That night in our wind-whipped tents in Sarchu many of us were praying for better weather the following day. Some may have even been starting to think of how they could leave the Ride altogether. Weather has an extraordinary effect on mood, which goes to show what resilient people the first polar explorers were! Thankfully, the next morning dawned, not fine but as what the Swedes call “uppehållsväder”, (which means that the weather was “holding up” and the rain was “holding off”. It was the best kind of weather we could have hoped for. It was overcast, which moderated the effect of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on fair German and Australian skin, and brown Indian skin too. The wind that had kept tearing away at our tents in the pitch black of the night before abated too. So after another mood-enhancing (in the most positive sense of this word!) breakfast we set off.
Our task this day reminded me of a long day in the saddle in the Tour de France: about 250km to cover including two Cat(egory) 5 ascents and 2 long descents, the second followed by a 50 kilometre flat run into Leh itself. So off we set. The road improved from awful to OK, and we had a fast run along a valley floor. Then came a steep ascent from the Gata Loops - about 500 metres in two kilometres - before the the ascent flattened out until reaching Lachunglang la, our first “Col” of the day which, at 5079 metres above sea level, is the world’s third highest trafficable pass, much higher than any Tour de France Col I’ve seen! There followed a 27 kilometre long descent to 4,600 metres, and the little settlement of Pang, where the Indian Army, as in many places around northern India, was much in evidence. Then off we set again across Moore Plains named, presumably, for some English explorer who discovered what locals had long known. The road across Moore Plains is high, (av. 4,800m above sea level), desolate, flat, and punctuated by road crews and savage bumps caused by the road meeting culverts set in place to channel ephemeral flows of water. Moore Plains provided some of the best riding of the whole trip. Not surprisingly we passed a number of other groups of bikers travelling in the opposite direction. The only problem was that it spread out the field. At this point, although the good German riders frequently formed a breakaway group there was nothing like the Tour de France’s peloton, the bunched group of riders some distance behind, trying to catch up.
My machine had a 500cc motor, which is why I managed, on these good roads, to keep within striking distance of my new German friends, and to celebrate crossing the highest point of our trip, Taglang la, with them. At more than 5,300 metres above sea level Taglang la is too high to celebrate long, so the great, 2,000 metres descent began. Still not a confident descender, I was passed by rider after rider, and only caught up at Upshi, where we stopped for lunch at the bottom of the descent. After lunch it rained - in Ladakh! We filled our bikes’ tanks with petrol and once again Germans, more confident in the wet than us others, formed what in cycling parlance would be called a breakaway group which stayed with the lead vehicle in which Bishop Samantaroy had arranged to meet our host in Leh. Having slid off wet roads several times as a young rider I proceeded very cautiously in the heavy rain here. Remarkably, no one overtook me. We formed a peloton. As the rain abated and the road became drier the nearer to Leh we approached the faster we went. Suddenly we were in a traffic jam and, weaving our way through it like a group of busy blowflies we caught up with our lead vehicle. And so it was that we reached Leh together. Our host, a Ladakhi who had attended the Diocesan Tyndale-Biscoe School in Srinagar, Kashmir, took us to our digs for the next 4 nights, the Himalaya Guesthouse and Hotel. An old scout, I enjoy camping. But it did seem to me, as well as to the others in our group that our situation was greatly improved over the previous 2 nights! There was even internet access…well, if one sat in a certain place in a certain position, with one’s tongue held in a certain way!
Over the next few days we were tourists. Ladakh is deeply Buddhist, and Buddhists seem to like building their stupas, temples and monasteries in inaccessible places. So we rode in procession and in our Ride for Peace uniforms from one craggy outcrop overlooking the city and valley to another. I’m not sure whether the raucous clamour of more than 20 motorbikes echoing off city buildings constituted much of an advertisement for peace. Some within earshot might have wished for a little peace and quiet. One of the hotel guests I spoke with claimed the “right to peace”. On the other hand, the local children seemed delighted. Many waved enthusiastically as we thundered by.
Our goal main goal in Leh was probably to have the official group photograph taken at the Shanti (Peace) Stupa, an enormous, gleaming white structure built in 1980. However, two other features stood out for me. The Moravian Church is one of the best built buildings in Leh. In a context where it is difficult to communicate Christian faith the building itself bears mute testimony to the excellence of Christ. We attended two worship services in the church compound: a fairly traditional, Moravian one in the main sanctuary, and a rather more exuberant, Nepali one, in the old chapel, which gave us some insights into the Christian revival that has been sweeping Nepal for a a couple of decades.
The other feature of our Leh Days was our 240km round trip to Lake Pangorn. This remarkable lake is hidden by mountains, and the road there is exceptionally rough. In several places, where a landslide has deposited metres of mud and stone over it, the Border Roads Organisation has had to dig out the road! Several factors make Lake Pangorn interesting. Apart from being well-hidden it is salty and, probably because of that, very clear. 70 per cent of Lake Pangorn lies within Chinese territory; we had come nearly as far north in India as it is possible to go. And it was the location of the denouement in Bollywood producer Aamir Khan’s movie “Three Idiots”. That last is probably the main reason why so many Indian tourists are now making the arduous journey to Lake Pangorn.
So, after 40 years I fulfilled my bucket list wish item of to visiting Ladakh and Leh. This part of the world proved to be every bit as remarkable as I had believed. But now it was time to make the return journey.