The couple that went climbing – part 1

Link to part [1][2][3][4]

It was some time after mid-year in 2009. August probably. The only client for whom I was working then was the Tourism Department of Government of Orissa. Amongst other things, they asked us to prepare for them a concept note on development of adventure tourism in the State. During my research I found out about cycling expeditions from Manali to Leh that many had undertaken. And that is how I ended up cycling that route myself – the next month. September 2009.

During the same time, I also discovered the few mountaineering institutes that our country has. All of them had courses that required at least a month to complete. Back then, I could not envisage getting that long a leave. And thus the discovery of these institutes remained just that – a discovery.

An year later, in September 2010, I was off to several cities in Canada and US for about three weeks of work. After which, I took a week off and went cycling in the Canadian Rockies. Lovely place. Yellow leaves, clean air, shining everything and blue and green lakes. During those five / six days of solo cycling starting from Jasper and ending in Calgary, there were hardly any towns in between – with the exception of Lake Lewis and Banff. What they had as accommodation units in between were these Canadian Youth Hostels set-up on the highways, where for about 30 dollars (on an average) you could get a bed in the dorm. These were specifically for night stay, developed keeping backpackers, trekkers and cyclists in mind. So you could check-in only after 5 pm and you had to check out by 10 AM. Also, since these hostels where in the middle of nowhere, you often didn’t have electricity or restaurant or food or other such things. You did have access to a common big furnished dining hall cum kitchen, where you could heat / cook food if you were carrying any. Anyway. So in one such hostel, I met Jim – the manager / care-taker.

It had drizzled a lot that day. Was kind of cold. After reaching the hostel, as I let my bike fall down on the ground, I saw Jim roasting a sausage in a wooden-fire and heating himself at the same time. I said hi to him. And then he introduced himself. He was a carpenter from Australia and loved climbing. He had been traveling since the past few years, working in several countries such as Italy and France and all that. Being the hostel care-taker in the middle of nowhere in Canada had been his latest job. Since over an year. He had climbed all the surrounding peaks. During winters, the hostels closed down because everything froze. And then Jim did ice-climbing as well.

‘I have always liked the idea of cycling’, he told me, ‘but never really done that.’

‘I have always liked the idea of climbing’, I replied, ‘but never really done that’.

We both laughed.

As we were still sitting around the fire that he had set-up, a tiny 40ish nurse from UK who worked in Vancouver also came cycling down to the hostel in her wet red jacket. Later in the evening, we were further joined by a motor-biking couple. As we were having our dinner in the dining hall (although I think I didn’t have anything to eat that night), Jim showed us all on his laptop (there was no electricity but he had enough battery left) pictures of him climbing up a frozen water-fall amongst other fascinating pictures. I wished I could do all of that. And then I went to sleep. Empty stomach. And resumed my cycling. Cycled for few more days. Captured the beauty of the Canadian Rockies on my camera. Returned to India. And went on a date with MRP.

She had worn a blue frock kind of a thing that day. I had my ‘Manali to Leh’ cycling t-shirt on. We met in a book-store. We talked about Shantaram and Osho and Reiki and my cycling. From the book-store we movied to a coffee-shop. Where I tried playing a guitar even when I knew I didn’t know how to. And then we talked about mountaineering.

It was surprising that she was as much aware about the mountaineering institutes of India as I was. She had wanted to learning climbing as well. And at that very moment, sitting in that coffee-shop, we knew we had to learn that together. We knew it for sure. Yes, all in that first date.

Not long after that, both of us did register ourselves for a 28 days basic mountaineering course at HMI Darjeeling. Her existing job-contract was going to expire just before the course start-date. So she decided to take a month’s break before starting a new contract. And for me, I decided to consume most of my accumulated leave-days in one go. That’s all I could do. And thus the two of us were set. To learn climbing. And then one day, we packed our bags and left for Darjeeling.

snaps travel

Bicycle Diary 9: When I finally entered Ladakh

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Remember, son, the final seat of all achievement is neither the head nor the heart nor the muscles. It is the ass. Courage and determination lives in the ass.

