From Delhi we flew up to Leh in Ladakh, this is one of the few safe parts of the troubled Kashmir region and boy was it different to Delhi! It’s a high altitude desert city in the foothills of the Himalayas and we arrived at the very tail end of the tourist season. The altitude here is 11,700 feet (over 3300 metres) so we spent the first day taking it very easy.
Over the next few days we spent time exploring the town, including the Old Palace, some Stupas (Buddhist shrines) and nearby monasteries. All of these activities involved climbing hundreds of steps and generally gasping for breath.
We both fell in love with Leh, the scenery, the quaint setting and the people all made for a wonderful vibe.
However occasionally during travels things don’t always go your way. I just didn’t expect things to not go according to plan quite so early on, nor for there to be tears in the first 10 days.
A day trip to Hemis where Joey nearly becomes my Nemesis
On Monday the plan had been to go the local national park, famous for its snow leopards and as luck would have it snow leopard season had started the day before. A national park sounded great I thought, we were National Trust members and the New Forest was our favourite camping spot so this sounded right up our street. We caught a local bus going to Hemis as per Joey’s instructions. It was extremely full with locals and the 4 singing Buddhist monks we were used to seeing in the city Bazar. We arrived at Hemis and everyone piled off the bus and I suggested to Joey ‘do you want to check the return time with the driver?’ And he was like ‘nah, I looked it up’ so we got off and then I asked him ‘so where’s the National Park from here?’
Turns out he didn’t actually have a clue where it was.
His words and I quote were ‘I thought it would be signposted’.
So there we were basically in the middle of nowhere and our destination of the day was nowhere to be seen.
We had instead been dropped at the annual Ladakh Buddist festival.
Which you know is cool if you like that sort of thing.
But it was basically a load of stalls selling things and a stage which presumably the singing monks would be performing on later.
So there we were with about 3 hours to kill before the bus was due to leave.
We saw a sign for the supposedly most famous monastery in Ladakh.
3km the sign said. That’s not far we thought, we run that in 15 minutes normally we thought.
So we decided to walk up there. Which was an absolute killer. Uphill the whole way at an altitude of over 12,000 feet.
Today was supposed to be about the unlikeliness of spotting a snow leopard, eagles and blue sheep.
Instead we saw cows and magpies.
After about 50 minutes we reach a point where I can see monastic looking buildings in front of me. But Joey’s following the blue dot on his offline google maps and swears it is the other way so of course we have to follow what google says instead of what my eyes can see.
So off we go and when we eventually reach the monastery I’m literally so tired I can’t face another step. And we work out that in order to catch the bus we basically have 30 minutes to look around the most famous Ladakhi monastery.
So we agree to turn around and go back down. Didn’t want to see the most famous sight in Ladakh anyway.
We follow a slightly different path down and after about 2 minutes we reach the point where I had previously pointed out that I could see the monastic buildings.
Joey concedes at this point that I was right which was the sweetest part of the day.
We still need to find the bus stop so continue on.
We make it to the point where the bus dropped us off and I suggest asking a driver where and when we get a bus back to Leh.
Apparently all the buses will be going back to Leh at the end of the Buddhist festival. Alternatively there’s a bus that leaves the monastery at 1.30pm
We’d just come from the monastery!
We were told that you could apparently pick up the bus from the main road so we start heading in the vague direction of what we think is the main road from the monastery.
Then because he’s Joey and he always lands on his feet, a taxi with a French woman inside pulls up and asks if we want to go to share the ride to Leh so we don’t negotiate and just get in and pay the 400 rupees between us.
The drive back nearly killed us several times as we end up on the wrong side of the road going round blind bends or trying to undertake an army truck. The French woman and both of us are all holding onto our grab handles for dear life.
I did need a cooling off period when we got back to our guesthouse but we are still married and I can just about start to laugh about it.
