With the major snow covered mountain passes under our belts (Khardung, Chang, Wari and Taglang), we dribble onwards from Chang La towards an azure Pangong Tso, and then west into Zanskar Valley, which is situated between Kashmir and Ladakh.
Pangong Tso sits at 4250 metres and is the largest freshwater lake of the Himalayas. The 126km Pangong Tso connects Tibet’s border to Ladakh, and is probably the closest I’ll ever get to Tibet if I don’t win lotto!
There is two routes to get to Pangong Tso, the easiest route entering from Karu on the Manali-Leh highway. This route being the one that Dave, Evelyn and I took, runs over Chang La (claimed third highest pass in the world) and then down towards bordering Tibet onto a gorgeous Pangong Tso.
Potholed mud switched back into a pleasantly ashphalted road after almost being stomped into roadkill by a lazy 4WD off Chang La. The ashphalt felt like glue. I had never been so happy to kiss a road with my tires. Occasional small water crossings ensued, as did lazy strips of gravel every now and then, but for the most part, the road was a pleasure – just like my salt and butter mashed potatoes.
As the road sloped down, a brilliant blue appeared on the horizon between the earthy mountains – Pangong Tso was in sight! Within minutes, we were alongside the beautiful blue lake fully encircled by colourfully marbled mountains. Clouds above played havoc with the various earthy shades of oranges, reds and yellows, gifting the scenery an even more remarkable palette of colour.
Seeking a track to lead us to a hidden camping spot didn’t take long to find. We ended up on the fringe of a lapping Pangong Tso, protected by a low hill and out of sight (mostly) of the road circling the lake. With the days riding done it was dinnertime!
Sunrise at Pangong
While David and Evelyn slept under their huge green tent, I woke up for an early sunrise walk along the lake which began in jaw dropping fashion. The sky had turned into a magnificent cushion of faded purples and glowing orange.
Perfectly reflected on a small sandy inlet nearby, were the gorgeously marbled mountains surrounding Pangong. Fading clouds hung overhead while the sun speared through, plating the marbled rock in gold.
Pressing sand down beneath my feet, I wandered around the small sandy inlet. Seabugs squirmed and wriggled in the shallows as mosquitoes played chicken with the lightly lapping lake. Scrounging out a comfortable bum groove, I sat on the sand and enjoyed the scene of Pangong wake itself up.
After meandering back to camp, we three pored over Evelyn’s well creased map and a gps. Time was looking lean for the Austrians (they still needed to leave some time to visit Pakistan before returning to India) and we decided to return the way we entered instead of taking the longer track route to Tso Moriri (another lake, much less frequented by tourists).
After crossing Chang La, we refueled and rested in Leh. The road west to Kargil was all smooth, a long strip of ashphalt which stems 220kms eastbound, halfway to the Kashmiri city of Srinagar. Minus the military bases and ceaseless truck lines, the scenery was swamped in meadows of green, and you guessed it, more mountain passes!
Even with all the military presence, the ride towards Kargil was fantastic. Smooth asphalt all the way into Kargil made appreciating the landscape much easier. Mosques became more commonplace then frequent Buddhist temples we’d been seeing so far – we were moving into new lands again!
Two days later, after camping down not so hidden hill from a small road side village, full of curious children, it was time to roll into Zanskar.
Zanskar Valley – a rough introduction
Located between Hemis and Kishtwar National parks, the road lies between the Zanskar Range and the Greater Himalayan range. The gravel road is frequent with water crossings, and is accompanied by sweeping green fields covered in edelweiss, glaciers and the typical snowcapped mountains of the himalayas.
There is a high majority of buddhists (including many Tibetan buddhists) inside Zanskar Valley, who’s major ‘city’ is Padum. On the fringes of the valley towards Kargil (the major city between Leh and Srinagar), there is a Sunni muslim majority. There is only one 220km road accessing Padum, and it is the only way in and out, 80% of which is gravel.
After a confusing police checkpoint, the ashphalt melted away as gravel danced beneath my tires. A blue sky accompanied us into the valley plains, which were carpeted in green and surrounded by craggy grey Himalayan mountains. Dust kicked up as we rode through, much to the local childrens enjoyment… and mine!
Zipping out of a small waterlogged section, the intimidating sister mountains Nun and Kun brazenly struck into my vision – the two highest peaks in Zanskar Valley (7135m and 7077m). High above the darker jagged mountains, covered in snow and ice, Nun and Kun glared white, making it impossible to ignore their immensity!
With a wealth of tiny threadbare villages laying in the shadows of such enormous peaks, it really gave an idea on the scale of things. Local herds of yak and cow fed on the lush green vegetation, overlooked by tiny villages high up on the bluffs. Rusting tin roofs merged into the scenery so well, I began to wonder if Van Gogh had painted this into real life!
A landslide in Zanskar
A landslide quickly brought the engaging ride to a halt shortly thereafter. Pools of muddy run off and large chunks of rock blocked the road entirely! I look for a way around it for the bikes but as I turned, David shook his head knowingly. Resigned to waiting, we fell back to a crumbling glacier and supped on noodles for lunch.
