is anything akin to mine then you probably can’t tell the difference between the sound-boy and the fella who’s supposed to be on that motorcycle.

And in the spirit of finding strange things in India, nearby is this reasonable (if not expensive) red-roofed hotel where I decided to spend the night and acclimate (they let me sleep on the couch in the lobby after my having exclaimed at their nightly fees). Again, you savvy Bollywood fans would be zooming into the background for a better look.

That hotel bit gets its own paragraph, and this sign gets its own picture.

I guess I thought the views were quite spectacular because, though I wasn’t making very good time, I sure was taking a lot of pictures.

The ride over the first, and smallest, mountain pass went well. Today I felt good and not badly crippled by the rising altitude. As the days progressed I would come to feel less appreciative toward the weight of my cycle (sleeping bag, tent, water, books, maps, and even a full sized toothbrush), the gear ratio it provided (I tried before I left to get it refitted with more “pleasant” gears, “Say, can’t you just pull the gears off of that bike?” “No sir, that is a bike in for repair…”), the comfort of my saddle (in the bike shop I inspected every seat and insisted that I pull the seat off of, “that bike”), and the thinning air. Yet, these early days were relatively free of common verbal curses and relatively thick with oxygen. The top of the pass isn’t much to look at. It is however well marked with a big concrete and yellow sign an it is my understanding that there is a group of young men, presumably paid by the government, on guard 24 hours/day to insure that no visitor photographs the signs message: Altitude 13,500(ish) feet.

The landscape on the other side of the pass changed from intense greens to a more thirsty rocky-yellow which, when added to the forever snow-capped peaks, made for a beautiful and vertigouse sight.

The rain that had been threatening to let loose all day finally made good with its promise and kept up a steady fall for the way down, but that didn’t damper the thrill of the twisted 20 km a decent to the river below.

Note the road. Note the truck in the upcoming image. Imagine that this truck is moving quite fast. I saw no less than six Large vehicles wrecked off the road and totally thrashed. In some cases the elevation drops into the valleys below from the road probably exceeded 2000 vertical feet leading to an unlikely rescue of the body and vehicle (but quite a sight to witness as the vehicle makes the miscalculated journey downward!).

While, at the end of the day the road always went up, in between it had a tendency to go up and down a few times. Here’s an up moment.

Part of what makes a day really fabulous are the dhabas every 50km or so. Lay out a square-shaped waist-high rock wall and cover it circus-tent style with a big blue tarp, throw in a gas stove and you’ve got yourself a dhaba; a place to sell me hot chai and an omlette, sometimes noodles, or Tibetan momos. I’m not sure what they do with the rest of the day.

Local apple juice, biscuits, and a few coveted Clif bars were fuel between stops.

Among many is the following struggle inside my head:

Sometimes the road is downright rotten (a few times early on, before I entered the rain-shadow, I can recall the rain mixing with the rock/mud paved roads to make it impossible to peddle up hills and impossible to stop while going down (those poor Indian brakes just can’t handle everything)) (often, when the road is at it’s peak of disrepair – been run through by a landslide, hit by a meteorite, whatever – there stands a sign that reads “Inconvenience noted – repairs planned”. Inconvenience!?! Pushing my cycle an hour through mud and river flow, then only to do it again, strains the definition of inconvenience. No matter, the problem has been noted by the road authorities and they are doing everything in their power to mobilize the resources necessary to get this placed fixed up) and if I’m not enjoying rallying the pothole chicanes, or cows, or goats, I am cursing the Hotel-6-coin-operated-styled-vibrating-bicycle decent (good thing I bought the plush steel bike rather than the rigid aluminum) and then I see the conditions under which this 485 km stretch of road is paved:

The struggle begins in my head as the guilt floods through my body at having deliberated the definition of “inconvenience” and then observing/breathing what it takes remedy that inconvenience.

Cycling through these smoky corridors is absolutely sickening and these boys (not surprisingly, there are few elders here) are black not so much from the bubbling asphalt they use to patch together the road but from the tires they keep burning to heat the asphalt. And so: do I wish for a better road or for these poor people to throw down their fiery tools and find other work that won’t lead to their premature death (okay, trick question, the answer is for the exclusive use of the proper paving machine I once saw used which eliminates the endless smoky scenes like this one above – and consequently paves a much nicer road).