– Tarun T. Tejpal (The Story of my Assassins)

I have decided to do away with the journal form of description. I don’t intend to change the titles though. Yes, I did write down stuff in my note-book almost every day of the cycling trip. But I don’t feel like telling you guys the story in the same way that I wrote it down. At least not anymore. And now the story.

In Patseo, I saw four people in my dream. My grandpa, grandma, Tota and Maina. I don’t know why I saw them and I don’t remember what exactly I saw. But I saw them. I saw them I and remembered about this dream when I got up in the morning. And then I missed them. And then I decided to relieve myself. Not from memories – from shit.

I had no clue where the toilet was but soon I realized it really didn’t matter. I could take off my pajama anywhere I wanted to and shit. I took off my pajama somewhere I wanted to and shat. And then I woke up the care taker. And then he made paranthas for me. And then I left Patseo. It was 7:30 AM and the air was cold.

The first half of the 10k uphill ride to Zingzingbar was over a bed of pebbles. There is nothing worse than pedalling uphill over non-existent roads. Where roads are broken, dust flows like air and you feel like dying of choking. For a brief interval – the last 4k to Zingzingbar, the roads were paved only to turn back to the bad old bed of pebbles once again! This was the beginning of the day and I was already not liking it very much.

I must have cycled about 5-6k from Zingzingbar when I met Jim. Jim was from Norway and he was riding an Enfield. We took pictures of each other posing with our respective machines. He noted down my email id and told me he would email the pictures once he returned to Norway. I haven’t received any e-mail from Jim till date (refer update down below).

Baralacha La was twenty more kilometers away. Jim left with a thumbs up sign to me while I struggled over the pebbles. For a moment I wanted my bike to turn into a motorbike so that I could leave Jim behind. And then I thought – any one can drive a motor-cycle over here, but very few can cycle. And then I felt good. And when you feel good, good things happen. The roads turned gorgeous soon and remained like that for more or less of that days’ ride.

The gorgeous road was still going uphill and soon the incline became really gruesome. The more I approached Baralacha La, the worse got the slope. So did the sun. I could feel the sun-rays burning my skin. The last 10k before the pass was the most painful leg of the day’s ride. I had to take so many breaks in this 10k stretch that the ride started to seem never ending. I kept pushing. This is what you do in life. When you have to achieve something, and you are fucked up, you take breaks and then you go for your goal again. And you keep doing that till you are alive.

Alright let me just have some water now by you.

(One of the breaks during the conquest of Baralacha La)

I was alive when I reached Suraj Tal. Baralacha La was still elusive. Suraj Tal was that source of the Bhaga river that my Patseo care-taker had told me about yesterday. It looked like a chota bhaai of the Pangong lake. It was beautiful and blue. There was snow all around. A vehicle or two passed by occasionally but otherwise I was the only human out there admiring the calmness of the still water. I felt like staying at Suraj Tal for the rest of my life. And then I moved on. And finally I made it to the top. The Baralacha La pass was elusive no more. It was right there, below my feet.

…a pass possibly unique in having a tri-junction at its summit, with a trail taking off towards the south-east, down the Chandra Valley and eventually over into Spiti.

-Zanet Rizvi (Ladakh)

Suraj Tal by you.

(Suraj Tal)

DSC_0115 by you.

(at the Baralachal La top)

I was tired and exhausted and hungry. I had been cycling uphill for the last 30 kilometers and had ridden one full kilometer higher up in altitude. And I was standing almost 5 kilometers above sea-level.

At the top, there was an uninhabited Shiv temple and snow all around (except on the road) but nothing beyond that. I had expected stalls with food and water on the lines of Rohtang La (or Khardung La). All I had here was snow and a temple? I almost felt like stepping inside that small shrine and screaming at the lord – ‘aaj khush to bahot hoge tum‘? But I moved on. Free fall ensued. And after five kilometers of free-fall, there were stalls. Yay!

