A Distant Dream of Ladakh
Seeking a fresh perspective on a place he’d been many times before, Abhirup Bose mounted a cheap rack and a few bags on his hardtail and pedaled into the Indian Himalayas for his first extended trip by bike. Find his reflection on everything that experience gave him here…
Words and photos by Abhirup Bose (@adventurewith_abhi)
How far can I ride in this physical condition? How much further to the top of the Namashang La? How long until I can lie down and rest? These are a few of the many alarming questions that popped into my mind as I climbed up the pass. I was feeling dizzy and blood was dripping out of my nose at regular intervals. I just wanted to sleep for a while, but sleeping up high can potentially be fatal. I knew the Tso-Moriri lake—a gem of Ladakh—was awaiting me, and there were hundreds of kilometres left to go until I got back to civilisation.
I’d eagerly anticipated this two-week, 900+ kilometer expedition for more than a year, a bicycle adventurer on a mission to experience the region’s otherworldly landscapes and unending sandy gravel tracks. I stopped in the town of Leh around 6:30 a.m., tightened the bungee cords around my bags, put on my sunglasses, and I was ready to plunge head first into the unknown.
The sun’s warm glow gave me confidence boost as I cruised ahead, the Stok Range dominating the landscape around me. As the sun slowly came up, so did the headwinds, stronger and stronger. This is the land of nomads, many dynasties, and few mad men; my journey was destined to be very demanding in every possible way.
The first 28 kilometers of tarmac ended before I even realised it, and I was soon launched into a sandy world, all alone. I was riding and thinking about the expedition, when out of nowhere I encountered three Indian army soldiers. Hey, where are you going on your bike? All you all alone? Do you have permits? Even though I was relatively new to proper bikepacking expeditions, these were all questions I’d heard many times before over my years of exploring, climbing, and trekking uncommon routes in the Indian Himalayas.
I’m not sure what led me to return via bicycle—maybe it was to get a fresh perspective without the same exertion required for climbing. Mostly, though, I set out on this journey just for the simplicity of it. I knew the route was overambitious for me, but I planned it anyway because I knew no matter what happened I would be satisfied with the effort I put into it. I mounted a rack and a couple of cheap pannier bags along with a heavy duty camera backpack on my Scott hardtail and pedalled out for an adventure.
My first major obstacle was a 1,200-meter climb over 30 kilometers of gravel, plus a bunch of fresh, slushy snow at the top of Chang La Pass at 5,360 meters. It marked the start of my route’s hike-a-bike sections, which were a constant companion until the end of the trip. My breath almost seemed to have an echo, at least in my head, and I had to stop after every couple hundred meters to catch my breath. I was exhausted.
I felt incredibly happy after making it over the dread climb, as I knew I had nearly 30 kilometers of downhill. Sometime during the long descent, I realised that I was having the best day of my entire life. It was a mix of smooth tarmac and loose gravel that carved through the moonlike landscape, which was filled with frozen lakes and blowing wind. I felt like a king. All I could think was that I wished someone from my family could be there so I could show the experience to them with childlike wonder.
When I arrived at the next army checkpoint, everyone seemed to have a hard time believing that I’d made it all the way there by bicycle. They rewarded me with some free chocolate, juice, and other snacks at the nearby base. Spirits lifted, I pushed on.
I’ve always dreamed of seeing Pangong Lake, and after some more pedaling I was finally catching my first glimpses of the world’s highest saltwater lake, which was nothing more than a blue speck in the vast landscape. My heart started jumping for joy. As I rode on, the blue speck grew ever larger. It was so beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks and I pulled over to sit on a rock along the shore to breathe in the beauty. There were no traces of other humans around. No sound except for the waves. I knew I had at least 50 kilometers of stunning lakeshore riding ahead, so I began making my way through the mind-bending scenery. The region’s 6,000-meter peaks towered above the landscape, interacting with the clouds in beautiful harmony.
My next big objective was to reach Hanle Valley. I awoke early to get an early start, motivated by the fact that I knew I could get a nice meal once there. I thought that the best roads were behind me by that point, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I pedalled toward Hanle, there was just one thought in my mind: Please god, don’t let this road end! I forgot all about how much everything hurt. It was truly the most sublime landscape I’ve ever ridden through. Picture the most perfect strip of tarmac winding its way through the wind-eroded, lunar landscape, with streams flowing everywhere. I almost crashed at one point because I’d completely lost track of what I was doing.
Hanle is home to Asia’s second highest astronomical observatory, and when I spotted its dome and telescope atop a hill near the village, I was sure I was living in a scene straight out of Star Wars. It was the perfect amalgamation of rugged terrain, greenery, and manmade structures. I caught a beautiful sunset there, and a few hours later the Milky Way started to become visible in the southern sky. What a sight it was. After all the hardships involved in getting there, I spent most of the night just staring up at the sky, making it all the way until 4:00 a.m., then took a day to catch up on rest.
The following day, it was almost dark when I reached the village of Karzok, near Tso Moriri lake. So many days spent at high altitude meant I was experiencing painful nose bleeds and felt exceptionally tired. Nonetheless, my sunset stroll around the lake gave me an amazing sense of serenity and calm, which was exactly what I needed at that moment. I took a small dip in the icy cold waters to cleanse myself, then watched the clouds play hide and seek with the 6,000-meter peaks. Timeless beauty.
My journey’s last big hurdle was climbing Polakongka La, and during the slow ride up I realised just how fatigued I’d become in the past several days. My laboured breathing and the sound of rocks crunching under my tires accompanied me all the way to the top of the pass, where I had sweeping views of the horizon. Looking down at the road below, it felt like I’d made it look much harder than it actually was.
From there, I finally touched the famed Leh–Manali Highway, which indicated that I was on the home stretch, even though I still had 350 kilometers to go. Although I initially thought this was going to be the easiest part of the trip, it turned out to be a nightmare. My straightforward ride was rendered nearly impossible due to intense headwinds. It took everything I had just to keep the bike rolling forward, dust swirling all around me.
Slowly, I started to notice more and more signs of human presence, especially when compared to just a few days earlier. But I knew I still had a significant amount of climbing—and a handful of passes—before I was home free, but knowing I was close to the end gave me some extra confidence and determination. Despite that, I encountered a serious roadblock on one of my final passes. Last night’s cloudburst made the road impassable for even the best cyclists. After spending some time waving at trucks and trying to hitch a ride, a sympathetic trucker stopped and gave me a lift to a safe zone.
In the final stretch to the town of Manali, I pedalled through the pain and tiredness. I reflected on all the weather I’d endured, all the distance I’d covered, all the arduous climbs, the unforgettable scenery, and so much more. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face as I cruised downhill, my heart full of otherworldly landscapes. What an expedition. What a journey. It put every inch of my body and mind to the test. I felt invincible rolling back into civilisation, knowing what I’d achieved. One thing was certain: taking on this journey by bicycle opened a new door for me. It gave me a new perspective and a new way to closely experience nature and feel truly alive again.
About Abhirup Bose
Abhirup Bose first started cycling as a sport in 2016 and went on with XC races, individual time trials, and ultra brevets across India, before shifting his focus to bikepacking. Apart from cycling, he has mounted many exploratory trekking expeditions in the Indian Himalayas over the last decade. When not in the mountains, Abhirup works as data engineer for various organizations across India. Find him on Instagram @adventurewith_abhi.