Winter Cycling in Ladakh - Leh - Pangong - Khardung La - Leh

Chander Kaher

New Member
This blog is about my Solo, self-supported, winter cycling in Ladakh. I covered a total of 450 km in 6 days with the temperature down to -25 C without windchill and 8000 meters of accumulative ascent. Places that I covered were Leh, Chang La, Pangong Lake, and Khardung La.

My love for Ladakh bloomed in the summer of 2009, and it has only grown stronger with every visit. The first time is always in style. So the trip was on a motorcycle and lasted for 10days. We traveled from Ludhiana and covered the circuit in the following manner.

Ludhiana - Manali - Leh - Pangong - Nubra – Leh - Manali - Ludhiana.

The trip turned out to be a lot shorter than I imagined. 10 days flew by and felt only like hours. I just could not get enough. I was so deep in love that I decided to experience it all over again, and this time, in slow motion.

It took me two years to go back, on cycle for another 10 days to cover Manali-Leh-KhardungLa. Since then I have been making a yearly pilgrimage to Ladakh.

All these years, I had seen Ladakh in summers, across June to September. I always wondered what it will be like in winter. Some thought I was brave, some thought I was stupid, but I was just in love. And what is love if it doesn’t make you go crazy?

In a cold December around Christmas, I visited Ladakh, to completely absorb the beauty of the place, I decided to do this on cycle solo, self-supported.

My route was

Leh - Shakti - Chang La - Durbuk - Pangong Lake, Phobrang - Shyok - Khalsar - Diskit - Khardung La - Leh

Traveling this way, I covered a total of 457KM in 6 days. Those who knew me knew that I was just being me.

It was an extreme experience of cold, solidarity, and Adrenaline.

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Chander Kaher

New Member

Day 1 - Delhi to Leh


On the 20th of December, I took an early morning flight from Delhi to Leh. This was an experience in itself too as we flew over the beautiful snow-covered peaks and landscape. The change in the scenery was amazing; from smog to green, green to white, and white to brown. We saw a white-washed Rohtang, Moore Plains, and a frozen Tso Kar.

I landed shortly in Leh after a flight of slightly over an hour. The temperature outside was -12 C with fresh air. I checked in and made myself comfortable in a very friendly guest house. I loved the innovative ideas of keeping the house warm. But then I didn’t want to get too comfortable.

After breakfast, I had to collect my permit from the DC office. So decided to walk from the guest house to the DC office (total 5 kilometers). The route was through the famous and happening Changspa Road. But this time of the year, there was not a soul there; no locals, tourists, and all shops were closed.

That was the first realization that it was not going to be that easy as I thought. The second realization was at the permit office. The Permit officer was surprised at my request for an inner-line permit during this time of the year.

When I told the officer that the mode of transport was a cycle, he suggested to rethink about this trip with concern and suggested to do in summer. I understood his concern and thanked him. He said that it was a first; in winter that he is (probably) issuing permit for cycle for that specific route.

That was exciting to hear but a little scary too. Finally, I was all set for an exciting journey to the oblivious

Packed for the Airport


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Beautiful View of Mulkila from 35000 feet

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View of Frozen Tso Kar and Moore Plains on right

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View of Hemis ...


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Empty Streets of Leh. During July-August, these streets are filled with open-air cafes with delicious food and get so crowded.

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Ready for the Journey/Adventure

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Chander Kaher

New Member

DAY 2 - Leh to Sakti (50 km)


It was a good start with a reasonable distance with 700 meters in altitude gain. It was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature ranging between -3°C maximum and -12°C minimum.

Leh to Karu was a smooth ride of 35 kilometers. The entire journey was along the Indus river, which had just started to freeze, offering a breathtaking view. From Karu to Sakti was a continuous climb with unmatchable views of Wari La and Monasteries along the way.

The day was only 6 hrs long, from 9 am to 3 pm, with Lunch at Karu. I had an opportunity to stay with a family in Sakti. They not only offered me homemade food also gave me a place to sleep; a very warm place to sleep.

Most of the places I stayed in were kept warm without support without electricity. Though I was looking ahead at one of the tough days of my trip, I slept like a log.


All packed and ready

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Leh Morning Temp.

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On the way ..... A break at Beautiful Thiksay Monastery

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Along the Indus river, It starts to freeze. Hemis on right side


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Going up towards Sakti. Looking back at a steep incline but steeper to come.


