There’s just something about the Himalayas – something powerful, raw, magnetic and ancient. It begins
There’s just something about the Himalayas – something powerful, raw, magnetic and ancient. It beginsas a whisper when you first glimpse the majesty of those snow-capped peaks in the distance and turns into a full-throated roar as you climb higher and higher. That stirring you feel in your belly is a call to reach out and touch the sky (or in some cases, it might just be motion sickness).
Visiting the city of Leh is a unique and incomparable experience. It is an exquisite collage that marries a quaint, small-town vibe with a cosmopolitan, globally diverse crowd. The city also boasts of an extraordinary cultural and culinary scene. On the main market street, you could strike up a conversation with a worldly Jamaican selling some handmade jewellery to pay for his travels, or some Iranian students taking a break after their stint in the military. You’ll likely be greeted by smiles everywhere you go, along with the ubiquitous greeting ‘Juley’ (pronounced joo-lay), and don’t be thrown off by the odd bow or two. Juley is a sort of linguistic master key, with a whole slew of conno-tations ranging from ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ to ‘thank you’, ‘welcome’ and ‘nice meeting you’! Cast aside any self-consciousness and greet any local you meet with a ‘Juley’. You’ll see them smile from ear to ear and they’ll love you for it.
Leh is extremely bicycle-friendly and cycling is one of the best ways to get around the city (and further, if you’re physically and mentally prepared for the task). You can rent a cycle from any one of the dozens of shops catering to the needs of tourists. You can pick up a geared mountain bike of extremely high quality for as low as ₹ 200–250 per day. Most avid cyclists have their own brand preferences and you can expect to find bikes by Kross, Schnell, Giant, B’TWIN, Hero and Hercules. If you’re coming here by road, you can just bring your bike along with you, but I found it simpler to rent.
A wonderful thing about Leh is that there are several curated cycle tours offered by practically every travel agency, where a professional will lead a group of cyclists to various destinations. You can take a tour of the city, do the monastery circuit, check Khardung-La off your bucket list, ride up to the breath-taking Pangong Lake or even go all the way down to Manali. In case you don’t want to be tied down to a fixed itinerary but want to join other cyclists, just walk into your nearest cyber café and check out the bulletin board. You’ll find several flyers with the contact numbers of like-minded travellers, or you can talk to the proprietor and put up one of your own, free of charge.
Remember to keep in mind your body’s reaction to the change in altitude. For some people, the effects are immediate and for others, more subtle, but the impact is all-pervasive. The air is far thinner and crisper than most other places in the country, so there is less oxygen making its way to your lungs. Altitude sickness is a very serious concern and can end up ruining your trip. Be sure to read up on its many symptoms and consult a doctor for the best medication for yourself (Diamox is commonly pre-scribed). Seriously, don’t try to be an action hero. Once you reach, you’re likely to be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and your first instinct might be to take that cycle and pedal your heart out. However, you need to be cautious, or your heart might decide it isn’t exactly on board with your plan.
If a long cycling trip is on your agenda, begin your training well before your trip. Get your stamina up along with your resilience. Learn and perform breathing exercises. The yogic practice of ‘pranayam’ is one of the best ways to gear your lungs up for the mountain they’re about to scale, literally and figuratively. Spend your first couple of days practising; let your body acclimatise. For people who often experience shortness of breath for any reason, I recommend buying or renting a portable canister of pure oxygen, which is easily available. Just ask a travel guide or your hotel to point you in the right direction.
The Hall of Fame: Moderate Fitness
During my trip, I had gone with a group of friends, but most of them succumbed to mountain sickness after a day of cycling. This left just two of us to carry on. After another day of cycling around the city and preparing our bodies for something more strenuous, we decided to take a short trip from our hotel to the Military Hall of Fame, an 18km round-trip journey. The way to the Hall was mostly downhill, and it was absolutely, utterly exhilarating! We roared onward, buffeted by the refreshing air, wishing that we’d worn Superman capes.