“Drop your fiery tools and run away…!!!”

Jeez, despite a height of 16,500’ I’m still wearing shorts. Oh yeah, I remember this upcoming picture now. It was taken at the top of what was probably the hardest (though not the highest) climb of the ride; hardest because it was soooo loooong. It had started the morning before at about 10,000 feet, and climbed about 90 kilometers to Baralacha pass of 16,500 ft. I was a bit tired at the top. Unfortunately, the ride down the backside to camp that night totally sucked: downhill on a crumby road. Interestingly enough, at 200 kilometers into the ride this road would remain at altitudes above 14,000 until the very end.

Acclimating is good.

I didn’t much like sharing the road with the massive transport trucks that soared up and down the road, but just once we got to change places:

A stashed boiled egg, me, and some Tibetan prayer flags tagged around a rock pile near a mountain pass.

It doesn’t look that cold here, does it?

Over another increasingly high mountain pass and back down again is a lot of work and is also exceedingly rewarding; this one led to what was to be the most amazing downhill I was ever to have on a road bike (surpassed only by what was later to come). 36km descending on a smooth and twisty road through a steep red-rock canyon making for a terrific (though rather late to camp) day.

A break from the relentless upping and downing of mountains came, as expected, in geological form: the Moray Plains. The Moray Planes run a long stretch of (faintly downhill sloping) plateau caught somewhere in eerie solitude between the Himalayan and Zanskar Ranges. The run along the planes add a bunch of miles onto the ride today (not totally appreciated by my behind) and screamed loudly of the calm they represent before the tyranny of the days end by cresting what is known as the worlds second highest motorable pass (arguably the first highest (I’ll explain why later)) (arguably not the first highest by the opposing side (that would be the cartographers)).

Lucky for me, I stopped and sat down on the side of the road to rest my shoes when a jeep pulls up beside and asks if I need help. “No” I tell them, “I’m alright” and then noticed the two bikes stashed among loads of stuff in the vehicle. I then ask them if they have particular tool X (okay, a big pair of pliers) as my bicycle needs some added torquing. No, they don’t have this, but what they do have is loads of food. The food they compel me to take far exceeds that which I can refuse (after all, I have a lot of climbing to do and the added weight would be...– oh who am I kidding, that bike weighed so much an extra Indian boy on the handle bars probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference – when have I ever turned down free food on a bike ride?). They gave me food I felt like I hadn’t eaten in ages like apples (which I lost somehow), cheese, crackers, a can of tuna (which I don’t suggest eating at altitude on a bike ride), and S’mores Quaker Oat bars! Wow. As it turns out these guys were driving back from Leh (my destination). Out of these four guys, one fella road his bike from Manali to Leh (my intended route as well) but with the support of this crew (carrying his stuff, had lunch/dinner waiting for him, performing deep tissue massage). To top it off, they managed to convince a friends company to fund the whole operation! Hmmm, I thought, I’m really going about this little trek of mine all wrong.

Boy were those Quaker oat bars good, the cheese and crackers too.

Incidentally, I would soon learn that canned tuna and half a dozen Quaker oat bars make the combination for perfect abdominal revelry (imagine fish singing, dancing, roasting S’mores over an open fire). However, there was work to be done as the road continued upward and the sun responded by sinking farther and farther downward. Slowly riding along with my fish, and noting that the sun clearly wasn’t going to change its mind, I was beginning to think that maybe those boys in the jeep were right. No not about the tuna being a tasty lunch rather that I should have made camp in the valley before crossing over the pass to avoid a frigid ride up and a darkening ride down. Too late for reminiscing, after all I’m nearly at the top and the sun is still shining (wow, check out the road cruising back to Manali).

At the top I took advantage of the absence of Indian boys employed to hide the altitude signs. So here’s the look-I’m-getting-my-picture-taken-picture-at-the-the-worlds-2nd-highest-motorable-pass: 17,xxx feet high.

The ride downhill promised to be spectacular (well, the guys in the jeep promised it to be spectacular anyway). Ice “water” falls graced the roadside at a certainly elevation (presumably between were the snow is forever present and where it melts with the seasons) on the way down.

But before I would really get into it, I would first have to flat my rear tire and make camp near twilight.

At 17,000 ft I didn’t sleep worth a darn but awoke from a blurry slumber in the morning to a beautiful day and an opportunity not to have to ride up any more hills for as long as I chose.