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My Night Stay at Sakti. Thanks to my host to make a special effort to open this place exclusive to me.


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Impressive Ladakhi kitchen. A warm place after being in sub-zero temperature. Had delicious food here, long chats with hosts and locals.


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Just before getting Dark in Sakti, Chang La is hidden in those white mountains on the right side...

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Chander Kaher

New Member

Day 3 - Sakti to Chang La to Durbuk


It was ChangLa Day, the world’s second-highest motor-able pass at an altitude of 5358 meters. The claim, of course, is disputed but it made no difference to my excitement.

Again, the sun god was smiling down upon me and gifting me with blue skies without wind for as long as 60 km to Durbuk. I would not have been able to make the 1800 meters ascent otherwise.

Despite this gift, It was a tough day. The minimum temperature was -16°C at Chang La at noon without the chill factor. The ice jammed cycle’s disk brakes, on icy & slippery roads.

There was nothing I could do to prepare myself for this. I had to work twice as hard as I was not only trying to peddle at steep elevation but also struggling to keep my body warm in the extreme weather.

During my summer trips, I used to be delighted by the sights of downhill. My smiles soon faded away this time when I realized that in winter, they are tougher than climbing.

I was at the edge of my nerves throughout the downhill from Chang La to Durbuk, due to icy & slippery roads, headwinds, no sun (North face), and the temperature dropping to -20°C with the windchill.

It was a long day from 7 am to 5:30 pm. I managed to reach Durbuk before it got dark and high winds.

Crossing ChangLa was one of the biggest challenges of the trip and was risky. Another factor was the wild dogs on this route that can be very dangerous. Luckily, I had no such encounter.

But the day was rewarding and fulfilling in all aspects. The scenes that I captured, the feeling that I experienced, was something to die for, and no exaggeration. The fact that there is life that goes on every day in that area in such extreme conditions is a wonder in itself.

Again, I was welcomed to delicious home-cooked food at Durbuk and a warm place to sleep.

Sakti Village in the back, Going towards ChangLa. The temperature on the way was -12°C. It kept on dropping till Chang La, close to -20°C around the afternoon.

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View of Sakti Village, All brown and frozen. Trust me, the picture doesn't capture a fraction of the beauty of the Place



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Happy to see, what I had covered so far but knew that much more was ahead. It was just the beginning.


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From here onward, I start to feel altitude sickness and tiredness. There was still a long distance to cover. I was rushing against time. I have to reach Durbuk before dark.

So no more time for pictures.

At Zingral, 13 km from ChangLa top. Thanks to the Indian Army for providing me hot cups of tea at a warm place. I packed some snacks and warm water to carry on. It was a great experience. For security reasons, I am not adding any pictures related to army personnel and locations.

Finally reached Chang La, approximately 90 minutes later than planned. Cycle "disk breaks" were stuck because of ice and debris.

Once again, thanks to the Indian Army for providing help. I was given hot water to clean disk breaks and hot cups of teas. Few selfies till cycle's disc breaks getting cleaned with boiling hot water.

Clean disk brakes were life-saving. Thanks to the ARMY.

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Now onward, there was time pressure. The conditions on the road for cycling were very bad which includes icy & slippery roads, wind (issue of frostbite ), no sun, etc.

Coming down from Changla was a lifetime experience of down-hill. During downhill, it is a free-flow at 6%+ decline which increases wind chill, multi-fold risk of slipping on the icy road, and no peddling which means the body is not heating. It is totally different than uphill in winter. You would wish you do all uphills in winter and all downhills in summer.

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I finally made it to Durbuk and got a warm place to stay and great food Downhill was surely much tougher than uphill. A stove in the picture is another lifesaver at that point :)

Along with dinner, I had lots of Ladakhi tea. It was very refreshing. The homestay was a very comfortable and cozy place and the food was just awesome. After all said and done, Day 2 ended well.
 
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Chander Kaher

New Member

Day 3 - Durbuk to Pangong Tso to Durbuk


Day-Pangong Lake is a beautiful blue lake at an altitude of 4400 meters. I was wondering if I will get to see a blue or white lake (frozen). I was soon to find out.