The Hall of Fame is a powerful testament to the prowess, pride and sacrifice that are such an integral part of the military. Succinctly covering the history of Ladakh, most of the museum is dedicated to the role and history of the Indian Army at Leh. There are magnificent installations and displays, tributes to fallen heroes, and most hard-hitting of all, letters written by soldiers to their loved ones. There is also an extremely touching display, which houses the journals and letters of India’s rival in the Kargil War, Pakistan. There is a certain grace in being able to see the humanity even in your bitterest enemy, and to preserve and show-case their thoughts and words with the same care as your own. As you read the words of the Indian soldiers and their Pakistani counterparts, you notice how alike their minds and hearts really are. They fight on the battlefield with fiery fervour, but write to their loved ones of their desire to see them soon and hold them in their arms. It is impossible to walk out of that room without feeling a tug on your heartstrings and a burgeoning admiration and gratitude for the innumerable sacrifices made by our soldiers.
After the museum, you can blow off some steam by going through a watered-down-for-civilians obstacle course. It includes rope climbing, running through tyres and archery! You can also visit the museum’s chic and cosy café, Aroma.
While cycling down to the Hall of Fame was a breeze, the stretch back to town knocked the wind out of us. It was while pedalling uphill that I realised just how much my lungs were protesting at this altitude. After the first few kilometres, each breath felt like an invisible, heavy-set man punching my chest. All I really wanted to do was lie down on the road for bit. This is the point where I began to feel that doing the obstacle course earlier hadn’t been my brightest moment. However, as I pushed forward and broke through the exhaustion, I began to feel stronger and stronger. My friend and I exchanged tired smiles, bowed our heads and pedalled on till the finish line. Few things can describe how I felt at that point. I’ve rarely pushed my body too far from its comfort zone, but the thrill I felt ascending on that bicycle is some-thing I’ll always cherish.
Leh to Khardung-La : Peak Fitness
The next item on our agenda was cycling on the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung-La Pass. At 17,582ft above sea level, this pass connects Leh to the Nubra Valley. The vistas along the way are figuratively breathtaking, while the altitude is more literally so. With the Zanskar Range on one side and the Karakoram on the other, I almost felt like I was in some surreal dreamscape. There is a brutal majesty here, raw and powerful, and I marvelled at both the smallness of man as well as humanity’s indomitable will.
While the more experienced and avid cyclists choose to bike from Leh to Khardung-La and back, this requires more than just a very high level of fitness and altitudinal acclimatisation. At a full 1,100m above Leh, the body needs to prepare for the kind of punishment it will face here. So if you’re plan-ning the roundtrip, remember to spend at least a week cycling in high altitude areas. The key is to start building your stamina a few months in advance and adjusting your diet to include less fat, and more protein and carbohydrates.
My companions and I decided to travel up there by car and then cycle back down. This can be arranged by most travel agents in Leh at an average cost of ₹ 1,500–2,000 per person. In the morning, we were driven up in one of three SUVs along with our cycles. We made a quick stop at Pullu, a military checkpoint, where we grabbed some nourishment from the sole dhaba in the form of some delicious Maggi and thukpa. Upon reaching, around mid-afternoon, we just stood there taking it all in as we prepared for our descent. The sight of that gorgeous, almost alien landscape punctuated by colourful prayer flags is a truly an incredible thing to behold. Remember that helmet, gloves and knee-pads are an absolute must. We were a group of 15 people and after gearing up, we began our downward journey to Leh with a professional guide on his bike leading us and a support vehicle (food, first aid, etc.) following us.
There’s only one way to truly describe that momentous experience – it was life-changing. Each twist and turn brought a new sense of perspective, freedom and purpose. A large stretch of the way is a gravel road that can be a tricky to navigate, especially at the bends. Braking has to be well-timed and, even though it might be ridiculously tempting, don’t go faster than you know you can handle as a fall here isn’t the most pleasant thing. Fret not though; these few necessary precautions do nothing to take away from the sheer, undiluted exhilaration of this experience.
As I gained speed, I shed my worries and my endless train of thoughts. I was connected to myself as I’ve never been before. I felt united with the seemingly endless, visceral beauty all around me. The few stretches where the landscape changed as per the contours of the land and we had to pedal uphill set my lungs on fire, but the challenge made it sweeter. The 40-odd kilometre journey from Khardung-La to Leh was a defining moment in my life and still brings me a sense of peace and fulfilment every time I remember it. A bond was forged between Leh and me – one that will be a part of my heart, mind and soul for the rest of my days.