Becca’s tears roll down during the Roll Down
Then for some reason I decided to give Joey another chance and let him choose Tuesday’s travel activity. He suggested doing the ‘Khardung La Roll Down’ where a Jeep drives you and a mountain bike to 18,300 feet and gravity brings you back down. I thought it sounded fun and so much like the Death Road which we’d loved doing in Bolivia (read about that here). So I agreed. You need a permit for the pass so we left our passports overnight with the biking company (always a scary prospect) Himalayan Bikers and then headed back this morning.
When we arrived back there this morning our permit still hadn’t arrived and our passports were MIA, so we were advised to pop over the road for a coffee and they’d come and get us when ready. I casually enquired what the bathroom arrangements were along the way down and was greeted with the phrase ‘open toilet, behind rock’ just what a lady wants to hear!
Eventually we got word that the permits had been granted and we were reunited with our passports so we piled into a jeep with 3 Israelis and started to make our way up the incredibly windy mountain road. When I say windy I mean hairpin bends every 100 metres whilst ascending all the time. Meanwhile there is no safety barrier to be seen (unless you count these stones to be a safety barrier) and everyone is driving a little crazily, overtaking on blind corners as per usual. I knew that if our driver made one false move we’d be over the cliff edge and plunging to certain death. If I’d had phone signal I may have considered calling my family to tell them where to find my will.
Then we reached the final 14km. Which were completely unpaved, so bumpy, like driving over loose cobblestones. So I shut my eyes and hoped for the best.
This was the worst thing I could have done as I was about to discover I suffer from motion sickness. The Israeli girl next to me took one look at me and asked the driver to stop. I bundled out of the jeep and bent over at the side of the road. I was so embarrassed. Luckily the fresh air and some water seemed to help. I got back in the jeep and fixed my eyes on the horizon hoping it would help.
It wasn’t too much further until we reached the top where it seemed we were the same height as the surrounding mountains (and there was snow at the top). It was cold but it didn’t appear to be anything like the cold we’d experience during the Death Road. I put my jacket on and the running gloves I’d bought with me along with a set of cycling gloves they’d provided and the two guys with the jeep waved us off without any safety briefing or advice other than ‘keep left’. My mind couldn’t help but wander back to the last time we’d cycled travelling where I’d needed a visit to hospital after a tumble over the handlebars in Ecuador.
So we set off down the incredibly bumpy road that I had nearly thrown up on about 30 minutes earlier. The afternoon mountain winds and altitude of over 18000 feet were really kicking in and suddenly I was feeling cold, like properly about to slip into hypothermia cold. After about 20 minutes I have to stop as my Raynaud’s syndrome is kicking off big style. My hands are a mix of not being to feel the brakes and being in complete agony. I had bought some electronic hand warmers that handily doubled as power banks so I got those out and switched them on but the pain as the feeling came back into my fingers was excruciating. There were the first tears of the trip so far. Everyone was very sweet to me though, as I tried to explain to everyone what was wrong with me and why I was flipping out over the cold whilst everyone else was dealing with it just fine. I felt sorry for the rest of the group as they must have wondered what kind of wuss they had been lumbered with – first I nearly throw up at the side of the road and then I’m crying because I’m cold. Thankfully I had bought another pair of gloves with me and with a bit of swapping with others I ended up with three pairs of gloves on. I still couldn’t feel my hands but soldiered on.
As I mentioned the road was so bumpy with so many loose stones that made your bike skid at inappropriate moments. Joey and I both agreed at this point that neither of us we were enjoying it. My arthritic hands were like claws fixed in the grabbing at the brakes position. It was at this point I immediately slapped a one week ban on him to stop him planning anymore travel activities.
We bravely carried on, ignoring the grave markers and mangled wrecks of cars reminding us to ‘drive carefully’ until we reached our Mecca of the paved road. I have never been so happy to see tarmac.
It was at this point that I started to enjoy myself. The views were amazing. Once you got used to the mountain wind blowing in your face and everyone coming the other way appearing to laugh at you (we didn’t see any other cyclists at all!) then it was good fun and I did enjoy the last 25km in spite of the first 14!
We did laugh about this one more than yesterday’s non trip to the National Park, possibly because I was slightly hysterical about having actually made it out alive and without the need to try out an Indian hospital quite yet.