The plan was to cycle to Pangong / Phobrang and be back in Durbuk by evening. It was going to be a return journey of 125 kilometers with 1252 meters ascent. Once again, I managed to keep the Sun god happy. The day was blessed with beautiful blue skies without wind. The temperature was -12 °C to start and average around -7 °C at noon under the sun.

At the very first sight of Pangong Tso, I knew I was so right to have come here. A Massive blue spread of water, tiny little waves on the surface, not a soul around, not even birds. It was so pure. It’s a sight I have captured for life.

The lake had just started to freeze. In about 30 days, it will be completely frozen and I could play football on it (maybe next winter). Since I reached the lake in time, I started to move further towards Phobrang. Wishful thinking was to get closer to Marsimik La if allowed. But with treacherous road conditions and cold, I was not allowed to cross the Indian army barrier.

On the way back, the usual afternoon headwinds were reaching a speed of 40-70 km per hour. It was becoming very tough to paddle even downhill to Durbuk. I reached back at 7 pm, an 11-hour long day. The only reason I survived the day was the people at Tangste and the wonderful people in the Durbuk village. They offered me life in the form of warm place hot tea, lots of hot tea.

In the end, it turned out to be another memorable day.

Beautiful Day to Start, Sunny and cold, All frozen Around...

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Rivers, small lakes, water bodies, all Frozen .....



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Mid Day temp -7C...



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Frozen Pagal Nala, 3KM from Pangong Tso, , few years ago it was big problem to cross and motor bikers used to return just 3km before , without seeing the Lake.


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Beautiful Tso, as usual, been there many times but always fresh and New...


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It starts to freeze on the edges, it was frozen in shallow water. The winds were very strong.


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Not another soul, bird, vehicle... quite on the sound of wind and waves ... Only Lake & Me. A trance state


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A bit of photography.


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And selfie :)

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It was a great day ...

As usual, afternoon strong headwinds made a return to Dubruk (from Phobrang) difficult. added nearly 3 hours extra.

A good day in the end :)

And a wonderful dinner at Dubruk ...

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Chander Kaher

New Member

Day 4 - Durbuk to Khalsar via Shyok


It was supposed to be a relatively easier but long day. Durbuk (3850 meters) to Khalsar (3200 meters) have an elevation difference of 600 meters. But with 1200 meters ascent and 1800 meters descent, it is a net 600 meters downhill with a total distance of 90 km.

I was lucky to have another bright sunny day with a very cold morning. The temperature was -14°C. The beautiful landscape along the Shyok river kept me going.

On the way, I experienced wonderful hospitality from Skyok village with hot tea, snacks, and hot water for the journey. Cycling along the Shyok river with crystal clear water was very refreshing and close to meditating. The only sound I heard was of the Shyok river; no wind, no vehicles, nothing else at all.

All along the road was very good, except at a few places (4-5KM).

As the afternoon approached, the wind started picking up pace. The wide areas of Shyok valley get strong winds up to 30-50 km. It did make peddling very tough and exhausting. It added additional cycling time. The day ended around a bit later than 6 pm at Khalsar.

At Khalsar, one restaurant was operational and that was closing at the time I arrived there. Thanks to wonderful people, they offered me much need delicious dinner and a warm place to sleep.

Another wonderful day ended with smiles and memories.

View of Durbuk Crossing (ChangLa-Pangong-Shyok) from my homestay. Time to leave Durbuk after two nights stay

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Thanks to IBEX Restaurant for providing food and stay.



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View of Shyok Village ...



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Still a Long Way to Go



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Frozen roads.



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Still 25KM to Khalsar.



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Beautiful Road...

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Selfie time :)



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Frozen everywhere...



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Chander Kaher

New Member
Shyok , close to Khalsar

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Some roads are missing


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And scary inclines, maybe 15%+... very tiring


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A wonderful company at Khalsar



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And carb-filled food , well deserved at end of day


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It was wonderful cycling along Shyok river
 

Chander Kaher

New Member

Day 6 - Khalsar to Khardung Village


The sixth day was a short ride from Khalsar to Diskit and then to Khardung Village (4000 meters). It was a total of 60 km of a ride. The first 30 km was a relatively easy ride and then steep incline towards Khardung Village (4000MT).

Gail in altitude was a total of 1700 meters ascent and 900 meters decent. This route had relatively more traffic than other routes. Another wonderful, homestay at Khardung village with home-cooked food and a warm place to sleep.