If anything written here has stirred you in the slightest, get out that calendar and start planning your trip, because I assure you, you’ll come back with far more than you left with.
Where to Stay
Stay at the Shambha-La (Tel: 01982-251100, 253500, Cell: 09810035145; Tariff: ₹ 5,000–8,000), only a kilo-meter outside of Leh town. The building has dark wood interiors. The Grand Dragon (Tel: 257786, 255866, 255266, Cell: 09906986782; Tariff: ₹ 12,100–20,350) in Sheynam, is an excellent upmarket option. JK Tourism’s Moon Lane Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 252297, 252094; Tariff: ₹ 800) near the airport is pleasant and comfortable. On Fort Road, Hotel Yak Tail (Tel: 252118, Cell: 09419178590-91; Tariff: ₹ 3,400) is one of the oldest properties in Leh. Jigmet Guest House & Hotel (Cell: 09622965846; Tariff: ₹ 1,000–3,500) located on Upper Tukcha Road is a great budget option.
In the quiet Changspa area, the popular Oriental Guest House (Tel: 257516, Cell: 09419178774, 09622950639; Tariff: ₹ 1,400–6,000) is a good option. The rooms have spectacular views. The LEDEG Hostel (Tel: 253221, Cell: 09622951444; Tariff: ₹ 560) located below the Shanti Stupa, offers visitors a lovely eco-friendly experience.
On Old Road, Hotel Singge Palace (Tel: 253344, 253000; Tariff: ₹ 8,700–9,300, with two meals) has a lovely, sunny terrace sit-out. Spic n Span (Tel: 252765, 253007, Cell: 09419178886; Tariff: ₹ 6,930–12,500) has a traditional timber-and-stone Ladakhi façade. The Druk (Tel: 251724, 251702, Cell: 09906999978; Tariff: ₹ 7,200–13,200) on Shanti Stupa Road is a luxury option. Norbulinga Guest House (Tel: 252941, Cell: 09419286222, 09622 984667; Tariff: ₹ 1,000–1,200) is a good, family-run place.
Where to Eat
Leh’s rooftop restaurants offer Indian, Italian, Kashmiri, Tibetan, pancakes, pizzas, sizzlers, beer – you name it! One of Leh’s most atmospheric joints is Lala’s Café, in the Old Town. The Kashmiri food at Budshah Inn, the pizzas at Il Forno, the steak at the Leh View Rooftop Restaurant and the sandwiches at La Terrasse are excellent. For good Tibetan food, try Amdo Café or Tibetan Kitchen. Many German bakeries and cafes offer brownies, apple pie, lemon tarts, cinnamon rolls and the like. Do not miss the pies and cakes at Pumpernickel or My Secret Recipe.
On Fort Road, try the avocado lassi at Penguin Garden Restaurant and the biryani at Hotel Ibex. Dreamland, near the bazaar, offers superb Kashmiri dishes and Continental food. Summer Harvest excels at Tibetan. On the way to Changspa, Zen Garden gives decent pizzas and Israeli and Thai meals too. Bon Appetit is the only fine-dining option here.
Other good places are the open-air Open Hand, Chopsticks Noodle Bar and the quirky Gravi T Café. Also try the cheese-and-potato momos at the vegetarian Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant.
Inner Line Permits are issued by the Collectors Office, near the Polo Grounds, in Leh. Local operators can also arrange these. Don’t forget to take original documents of residence proof and passport-sized photographs. Make five copies of the permit and residence proof, which have to be deposited at check points you pass through.
Air Leh’s Kushok Bakula Airport is connected to Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu all year round. A pre-paid taxi to the centre of Leh costs ₹ 700
Rail The nearest railhead Jammu Tawi is 722km away
Road To reach Leh, you can take drive via the Zoji La Pass (open May to September) on the Great Himalaya, Kargil and Fotu La Pass on the Zanskar Range. You can also take the route out of Manali, travelling over the Pir Panjal, Great Himalaya and Zanskar ranges.This is open from May to October, when Rohtang Pass is free of snow
Tip There are few fuel pumps on both routes, so tank up.