Leh would be under my feet by the end of the day, and with it, the loss of 6500 vertical feet over almost 70 kilometers. Wow, again! That sure was fun! The hours of twisting downhill and ever changing scenery through the losses in altitude were absolutely astounding (perhaps I would have more pictures but the camera froze over night in my tent, didn’t function most of the morning, and hasn’t worked the same since)!

After the decent the 50km home stretch into Leh snaked along the Indus River through a valley meagerly spotted with civilization but ripe with living history and the decaying edifices to match. Flipping through my pictures, looking for the good ones to post here, I note that the selection is slim. Not because of any lack of beauty - that was rampant- but because of the wind tunnel. Coasting out of the desolate mountains to the town of Leh promised to be a relaxing journey into a glorious sanctuary of twenty-first century life…and I was almost there What I hadn’t considered is that this valley is narrowly closed in on both sides by high mountains with a strong wind rushing south-east from Pakistan. Such a wind meant a constant pressing against my face, a force that would knock over the bike if left awkwardly on its kickstand, and a great slowing of pace. It would be the culprit for my wanting to throw my bike into the river, cry for a bit, and then thumbing a ride the rest of the way (I did get some pleasure in watching busses, traveling the opposite direction than I, full of passengers keeping their faces covered with a cotton cloth. The reason? Because they were traveling in a growing perpetual cloud of their own black exhaust (the black exhaust they’ve caressed me with these last 400 km) as their tailwind matched the speed of the vehicle.) Anyway, enough of the griping and awkward quiet vengeance toward buses, let’s see what pictures we have:

I did make it into the quiet little town of Leh and into a hotel room before dark where I threw down my things and begged for hot water to be brought as soon as possible. Oh, just for fun, here’s the route profile brought to you by that nice American cyclist I met on the Bus:

A short note about Leh and its state of Jammu & Kashmir: (I’m not sure what the connection is, though I’m going to make the mental leap and say that it is a direct connection with a varied spelling, between the Indian state of Kashmir and the soft woolen fabric cashmere. What I do know is that this wonderfully soft spun fabric is sold for a considerable premium all over the state and in the poshest centers of the world) bordering Pakistan and Tibet this far northern reach of India is a melting pot of cultures and unlike any “India” that I have known otherwise. Consequently the borders here have also lead to a great deal of political, cultural, and religious strife over the years making this end of India an ongoing source of military conflict. India’s war with China in the early sixties lead to this area being closed off to foreigners until 1974 and India’s ongoing squabble with Pakistan over border placement is responsible for the militarized mountain peaks and occasional shelling of towns and highways near lines of dispute which still persist today (watching/reading the news recently of the most recent earthquake epicentered in Pakistan one might note the language of "Pakistan-administered Kashmir" and the "line of control” dividing the "disputed regions" as evidence of the cleavage within this area and its wavering stability). The 60,000+ civilian deaths and handful of foreign tourist deaths resulting from India’s war with Pakistan has significantly curbed tourism in these part to near extinction; a tragedy because it is here that some of India’s most remarkable beauty rests in deserts, lush mountains, glaciers, and intricate waterways busy with floating markets and houseboats.

It’s a mixed report depending on who you talk to regarding the levels of irritation between the two nations; around here most say that things are quiet and peace has settled in the area, go to certain U.S. governement websites and you’ll take note that maybe this is a place to be avoided. Whatever the case, this trip I won’t be visiting these places where India and Pakistan may (or may not) be shelling each other and where foreign tourist are (or are not) taken notice of because of their alleged association with the forces repressing the rights of the revolutionaries (or whoever). i.e. the small town of Leh, and the long road to get there, is nestled comfortably between huge mountains and away from these disputed lines of control and so quietly nestled in the bosom of ignorance.