Khalsar Restaurant, Thanks for providing food and a warm place to sleep.


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Shyok River View, while going up to Khardung Village.


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Beautiful and Wild IBEX



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Khardung Village in view, 7 km, Visual illusion, Kardung is all uphill not down.


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Reached in time to take few pictures at Khardung Village

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Life-saving Bukhari


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Starts to get cold at 7 pm



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A wonderful warm room with a comfortable bed at Khardung Village. Lucky to have this comfort. It was time to get a good rest. The next morning was a big day for The Mighty Khardung La.


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Chander Kaher

New Member

DAY 7 - Khardung Village to Khardung La to Leh


This was the day to cross the mighty Khardung La pass and reach Leh. It was going to be a total of 70 km of cycling with 32 km to Kardung La and then 38 km to Leh; 1600 meters ascent and 2200 meters descent. It was expected to be a similar climb as Chang La.

The weather was wonderful with blue skies till North Pullu. Everything was on schedule till noon. After that, the weather started to turn bad. The sun disappeared and the weather turned cold. After all, my trip had to be made memorable.

At this stage, the fatigue of the last 5 days, low temperature, altitude, and pressure to cross Khardung La in time (no later than 3 pm) were adding up. But I was excited to reach K-Top from the Nubra side. I had been to K-Top multiple times from Leh side in summers but this time it was going to be from Nubra Valley.

After crossing North Pullu, the road to K-Top turned icy. It also started to be windy with another 15 km to the top. It was becoming tough with every km due to a drop in temperature and no sun.

It was less windy than Chang La but the fatigue was catching up fast. Due to icy roads, it was getting difficult to ride up. Thanks to the BRO, they were sprinkling rough soil on ice patches to maintain the traction. All military vehicles had chains on the wheels, which were making the surface rough enough for my cycle to get a grip.

I reached Khardung La after 4 pm. The temperature was below -20°C. On standard mercury temperature reader, it was -24°C but my electronic reader was stuck at -16°C.

Whatever it was, it was damn cold. Another worry was frostbite due to low temperature & headwinds. I think I barely escaped that. Though, I started to experience severe pain in my finger and toe.

At Khardung La top, thanks to our Army, they offered hot tea /water and biscuits and a very warm place. In 10-15 minutes, It gave me enough energy to start downhill.

As expected, the downhill journey was even tougher on a very slippery icy road. I slipped a few times, luckily nothing serious, thanks to helmet and cycle disk brakes. Icy roads continued till South Pullu. It was a bit scary to ride. In a few patches, I decided to walk, similar to what I did in Chang La downhill.

It took a long time to get down to South Pullu. It was nearly dark but the full moon seemed like another sun to me. It was cloudy but the moonlight was enough to navigate with a headlamp.

At South Pullu, the temperature was around -16°C, and no ice on the road which was a great relief. Trust me, at that time -16°C felt like 20°C.

I finally managed to reach Leh (-10 km) safely by 7 pm in one piece. O took one short video while cycling downhill but after that no picture.

I can’t recall much of the last night I spent in Leh. I just remembered packing my cycle with my eyes a little wet. I was thanking my cycle to have done this journey with me and not only carried me. But also all the things I needed throughout and the help I got from everyone when needed, including weather.

Is it the first time anyone covered this route solo, self-supported in December?

Well, the jury is still out on that.

On 27th December, I took a morning flight to Delhi and have been missing Ladakh since. If you are not already in love with this place, you surely will be.

Special thanks to my daughter, Sara for editing this article to add life to it. Otherwise, it was just filled with numbers and facts. Thank you for reading !!!
 

Chander Kaher

New Member
View after Khardung Village, going up to K-TOP


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Towards South Pullu, First View of K-TOP between those white mountains.


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The left side of K-TOP


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1KM from South Pullu and 14KM to K-TOP, K-TOP getting closer and visible ... Road starts to be icy and clouds are gathering


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Sun is still shining


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Getting cloudy and time to keep moving, no more pictures or selfies :)



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K-TOP getting closer and clouds getting darker... surely no more pictures till K-TOP



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Finally at K-TOP :)



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The cycle is in good shape and ready for the downhill to Leh



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But I am not in good shape :):) , frozen breath .. tired, cold ... ( Pic from Video)


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