From then on, it was downhill all the way upto Sarchu, 20 k away. And this stretch of the ride was out of this world. Stunning landscape lit by the perfect sun-rays falling in the perfect direction. Insanely straight roads – straight for miles. And smooth. And downhill. This was definitely not real. I could take my hands off the handle and wave them like birds. I took my arms off the handle and waved them like birds. I wasn’t cycling. I was flying. Free. Liberated.

The road to Leh carries on in a northerly direction, down past glacial lakelets, following the upper waters of a river, the Yonam, that drains the surrounding mountains but, deep in its trough, can do nothing to temper the prevailing aridity, till it reaches the Chang-pa pasture and camping ground of Sarchu, the take-off point for a truly rugged trek through the mountains to the monastery of Phugtal in Zanskar. It is just short of Sarchu, at Phalung Danda, an isolated rock rising out of the plain, that the road leaves Himachal Pradesh and enters Ladakh.

-Zanet Rizvi (Ladakh)

When everything looks like a video game! by you.

(the roads that went straight for miles)

More Kishore Kumar Songs. Jo Jeeta vohi Sikandar songs. I was the Sikandar of the moment. I imagined lord Shiva whom I had met at the Baralacha La top, whispering in my ears – ‘abhi to tum bhi thode bahot khush hoge, nahi‘? Yes, I was khush. I was happy. And then I saw a sign board that sent an electric shock through my entire fucking body.

Jeevan ke safar me rahi by you.

The signboard said: Sarchu: 0 Km. Pang: 75 Km. Leh: 255 K. But if I had already reached Sarchu, why the fuck couldn’t I see any human being or tent? I stopped my bike and looked around. I couldn’t see anything for as far as the eyes could gauge.

This was bad and scary. I was confused. I was annoyed. And then, I moved on. When you are on a cycle and you don’t know what to do next, you keep cycling. That’s all you do.

And then, when I spotted some tents after few kilometers, I felt as happy as one of those yellow rubber smileys . I was like – fuck, I am not dying after all. I felt so happy that the first thing I did was to pick up a Kingfisher from the only liquor shop of Sarchu.

Just like Patseo, Sarchu wasn’t a village – all this place had were make-shift tents, about ten in number that stocked wafers, biscuits, water, maggi and things like that. And of course there was this liquor shop that I talked about. And there were asbestos rooms to sleep at night. The guy at the stall that I hit told me he could get me roti, chawal, daal, sabji for dinner. And I told myself, still sipping my Kingfisher – ‘bhanchod, what else do I need in life’?

I had a little chit-chat with Rachel and her friend from Australia. This couple had passed me earlier in the day when I was crawling my way to Baralacha La. I had found a shaded area below a boulder on the edge of the road and was resting there to gather enough energy to cycle further when they saw me. They were on a motor-bike, on an Enfield just like Eim. They thought that I was probably suffering from AMS. I was probably suffering from AMS because I was dizzy and breathless and sun-burnt. They stopped the bike and asked me if I was okay. I told them I was perfectly alright and would make it to the top in my own sweet time. Later – after I had finally nailed the pass in my own sweet time and was rolling down the straight roads, I saw them  picnicking at a rivulet. They waved to me as I passed them and I waved back. Again, somewhere before Sarchu, when they overtook me, we waved to each other. We were already friends before we actually sat with each other in Sarchu.

So I had a little chit-chat and I was tempted to talk about Indians being assaulted in Australia but I resisted. You don’t talk about shit like that when you have so many better things to talk about like cycling in New Zea-land. Both of them had worked in NZ for some time and told me it would be awesome to bike there in the southern part of the country. One day, I will bike in southern New Zea-land and the first beer that I buy there during the ride would be a toast to Rachel.

At 4.2 kilometers altitude, Sarchu was the highest place where I was going to sleeping. It was really cold there. The night was spent with strangers warming their cold bodies over a tin ka dabba stuffed with dry-wood put on fire. As I was heating myself up, I overheard the guy who had sold me the Kingfisher in the evening – ‘kullu ki rund aur lahul ki thand ka koi bharosa nahi‘. I smiled at myself and went to sleep. And when I closed my eyes, I saw Lord Shiva and both of us smiled at each other. And then I slept.