Rolling in to the town one instantly feels its age. Leh’s center seems quietly to have crept in to the present; being built on centuries of bricks of mud & cow dung this thin layer of modern technology comes in the form of automobiles, televisions, and internet cafes proud of their satellite connection to the outside world. However, it takes only a left or right turn off the main road to be transported back into a time where alleyways were sized for humans on foot and buildings were designed to keep out the elements rather than enclose the trove of personal possessions inside. Looming over the town as if to say, “I’m bigger than you” is the castle of the former ruling class built on the hill overlooking the town. Naturally, a hit to its ego comes from the truth that nobody lives here any more as the ruling class has long since been removed. Crushing whatever ego remains, crowning the hill above the castle is a Buddhist which dominates the views from the town. It is here, void of the former ruling class and throngs of the Buddhist who have chosen to pray in lower Buddhist gompa’s, that one can escape the suffocating tranquility of Leh to find peace and a lovely place for a picnic (I hiked up with a loaf of bread and some biscuits in my bag, shared them with a few French fellows I met up there, and since became profoundly sick the rest of the night and on into the next morning. I only wonder how they felt after eating my bread and suppose they are still cursing the American for ruining their planned trek the next morning).

I’d had about enough riding my bicycle for awhile but was getting a bit restless in Leh ptherwise(very serene place, but one can only handle so much relaxing – my limit is about a day) and so I decided to make the ascent up was is said to be the highest motorable road in the world, Kardung La (at 18,500ft and only 43km to the pass from Leh it is a very doable day-ride). Ah, right, here I’ll comment about the disagreements between the mountain altitude labeling people (do they have an official title? Geologists, cartographers, measurers?) and the independents. It’s simple really; official maps use the 1947 USGS recorded height of 5682 meters, while lay people use their barometer or GPS gadgets –usually funkily disguised as wristwatches - whom have ridden up to the pass and taken altitude readings of 5310m. Who’s right? I don’t know. I’m inclined to agree with the people that have been up there this millennium with today’s funkily designed wrist-watch technology. My bias should be noted however: taking this side of the argument allows me to claim Tanglang pass (5327m and the official 2nd highest motorable pass) as in fact the highest motorable pass in the world; a pass I’d already been up and over. With that conclusion swimming about, I would have nothing to prove by fiddling around with this meager Kardung La).

So, that’s the argument really, the relevant point is that I like bike rides and so got my stuff together and started riding up. Up, and up, and up…until about 14km from the top the road turned from really really good to absolute junk. Rats! Determined I rode on for another seven kilometers until it finally occurred to me that, not only would this section of the road be no fun to go up, these upper 14km would be absolute misery to come back down. So, being out for a pleasure ride rather than an I’m-going-to-dominate-this-mountain ride, I decided to turn around (also I left from breakfast rather late and now it was getting dark). I was right, those upper seven kilometers where shite to ride down, but after that the road smoothed out, apologized for its previous state, and wound back down the mountain and into town with a sunset and southern views of snow-capped peaks.

Oh, and what was this puppy doing wandering around at such and elevation?

---Whoa, This is all getting wayyyyy too long so I’ve decided to chop this up a bit. I’ll call it an appendix. Yes, that’s it, if you want to carry on with this story and read the troubles of escaping Leh and how I got back to Mumbai you may carry on at Appendix 1A. Good luck ---

And, a few videos:

1. Maneuvering through the alleys of Leh (18mb).
2. Cyling downwardly (10mb).

So that’s it really. It’s Diwali here now and will be until the great blowout on Nov. 3rd when everyone ignites there remaining cache of fireworks and gives their gifts to all deserving. With that I wish a happy Diwali and dangerously unnecessary adventures to all…

Hey, look, a place to leave/read comments reagarding...well...whatever you want:

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halcyone said...

Okay... I have not started on the appendix yet, getting there, but I had to say something... you know "First Post!!!" Okay, I admit, I'm a geek. So get over it. Wow, this is great! I've been waiting a long time for this post and it's so neat to finally see a little of all the places you were at. Some of that was truly amazing. And that puppy? How very odd? Did you notice that the sun actually changes position in your little animated gif at the end of the post?

sista tiff said...

My Brotha!

What brief comment can I leave that would give justice to your brilliant work? I'm soooo proud of you. The video on your way winding through Leh is outstanding. As always, your music accompanyment is exquisite; funny and harmonious yet perfect for the moment.

I miss and love you and can't wait to see you.

Milos said...

AHHH!!! WHY DID I HAVE TO GO TO THAT WEDDING IN BELGIUM!!! Reading through your post has made my mouth water for the thrill of eating instant noodles in the warmth of my tent again. I wish I was there with you dude! Before your next bikie ride, find me and let us talk. I'm not sure about the stable-working life... I still haven't found it yet. man... Thanks for the pics and the updates and the stories.