We’d come back to Leh because we’d started to miss the comforts of civilization: a bathroom that consisted of more than a dirt floor with a hole in it;
beer; menus with more options than than dahl and thupka; electricity; and nightly entertainment options other than “kitchen sitting.” As soon as we got back to town, though, with its noise and hustle and bustle and desperate shop keepers hassling us to check out their stores everywhere we walked, we realized we’d probably made a mistake and should have extended our walk in paradise.
Leh was closing up for the year. It gets extremely cold in Ladakh in the winter and the roads leading to other parts of India all close due to snow and ice. It was late September and we were hearing reports of hundreds of travelers stranded up at some of the passes on the road leading to Manali, trapped for several days now without sufficient food and warm clothing by unexpected storms that had shut down the roads with heavy snowfall. An avalanche had also swept a car off the road and killed several people. The only other way out was to fly.
Denae and I always try to be frugal, but India has made us downright miserly. Most things are really cheap here, so
the idea of dropping $250 for the plane tickets from Leh to Delhi was a little hard to swallow; that kind of money goes a long way here. But we considered the road reports we’d heard, along with the somewhat remote but real risk of death and the certainty of 2-3 days of horribly uncomfortable bus travel if we left by road. The flight lasted an hour and fifteen minutes; in the end it was a pretty easy choice and we booked our plane tickets for several days later.
We spent our remaining days in Leh narrowing down our choices for the best Tibetan restaurant, playing cards, reading and wandering around the city. We liked to go to the area called Old Leh, with its narrow and twisting alleyways between centuries old mud brick buildings where we could walk for hours, finding hidden Buddhist chortens and prayer wheels built into random walls. We finally paid the admission fee to enter Leh Palace and spent some time wandering with our flashlight, trying to imagine the huge and drafty building when it was less dilapidated and filled with monks and Ladakhi royalty.
We were having a good time but were a little bored, so we’d been looking forward to our prearranged meeting with Nicolas and Caroline a couple days before we flew out. They told us stories from their trek after we parted ways, making us more than a little jealous, and they had an idea: a local travel agency sold jeep trips to the top of the nearby Khardung La, which at 18,380′ is the highest motorable pass in the world. Did we want to join them? Yes we did, so the next morning we piled into the jeep and were on our way.
It was a beautiful day and the views from the drive were amazing. We could look down and see the valley with Leh at the center of it, getting smaller and smaller as we kept going higher. By now we we’d been at altitude long enough that we felt great even at the top of the pass, without any of the breathless dizziness we’d experienced coming to Ladakh when we’d gone over the second highest motorable pass in the world. This was an especially good thing considering the manner in which we were descending back down to Leh; we weren’t going in the jeep, we were riding mountain bikes. This was of course the real draw of the trip, biking down about 7,000 vertical feet spread over 25 miles. Standing in the snow as the bikes were unloaded we were all a little nervous.
The first section of road was unpaved, bumpy and strewn with puddles, slush and ice. We biked slowly here. It was kind of surreal to look out on a scene that made me feel like I should be skiing or climbing a mountain, but instead be bumping down a high altitude road on a mountain bike. Soon the road smoothed out a bit and the snow and ice disappeared. We picked up speed, trying not to slip out on the corners. Eventually the road changed to asphalt which felt smooth as butter despite more patches and ruts than your average goat trail, and here we really opened the throttle. I tucked myself into the most aerodynamic position I could and just flew down the seemingly endless section of downhill, yelling for the sheer joy of the experience. The marmots poking around in the rocks passed by in a barely seen blur. It was absolutely thrilling and exhilarating; one of the best things we’ve ever done, although Denae qualifies this by saying she had more fun before she slid out in a turn and came close to sliding off the edge of the road, after which she went a little slower and the fun was mixed with a bit more caution. We rode clear back to Leh, said our farewells to Nicolas and Caroline, and got ready for our flight early the next morning. We were going back to Delhi, but planned to immediately carry on to Chandigarh and then Mcleod Ganj.