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Update (28th January 2010): I got his email with all my pics finally! Love you Jim! πŸ™‚

snaps travel

Bicycle Diary 8: Yo Patseo!

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Now [after Keylong] the valley narrows, and the road remains high on the constricting walls of its gorge, passing the two Buddhist monasteries of Tayul and Gemur. It opens out again at Darcha, into a wide plain where the principal trail to Zanskar, along the Barai Nala and over the Shingo-La, diverges from the main road. Across the river, a trekking route takes off through the mountains to the south and east, and back to the Chandra valley. On again, still following the course of the Bhaga, to the bridge at Patseo, till the 1950s an important meeting-place for traders from Zanskar, Kulu and Rupshu, as well as Lahul itself, where salt and wool from the high-altitude lands ahead were bartered for food-grains, tea and other essential commodities brought up from Kulu and Zanskar.

– Zanet Rizvi (Ladakh)

Thursday – 24 September 2009 – Patseo


(5:20 PM)

Had I been a poet, I could have sat in this rest-house for days, staring at this hilly landscape glowing in front of me through the numerous gaps of the rusted wire-mesh of these two windows of the small passageway and penned down inspiring poems.

All I can pen down is:

red blood cells
dear red blood cells
the count is up
my heart tells πŸ™‚

One of the ways, our body gets acclimatized to high altitudes (where air is thinner as I had explained earlier) is by increasing the red blood cell count of the body. Red blood cells are responsible for delivering oxygen from the blood to the tissues. So when the body realizes that something is wrong with the quantity of oxygen entering our body with every breath, it compensates for the loss by having more “delivery guys”. The problem is, this doesn’t happen in a day, or even two. It takes weeks before our RBC count goes up significantly to be able to really compensate for the lack of oxygen. But then, in any case, my RBC count should be higher than what it was when I started off from Manali and even if it’s up just by a few percent, I am happy!

By the time I was down two cups of tea at the restaurant in Keylong, I already knew I didn’t want to rest for the day. Suddenly I was fresh and nimble and roaring to go. My ass hit the saddle and I was on my way to Patseo – 45 kms away as told by the manager.

‘How is the road till Patseo’? – I asked the manager before leaving. I wanted to know if it was downhill or uphill.

‘The road is along the river, a little bit up, a little bit down – easy ride’.

The first half of the 25k ride to a small hamlet called Jispa was a gradual uphill but the second half a free flow. The manager seemed to have given the right information. I was hungry by the time I reached Jispa but there wasn’t a single working restaurant there.

‘Go to Darcha. You should find food there. Only seven kilometers from here’ – so told the lady at a grocery shop in Jispa. Those seven kilometers went only up, up and up. The road wasn’t great either. Construction was going on. One of the labours working on the road yelled ‘hello’. I replied back ‘Jai Mata Di’. ‘Jai Mata Di’, came back a cheerful reply. I kept cycling but the voice chased me – ‘kahaan se ho’?

‘Bihar’, I answered.

‘Mai bhi Jharkhand se hoon’.

I could smell pride in the voice. For few seconds, I felt I was cycling in home.

Phayul rjedna phaskat marjet!

(even if you forget your fatherland, don’t forget your father’s tongue – a Ladakhi Proverb)

Roads improved in the last 3-4k to Darcha and finally I could have food there. It was in Darcha that I realized that after already having cycled 32 kilometers, Patseo was still 22 kilometers away! What fool of a manager! Anyway, I continued. A bridge was broken once again – I had to remove my shoes and cross a river once again – except that this time, I made friends with a dog – my first friend since the journey from Manali.

He was a fat version of Tiger. Tiger – an Alsatian – was my pet many years ago when he was alive. This dog came to me as I was taking off my shoes before crossing the river and I felt like playing with him. I played with him. It was an instant bonding. He gave me company for few kilometers. I missed him for the next few kilometers.

Almost 75% of the 22k route after Darcha was uphill. For whatever little downhills existed, roads were broken enough for me not to be able to enjoy my peddle-free ride. Broken roads on a downhill just when you have pedalled like a dog over a long stretch is like having someone spit in your cup of garma-garam chaai after you have returned home tired from office.