Yawning, I lay back in what little shade my bike provided. While David and I napped underneath our bikes to escape the heat of the sun, ever practical Evelyn made use of the ice cold water flowing past to wash and clean some clothes.
A small yellow digger chugged past my half closed eyes, and optimism entered the fray briefly. However, hours passed by and still the situation remain unchanged.
Opposite our sleepy heads was yet another glacier, crumbling slowly above the Suru river… what better time and place to set up camp?! With a camp spot for the night, it was easy to enjoy the remaining daylight. I tracked back a few kilometres for nutritious supplies (which consisted of no more then oreos, chips and chocolate bars!).
On to Panzi
As Zanskar valley wound itself amongst the edelweiss covered fields of green, yak began to grow in number as well as athletic marmuts… all who ran quicker then I could. Wandering horses didn’t seem phased by three stinkers on bikes passing them by and happily ignored us.
Water crossings were plentiful, and some a little technical – switching from deep flat bottomed crossings to others that made the bike kick like a pogo stick! Still, making a splash is alot of fun (well for me anyway), especially after soaking a filming Evelyn in water after misjudging my speed into yet another water run off.
Metres below, a fierce Suru roared resoundingly, crashing into rocky obstructions and devouring them as a dragon does it’s prey. After all it was July, the perfect time for glacial melt and river growth.
At one point the bike got buried in between a rock and a hard place, and I was wondering whether what was going to burn out first – the clutch plates or the rear tire. The water running down the road didn’t help – I couldn’t seem build decent traction off the wet smooth rocks on my trail masters, but somehow, after some huffing and puffing, the old girl and I climbed out, not a moment too soon with David hot on my tail!
The road was a complete blast, a little challenging but nothing that was too far out of our reach. As the road climbed the Greater Himalayas grew even more dramatic, a border to a foreign planet. White clouds peaked over the greater himalyan range like vultures waiting for the kill. Glaciers and ice shelves were rich inside the valley, all you had to do was look up.
As the great walls of ice radiated in the afternoon sun, the scenic drama overwhelmingly swept us up in it’s arms. By the time we’d Panzi La, renowned Drang Drung glacier was almost in view. David and I headed on a little further from the pass, hoping to get a glimpse of the sweeping monster Glacier. It didn’t take long to appear.
Camping on the plains
Camping is usually always a pleasure, and our spot that afternoon was no different. After riding back from Drang Drung (with Evelyns toolbox tearing apart twice on rocky sections), a nice grassy plain presented itself. Alongside the river, we had water for washing, and thick soft grass for sleeping.
My tent shook loudly at 4.30am.
“Dutchie!… wake up!”
“Dutchie, come on, wake up!!!”
Resisting the itch to swear my head off at being woken up at such an uncouth time of the morning, I stuck my head out from under and the fly to see David grinning at me.
“Well, I’m glad it’s not a bear” I thought to myself.
“Look…” David said happily, pointing eastwards.
Crawling out of my tent onto the moonlight grass, I stood up and turned around.
The moon hung low in the sky, just out of the reach of the snowcapped himalayans. Purple and pink hues painted the sky so softly. All the while the shining moon reflected off the Suru river. Silence played across the green plains, deafening in it’s approach to creating a tranquil environment.
Morning had come quicker then I liked… and along with it came hundreds, if not thousands of mosquitoes. Slathering ourselves in Odomos (mosquito repellant) we bolted out of the green plains to escape the wrath of clouds of curious mosquitos!
The boulder in the crossing
Riding with me, you’ll always be entertained, and the next incident was no different. At this point of our ride to Australia, we were all confident with our water crossing skills – which were still basic, but enough to get us through every crossing without too much difficulty thus far.
However, on the deepest of the lot, I rode into the heart of a deep pool, chasing right after David. The water gripped my legs as it crept over my boots. As I cruised through the deep section of water, I hit a large boulder which was covered by the deep rushing water… whoops!
Falling into the frothing water, I was soaked to the bone in an instant as was the bike (although it looked much less dramatic in the video somehow). I giggled like a schoolgirl with David, as Evelyn smiled from the opposite bank behind me…
With the bike back up, halfway in, at the deepest part of the water, I hoped for an engine that wasn’t flooded… over and over I tried to start the bike, without the starter motor kicking even a little bit.
Switching the bike on and off, the kill switch and the starter still gave me nothing…
“One more go” I thought to myself… and with that I tried the starter once more (with some choice swear words of course). With a loud rattle and a very slow response, the engine came to life and I zipped out of the ice cold water. No better time for a bath the present moment I suppose.
We all spent the next hour drying socks, boots and gear in the sun next to the crossing – after all, there was no rush to get anywhere just yet. This is why I don’t need to shower, I’m forever getting free washes on the bike!
Once our boots were only wet instead of soaked, we decided to continue west for Kashmir, instead of east for Padum. Onto Srinagar it was!