Cycling Through The ‘Land Of The Monks’ On The Trans-Himalaya Adventure
Brian McCloskey is a TDA Global Cycling alumni who has taken part in the North American Epic, TDA’s Great American Roadtrip & the Hippie Trail. He joined the 2023 Trans-Himalaya Cycling Adventure at the start in Leh and continued until Shimla and sends this report on his experiences in India.
When I touched down in Leh, Ladakh in the middle of August I was immediately put on notice that I was entering an environment unlike anything I’d ever experienced. For starters, there was the instantaneous shortness of breath. Coming from sea level this was to be expected. The town of Leh sits perched high on a desert plain along the famed Indus River. Elevation here is 11,500 feet (3505 metres) with the surrounding peaks of the Ladakh Range cresting over 20,000 feet (6096 metres). Secondly there were no sign of trees or vegetation on any of these imposing looking mountains. The semblance of an other worldly, lunar landscape was both dramatic and stark. Collecting my bag and exiting the airport, I realized this was also a different level of ‘sun’. While the air temperature felt somewhat cool, the solar intensity was palpable. With virtually no shade, cycling in this exposed high altitude environs was going to prove itself challenging in ways unimagined. Mother Nature was clearly calling the shots.
There are many aspects of the Trans Himalayan adventure that make it remarkably unique amongst TDA’s array of international cycling tours. To begin with, there is the acclimatization process of hanging for a week with your future riding partners in the remote Kashmir region of Ladakh. The luxury of sharing a week with like minded cycling enthusiasts in this stunning environment was an unexpected treat. Imagine, rest days before you spin your pedals! In true TDA fashion though we had plenty of riding options to local monasteries or up the imposing Kardhung La pass, which sits at an elevation of 17,500 feet (5334 metres) elevation, give or take a few hundred feet. Many of the riders in our group organized day trips to different destinations within the Indus Valley, even an afternoon whitewater rafting adventure. This time to explore created a wonderful set of shared experiences and camaraderie amongst our riding group BEFORE we ventured forth to take on the Himalayas.
Then there is the staff. Like all TDA tours I’ve had the luxury of experiencing, we had a veteran and talented staff. What stood out here though was the inclusion of so many versatile and gifted native Indian staffers: Depi, Baba, Rama, Ezhil or Izzy. Their wealth of local knowledge and willingness to share helped immensely as we prepared for the riding challenge that awaited. Not only was the staff deep and talented, but having the luxury of getting to know them individually before the tour officially started was a huge plus.
The opening section of the Trans Himalayan tour was designed to further assist in acclimatizing. Our entire group spent the day transiting northwest to the remote village of Mulbekh. On a clear sun drenched morning we at long last began pedalling our way back to Leh. The scenery and riding were spectacular. Dizzying! We climbed up Fotu La pass at 13,600 feet (4145 metres) before descending into the hillside town of Lamayuru. On day two we experienced an adrenaline pumping descent along the Indus River. For day three we returned to climbing, cresting two substantial passes before arriving back in our base town of Leh. We were ready. Interestingly, what we discovered through trial and error was that despite the crazy elevations, the most physically comfortable place was on our bikes.
Over the next two weeks we would experience everything one could ask for on so adventurous tour as this. We climbed epic mountain passes with magical names including Taglang La, Baralacha La, Nakee La. These were easily the longest consecutive climbing distances most of us had ever experienced. Switchbacks and hairpin turns dotted the landscape. This was wild, rugged landscape even in these warm summer months. The climbs were exhilarating and most of the large passes commemorated our feat with prayer flags and elevation markers. Cresting passes well over 17,000 feet (5181 metres) was a rush. Of course what goes up, must come down. The descents off these major passes were pure ecstasy.
Along the way we experienced bridge outages which forced our talented leaders to innovate with a river crossing. Never a dull moment. There was camping, despite this being a ‘hotel’ only tour. We had both fixed and permanent camps as the only available option in some of the very remote section of the western Himalayas. One highlight of our trip was cresting one of the big mountain passes and gazing down into a remote, lunar landscape only to see our tents perched along the valley floor. Of course our remote alpine experience wouldn’t be complete without the requisite post ride ‘glacial stream shower’ and the proverbial ‘pit toilet’.
Our weather throughout this section was remarkably consistent with cool nights and wonderfully warm days. We did however awaken one morning to a white wonderland with tents and bikes coated in snow. But given the intensity of the Himalayan sun, the snow disappeared in short order.
It’s only fitting that as our riding group pedalled our way down the spectacular Spiti Valley, our tour would come to a screeching halt. ‘Spiti’ means middle land; the land between Tibet and India. It’s is as beautiful as it is remote. Apparently Mother Nature had reclaimed a section of roadway with a landslide preventing us from accessing the town of Shimla where this opening section of the Trans Himalayan tour was scheduled to end. Our only solution was to backtrack via transit vans. The plus of course was we got to experience the stunning Spiti Valley in both directions.
I am always at a loss to explain what attracts people to tackling something as challenging as the Trans Himalaya tour? Perhaps it’s as simple as people wishing to do things that they fear. For each rider there is likely an attraction that even they can’t explain. The Himalayas are magnificent. The panoramic vistas we experienced were mesmerizing. Most importantly the friendships forged in this intimidating landscape will be lasting. This is one TDA experience that will last a lifetime.
This ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts and Gompas...