Nadiya kinaare, Cycle pukaare by you.

(somewhere between Keylong and Patseo)

I was about to reach Patseo, when I overtook a group of young men walking on the road. As I crossed them, one dude shouted – ‘lift’. I smiled and they crackled at the PJ. It was still an uphill then and I was obviously tired and slow. The guy who had shouted was having few pods of raw mutter and asked me if I wanted some. I took some. They were sweet.

Finally at Patseo, I was delighted to spot two white tents next to a small but beautiful lake. The delight was short-lived. The tents were empty and shut down. I cycled ahead and then saw a milestone that blew up my mind – ‘Zingzingbar 9 Km’. I went like WTF! I had already crossed Patseo! So Patseo wasn’t even a village and the only tents that I could see were closed down! WTF! WTF! I cursed the manager of the Keylong restaurant. How could he have proposed to me such a stupid itinerary? He could have at least warned me! It was already about five in the evening (I had started late from Keylong) and had started to get dark. What if I didn’t find anything at whatever this place Zingzingbar was? I could sleep in the open but what would I eat? This was not funny but for lack of anything else to do, I moved on.

I had cycled only few hundred meters more when to my utmost respite, I noticed a board on the side of the road. The board was trying to tell something to me. Most of the letters had faded but soon I could make out ‘rest-house’ from whatever letters remained. A cement concrete diversion took me to the rest-house and the care-taker welcomed me with a black-coffee. There was no milk of course, but who the fuck cared.

‘Will I get food here’?

‘Oh yes’.

Phew! Thank you God!

What a cute rest-house this is! There are only two more rooms in here – one is empty and the other is for the only staff – my care-taker. My black coffee just got over. Let me go, get out and breathe some fresh air in this otherwise deserted place. The only other building that I see is a Meteorology Department office.

Patseo Guest House by you.

(Patseo Rest-House)


(8:00 PM)

Ah so this place does not have power! A generator does the job for the adjoining Meteorology Department office but here in this rest-house all I have for light is an empty glass bottle of a local apple juice containing kerosene with a thin strip of cotton immersed inside that passes through the metallic cap of the bottle and burns with a thick soot. What fun!

In the evening, I had walked down to the river, few hundred meters below. I climbed atop a huge boulder sitting on the path of the river. I sat there and adored the icy blue water that teemed with white waves. The speed was ferocious and the clarity mesmerizing. There were a million rocks and boulders spread all over the river and as the water in all its force collided with each one of them, it created music that even Rehman cannot. Or may be he can, because that guy is definitely not from this world.

The care-taker told me he was from Darcha. He also told me the name of the river – Bhaga – and how I would get to see the source soon on my way to Leh. When inquired about the snow sprinkled over some of the nearby hills, he told me it had snowfalled about ten days back. That was when the tents where shut down.  Later in the night, he cooked daal and chawal for me. The food was served hot and so it tasted good. It’s getting cooler by the day and anything that’s hot is heaven here. After dinner, I stepped out to roam around in the moon-lit and the star-lit night. Oh, what surreal beauty met the eyes; dark silhouettes of the rocky hills in all directions; zillions of happy stars and planets and a glistening naughty moon in the stunningly clear sky; cool breeze and the clear sound of the fuming and foaming Bagha river down below. Surreal.

Under the moon-lit and the star-lit happy sky,  I literally danced and sang. I sang arbitrary Kishore Kumar songs and Abhijeet songs and Shankar Mahadevan songs. The moon, the stars, the sky, the breeze and the hills sang with me. Nature and me – we became one. Free. Liberated. Nothing less than a trance.

Like today, it’s going to be a 45k ride tomorrow. There would be just one difference – tomorrow I shall have to climb up the second pass of the route – Baralachala La – at an altitude of 4.9 kilometers, (one full kilometer higher up than Patseo), where air would only be 54% as dense as at sea-level. I definitely need a good night’s sleep, what say? πŸ˜›

PS: Happy Diwali πŸ™‚

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]