Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Entry 7: Breathless in Sarchu

The next day’s ride, between Keylang and Sarchu, was only a bit over 100km, but many of us thought it was our most difficult day of the entire Ride, worse even than the previous day’s. The weather remained poor, and most of the day involved climbing, from about 2,500m above sea level in Keylang to 4,200m by day’s end. That’s not such a big climb for a willing Bullet, but it took us from a doable altitude, only a little above, say, Manali’s, to a height most of us had never been at before. And the road was largely rough, the hairpin bends were many, and we were still getting over the previous day.

We passed through exotically-named settlements: Jispa, Darcha, Deepak Tal, Suraj Tal and, perhaps oddest of all, Zing Zing Bar. That last sounds like something you might put in your mixer, but it boasted several cafés, including one we had to try, if only for its name: “Peace café”! One wonders whether Peace Café’s outback dunny, “Peace Café Toilet”, was appropriately named, but apart from the 5 in our group there were few signs of westerners, whose stomachs are infamously sensitive, (Although a doctor from New Zealand, whom I met later in Manali, maintains that he cycled as far as Zing Zing Bar in a day!)  and one assumes that the locals, and even Indians from far away on the plains, have cast iron constitutions! (Then there’s the coarse word meaning to urinate and sounding like “peace”, but that’s quite enough of that!)

It was the elevation and the cold wind that caused many of our problems. And a really difficult section of road which glacier thaw was rushing across and down, and wrecking. That caused a massive, two way traffic jam which we soon slipped through on our motorbikes, but getting across this temporary river proved more difficult. As Volkhard, one of the Germans, later remarked, most people tried to ride their bikes across where the water was quieter, but it was quiet because it was deep! It was better to steer our bikes up the quickly-flowing shallower channel instead, I got stuck behind a large rock, nearly dropped my bike into the deeper water and filled my boots with the glacier-fed and cold liquid. It didn’t matter that I took off my boots and twisted as much water from my socks as I could; soon I was cold and getting colder. I thought I had brought plenty of appropriate clothing, but the thermolactyl underwear was in my bag in a support vehicle way behind us. So we crossed on another rough road across a high, sloping plain to an adventure camp that consisted of a bunch of tents in Sarchu. By this time I was shaking uncontrollably, so I had some chai, claimed a tent, got into a camp bed under a massive overcast, and slept for a couple of hours.

Those running the adventure camp treated us well. The Tibetans and Ladakhis have a special quality to their hospitality, respect and politeness that outdoes that even of the Indians, I think. I was learning quickly about the restorative properties not only of hot chai with sugar, but of hot soup with salt! But here, over 4,000 metres above sea level, I noticed that the chai and soup only got warm, and rice and potatoes never seemed to be really cooked. I think it was Boyle’s Law that stated that 
P.V =   P.V
  T         T

where P means Pressure, V means Volume and T means Temperature. That is, if you reduce air pressure, as you do at this altitude, you will reduce the temperature at which water boils, so that you will not cook things as effectively as at sea level.

Be that as it may, dinner tasted good and we went to bed again. But in the night I sat up for 2 hours, panting. It wasn’t altitude sickness; I’m sure that the 2 weeks of preparation in Manali helped to acclimatise me. But I was struggling to get enough oxygen. The next day I learned that during the night our leader Bishop Samantaroy had had to take his wife Lily to the nearby army clinic for the same reason, and that many others had also suffered. Fortunately, Dr Philip Alexander in Manali had given us a lot of altitude sickness tablets, and these now came into their own.

I’m sure it wasn’t just altitude sickness that made things difficult; there was a psychological component as well. As the accompanying photo shows, the nearest rockslide has come to rest (so far) only about 50 metres from our camp. This is a dynamic and enormously powerful landscape. As such there is something foreboding about it that I think started seeping into our minds. I certainly did a lot of praying while I panted that night, and I resolved a struggle against rising panic. From here on things improved.

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