White waters cascade over huge boulders in a tremendous torrent towards the sea some thousands of kilometers away. The national highway which runs alongside resembles a river as water rushes across it leaving the road covered in sharp or round boulders and many small river crossings. The bigger rivers are bridged by many temporary Baily bridges which have seen better days, large gaps often have formed as heavily laden trucks noisily lumber over the creaking and bending structure. Great glaciers reach for the river like giant longs longing for a sip of fresh water. Boulders litter the surrounds as if pebbles in a giants sandcastle, and we, the minute cyclists roll steadily towards the next highway. The infamous Manali - Leh Highway where the high mountain passes quickly sort the men from the boys and entertain only those tough (or crazy) enough to negotiate the spectacular terrain and monumental passes. This gateway to Ladakh has earned a reputation as one of the most spectacular rides in the world and thus attracts an equally spectacular range of enthusiastic cyclists to it's windy way during the 3 month snow free season.
During the 6 nights on the road there was no shortage of characters to keep us in good company.
"Well f*#! Me, is this really it, f%&!, f#*!, f#%*!" were her only thoughts as she cascaded over the cliff in Bolivia while mountain biking on the worlds most dangerous road. Sipping chi outside a makeshift village made from stones and plastic sheeting we are entertained by a pair of Irish cyclists full of hair raising stories from the road. As a strong tailwind pushes me towards the next tent village, I come across a bike on the side of the road, it's owner struggles over another bike on the bank above. A scruffy looking guy in a sweatshirt explains that his tire is flat and he has spent the day trying to fix it with little success. 19,000 km after leaving Switzerland, the other cyclist tries to lend a hand. Finally we manage to get him back up and running with a new tube. We all cycle together to the next village to camp the night. The young English guy has managed to make it this far on a poorly adjusted bike which he hired in Manali while carrying a 25 kg backpack on his back. Stories quickly come out about a Japanese guy cycling the highway on a single speed Indian bike he purchased for just $24. Then there is 'dogman' who takes photos of dogs for a living. He is now several days behind because he doesn't like the rain so was waiting out a storm down the valley.
As we progress it becomes a game of tag has me travel towards Leh, the two English lads who turned up in the village pass us on a truck after discovering there is nothing in one of the valleys where they had planned to stay while the Japanese fellow labours endlessly to push his bike up the huge passes. There is no sign of the young fellow until well after dark when he turns up looking very dirty after pushing the bike up more than 30 km of hills before riding along cliff edges in the dark without a torch for the remaining kilometers.
And so it continues, three burly Czech guys in shiny Lycra arrive at the final pass the same time as we do, they have cycled the 10 day trip in just 5 as if they are going for some sort of record in a whirlwind tour of northern India.
The mountains continue to amaze with there diverse colours and photogenic landscapes. Soon the valley widens and we arrive, after a final 5 km uphill, in Leh to an official welcome from the Dalai Lhama who waves to us from his vehicle as we pass through the entrance to the city. A perfect welcome!