The Highest Road in the World

Mountain biking the Indian Himalayas
By Smita Madan Paul
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The inhospitable terrain of Ladakh.
The inhospitable terrain of Ladakh.

It's only 8 a.m., but the sun is already burning off any trace of last night's frozen grip up here around 14,400 feet. Our campsite is near the settlement of Sarchu on the Kashmiri border in the Indian Himalayas, and it is already bustling. Our cook yells at his young assistants to pack up the tents; they throw our rucksacks onto the bus, and it's time to go. I take my last drink from the stream that runs through our campsite. Flowing straight from the glacier above, filtered through passages inside the massively contorted mountains that surround us, the water feels just a few degrees shy of ice. It is the first time I have drunk water straight from the earth. Butbecause of the impressive altitude, we could be the first humans to cup our hands and dip theminto the icy rivulet. Sarchu is our last high altitude camp. Like many of the so-called settlements in this part of the world, it is little more than a few tents offering packaged biscuits and lukewarm drinks, plus two army trucks and an aid station where compressed oxygen is available to treat the onset of HAPO (High Altitude Pulmonary Oldema).

Today is the turning point in our trip. After crossing the Bara Lacha La, we will descend more than 10,000 to the relatively more hospitable valley known as the Lahaul. Silently, I'm telling myself not to get intimidated by the thought of this morning's climb as our guide, Glenn Rowley, pushes me to get on my mountain bike."You'd better get going. You've got to be on the other side of the pass by lunch," he warns me. A ruddy-faced Englishman, he's headed treks into remote valleys in the Himalayas for the past 17 years. He doesn't hesitate when he needs to push along areluctant client.

There are 17 of us in all undertaking this daunting trek. We are here to mountain bike from the high altitude desert of Ladakh to the lush green Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh in the northernIndian Himalayas. We will travel almost 400 miles in 15 days. Two of the four mountain passes we have already crossed were more than 17,000 feet in elevation. By the time we arrive in the KulluValley, known as the"valley of the gods," we will have traversed six high passes and riddenthrough four temperate zones. Because of the number of motorable high mountain passes here, this road, called the Leh to Manali Traverse, is often called the "highest road in the world."

Our group of cyclists is divided not just by culture but also, strangely, by sex. All themen are English. There are 10 of them, from a landscape designer in his early 20sto an electrical engineer in his 40s. All the women are Americans from the San Francisco area andin contrast to the men are incredibly expressive and inquisitive. Their genial sense of humor infects us all. Our group is also split by sheer bravado. On the first day of the trip, it became very clear that some members were part of what was quickly dubbed "The Testosterone Club." Club members favor the "open-mouthed descents," roaring down tiny, rocky footpaths that drop straight down the mountains. We call them "open-mouthed" because they can't stop screaming "omigod! omigod! omigod!" on the way down. The others, myself included, are content to take the low-grade road, which sometimes consists of little more than gravel, gigantic gulches, and broken rocks.Trying to control your mountain bike through 22 consecutive hairpin turns—all the while trying to avoid the giant black-exhaust-spewing trucks and tourist buses that sometimes comeroaring around the corner—is enough excitement for me, thank you. Most of the women are timid downhillers, preferring the steady challenge of uphill. Not me. The downhills are where I feel my strength and speed. I love daring my bike, leaning closer and closer to the rocky ground as I take a curve.

I've been to the Himalayas before around Dharamsala, the home of the exiled Tibetan leader, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, but I've never experienced high altitudes before. Shortly after waking up in the morning, I get a headache that stays with me all day. Breathing, taken for granted for most of life, suddenly is a tremendous struggle. Any slight incline leaves me winded. The top layer of my skin on my forehead is cracking as my body uses all the moisture it can to operate. Perspiration shows up as tiny chalky white lines of salt around my neck. We haven't showered for four days now, but because we don't sweat at high altitudes, body odor has not become a problem yet. Despite my exhaustion every night, sleep is fitful and unsatisfying. We have been logging an average of 60 miles a day so far. At least I am improving. On our first day, I had to stop after nearly every mile for water, my throat dry from breathing inand out in a double-time accelerated rhythm.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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