At the truck thundered towards us on the narrow dirt road, tossing boulders down the steep mountainside in its wake, Sonam Norbu took both hands off the wheel and fumbled for his lighter. Unimpressed by the fatal scenarios which his cavalier attitude could manifest, I snatched his cigarette away and lit it for him. Fortunately I was only making the outbound trip with this Ladakhi maniac; my return, freewheeling back on a mountain bike, could be done at my own pace.
Arriving at the Khardung La, one of the world’s highest road passes at 5,358m above sea level, the snow-capped summit looked like a circus; Buddhist prayers flags exploded outwards from the hilltop temple, where a monk had commandeered a tannoy system and was philosophizing to the crowds milling below. At the “World’s Highest Cafeteria”, pale-faced tourists (shaken either by the altitude or the local driving style) sipped nerve-settling black tea while leather-jacketed bikers sat on their hogs, taking a break from their Himalayan odyssey road-trips. Further along the road a garden shed-sized museum and giftshop was doing a roaring trade.
I was in northern India, in the mainly Buddhist Himalayan province of Ladakh, a name which means “mountain pass” in the local dialect. The region is home to a large community of Tibetan refugees, many of whom sell Gurkha-style kukhuri knives and prayer flags from the bazaars in state capital Leh; their stories of suffering under Chinese imperialism come for free.
Thrill-seekers are driven up to the pass, which towers above the town, by tour companies. After a brief look around at the top, backpackers are handed mountain bikes to freewheel the 40km back to Leh. Ready to part ways with the black tea and lack of oxygen that brings so many visitors to the pass, I hopped onto the saddle and began to pedal.
The road, little more than a dirt track at the higher reaches, winds around the arid hillsides, conveying trucks, buses, and taxis making the 14-hour journey up from Manali in the south. Far beyond, on the other side of the green valley below, the Karakoram range is visible, its snow-capped mass gleaming through a light blue sky.
The moon, still visible at midday, hung above the peaks as I hurtled downhill, a white ball suspended in thin air. Boulders by the roadsides warned drivers of the perilous route, with messages painted onto their surfaces in yellow and black paint. “Got Brakes, Got Licence!” proclaimed one, “Slow Drive, Long Life” another.
The road improves to a paved surface after an hour of teeth-rattling pothole negotiation, the increase in speed allowing riders to cruise smoothly and quickly around the route’s bends. A group of road workers were breaking for lunch as I rode past. Stopping to talk to them, they offered to share their meal with me.
Having cupped two chapatis (palm-sized flatbreads) in my left hand to form a bowl, they filled the bread with curry and I consumed it with the other hand. When the curry is gone, the edible bowl follows. Offering in exchange a packet of cookies and answers to questions about my native country, I took their photographs and departed, waving goodbye as I sped away downhill.
Yaks were visible from the roadside, the enormous beasts scouring the lower reaches, where small lush plots of agricultural land form the northern slopes of Leh. With the rounding of each bend the view of each individual valley was more spectacular than the last. Along one straight downhill stretch I found myself racing with a truck driver transporting an open coop of chickens into the town. The sound of the clucking in my ears was the best indicator of how far I was ahead of him.
Riding back into Leh, the last few hours of peace are broken as India – albeit a far more relaxed version in this primarily-Buddhist province – reintroduces itself with blaring horns and the shouts of street food vendors. Dropping the bike off at the tour company and wandering away down the road, the rickshaw drivers descended to offer their services. Waving them away with a practiced sweep of the arm I continue walking, preferring to go at my own pace for a while.