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It was a late May afternoon and the sweltering heat, the madding crowd in Delhi streets was taking its toll on me. The city is my whore, but I have always considered the mountains to be my mistress. And here I was, on a hot summer afternoon, craving for some mountain love. The epiphany happened a few minutes later- I had to get out. I had to go to the mountains. The idea of biking solo followed sooner.

The decision to go to Kashmir, AGAIN, was easy. Where else could you find the bluest of skies, with clouds, as if straight out of a painter’s dream! The simple faces with the simpler smiles beckoned me. As this was my second trip, I packed in a bit of a hurry, with just the essentials. I had learnt it the hard way, not to carry unnecessary luggage. I felt like an elated vagabond assembling the parts of my mountain bike, late into the night in my hotel room in Srinagar. The next morning, I was to start my solo biking expedition that would take me through the paradise on Earth, into the end of the world. What are the odds- 6 days, 415 kilometres, Kashmir to Leh! It was time to go!

As the sun rose the next morning, so did my spirits and I decided to bike till Sonmarg, Flanked by the Nallah Sindh (a tributary of Jhelum), the journey from Srinagar to Sonmarg is one of the most spectacular one you can ever have. Tall pine trees, the snow clad glaciers and peaks of Amarnath, Sirbal, Kolhoi and Machoi, the journey was picturesque. Tired and baked by the high altitude sun, I decided to call it a day after reaching Ganiwan, a few kilometres short of Sonmarg. The 60 something kilometre cycling on the first day wore me out, and I was desperate to find a place to pitch my tent. My prayers were soon answered as I chanced upon a beautiful campsite by the Sindhu river, belonging to a family of Gujjars. “Gujjars”, originally the nomadic tribe from Jordan in the quest for greener pastures spread around the whole of Eurasia and are now, an integral part of the Indian community.

They welcomed me into their home with smiles warmer than a cup of Qahwa*. I was met by the usual curiosity- what made me undertake this unusual journey, my plans ahead etc. After a wholesome meal, I spent a few hours listening to tales of the wonderland. The eldest son in the family, Bilal, told me fascinating stories about local folklores, the food, music and culture of Ganiwan and how it is to live in the valley. In return, I helped him create a Facebook profile and his excitement at the prospect of being on the platform was humbling. I secretly admit I did it out of my own selfish interest. How could I not stay connected with these fantastic people, such warm hosts.

This is what I travel for- for places and faces unknown. To see the sun change, every day.

After a rejuvenating bath at the nearby stream, I got ready for my next journey- Dzozilla Pass. Bidding farewell to the lovely people of Ganiwan, with words of advice and caution, I felt a tad bit nostalgic. Bilal accompanied me to the next village of Gund, and from there, I headed on my own to reach Sonmarg, which was crowded with tourists and local people. After a quick stopover for lunch, I headed for the Dzozilla Pass, to reach the next village of Gumri. The majestic Dzozilla Pass is 10,000 odd feet high. Biking through the contours of the cold Dzozilla Pass, I reached Gumri before nightfall. Gumri is a small hamlet functioning as a stopover for truck drivers for a night halt. It is where the famous draupadi kund is located; the water doesn’t freeze in the fiercest of winters,

The next morning froze my bones. After a bit of apprehension and delay, I finally rode through the spine chilling wind, with frequent halts, chatting up with the local villagers, asking them for directions, satisfying their curiosity so as to what drove me here, and for mere human company. I reached Drass and went straight to the army camp scouting for food and shelter. Unfortunately, they had just thrown away the leftover and I decided to go to a little dhaba* a few kilometres away. Post dinner, I was headed back to the camp. It was cold and dark, and I thought I heard a grunt. Straight ahead of me, through the pitch dark, a pair of eyes moved around. To my horror, I realised that there was a pack of dogs, sized like fox, anticipating my next move. I slowly receded, and picked up whatever I could lay my hands on. I walked towards them trying to become the “hunter”, instead of being the “hunted”. After a few tense seconds, they finally receded back, as if they were testing me for tougher times to come. I was finally picked up by an army vehicle headed for the cantonment.

The next morning I continued my journey as the lovely sun kissed my parched skin, and reached Kargil. I spent some time with the Indian army stationed there, allowing myself the luxury of a hot bath and headed straight for the Kargil War Memorial. The memories of the 1999 atrocities are still fresh in the minds of people there. There is a sense of nostalgia and loss among them, and I felt their pride as I heard tales of bravery and sacrifice. The one surprise element was a chance encounter with famous Indian yesteryear cricketer Benny Rogers, and post some pleasantries, I headed towards Kargil.

Kargil, in contrast to Kashmir, is a barren, cold desert where the green pastures have given way to grey and black stones, untouched as if dead for centuries. With no mobile network, fewer people, Kargil is reminiscent of war times gone by. The terrain, the dialect, the people, changed every 10 kms till I cycled ahead to the village of Mulbekh which leads to the Fotu La Pass. 13,478 feet above ground, the highest pass on this route. The day turned dry and sunny, and I crossed the small hamlet Budhkharbu, where I stopped to grab a quick lunch. I was already into the Ladakh region, and I got to know of the famous Lamayuru festival, which celebrates the spirituality and culture of the region. Anxious to not miss the festival, I took a lift and post that paddled my way through but could not make it in time. The atmosphere in the monastery, though, was still divine.

My stop for the night was to be Alchi, few kilometres further up Lamayuru, at an acquaintance’s place but it was already 8 pm and I reached a place called Khalste. I was debating with myself what to do next when I encountered an army barricade and the army people asked me not to go any further due to security issues. I had almost forgotten the lurking danger in those sensitive regions. I was headed back, about to start my quest for pitching my tent, when I met a bridge contractor from Meerut. Me, with my bags, my bicycle, made them treat me like a war hero, returning from a battle. The tired gladiator in me could not help but smile at their innocence and hospitality.

My final destination the next day, was Nimo (the confluence of Zanskar and Indus) 60 kms before Leh. The sun today was perfect, and I started riding into the wild early. I reached Nimo and the exhilarating beauty of the view humbled me. Though most explorations in Leh was done in motorised vehicles- cars, trucks, anything on wheels, at every opportunity, I was back on my two wheels, saddling my way through the gorgeous terrain of Leh. Temperatures dropped to -6 C at places like Pangong Tso, but the spectacular blue water, the Wordsworthian beauty of Leh got to me; every single time. I also experienced the most unusual Leh summers, with snow clad mountains, blanketing me all over.

My trip had come to an end, but I understood one thing loud and clear- My journey had only begun.

 

 

*Qahwa- A local tea from Kashmir

*Dhaba- A small eatery by the roadside

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