Two years ago, adventure photographer Kari Medig had his red and black Devinci bicycle flown from his home in British Columbia to Ladakh – the Land of High Passes – in the Indian Himalayas. Accompanied by two friends, Alex and Carl, Medig set out from the ancient monastery in Lamayuru on an epic 10–day journey south. Packing light, the three cyclists zigzagged across dizzying passes and deep valleys on a single ribbon of trail, stamped into the earth by centuries of people plodding their way through the mountains. Why by bike, you might ask? “It’s such an elegant way to travel,” Medig will tell you. “You see places most people don’t, and you get to know those places in a deep way.” And, he might add, they only got one flat.
A wild bike trip through the mountains of northern India is marked by tough terrain, spiritual pit stops and the kindness of strangers.
About half of Ladakh’s population is Buddhist and monks in their maroon robes are a common sight in the villages. The first sign of human habitation on the trail is a mani wall – piles of stones inscribed with mantras – followed by the odd donkey and finally a cluster of houses tucked into the side of a valley. Everywhere, the reception was warm. The travellers stayed in the homes of families and joined them in the evenings for momos (steamed dumplings) and dhal.
Surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Ladakh range, the town of Leh is about 3,500 metres above sea level – one of the highest in the world – and Medig biked around it to get used to the altitude before embarking on the 200–km journey into the mountains. It is a bustling centre of whitewashed houses, serene monasteries and noisy markets presided over by a nine–storey medieval Tibetan palace, dating back to the 16th century.
After a particularly tough climb, pushing their bikes through snow, the trio found respite at one of the brightly painted prayer wheels scattered throughout Ladakh. The cylindrical wheels are filled with mantras printed on thin paper so that, with every clockwise turn to follow the movement of the sun across the sky, the turner’s prayer is multiplied a million times over. Not far from one such wheel, in the tiny village of Skiu, they were greeted by the owner of a guest house, dressed in a traditional woolen Goncha.
They often cycled past ancient chortens – shrines containing the remains of a holy person – designed to provide a meditative space for passersby to reflect and attain enlightenment. “The mix of ancient Buddhist tradition and the history of foot travel in the high mountains between isolated villages left me with the impression that Ladakh exists in a different realm, somewhere between the mystical and the mythical,” Medig says.
An arch of prayer flags flutters in the sunset. When their vibrant colours fade, it’s because the mantras written on them have been carried off on the wind, to spread peace and compassion around the world. Altruism is everywhere in Ladakh: One morning, Medig awoke to find an elderly woman blessing their bikes. “I loved the people the most,” he says. “Their generosity, their kindness, their worry about us on our trip. With the difficulties inherent in mountain life, there’s a sense that people truly care for others’ well–being – and we were included in that.”